Being a GM can be an amazing look at a game from a new perspective. Rules and narrative can look different from either side of the table, and I think experiencing both roles makes people better as players and as GMs. Beyond fresh perspective and a greater appreciation for the demands of both sides of the table, GMing has its own lessons to teach about pacing, plot, story and human behavior. If you haven’t done time as a GM and want to start, this week’s article is for you.
Know What You Want to Run
Running a game you don’t have any interest in is a setup for painful gaming war stories down the road. Knowing what you want to run before you get into practical prep (like lining up players) is your step one. If you love horror more than anything on this earth, and want to start by running a horror themed game, that’s a good first step. If you let your friends talk you into running a game you feel indifferent to, or even hate, you may set the bar a lot higher for yourself than necessary with your first game. If you know what system, genre or scope of game you feel excited about, you can pick players who share that passion.
You don’t have to memorize an entire game system front to back before you run it, but starting cold with a game doesn’t help you or your players. Do a few passes on the mainbook, and post-it note rules you know you’ll need regularly. My copy of the mainbook for Orpheus, one of the first games I grew to love running, was littered with post-it notes. Over time I memorized page numbers, only bookmarked things I absolutely needed for referral purposes, and started to relax as a GM. I went in with an okay handle on things, but being nervous about GMing meant a lot of pausing for me to look up rules and try to arbitrate or gauge what seemed the most in line with rules. It took months for me to loosen up to the point that I could see the system as a tool that could be customized or changed as needed. That’s when it really sunk in for me that rules, when written well, are able to convey incredible information about world and setting.
Orpheus had been out for a few years when I started running it, so there were online resources for GMing that acted as a useful springboard for me. Other peoples’ handouts and mission logs were a great source of inspiration for me, particularly when I spotted things with themes my players had responded to in game. When I had problems with things like pacing, or customizing the game to better fit the table, both the internet and other GMs I knew were valuable resources. This is a hobby about having fun, and you having fun as a GM is part of that. Feeling confident about your grasp on the game won’t just make running it less stressful—it also makes it more enjoyable for your players. They’re at the table because they’re as interested in how you’ll spin the game as they are in playing it.
Work With Your Players
Your players are not a panel of judges here to score you as a GM. They came to the table to play a game, tell a story, and have an awesome experience. You’re the table to be a part of that. Tables are a give and take, but it’s not Players VS GM. You and your players share an end goal—to have fun—and that means you share creative and narrative control. You’re building a world together. Beyond that give and take when it comes to telling the story as a group, your players are fabulous resources for you. If one of them can always find something in the book, remember session details without note taking, or has a unique skill that can add positively to the game, don’t shut that person down.
Your players are more than just the people you gathered to the table. They each possess skills and qualities that can be applied to make the game or a session awesome, in or out of game.
What helped you build your confidence as a GM when you started out? How did you support friends who were just starting out as GMs? Share your tips, tricks and war stories in the comments!