A Few Pearls: My Tips for New Game Masters


It’s been a little over a year now since I started this blog, and more than a year since I started gaming so I thought I would take this opportunity to pass on a little bit of my own experience, or lack thereof.

 And this is what I tell those GMs who constantly ask for help on the message boards, so here they are in white and black.

 1.Get to know your game system

This doesn’t mean to get to know it inside out, back to front from the first session that you run. GMs can’t remember all the rules, and then rules get constantly updated. What I mean by this is to know the fundamentals of it so you can answer those questions asked by your players (basically “How do I do x?” or “How does y affect me?”) enough to keep the game going, and if you don’t like looking up a rulebook mid game (I don’t) then you can make a quick temporary judgment call.

You also need to know how the system works in practice. What sorts of things slow a game down, the various conditions and how the effect game play. What is described in the rulebook is a mere taste of what the game is like in action. Like how Star Wars Saga Edition is very fast compared to its younger cousin D&D 4E which has a vast number of mechanics, conditions, abilities and states that can leave the game wallowing in the mathematical mire if you let it.

This is why it is so important to play-test, particularly if you are like me and have never gamed before at all. Test it out yourself and then later with a few friends who don’t mind if you progress at the speed of a sleepy snail.

2. Realise that you will make mistakes

There are quite a few classic blunders that a first-time GM makes, I went through some of them in an article on bad GMs, but this is one stage you simply need to get over. Your first time in the chair you will probably be nervous, you may hesitate, second-guess yourself and forget rather simple rules and important notes relevant to the story. This happens to all of us!

You will find yourself making GMPCs, railroading, stumbling over numbers, misreading text. The most important thing is that you recognise what you are doing and do something about it. And be prepared to tackle big things when you think you can find some way of approaching them.

And it’s the reason that I tell many GMs not to be too ambitious when first starting out. Yes, you want that wonderful campaign which your players will enjoy and talk about for years to come with a fantastic story and exciting encounters! Except…the GMs who deliver these sorts of campaigns have years of experience behind them and know just how much to write and how much not to write.

I will be doing an article later on comparing campaigns and narrative fiction, as they are not exactly the same but that’s beside the point now.

The most important thing is to learn how to be a good GM and how a campaign actually works. I’m not saying you have a wide-open sandbox or only run published modules, but unless you know what is involved in the forming and writing of a long campaign, you probably won’t know what they need.

3. Trust yourself

This is a related point to above, even if you have made mistakes you need to be able to trust yourself and your own judgement when it comings to rulings and rule disputes between your players. The judgment calls get better with experience, as you come to understand what works, what doesn’t work and how you could make it better for the sake of the present situation. And you need your players to trust you enough that your word has weight. This means being impartial, picking your battles and knowing when to shelve a discussion of the rules to another time that is not in the middle of the encounter with the ten foot ogre.

You also need to trust your material that you have, even if you’re only trying it out to see if ti can be improved. If you’re doing an experiment, ask your players for feedback afterwards and they will have more confidence in you.

Finally, relax! GMing is a demanding job on the night, and your probably doing a better job than you think you are doing.

4. Learn how you work best

There is no hard and fast rules about planning. I could tell you to plan to the nth degree to the point of how many bathrooms are in the third corridor of the twenty-seventh floor of the Death Star are reserved for stormtroopers of the rank of sergeant. Or I could tell you that all a plan needs to be is half a dozen sentences on the back of an envelope thirty minutes before the game starts. But it doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference.

You may need a plan or a module when you start out so you know what it is that you are doing and don’t get lost, but as time goes on you may not need it…or you may need to have a lot more than what you have. After you have a few sessions under your belt, you’ll get the idea of how you want to work.

5. Put limits on yourself…and be prepared to let them down

The sheer amount of rules in roleplaying games is enough to be a turnoff for most people wanting to play, let alone GM a game. If you’re feeling daunted by all of this, don’t be afraid to put up temporary barriers while you hone your skills. You could ban classes, races or specific game mechanics so you can focus on learning to manage the game.

