A little while back, I was asked by someone what advice I would have for someone’s first attempt at being a Gamesmaster.
Now, that subject takes in an awful lot of ground, but when I sat down and thought about it, I found that I had suggestions to offer – some simple, obvious things that are fundamental to the art of refereeing any roleplaying game, and a few more advanced tricks of the trade that a beginner (or an experienced GM) could quickly pick up and add to their repertoire. I also think that even an experienced GM can lose sight of the basics from time to time, getting so caught up in the artistic rendering of the leaves that we lose sight of the forest.
This is not an exhaustive breakdown of the subject, by any means. Nor can the advice offered be considered comprehensive in any way, shape, or form. It’s a somewhat eclectic starting point, nothing more. Nothing beats experience, learning from your own mistakes, and evolving your own techniques; this is just a starting point. I’ve divided this broad, broad subject into 15 (you heard me!) different subcategories, and given each it’s own Part in this series, in no particular order:
- Part I: Beginnings
- Part II: Creations
- Part III: Preparations
- Part IV: Players
- Part V: Characters
- Part VI: Challenges
- Part VII: Adventures
- Part VIII: Depths
- Part IX: Rewards
- Part X: Rhythms
- Part XI: Campaigns
- Part XII: Relations
- Part XIII: Surprises
- Part XIV: Mistakes
- Part XV: Laughs
I’m not going to be working on these for week after week; I might do a run of two or three, and then take a break for several weeks or even months before resuming the series. I don’t want to overload newcomers to the GM’s screen! So, let’s get started:
Part I: Beginnings
The subject of this first part of the series, now that the preamble is out of the way, is to discuss the skills and expertise that you should have before you first sit in the GMs chair. If you have to GM without one or more of these, don’t panic; I’ll be here to hold your hand as you go forward, despite this handicap.
Because that’s all it is – an extra handicap, not a guarantee of automatic failure.
In the beginning, there should be a player
GMs have to be able to be able to bring multiple different characters to life in a distinctive, memorable, consistent, and identifiable way. If you can’t do that with a single character, as a player, you have no hope of doing it as a GM.
As a rule of thumb: if you can’t convey a conversation between three “people” with an outside observer being able to not only distinguish between each of the speakers but also to gain information about the personality and mood of the speakers, you aren’t yet ready to GM.
Actually, that’s probably not true. When you can do that, you’ll be a GREAT GM. But at the very least, you have to be able to describe the conversation and relay its essential content.
If you want to sharpen your skills in this respect, pick two or three characters from a novel, TV show, or movie that you know really well, and improvise a conversation between them about something. After you’ve become used to doing that, make a note (in writing) of 1 piece of information that you want each of them to convey to the others in a second conversation that you again improvise. After trying that a few times (different characters and pieces of information each time), prepare a sound-byte or snippet of canned dialogue and practice steering the conversation between them in such a way that each gets to segue into those sound-bytes in a natural dialogue; in other words, practice improvising the conversation around those fixed elements in the conversation. Doing this for 2 or 3 minutes at a time, 2 or 3 times a day for a week or two, and you’ll be ready to learn on-the-job.
Know The System
If you don’t know the rules at least as well as the players do, you are asking for trouble, and sooner or later you’ll get it. There are flaws and errors and issues within every game system, and eventually someone will attempt to exploit one or more.
With sufficient goodwill between players and GM, you might get away with limited knowledge for quite a while – perhaps even long enough to learn what you need to know. On the other hand, as the GM you already have more than enough to do – adding the burden of learning the game system is an aggravation you don’t need, as a beginner. At the very least, read the rules – cover to cover.
An experienced GM can draw on that experience to cover a lack of rules knowledge. A beginner can’t. The only exception to that rule of thumb is where the new GM has significant experience as a player with the same game system; if he has been paying attention to how his GM has handled similar problems, he at least has a head start.
If you don’t know the game system this well, don’t panic: all you need to do is practice finding information quickly within the source rules and skimming it. Master this and you can fake it well enough to GM and learn on-the-job.
Here’s an exercise to help you practice: Pick a spell or power, a magic item or gadget, a weapon, a creature or NPC, and a rules section that you know are in the core books because you’ve looked them up. Write these (but not the page numbers or volume names) that they came from on a piece of paper, fold it up, and put it in an unsealed envelope. Do this once a day for ten days while working on other things for the campaign or other GMing skills. Then take a 4-day break from it. At the end of this two weeks, each day thereafter for the next couple of weeks, randomly draw an envelope and time how long it takes you to find these different pieces of information, using only the information on your note. Ideally, it should take you less than a minute in total, but anything under 90 seconds is good enough to GM with.
