What are the essential skills of a GM?

Ask the gamemasters

Loz is a frequent contributor to the comments here at CM. So when he submitted a question to Ask The GMs, we were inclined to pay close attention. Here’s what he had to say.

“Here’s a deceptively simple question: What are the essential Game Master skills? (Full disclosure: I am currently creating a gaming product to help GMs acquire or polish their skills)”

Ask the GMs - Mike

Mike’s Answer

I gave Loz’s question quite a bit of thought, and soon reached the conclusion that the obvious skills that I could list were not only boringly self-evident, but are either not all that essential, or are specifically relevant to just one game system, or they are easily learned by playing. But, over a bit of time, a few more fundamental skills suggested themselves, abilities for which there is no real substitute. So here they are, a Baker’s Dozen (plus one) things that a GM has to know how to do, in no particular order…

1. Find Information Without an Index
The uninitiated might think that I was being facetious, or trivial. Anyone who has been GMing for a while will know that’s not the case! RPG products are notoriously badly indexed, and so it’s vital for a GM to be able to remember where to find something he dimly remembers reading several years earlier, and to be able to find it again quickly.

2. Make Good Snap Decisions
Some people are good at making snap decisions, others have to think things over. GMing requires the ability to react to a die roll or a stated action by a Player with a decision as to what happens as a result. You don’t have the time to ponder deeply, the response has to be immediate.

3. Plan a Story
Some people might think the ability to construct a game world is vital, but there are a number of game settings out there you can use or adapt. A more essential skill is the ability to read something – anything – and construct a story idea from it.

That means more than just coming up with an idea, it’s structuring the players’ interactions with that idea in such a way that they will find entertaining (it has become something of an ongoing joke amongst my friends that I can find a scenario in just about anything)!

You need to structure an entry point to get your players involved in the storyline, a development path for the PCs to follow, setbacks, difficulties, plot twists, and a resolution; and while part of that is in the hands of your players and what they decide to do, the GM is the person who has to provide them with the opportunities.

4. Play Two Characters at the Same Time
One of the big differences between being a GM and being a player is that you have a cast of thousands at your fingertips, and will have to frequently play more than one of them at the same time, even when they are in opposition. You need to be able to wall off what one character knows from what another knows from what you know as GM, so that you can make appropriate decisions for these characters. It doesn’t matter how great you are at playing one character, if you can’t play two.

5. Play Politics
In many aspects, DMing is about compromise. You have to compromise your vision of the plotline with what the players actually have their characters do, you have to compromise your rulings and game philosophy with your player’s desires, you have to compromise in all sorts of areas. While the GM is always right, there’s no game without the players.

6. Time Management
Being a GM involves a lot of work, and the only way to be really good at it is to invest the necessary time into your campaign. How much time is required depends on a multiplicity of factors, but being able to manage your time is essential to getting the maximum done in whatever time you have available. Part of this skill is the ability to prioritise, and part is the ability to delegate what work you can (be it to a player or to your computer or even to your spouse, if he/she is willing). And part of it is efficiency, and still another part is knowing how to find those extra minutes here and there, and accumulate them.

7. Extrapolate From the Known
This skill shows itself in many facets of Game Mastering; from being able to expand or extend a character’s core concept into a broader characterisation, to being able to expand upon a basic rule to cover situations that the game mechanics don’t explicitly address.

8. Think Outside the Box
If the previous skill is all about extending the known to cover the known, this skill concerns the ability to recognise how far you can push things – rules, characters, situations – and finding ways to go beyond those limits.

9. Public Speaking
Speaking in front of an audience is often rated as one of the acts people find most terrifying in psychological surveys. As a GM, you must be able to orate both efficiently and effectively to communicate to players the things they have to know. In fact, you have to be able to do this so effectively that you can pretend to an ordinary person’s difficulty in public speaking while maintaining your own self-control.

10. Sound Convincing
A GM has to be a salesman. If you have not mastered this skill, your players may pretend to go along with whatever you tell them ‘for the good of the game’, but their characters won’t act in exactly the same way as they would if they believed what they had been told, and they will be fighting to suspend disbelief instead of putting their hearts and souls into what they are supposed to be doing.

11. Memorise Trivia
It’s not really necessary for a GM to be an expert in History, or Architecture, or any of a hundred other areas of knowledge; but they do have to have enough facts relating to those subjects at their fingertips that they can integrate little pieces of reality into their game settings. I’ve lost count of the number of times trivia has become essential in different campaigns.

12. Perform Simple Mental Arithmetic
There’s a lot of simple math involved in resolving basic actions at the gaming table – from working out whether or not a skill roll is needed to whether or not a blow hits. Reaching for a calculator – or even a pad and pencil – breaks the narrative flow.

