Most Role-Playing Games (RPGs) require one player to take on the role of Game Master (GM). There are some exceptions, mostly in the “Story Game” sub-genre of the hobby, but even those often have players take on GM-like roles during some parts of the game. If you think of an RPG as a movie where the game characters are the stars and the players are the actors, that means the GM is the rest of the cast and crew. Her job is to write the rough outline of the script, build the sets, play the supporting characters and extras, and do dozens of other things to make sure everything comes together to create something the audience (in this case, the players) will enjoy.
Game Mastering is much more challenging than just playing a character in an RPG. Most players can forget about the game when they’re not sitting around the table, but the GM will have to spend time and creative energy between games to prepare for the next session. During the game itself, nearly everything that happens requires the GM’s attention, if not her direct input and participation. The extra commitment required of the GM sometimes makes it hard to get anyone to agree to take on the role of Game Master, but that problem isn’t as common as you might think. The additional responsibility of being GM comes with a lot of creative control over what happens in the game. Just like many actors try their hand at directing at some point, many role-players eventually decide they want to give Game Mastering a try.
If you’ve decided to GM a game, either to flex your creative muscles or because you somehow got suckered into it, your first step in the journey is reading the Game Master materials for the game you’ve chosen. For some games, this requires buying a book (or multiple books) meant just for the GM. Other games include GM information in the core rulebook. In either case, the GM section or book(s) will contain a lot of game-specific information, from special rules that the players don’t have to worry about to game world secrets that the players aren’t supposed to know. Most also include some information about how to be a Game Master, but it’s often very specific to the game or rules set being used.
Even gaming guides that provide general Game Master advice often focus on tips and techniques without really describing the basics of GMing. Some of these omissions are due to the fact that games that are not specifically targeted to new players often assume an audience with at least some gaming experience. Other things are left out because what seems obvious to the kind of experienced gamer who writes games isn’t as readily apparent to a new role-player. What follows is my attempt to describe the most important “unspoken rules” that every GM needs to understand in order to run a successful game.
Rule #1: It’s Not Your Game
In casual conversation, gamers often talk about the game as if it belongs to the GM. They might say “I just made a character for Christina’s D&D game,” or, “Sorry, I can’t make it to your Gluten Awareness Seminar, I’ve got Neil’s Hobomancer game.” This is natural, since the GM is often the person who decides to put the game together, does a lot of the scheduling and other organizing, may provide the gaming space, and is necessary for most aspects of gameplay. That being the case, it makes sense that people will think of the GM as the “owner,” or at least ringleader, of the game.
It’s true that as the Game Master you have more control over the game than any other player. You get to create huge chunks of the world, at least lay the groundwork for most of the stories, and make the final decision about what is and is not allowed in the game. Don’t let all this godlike power go to your head, though. The other players aren’t just the audience for your story, they’re your co-authors in a shared story. If you don’t pay attention to what they want out of the game they may decide to stop playing, leaving you without an audience. Unless you’ve always wondered what it’s like to be Uwe Boll, that’s a bad thing.
Rule #2: You’re There To Have Fun, Too
Just because you have to be aware of what the players want out of the game doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy yourself. Since the word “player” is often used to mean “everyone but the GM,” some people forget that the Game Master is just a player with a different role. She’s there to be entertained, just like everybody else. GMing is a lot of work and if you’re not getting any satisfaction out of it, it’s going to start feeling like a thankless job. This is doubly true if you’ve been “drafted” into running the game based on experience with the system, a talent for GMing, or the fact nobody else is willing to step up.
One way to help ensure the right balance between player and GM enjoyment is understanding the expectations different players have for the game. This conversation should take place before the game ever starts, and everyone should try to come to a consensus about what kind of game the group will be playing. Most games have enough range to keep players with different goals happy, but there are occasional outliers. If one player’s preferences are completely incompatible with what the rest of the group wants, that player has to decide whether he’d prefer playing the game everyone else wants to play or sitting this one out. If the GM’s the outlier, it’s in everyone’s best interest to either get another player to run the game or to find a different game that everyone can agree on. A game that the GM has no interest in running is doomed from the start.
Rule #3: Confidence Is Key
When it comes to running a game, actually knowing what you’re doing isn’t nearly as important as making the players think you know what you’re doing. A lot of GMs, especially those who are running a game for the first time, get so tangled up in the details of running the game “the right way” that they completely ruin the momentum (along with the players’ suspension of disbelief) by constantly worrying over minor details. The truth is that the details rarely matter all that much, so nine times out of ten you can just make something up. As long as you present your improvisation with enough conviction, the players will usually assume you know what you’re doing.