An alternative, if you have a couple of hours a day to set aside: Generate a character and run a solo campaign for yourself for a week or two. It’s that simple to learn a new game system. And save any villains or NPCs that you create for use in the “real” campaign when the time comes.
Space, Time, and Matter
Be sure that you have everything you need to be a GM. That’s a copy of the rules, a creative streak, the ability to think about a lot of different things at the same time, a space to work in and a space to play in, pens, paper, reference materials, and time. LOTS of time. A player can get away with simply turning up without having done any work between sessions. Occasionally, the GM can, too – but if you can’t devote a lot of time to your campaign, it is doomed to eventual failure.
As a rule of thumb: For every major character (including every PC) in the campaign, you will need between an hour and a day for preparation for a day’s gaming.
- In a solo campaign, where there is only one player, you can probably get by without drawing up detailed maps, without extensive background and briefing material, and without writing a 5,000 word scenario every session.
- With two players, there is more than twice as much to keep track of, and you’ll need at least thumbnail sketches and plot summaries to keep things straight.
- With three or more players, there is more than 6 times as much to keep track of and keep up to date.
- With more than that, you need every tool and resource and reminder and road map that you can devise. And the level of detail required in everything goes up.
If you don’t have that sort of time to commit, don’t panic!! Here are a couple of articles to help you:
- By The Seat Of Your Pants: Adventures On the Fly
- By The Seat Of Your Pants: Six Foundations Of Adventure
- By the seat of your pants: the 3 minute (or less) NPC
- By The Seat Of Your Pants: Using Ad-hoc statistics
- Creating Partial NPCs To Speed Game Prep
- Look beyond the box: a looser concept for NPCs
- A potpourri of quick solutions: Eight Lifeboats for GM Emergencies
Decide how often you want to run the campaign. Once a week is great – but puts added pressure on you to come up with the requirements for next week’s game, each and every week. It’s also a lot harder to maintain consistent attendance; real life has a way of getting in the way from time to time, and everyone enjoys a break every now and then. Less than once a month, and you start running into problems of forgetfulness of past events, decisions, and so on. Players are more likely to find something else to do.
Arguably, once a fortnight is ideal; once a week is next best, one a month is doable. Above all, try and be regular about it!
Really, there are a lot of factors to take into consideration here. How long will it take you to do all the required prep work between sessions? Will expectations rise if you play less often? How often are your players available and willing to play? Are you more comfortable with longer play sessions further apart, or shorter but more frequent sessions?
It doesn’t really matter what the practical limits are on your frequency of play so long as you plan accordingly to accommodate those limits. But aim to get as close to the ideal as you can manage.
That brings us to the next important consideration. How long are you going to play for?
- From experience, I can state that less than 3 hours is a waste of time; even weekly, it will take forever for anything to finish.
- 4 hours is a reasonable minimum, 5 is better.
- Between 6 and 10 hours is ideal, but you will need at least 1 break of at least 45 minutes for every 4 hours of play.
- 12 hours is starting to be a strain, but having those extra couple of hours for play up your sleeve can be a lifesaver.
- Fourteen Hours in one stretch is the normal maximum that I would consider except under unusual circumstances; people start getting tired and fuzzy and making mistakes. And because GMing is more work than playing, you are more likely to make those mistakes – and they can be campaign wreckers.
This actually brings us back to the issue of preparation time. The longer your game sessions, the more work you have to have done in order to fill that time.
At least one referee I know estimates the amount of preparation time between sessions as the number of players times the number of hours of play in a session, between each and every session. Personally, I don’t think it’s quite that rigid; sometimes you’ll need to have done more, other times you’ll need to have done less, and personal style makes a difference.
But so does experience – as a beginner, everything will take longer, and that will be true for months or years.
As with frequency, it doesn’t matter so much how long your gaming sessions are, so long as you know how much time you have to fill with gaming and plan accordingly. Oh, and always try to prep a little bit more than you think you are going to need, if you possibly can; it can save your bacon.
Duration has another implicit interpretation in this context as well – how long are the adventures? There’s a lot of difference between a half-hour TV show and a 2-hour movie!
