If you’ve ever played a tabletop RPG, i.e. Dungeons & Dragons, Stars Without Number, or Shadownrun, you’re familiar with the role of the GM, the (sometimes) omnipotent guy who runs the game and plays the role of everything that the players interact with in the world they inhabit. For lots of people, the idea of playing as the world instead of a single character can be extremely alluring. It promises many things, particularly if you have had the pleasure of playing a game that was remarkably enjoyable from the players’ perspectives. The problem is that making the transition from player to GM is nowhere near as simple as coming up with a story and putting your friends into it. Down that road layeth disaster, my friends.
I only started GM’ing about three years ago, and at first it was a hot, hot mess. I didn’t know of many good resources and didn’t do much research leading up to my first GM experience and the results were, needless to say, quite poor. However, when I did do some digging, I found some amazing resources and learned some important lessons that helped me figure out how to effectively GM the type of campaign that would be fun for me and my players. It makes even more sense to share some of these tips and resources that can help you do the same, so without further ado, here are my five lessons and resources that make you a better GM.
1. Know your Role
This was probably the most circuitous part of my learning process. I started out as one of those would-be novelists who wanted to throw my friends into my story and make them live it and deal with all of the complex things that I had happening in my world. However, that doesn’t really work. It’s far too easy to frustrate your players by loading up your key NPCs with plot armor and railroading your players into taking the path that you want them to take rather than allowing to story to emerge based on the interactions between the players and you. The reason that this so often happens is that the players frequently feel that the GM is two things: omnipotent and adversarial. While it’s fine for your players to view you in this manner, it’s not really the best way to think of yourself when you’re on the other side.
As GM, your existence is a duality. On the one hand, you are everywhere. You are everything with which the players interact, you are everyone to whom they speak or with whom they fight, and you are everywhere that they go. On the other hand, you are not a character. No element that you use in the campaign is going to have the permanence or the depth that your players’ characters have, and that’s okay. In fact, it is a necessity. You don’t need to have a huge story laid out with trials and tribulations for all sorts of non-player related people, because it will just pull you into the trap of being less interested in the party than in the millions of things that you want to make happen in the background.
The best way to view yourself as a GM is as a bundle of stimuli and catalysts. Depending on the system that you’re playing, they type of stimulus or catalyst will change, if for no other reason than the setting of, say, D&D being very different from Feng Shui, but at the end of the day, all you are is a bunch of stuff to which the players react. In that vein, it is also important to remember that unless it says so very specifically in the rules of your system, you’re not actually your players adversary. You’re just a player with a more diffuse identity. You don’t have to actively try to kill their characters. It’s much more fun to poke them really hard and see how they react and grow from the experience! It also helps you make peace with my next point.
2. Your Players will Destroy LITERALLY Everything
Don’t be offended, O Player Characters of the world. Actually, on second thought, please, be offended. It changes none of my bitterness. All you do is destroy stuff. You blow up buildings, you kill my NPCs, you ignore my plot hooks, you leave my cities. It’s utterly infuriating! It’s also completely okay. That’s your job.
As GM, you have to recognize that it is only possible to predict so many avenues that your players might pursue or how they will interpret certain words or actions that you take while being an NPC. They will ALWAYS find the third way, or the fourth way. Mathematically, f(yourcampaign)=(whatyouthinkthey’lldo)+1. As a GM, you have to find a way to be alright with that. If they ignored your hook that would lead them to the sorceror’s cult or the revolutionary hideout, just move those guys along. What was going to happen if the party didn’t stop those guys? If they ignored the guys, then make that thing happen. Usually, it’ll end with a look of abject horror as they realize what it is that they didn’t do and a great deal of gleeful GM cackles.
However, that said, you should also be willing to reward them for finding unorthodox ways around your carefully planned dungeon crawl. Did they bluff their way out of the tense standoff with those beggars? Fine! That’s completely fine! Give them experience and plot your revenge! Part of being a set of stimuli is recognizing that sometimes those stimuli will elicit unpredictable responses. When you don’t expect the unexpected, it can make for unpleasant surprises, but when you poke a player with a stimulus that could elicit any number of reactions, a big part of the fun is just seeing what they do in the first place.