The first step to building confidence as a GM is to understand how the rules work, which isn’t the same thing as memorizing every single rule in the book. Even games with lots of specialized rules typically have a few core concepts that all of those rules are built around. When you’re learning the rules, look for patterns that will help you understand these core concepts. For example, many games list modifiers for specific situations that help or hinder a character’s ability to perform certain tasks. There may be a list of modifiers for combat, another for stealth rolls, and yet another for persuasion. In this case, it’s less important to know that heavy rain gives the character -3 to archery attacks and +3 to stealth rolls than to know that all of the modifiers range between 1 and 5, with 3 representing a situation that gives the character a moderate advantage or disadvantage. Once you notice the pattern, you can confidently assign modifiers for most situations without stopping to look up the rules. As an added bonus, understanding the underlying system design will make it easier to handle situations that aren’t covered by the written rules. You won’t get it right every time, but your guess will be close enough. Since RPGs are typically designed to favor character success, departing slightly from the written rules is unlikely to have any significant impact on the game, or even the scene. As long as you deliver your educated guesses about the rules as confidently as you deliver the rules you’re 100% sure about, the players probably won’t even notice that you’re straying from what’s in the book. Even if they do, the worst they can do is correct you.
In addition to understanding the rules, you need a firm grasp of the stories you plan to tell and the world they take place in, because sooner or later the players are going to do something you didn’t expect and you’ll have to improvise. Unless you genuinely have no idea how to react or the players do something so brilliantly unexpected that they deserve praise for thinking way outside of the box, your job is to pretend that you planned for whatever course of action they take, no matter how unexpected. If you take the departure from the story you had planned in stride and present the things you’re making up confidently, the players won’t even realize you’re improvising. More importantly, players who think you’re sticking to a script are less likely to notice the plot holes and inconsistencies that inevitably arise when you create a story on the fly. If they happen to notice that something doesn’t quite fit, they’re likely to treat it as a plot point. As long as you adjust the story so that the inconsistency becomes a plot point, they’ll never realize it was a mistake all along.
Rule #4: Let The Players Lead
Linear adventures are usually fine during the early part of a game when players are getting a feel for their characters and the game world, but once everyone has their bearings the players will want to make meaningful decisions about the stories their characters get involved in. Since it’s impossible to anticipate every decisions the players might make, it’s best to think of the game as a world full of conflicts that the characters can get involved in rather than a specific story with the characters as the protagonists. For example, don’t plot out a story where the players ride into town, join the rebel uprising, and raid the baron’s armory. Instead, focus on how the conflict will play out without the characters and then try to create some ways in which they can get involved. When they ride into town they’ll notice that the city guards seem on edge and pass a few burned-out buildings (from previous conflicts between the rebels and the baron’s men) on their way to the inn. Even if they don’t inquire about what’s going on, they’ll overhear snatches of conversation about the rebels’ recent skirmishes with the baron’s guards. With a little luck, they’ll insert themselves into the conflict. If they don’t, members of either faction (or both factions) can try to recruit them. If they join the rebels, they’ll be asked to help raid the armory. If they show sympathy for the baron, they may be attacked by the rebels or offered a job with the city guard (and, naturally, assigned to guard the armory that the rebels just happen to be about to raid). If they decide to do something else, they might be in another town entirely by the time the armory raid takes place. You can nudge them toward certain decisions with emotional appeals, incentives, and other motivators, but the players should always feel like it’s their choice to make.
In addition to letting the players move the plot along as much as possible, you should follow their lead when it come to the pacing and tone of the game. If the players seem bored with a scene, bring it to a close. If they’re enjoying a scene, don’t rush them unless there’s a compelling reason to keep things moving. The tone of a game will vary from session to session and scene to scene, but most groups settle into a “default” tone by the end of the session. Some groups like intense games where everyone stays in character at all times, others prefer a more beer and pretzels atmosphere with lots of joking around and off-topic chatter. Unless you’re running a game where atmosphere is vital (as is the case with some horror games), try to adjust your GMing style to the players’ tone rather than forcing your own preferences upon them. If your game is compelling, players typically fall into the proper tone naturally during intense or emotional scenes.
