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So you want to be a Game Master: Tips on GM'ing

Updated on March 23, 2015

Have you considered game-mastering for your group?

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For any group of players new to role-playing or even for any veteran player new to the role, gamemastering for the first time can be a very daunting and intimidating experience. Being the gamemaster does entail a degree of additional responsibility as well as challenges in the form of designing the game session, organizing the logistics of getting the players together for the session, and ultimately maintaining the rhythm and flow of the session so that everyone (including the GM) has fun. No wonder that all seems so scary for new players. But here is the truth (and fact) from a veteran player and GM: when things go right, being the GM is one of the most rewarding and enjoyable responsibilities in gaming; and it will outweigh the frightening parts; every time. With those words out there, here are a few professional tips to fledgling GMs.

NOTE: the following is from personal experience and is reflective of my own style as a gamemaster. Please do not misconstrue this as a definitive guide to GM’ing; nor take this is a sure sign of succeeding at the task. Whatever works for you and your group, take it and run with it; what doesn’t, leave at the wayside. GM’ing is a very personal endeavor and should be tailored towards your own style and your group’s tastes.

Communication: The Pathway to Success

For my groups, the single most important trait I encourage is the ability to communicate. I need/want my players to be able to communicate with openly and freely with me and the other players as often as they need to. This way, if there is every a real-life concern (such as a death in the family, serious illness, or other random happenstance) that should take priority over game time, then we can know and adjust to accommodate; not to mention be able to help when and where possible. As a leadership style, I prefer to lead by example; as a gamemaster, in a toned down leadership role, I need to maintain open communication with my players as well.

As part of clear communication, I need to make sure my points come across without getting muddled along the way. Clarity is important so there is little to no miscommunication among everyone and everyone can be on the same page. One easy means to ensure everyone understands (or at least listening) is to ask for feedback from the players in terms of the current discussion; basically, just ask them what they think. If there are any concerns or questions, then you as a GM can find out and respond to them appropriately. Even if you do not have an immediate answer, you can be honest and open with your players and tell them that you may need time to come up with a more fitting response; if it is a rules matter, then you will usually need to take time to look it up anyways.

Maintaining informational transparency with your players will help greatly as you they will be better educated in matters when you need assistance too; this will also ease the stress of having to remember everything for your sessions. Just remember: you only need to withhold story secrets because of their dramatic nature and entertainment value; otherwise there are very few reasons to keep information from your players.

Another way to maintain communication is to talk about how your group wants to communicate. With a plethora of means to communicate with each other (Twitter, Facebook, email, text messaging, etc.) it is important to narrow down or prioritize your groups main methods of communication.

Yeah, you may want to explain that whining isn't going to get anyone far in your games . . .
Yeah, you may want to explain that whining isn't going to get anyone far in your games . . .

Laying Down Expectations

I always stress communication as the most important aspect to maintain among my groups, for the reasons I outlined above. The other major reason for a GM to emphasize and practice effective communication is so that they can convey their expectations clearly to their groups. When players know what is expected of them during the course of the campaign (so during sessions and in-between as well), then they can adjust behavior and plan their schedules accordingly. For example if you stress the importance of attending sessions on time, then players should know to show up on time. If they do not, then you may need to speak with them about the issue and see about correcting any undesirable patterns/behaviors; yes, this can make for some uncomfortable situations (because I know I get uncomfortable having to “confront” my friends about such issues), but if will be for the better for you and them because you are making it clear any concerns you may have. It doesn’t have to be a personal thing; and it certainly shouldn’t be an attack or insult either. It is a matter of improving upon an already solid foundation and making things smoother for everyone involved.

Discipline, Restraint, and Patience

This is something that is important and yet I will admit am uncertain exactly how to teach/train, but it is important that as a GM you demonstrate patience with your players and yourself. Remaining calm and collected with players is important because it helps to maintain order and keep the sessions moving smoothly; after all, you want the game to progress for everyone to have fun and not be (undesirably) stuck on a single moment in the overall campaign. If there is a heated rules discussion, then you are going to be the one who is expected to come up with answers, if not at least temporary resolution until more appropriate respond can be unearthed (ala research and thinking after emotions have settled).

The only suggestion I can come to think of in terms of maintaining patience with your players is to ask yourself this (albeit somewhat arrogant) question: if you are in the right or otherwise have the moral high-ground in a situation, why rush yourself or others? If you are correct, then they will find the answer eventually; so don’t push’em into anything they may not be immediately ready for. I guess the key to patience is to discipline yourself into knowing how to hold back. Likewise, you aught learn how to be patient with yourself throughout the course of the campaign. Again if you rush into things, then the story won’t move at the progression that it needs to for you or your group. Just remember, the story should progress at the speed it needs to, no faster and no slower.

Logistics

One of the lesser tasks of all gamemasters is be a logistician. In other words, you need to know how to coordinate your sessions to be on schedule with everyone’s. Depending on the group this is as easy as agreeing to meet during same day of the week each week. Sometimes this may not work out so well, but as the GM you are going to find a middle ground that will best accommodate the group’s overall schedule. After that, players will find their own means to stay on schedule with the game. Beyond aligning conflicting schedules into perfect conjunction, gamemasters should also be able to work with their players in terms of tailoring the game and experience to maximize the group’s entertainment. This can take the form of listening to player input and developing appropriate house rules for their games (something I am actually slightly opposed for personal reasons); it can also manifest as crafting story ideas from player feedback. Think about: if the players want more mystery or thrilling heroics (or villainy) in their games, then you as the GM will be the one to figure out how to implement that into your games.

Rules Lawyery

One of the more daunting skill-sets for GMs is knowing the rules of their games. It can be a challenge because of not only remembering the actual rules and any modifications you and your group have made via house rules (one of the reasons I personally don’t like house rules), but you also need to know how to interpret the rules as well. Interpreting the rules becomes important for knowing how to answer rules questions from your players. The trick to rules interpretation is knowing the language of the rules (how they are written) but also knowing the intent of the rules. With the spirit of the rules to guide you, you know how to explain the rules to confused or curious players in a way that you find best to provide clarity.

Story-Craft and Role-Playing

Essential to the task of being the GM, you need to be able to tell a story. Even if that story is straightforward and basic in design/structure, you will learn to spin that tale effectively and in a manner that is entertaining. There is enough to discuss about writing and developing a story for role-playing games to warrant a whole dedicated article (hint, hint). Another important creative aspect for GMs to foster is their own role-playing skills. They will need to adopt a number of story critical personas as well as incidental characters; and do so on the spur of the moment. So really, a good GM is also a good roleplayer. I think I read about this somewhere . . .

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