Your First Time GMing: Heading Behind the Screen

Well, you may or may not know that I love writing mirror articles, and this week will demonstrate that fact. My last article was about becoming a player after being a GameMaster. This article will be about the opposite -
becoming a GM when you’ve been a player.

While I’ve never been in this situation – I pretty much started in the hobby as a GM – I’ve been asked for advice by many friends in this position. I hope to offer you some of my favorite best practices for running great games right out of the gate.

Crib from the Best

There’s an idea floating around out there that all the great stories in the world have already been written, and storytellers are retreading these great stories, over and over. This may be true, but it’s nothing to feel bad about. It’s actually a great tool, if you know how to exploit it.

Unless you’re a storyteller on par with George R. R. Martin, your tabletop game stories are likely to be derivative of some other story. This is totally fine, and you shouldn’t feel bad about it. Instead, you can harness it. Mix and match great story elements to make something that feels new, even if it’s a retread of materials from your favorite books and movies.

As an example, think about two very different Shakespeare stories: Romeo & Juliet and the Comedy of Errors. One story is the story of a pair of star-crossed lovers, torn apart by their feuding families, and the other is about two pairs of people who’re constantly mistaken for each other. Now mix that idea. What if Romeo was captured after slaying Tybalt, but he absolutely refutes killing the man, even though all of his friends insist he did? Maybe the PCs see him do it, lose track of him, then find him again and apprehend him. In jail, however, he insists he’s innocent, and Insight checks (or a Zone of Truth ritual, or whatever) seem to say that he’s being honest. Then the PCs see a Romeo wandering free, even though they just saw him in jail. Investigation reveals that the second Romeo is a twin or a Doppelganger, or what have you, hired by the Capulets to eliminate Romeo and turn Juliet against him. How can they prove their friend’s innocence, and will their own twins begin to appear? Perhaps a Changeling clan moves against them, bringing up that hoary old chestnut of D&D: the PCs fight evil versions of themselves.

You can also manipulate a classic story by reversing it, or a core element of it. Juliet loves Romeo, but Romeo’s wooing her falsely. Ultimately, he intends to deliver her to the evil Friar Lawrence, the mad monk who intends to sacrifice the beautiful young girl to his dark and hungry demon lord. Or Hamlet pretends to investigate his father’s death, when he knows very well that he killed his father to gain the crown, only to be delayed by his uncle’s rise to power. Now Hamlet is faking an appearance by a ghost to lend credence to his intentions to kill his uncle.

Prepare to Be Unprepared

It’s a well-known fact that, no matter how much you prepare for a game, your players will throw you a monkey-wrench and do something nutty that you don’t expect. I generate a lot of notes for my D&D games, because I know that I can always re-use something later down the line that doesn’t get used right now. But it’s not necessary to do that much preparation. If you’re running 4E D&D, you’re in great shape. There are encounter groups in the Monster Manual, all kinds of advice on how to create encounters, an online resource for finding adventures, and more. If your players do something unexpected, you have a lot of support to make the game still fun.

The nice thing about a tabletop D&D game is that it has a human being arbitrating it. Something I always despised about old games like the Infocom text games and their ilk (look up Zork if you don’t know what I mean) is that I could have a perfectly great plan, but, if it weren’t something the programmers had anticipated, I wouldn’t be able to do it. In a tabletop game, however, you can just run with something you hadn’t anticipated and improvise if necessary.

For example, in my game this evening, our halfling fighter attempted to bluff his way past the dwarven guards of the Copperbraids Mine by coaxing his pet possum to run into the mine tunnel and chasing it in. I thought a moment… there was sure nothing about this in the Skill Challenge I’d written, and there was nothing about possum-wrangling in the D&D rules. I thought about it and then told him, “Make a Nature check to control your possum. The DC will be the medium difficulty, since you’ve been training your possum.”

One die roll later, we had a possum chasing a little tidbit of food into the mine, chased by the “concerned” halfling. Sadly, a failed Stealth check allowed the halfling to be collared, but not before he’d gotten a look at what he wanted to see in the mine, allowing the PCs a chance to continue making their plans.

Inspiration Comes from Everywhere

Taking a cue from a lot of writers, I tend to carry a notebook with me everywhere I go. If I’m ever just sitting somewhere, I’ll often pull it out and jot some notes, thinking about what might happen in the game for the future. I carry it close, because I never know what’s going to inspire me.

I’m lucky enough to work in a cool job for a GM – I work in travel, so I’m always seeing interesting place names, interesting locales, pieces of history and more. Even the names of some of our customers find their way into my games, such as the bog hag named Aunt Mengybone. Anything I hear that gives me an idea gets noted in my book, to be developed later.

Your Turn

Although I know what I think it’s important for a new GM to keep in mind, I haven’t been a new GM in a long time. Are you new to GMing, or are about to cross the screen? Do you have questions? Let me know, and I’ll try to help.

About GGG

Andy/GGG is a gay geek guy for sure. He's been playing D&D since he was 10, and he equates reading Tolkien with religion to some degree. He's a writer/developer for a Live Action RPG called The Isles, and he writes a comic called Circles, a gay, furry slice-of-life piece that comes out way too infrequently.

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