Rule #5: Don’t Overplan
Even GMs who build their adventures around conflicts rather than plots often overdo it when it comes to the world building aspects of game planning. GMs often use published game worlds as models for creating their game worlds without realizing that the design goals for a published game setting are different than those for an individual game. To make matters worse, most GM advice about world building comes from game designers (or wannabe game designers) who also fail to recognize the distinction. In order to be successful, published game worlds need to appeal to a wide audience, which means providing a combination of breadth and detail that will be useful for different styles of play and different situations. Individual GMs don’t have this limitation. For example, if I’m creating a fantasy city for a published game setting, I need to include a fair amount of detail about the nuts and bolts of local government and politics to make the setting useful for groups who enjoy games with lots of intrigue. If I creating a game for a specific gaming group and I know they have no interest in playing politics, I probably only need to know whether the city is a democracy ruled by Lord Mayor McCheese or a cheerocracy ruled by a Head Cheerleader Tiffany.
Knowing your players’ interests isn’t the only advantage you have over the professional game designer. You also know your own strengths as a GM and the specific conflicts of your campaign. Use this knowledge to focus your planning on the elements of the story that you’re most likely to need detailed information about. For example, if you’re running the “city in rebellion” game mentioned earlier, you know that the characters are likely to end up in the baron’s armory, either as rebels involved in the raid or guards charged with defending the place. Therefore, if you’re the kind of GM who prefers to have a map for locations, you need to draw a map of the armory. You don’t need a map of the baron’s castle just yet, though. If the rebels could attack it without first taking the armory, why would they bother with the armory? If the Player Characters (PCs) join the baron you already know they’ll be assigned to the armory, not the castle. There’s always an outside chance that the players will decide to storm the castle on their own, but that course of action is sufficiently unlikely (especially if you play up the castle’s defenses) that designing the castle early in the game is probably a waste of your time. If can run a game just fine without a map, spend your planning time on something that will be useful when you run the game. Whenever possible, design elements that are modular so they can be “re-skinned” for another use if you don’t use them this time around. That baron’s armory map might make a fine wizard-king’s tomb later in the campaign.
Rule #6: Give Everyone A Chance To Get Involved
Even though RPGs don’t have a strict turn structure like Monopoly or Settlers of Catan, the focus of the game typically only falls on one character at a time. In combat scenes and a few other situations, these focus shifts are defined by the game rules, typically happen in rapid succession, and ensure that everyone gets a turn. Since the rest of the game is mostly conversation between the players, there aren’t any clearly-defined rules about which Player Character is in the spotlight from one moment to the next. That’s up to the group to determine through a combination of story needs, dramatic cues, genre conventions, instinct, and interpersonal dynamics.
As the game unfolds, some PCs may spend more time in the spotlight than others. In most cases there’s nothing wrong with that. Some characters take on leadership roles that naturally put them in a prominent position; some stories, subplots, and scenes explicitly focus on specific characters; and some players are better or more outgoing role-players than others. That’s perfectly natural. Your job as GM isn’t to make sure that every PC gets the same amount of “screen time.” Your job is to make sure everyone gets an equal opportunity to put their character in the spotlight. Make sure that you give every character plenty of chances to show off their talents and pursue their personal goals and interests.
Ideally, the amount of time each PC spends in the spotlight will even out over time, but that doesn’t always happen. As long as each player is happy with the amount of screen time his character is getting, that’s fine. If everyone’s enjoying the game, nothing needs to be fixed. Unequal focus is only a problem if players feel like they’re being left out. Since players who are shy are socially awkward are the most likely to get left out and the least likely to complain, you can’t always rely on them voicing their displeasure. If you notice that a player is consistently standing on the sidelines, talk to him outside of the game. Find out whether the player is staying in the background by choice or for some other reason. If there’s something other than personal preference preventing the player from being more active, do what you can to address the situation.
Rule #7: Be The Responsible Adult
When you agree to be a Game Master, you’re taking on a leadership role within the group.If you’re lucky (and you and your players abide by the Seven Rules Every RPG Player Should Follow), most problems that arise during your game will be relatively minor and easily resolved through respectful adult conversation. Most GMs aren’t that lucky. The best way to solve problems before they go too far is to talk to your players about the game regularly, both as a group and one-on-one. Find out what they enjoy about the game, what they don’t like, and what they want to see in the future. Make sure the players understand that you want them to provide constructive criticism of your GMing and suggestions for making the game better, and listen to what they tell you. The best way to become a better GM is to identify areas where you need improvement, and your players are likely to point out weaknesses that you’d never notice on your own.
Game Mastering may seem complicated and intimidating, especially to new players, but like most things it gets easier with experience. The more games you run, the more chances you’ll have to recognize your strengths and weaknesses as a GM so that you can develop strategies to (to paraphrase Dr. John) accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. It’s a lot of work, but the sense of accomplishment you’ll get from running a successful game is well worth the effort.
© 2015 Steve Johnson