I think of each 4-hour session of play as the equivalent of an hour of TV; if an adventure is to last one session, that’s the equivalent of an episode of a TV series like Star Trek, or a single sherlock Holmes mystery. If it’s to last 4 such sessions, that’s the equivalent of a shortish movie, like Terminator. Six sessions is the equivalent of a long movie or full novel.
Ten sessions, that’s a half-season of a TV series. 20 sessions is an entire season of a TV series, or a major trilogy of novels, or the original Star Wars trilogy. 40 sessions is roughly 5 years of once-a-month play, and that’s the equivalent of a major series like Babylon-5 (all 5 years) or Stargate SG-1.
The longer the “adventure” – actually a plot arc over several adventures when we’re talking about the more extreme examples – the more work there is behind the scenes.
One of the major elements of style in a series is the degree of continuity. Some TV series are “episodic” – effectively, each show has a “reset to where we started from” built in. Star Trek, most police shows – in fact, most television – is handled this way.
But there are series where every episode picks up where the last one left off, where the characters have a significant impact on the world around them. These can be deadly slow – minimizing the changes in any given episode – or they can be deadly quick.
The slower changes occur, the simpler the world, and the less work is involved in keeping things straight – but the harder you will have to work at making things interesting and exciting. The faster things change, the more you have to keep up with, and the harder you will have to work on that.
Here’s a tip: get an exercise book. Label a page for every place the characters go, and every person that they meet of significance. Note the number of days since the campaign started when the players encounter the location or character. If you do this, most of the time you DON”T HAVE TO update everything between each session – when they are about to re-encounter “X”, just look at how many days its been, and then update that item to show the effects of that length of time. Once or twice a real-time year, go through and make a few notes about the consequences on each item of changes brought about elsewhere in the campaign, so that everything is more or less in step. That takes a LOT of work out of the campaign.
That trick works well in fantasy games, not so well in any era or genre with advanced communications, where you may need to update your book far more frequently. That’s better done in some form of online document or wiki.
Yet another factor to think about is the degree of realism. You can be gritty or idealized or anything in between. But the more realistic, the harder you have to think about making sure everything makes sense. And the less realistic, the more you have to work at being creative.
A lot of early scenarios – especially in the fantasy genre – amount to “There’s a hole in the ground. We find a way in, kill all the nasties, and take all the loot. Next time, we do it all again.” These are not very realistic, and they are fairly episodic.
The more you think about the ecologies and cosmology and philosophy (and so on) of your setting, the more time and detail you have to put into your campaign.
If it’s so much more work, why do it? Because some players like that sort of thing. And because in the long run, it makes your job easier. And because it’s often a lot of fun, or very interesting, or both.
Almost every campaign has something in it that falls into this category. It might be metaphysical horrors, it might be high technology, it might be wondrous sorcery or flamboyant martial arts or super powers, but almost all of them will have something that falls into this category.
Before you can GM effectively, you have to think carefully about how this stuff works – not in the rules sense, but in the “real world” sense. What effect does its existence have on the world? On the people? On the society? On everyday life? How does it work? What can’t it do? These are all questions of metaphysics and philosophy.
If you don’t think about this issue in advance, you will find that assumptions will be made – by you, by the rules, by the players – and that sometimes these can paint you into a corner, or even worse, have you talking at cross-purposes either with a player or still worse again, with yourself.
If you know everything about everything, you can get by without research. If your adventures are nothing more sophisticated than “there’s a hole in the ground filled with monsters and treasure”, you can also get by without research. For everyone else, there will be an ongoing need to learn many things about many, many subjects.
Think about this for a moment: to be completely original, you have to either get unbelievably lucky or know everything that’s already been done. The secret is to take something that’s not original and put a twist on it. By the time you stack up the sheer number of variables of characters and situations, you can achieve a combination of well-worn elements that is nevertheless original and unique.
The more sophisticated your story-telling techniques and creativity, the more easily you can find the assumptions that haven’t been the subjects of a twist in the past, and do something creative with them. In addition, there will be plot ideas that you will become comfortable refereeing that you would once never have dreamed of. Improvements are made in your skills and experience inch by incremental inch, but they add up over time.
The problems faced by a Beginner GM aren’t unique. Others have gone through the same trials and tribulations, and unlike many other creative disciplines, gaming is very much a community. We help each other out, and – having received such help – generally feel obligated to help when others in turn come forward with problems.