13. Reconcile the Seemingly Irreconcilable
Games are full of contradictions, owing to the simple fact that no simulation of reality can ever be as rich and diverse as reality is. With different standards of abstraction applied to every single facet of a simulated reality, contradictions are inevitable – and that’s without adding in the ability to go beyond what is normally possible, by way of magic, or technology that doesn’t exist yet, or superpowers, or psionics.

If you can’t make sense of the dual propositions that “The Gods are Omnipotent, Omnipresent, and Omniscient” and “Free Will is beyond the control of The Gods”, you can’t be a priest – or a GM.

14. Entertain Others
Last, but perhaps most important of all, the GM has to be able to entertain. If the game is not fun, sooner or later your players will find something else to do that IS.

So those are my fourteen essential GMing skills. Everything else you can fake, or learn on the job, or import from someone else.

And now it’s over to Johnn, for those things that I have inevitably overlooked…

Ask the Game Masters - Johnn

Johnn’s Answer:

Thanks Mike. There are many skills involved in GMing. I have a shelf full of books dedicated just to the craft of running great games. That’s the part I find so appealing about being GM. Other games fade over time for me as they pale to the dimensions of being a game master.

Loz quests for an essential list. And Mike, you’ve got an excellent group of core skills. So I’m going to name my Top 3 Essential GM Skills.

I have not made such a list before, and I spent the week pondering it. Turns out the top skills I think you need to be a great GM are not technical in nature but are more leadership type qualities.

15. Make Game Sessions Happen

Playing the game is the best activity in the GM’s toolbox. It’s the end goal of all the planning, creating, reading, studying and thinking. Without game sessions actually occurring, all your efforts are moot.

Sessions are also the best way to learn. Experience is the best teacher. The more you plan, prepare and run games, the better you will get. All skills slowly improve each session. Skills in which you have talent or great interest will improve even faster. GM more = better GM.

Real life is against you. Tricky schedules, other priorities, logistics, player issues, personal energy levels and many other factors conspire to create a fractured gaming calendar. A goal every January is to stick to our game schedule for the year and make as many of those game sessions happen as possible.

Unless you have a like-minded player who is willing to make games happen, it’s up to you to cleave through any obstacles preventing gameplay.

A GM who can handle all the details of finding players to form a group, organizing game dates and session details, and doing whatever level of preparation that’s desired is going to make 50% of sessions happen.

The GM who can negotiate all the crises that afflict the gaming calendar, such as absent players, last-minute emergencies, and time- and energy-sucking events at work, home or school is going to make 90% of sessions happen.

16. Communicate Well

Good communicators make sessions fun. The GM has many required interactions with his gaming group. Here are a few examples:

  • Game and session expectations – yours and the players’
  • Player relationships with the GM and with other players
  • Session organization
  • Encounter details and management
  • Character actions and results
  • Rules refereeing
  • Roleplaying
  • Combat management

If any of these standard interactions go wrong often, the game is in jeopardy. If things go wrong once at special times, such as during player conflicts or tricky game moments, the game is in jeopardy.

Communication clears up misunderstandings. It encourages participation. It gets people staked into games. It helps everyone have more fun.

Communication is not just about getting your point across. It’s not about compromise. It’s not about announcing dice roll numbers.

A game master who communicates well will listen – and encourage listening amongst all group members, usually by being a good example – not just talk. He’ll take the time to consider more points of view than his own. He’ll explain the thought process behind his decisions. He’ll describe scenes with flair. He’ll coax shy players to not just participate but to express their opinions and ask for what they want at the appropriate times.

A good communicator might occasionally smooth over ruffled feathers, but they prefer to get to the heart of interpersonal conflicts to solve them permanently. They get communication happening before small things grow into big monsters.

Communicators also help players feel welcome, valued and respected. Key ingredients for great gaming.

17. Desire to Do Your Best

Give it your best shot every session. Do this and you will not have any regrets.

You might not feel 100%, but do your best under any circumstances. Sometimes you’ll only manage 50% or 70%, but that’s great. Outcomes will take care of themselves over the long haul. Just focus on applying yourself each moment you GM. It’s the struggle to learn more, be better, do well that’ll get you better and better results. The journey shapes the great GM, not the destination.

Make a list of why you like GMing. Go out and read more about these topics. Have a desire to improve even more in these areas.

Make a short list of critical shortcomings. Shore up these with study and practice. Do not make a list of all your GMing faults – just ones causing game session problems. Fix those. Do not try to be the best at these skills, just get good enough so the serious problems are gone. Then keep focusing on the areas where your talents and passions lie to make those soar.

I can tell a GM who wants to improve their craft from one who just shows up, basically killing time. Your players can too.

Do your best. If you’re unwell, be the best unwell GM you can. If you’re unprepared, be the best unprepared GM you can. If you have a group of piranhas for players, cheat just focus on yourself and what’s in your control and do your best.

I look forward to everyone else’s thoughts on what makes a great GM. What are the skills and traits you’ve noticed great GMs in your life possess? What skills do you possess that you think makes games better?

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