 If your players complain, let them know that this won’t be forever, and they even could help you with something you haven’t mastered yet…providing they clear it with your first and have the rules in front of you so they don’t take you for a ride.

A good rule of thumb for limits is to ban specific books. Roleplaying games love to bury you in books much more than any university classics department and this more or less makes it cut and dried for everyone. Even now I disallow content in some of my games. My current game of Tomb of Horrors I didn’t allow anything from Dragon magazine…then relented and let down the barrier to only exclude Dragon from character creation. Players can use it when they level up as long as they approach me first for final word on it.

6.   Never say ‘No’ when you can say ‘Yes’

This is sometimes referred to as the “Rule of ‘Yes’”, I think it’s rather oversimplified but I will get to that later.

As the GM, you aren’t the only one who comes to the table with ideas. If players can make suggestions or have some hand in creating content, there is a sense of ownership. You are also far less likely to railroad if you take on board a player’s suggestion. And that simple agreement may take you on a different and even better road to the goal you want the players to succeed.

But this doesn’t mean you need to be a doormat. If a player asks for something game-breaking or extremely tangential (like asking to go skiing in the middle of a battle) then you need to refuse. Not outright all the time, as there are some good ideas that just don’t suit the context in which they are introduced. Make sure you acknowledge this, and perhaps even work with the player to make this work in another game.

However, sometimes you just have to refuse outright. This is usually when a player springs something on you without warning or reason and you lose control of the game. They may choose to betray the party without telling you, sabotage the quest they are on in someway or just do something very, very stupid. I make it a rule to refuse to allow anything very new in my games without being told about it first, as it’s rather hard on me to keep the game going for everyone else if I don’t know where this is going.

7.   Don’t worry too much about gear

I’ve displayed my collection of miniatures several times on this blog, but a lot of them I have acquired recently and through a much better means of supply than if I was desperate for them. I now have a good supplier (Games Empire in Sydney if you want to know) that has what I want at a price I can afford.

But when I started, all we had were coloured counters on tiles or graph paper with pieces of paper that represented larger objects. Tools don’t make the game, and I hardly consider what we had then limiting as the game seemed so alive in our imaginations.

8. Find a GM mentor

I have found it invaluable to have one person outside my gaming group to bounce ideas of and to help me with any problems that I may have had or have. Sometimes all you need is to put a thought into a coherent sentence in order to see what is wrong with it and how to fix it.

Not everyone can get one of these, but there are a few substitutes. I have found the Chris Perkins videos on the Robot Chicken game to be of invaluable help, particularly his commentary on the game itself. I would pay to watch his games in person for five minutes, and this is a guy who DMs for a living!

There are also various blogs and newsletters that I have linked to from this site. Of all of them, I recommend roleplayingtips.com and Gnome Stew.

9. Remember to play, and remember you’re playing

It does give you a bit of perspective to step down from the chair and play at times. You can get ideas from the perspective of a player that you can take back when or if you decide to GM again.

Just remember that this is not your game, turning into a backseat driver that hijack the campaign and shoots down the GMs rulings is very tempting. And I have been there.

10. Try other game systems

Don’t be afraid to test a new system if you or your players want to try something else. Even if you feel you are at home in a particular system, you may learn something new. There’s more to gaming than a simple class, level and experience points system.

And remember, every GM needs to run Paranoia at least once. You’ll thank me when you do.

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~ by katanageldar on September 13, 2010.

2 Responses to “A Few Pearls: My Tips for New Game Masters”

  1. All fantastic tips. I can’t emphasize enough learning the system. Once you’re comfortable enough, you won’t even have to crack open a book to look up the stats for an NPC. If you know the system, you can make it up on the fly. That’s one of my favorite parts of Star Wars, is that I know it so well, I can run it entirely without a book if necessary.

  2. […] I’ve said this before for first time GMs, that the first encounter will be the slowest and the most awkward. I should have remembered this, but I didn’t. For all that it was a little awkward we did make clear dividing rules. We each had different monsters to run, and had a sort of communication behind the screen filled with code words and gestures. But the encounter went much longer than we anticipated. […]

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