3. Make Yourself Some Space
Being a GM is hard. You are running a world, if not a universe, populated by myriad hazards and characters, each of whom needs to be at least somewhat distinct from the others and believable. You have so much on your plate that you look like me at this Thanksgiving Dinner about to explode. So here’s a tip: delegate and take a load off. Yes, you need to know the rules of your system in order to make sure that you can interact effectively with your players, but at the same time, you shouldn’t feel embarrassed about looking things up. You also shouldn’t feel bad about telling players to keep track of their own notes and their own details relevant to their character because honestly, you just shouldn’t have to take on that stuff too. If the players protest, just be honest with them. Most of the time, they’ll oblige you. If not, they just don’t respect the amount of effort that you put into the game, which is an entirely separate issue that has no concrete solutions.
You can also make yourself some space within the rules themselves. If a rule set is almost what you want, but is missing one or two things that you think need another look, then take a look at them and think about how you can work on that. The rules are important, but not everybody has the same great ideas. There’s always some wriggle room built in and you shouldn’t feel completely restricted by the way the rules play out on paper.
4. Read Multiple Rulebooks
A pretty simple solution to problems that many new GMs don’t even know they have. When you’ve only played one system your entire life, you get a very skewed perspective of how roleplaying games work and it becomes difficult to figure out how to make your games more fun or engaging. Reading from multiple systems is a great exercise for GMs of all experience levels because it familiarizes you with a wide variety of lines of thinking about the way these games can play. I used to only play Paizo’s Pathfinder, but since reading the rules for Dungeon World, Blades in the Dark, Legacy: Life Among the Ruins, Stars Without Number, Feng Shui, and others, I have fundamentally changed the way that I run games of Pathfinder. It’s still my go to ruleset, but there’s a little bit of each of the other systems in my games, and my most recent campaign is certainly better for it.
The easiest systems to check out are probably Stars Without Number, which is free, and Dungeon World, which is very simple and has a lot of cool, big ideas. You can find both of them online with a simple Google search, and you can check out sites like drivethrurpg.com to search for other rulebooks if you’re so inclined. Most of these are available in PDF form, which is cheaper and much easier to obtain.
5. Check out Other Peoples’ Work
This point is probably the most influential one for me on this list. All of my other points tie back to watching other people play and listening to other people talk about their approach to role playing games.
I started out by watching itmejp’s RollPlay series on YouTube. These are all streamed on Twitch originally, but they are available in multiple parts on YouTube for easy access. While it isn’t the most thrilling experience in all aspects, watching shows like RollPlay has both entertainment value and intellectual capital. It allows you to take a look at how someone else runs a game without the obligation of playing in it. This lets you take an objective look at the way that games can play out and how different GMs and players interact. It also introduces you to some of the roleplaying community’s more visible GMs.
Adam Koebel and Steven Lumpkin are both very accomplished GMs with long roleplaying careers. I owe so much of my own growth as a GM to the content that these gentlemen produce. Much of this list is heavily influenced by their work, so if you like the list, they're definitely worth some of your time.
Adam currently streams on Twitch and works for Roll20, an online roleplaying platform, as their resident GM for their sponsored shows and streams. Steven also streams various video games and GM prep work, bringing his insight from video game design directly to the community. They both offer very strong performances in the GM role in a variety of shows in JP’s RollPlay series, and they have both worked on various theory stuff, like their talk show, Being Everything Else. Adam also hosts a Q&A show called Office Hours, where he tackles more specific GM-related questions. If you want to brush up on theory and approach to the games you play, these guys are amazing resources, even if you use them just to figure out how you DON’T want to play your games. Checking out other people’s work is a really easy way to get cool ideas for rule sets, innovations, or just basic approaches to roleplaying in general.
At the end of the day, you’re going to find a way to put your own stamp on GM’ing tabletop roleplaying games, but I hope that if you’re new to the GM’s side of the table, that you’ll take to heart some of the advice that I’ve thrown in here. Playing these sorts of games is a very unique experience and running them is something else altogether. When participating in the act of cooperative storytelling, it is difficult to find the right approach to the game, so don’t stop at reading my stuff. Go find other theory to read up on in the interwebs and prosper!
Hit me up on Twitter with questions, comments, or concerns! Happy Roleplaying!