GM Virgin No More: The Tale Of My First Time Behind The Screen

I look scared, don't I? It's because I was.

No one ever forgets the details of their first time: where you did it, who you were with, how nervous and excited you were, how it felt asking everyone to roll for initiative…

What did you think I was talking about?

One of my resolutions for this year was to run my first game. For most of the year, I spun my wheels, hemming and hawing over what system to use and basically getting nowhere (except more nervous as more and more of my friends got excited about playing with me as GM). Last month, I finally made the first big decision and went with my gut on the system: Pathfinder, my true RPG love. And I was sure everything else would move just as slowly and I’d be lucky to get my game in under the December 31 deadline.

Oh, was I wrong.

The Lead-Up

At the tail end of August (yes, just a couple weeks ago) my husband was browsing the Paizo online store and said, “Hey, you should check out this free module they have up. It might be fun for your first game.” I signed into my Paizo account and searched for the title: We Be Goblins!

The product description grabbed me immediately: an adventure for 1st-level goblin characters, on a quest to find fireworks, with monsters and a cannibal goblin on their path to victory. There was nothing about it that didn’t sound fun, and I quickly decided that a light-hearted one-shot like this would be perfect for my first time GMing. Plus, there was an opportunity for me to do voices for the NPCs! (I love doing voices.) Squeeing with delight, I downloaded the module right away.

I’d found it! I’d found my first game to run!

The Prep

Our game club is hosting a game faire in October, and there has been some clamoring for me to run a game at it. Within just a couple days of downloading my module, I decided it was now or never, and I might as well try to get this adventure ready to run at the faire. With that goal in mind, I knew I needed a couple runs through this module, and quick! Looking at my work schedule and the ongoing games at the club (and the rapidly approaching start of the NFL season – my local gamer buddies are all big football fans, just like me), I picked Saturday, September 10 as the date I’d lose my GM virginity, with the big event scheduled at noon so it wouldn’t interfere with any other games in play.

Now, I needed players. The module had 4 pregenerated characters, and reading through it I knew that was the perfect number for the adventure (and I also thought it was the perfect number of players for me to attempt to keep in line). The good news was I knew I had plenty of willing players. The bad news was…I knew I had plenty of willing players. Far more than four. Who to choose?

I decided I wanted a group of GMs as my first group of players, so I could get the best feedback and suggestions from them. That narrowed things down a little, but not much. As I’ve said before, I’ve never had the problem of not having a ready and willing GM. Thinking it would be a good move to get as many Pathfinder GMs as possible (or even if they didn’t run Pathfinder, ones who knew the rules well enough so I wouldn’t have to hand-hold), I filled the table that way, also taking into consideration who I knew could easily make the selected time without having to rearrange work or other commitments.

As the days leading up to my game passed, I worried that I wasn’t doing enough to prepare. I read through the module a couple times, decided who would get each character, made a few notes and put sticky notes on key pages in my PFRPG Core Rulebook…but that was it. The adventure seemed pretty straightforward, and I couldn’t really think of anything else to do to get ready. My husband and brother both assured me that I was going to be fine, but I couldn’t shake that feeling of trepidation that I needed to be doing more.

But the next thing I knew, it was Game Day, and the time for preparation was past.

The Big Day

Game Day dawned with lots of promise and excitement – so much excitement that I was up before my alarm went off. As I was gathering everything for the trip to the club, a message came in on Facebook that sent me into a serious panic: one of my players was calling in sick. My heart stopped and for a painfully long moment, I had no idea what to do. Then my heart started back up, I took a deep breath, and called one of my friends – another member of my local GM arsenal – to see if he could jump in on short notice. Despite the fact that I’d woke him up, he was eager to take that empty seat and assured me that he’d be there by high noon.

As we drove to the club, I was getting more and more nervous. I never picked out minis for the game, I thought, and I won’t have time to comb through the mini bins at the club to find appropriate ones. I don’t have a dry erase marker to draw on the battle map. OMG WHAT WAS I THINKING I CAN’T DO THIS!

And then, there we were. Too late to back out now.

We got into the club and I set up my GM screen and all my stuff. I easily found a dry erase marker, and while my players were reading over their characters, I was able to find all the minis I needed (or at least things that were close enough). My husband snapped the above picture of me as I was going through my notes one last time, and that deer-in-the-headlights look is very representative of how I felt. Once everyone told me they were ready, I said to myself, “Here goes nothing!” and read aloud the introduction to the module.

My players all immediately took to their goblin personalities and embraced the plot of the adventure. There were many little things they did (or didn’t do) that I wasn’t expecting, and I adjusted on the fly as best I could. Many times, I was sure it was all going horribly wrong: I read the wrong thing to the players, I didn’t give them a chance at a Perception check when they should have had one, I was struggling to explain the map to them. When the big battle finally came, the party was split! But I tried not to let them see me sweat, and forged ahead.

In the end, the characters were successful in acquiring the fireworks, and returned to their little goblin village as big damn heroes. And the players all applauded! To my surprise, they hadn’t noticed any of my blunders and thought the whole thing was fantastic. The best compliment I received? “If I hadn’t known this was your first time, I never would have guessed it.” When I asked them how I could improve for future games, all they suggested was to just keep at it. They all had a blast, and I have to admit, I was rather proud of myself!

What I Learned

Follow the Jay Peters Rule of Awesome. Jay Peters is a dear friend and a GM I really admire. His Rule of Awesome is, basically, if the players want to do something awesome, let them. When one of the players announced he was going to do a backflip and then jump up and grab the ears of the goblin hanging from the ceiling, instead of flipping through the rules to see if he could, I just had him make a couple Acrobatics checks and let him do it. The game didn’t get bogged down while I had my nose buried in the book, and the players had a ton more fun than if I’d told them, “No.”

Don’t draw attention to your mistakes. The players don’t know how things are supposed to go, so they won’t know if you’ve screwed something up. Because I was able to keep myself from freaking out whenever I realized I hadn’t done things quite right, they had no idea and just kept singing their goblin theme songs without giving it another thought.

Bring a snack. I truly thought I’d be too nervous (and too busy!) to eat during the game, but by the time the 4-hour adventure was over, I was starving. It’s better to bring a snack and not eat it, than to come unprepared and wish you had something other than a few Red Vines stolen from the players. That sweet and sour chicken I got after the game was the best food I ever tasted, I swear.

My first time behind the screen, though nerve-wracking, was a real joy, and I’m looking forward to running another group of goblins through the adventure in a couple weeks, and next month at our game faire. Have I caught the GM bug? It’s too early to tell. Running a game is certainly more work than playing in one, but there are some great rewards. Most importantly, I know now that I can do it, and I can do it well. And even if I never run another game, that will be enough for me.

Does my first time sound anything like yours? When did you decide whether you really liked being the GM?

About c

By day, Connie Thomson (aka Ariel Manx) is a mild-mannered shoe salesgirl, geeking out about insoles, outsoles, and shanks. But when night falls, she takes her turn at the helm of 4 Winds Fantasy Gaming, where she writes, edits, and does layout for table-top RPG products. Regardless of her persona, C is always a fangirl, bookworm, and craft diva. (Email C or follow @arielmanx on Twitter.)

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