Once, there was nothing, save the monthly magazines – and the best hope you had was to send a letter and wait months for a response from a seasoned GM. By then, you would usually have found someone local to lean on, or solved the problem yourself, or given up. The internet changed all that, and made the gaming community a global thing.
In the beginning, there was Usenet, and a bulletin-board oriented communication. You had a problem, you asked, and opinions flowed in.
Then came dedicated web pages, specific in topic and content. These were followed by websites that dealt with a range of often-related subject matter. Quite often, you would be able to email the authors of these pages or sites and make contact with a kindred spirit who would help you out when trouble struck, and simply enjoy the virtual company of others who shared your hobby.
There was a time when game discussion boards were everywhere, and you could find a thread devoted to any subject you could think of. One by one, most died, though a few survive – especially those operated by the gaming companies themselves.
After the Bulletin Boards came the Gaming Blogs like Campaign Mastery, and while a few have lasted, many of these have also died in the last year or two. Some people (who really should know better) think that this means that they are also a vanishing breed, but the reality is that there are still new ones being launched all the time. How long these will last is unknown; it takes talent, luck, support, persistence, and a slightly masochistic streak to keep going week after week after week.
There are milestones to watch for. Six months – when those who find it all too much work drop out. A year – long enough for life to change. Two years – when exhaustion begins; get through that and you’ll get a second wind. Five years – that’s the big one. The truism used to be that only the top 1% of the top 1% of websites would survive beyond that; I’m not sure that is completely accurate any more, but if the percentage of survivors that remain active for more than five years is anywhere close to 5% or mote, I will be utterly astonished.
In television, even long-running series have trouble lasting more than 7 seasons, and most movie franchises seem to run out of steam after just two or three entries – which usually take five-to-seven years to achieve..
But all of these are resources, little helpers that can get you out of a pinch. Even those that have vanished may still be found, archived away somewhere. Collect them, treasure them, use meaningful bookmarks that tell you why you saved it.
The first time you discover a helpful resource only to find that it is gone when you return (because you remember they had the very thing that you need right now, at least according to your bookmark), it’s irritating. The second time, it’s distressing. The third time, you realize that if a site has something that’s of value now, or might ever be of value in the future, you had better archive a copy of it, so that it will always be an ace up your sleeve. That’s why every article at Campaign Mastery has a little “print friendly” button at the bottom of the page, which enables you to print a copy of the article, or save it as a PDF. But, if the site doesn’t have that facility, try saving the web page, not just bookmarking it. Collect resources and reference materials like a magpie!
Articles on sites like Campaign Mastery fall into three categories: those that don’t tell you anything you don’t already know; those that are of immediate benefit or value, even if they do nothing more than make you think; and those that are either of no immediate benefit, or that are aimed at GMs with a lot more experience, that you have trouble making any sense of. There have been a number of occasions when I’ve been contacted by a new GM because they don’t understand an article, or because part of it is aimed at GMs with far more experience than they do. My advice is always the same – if you don’t understand something now, save it and look again in a year or so. The number of times something that is totally opaque becomes crystal clear with greater experience will astonish you – and if the words haven’t changed, then the difference must be in the reader.
But you already knew that, because you’re reading this article, right?
A License To Fail
I have one final recommendation to make before closing out this article. Make room for failure, and give yourself permission to try things and fail.
Too many Beginner GMs start by trying to create the game of their dreams with their first time at bat, and end up wasting the strokes of brilliance that they have accumulated through all the years when they weren’t behind the screen.
Instead, make your first campaign something that isn’t intended to last. Limit it in scope. Don’t use your best ideas right away. Learn to crawl before you line up to run the marathon.
Start with one adventure in isolation. Then a second. Then a sequel to one of these two. Experiment a little with genre and game systems and game mechanics. Balance the grim and gritty with the silly and frivolous, and work out for yourself where your strengths lie and where you aren’t as good as you need to be. Only then are you ready to begin work on the campaign that you’ve been dreaming of.
Beginners need all the help they can get, and I’d rather like this series to become a hub for a new GM to find as much advice as he can get, so at the end of each part I’m going to be posting an open call to every other GM out there: If you run a Gaming website and have an article targeting beginners, add a link via the comments. If you don’t run a site but know of such an article, link to it anyway!