Today I’m going to be giving out some RPG advice. Some things I’ve learned about becoming a better Game Master. This is based on a question about learning to DM from Brent McBride.
“I have almost no experience in playing D&D or any role playing games but I think I would have a blast being a DM eventually. What’s the fastest path to getting to be a solid DM?”
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The Short Answer:
The best way to become a better role playing game GM is to run more games.
The fastest and best path to becoming a better GM (DM, Master of Ceremonies, or whatever you want to call the person moderating your RPG session) is to actually do it. The sooner you run your first game, the sooner you start learning what you did right and what you did wrong. This could mean sitting down at the table with friends, running a table at the FLGS, playing a game over skype or even running a forum based text game.
The more games you run, the more often, the better you are going to get at running games. Facilitating an RPG session is a skill and like any skill it gets better with practice. Since running games is a social thing, the best way to practice is to actually run games for other people. You can practice and prep all you want but it’s through actual at the table experience that you are going to learn the most (even if that table is virtual).
Don’t put it off. Don’t wait for some magical place in your life where you feel ready ro run a game. Trust me, I’ve been running games for many many years and you never ever hit a place where you are 100% ready and 100% confident in your skills before you sit down to run that game. Yes, there are some things you can do away from the table to better prepare yourself (and we will get to some of those in a moment) but you don’t need to do them before you start. Nothing is going to teach you better than actual play time.
Yes you are going to make mistakes. You are going to waste time on things you probably shouldn’t waste time on. You are going to have to look things up in books. You are going to make the wrong call. You are probably going to fail to share the spotlight. The players are going to do things you would have never expected. This is a fact of running games. This never changes, you can never predict what your players are going to do once the game starts. Your first game won’t be perfect, it may not even be pretty. Don’t expect things to be awesome for the first time. You last game won’t be perfect either. The important thing is to learn from each session and improve over time.
One of the things that’s important when just starting out is to let the table know that you are new to this. Be honest. Disclose your lack of experience. Warn players that you are probably going to be making mistakes. I’ve met very few players over the years that aren’t going to be cool with this, and you probably don’t want to game with the ones who aren’t. The fact that you are hosting a game for the players isn’t going to be lost on them. You are basically there to entertain them, to give them an experience and help facilitate their fun. People are going to appreciate that gesture and they are going to be willing to forgive not only a few simple mistakes but big glaring ones as well. Remember everyone has gathered together to play a game and have fun together and the GMs lack of experience shouldn’t get in the way of this.
The key here is to dig in, right away. Stop putting it off. This is the concept of Fail Faster, something we’ve talked about on our podcast many times. The sooner you start actually running games and doing things wrong, the sooner you can learn from that experience and improve on your craft.
The Long Answer:
Besides just running more games there are other things you can do to develop your DM skills quickly.
Below I’m going to list some suggestions that aren’t just “sit down and actually play.” Things I’ve learned and advice I’ve heard over the years. I’m going to try to stay away from generic game running advice, as to me that’s a much broader topic and one that’s better covered elsewhere. These are things that I think can be key to developing early GM skills and honing those skills.
Finding the right group can be key for developing those early GM skills.
When you are first starting off try to find the right group to run your early games with. A good starting place could be family and/or friends. The important part is that it’s people who you trust and who trust you. People that are going to be patient enough to put up with the learning curve. Not only are the players (hopefully) going to be more forgiving, you are going to be more comfortable running for them.
If you are lucky enough to already be in an existing gaming group this can be another great place to start. If you are already in a group playing a game as a player then you’ve already got people there that know you and know what to expect from you. If you are interested in running a game, mention it to the group before or after one of your regular sessions.
There aren’t many GMs out there that wouldn’t jump at the chance to have another GM in the group to share the work and give each other a break now and then. This could also work with a non-RPG gaming group or really any other social group. If you play poker with some friends on Friday night, offer to take a night off, away from the cards, where you will run a game for them.
If you don’t have either of these, some family and friends to play with or an existing group, don’t panic, running for strangers really isn’t that bad. As mentioned above, you are doing something for these people, they are going to appreciate it. Now trying to find a group is a completely different topic and one I don’t plan to cover here. I will just reiterate, make sure you are clear about the fact that you are new to this and ask people to be forgiving because of it. We all had to start somewhere.
Another important first step to learning how to run a roleplaying table is picking the right game to start with.
There are two things that I think are important to consider when picking which game to run. First off you want something you are excited about. Being excited about what you are running is probably my number one GM tip overall, for GMs of all experience levels. An excited facilitator is going to send that energy to the table and the players. Being excited about what you are running is often enough to drive a game and make everyone completely forget that you used the wrong AC for that orc or totally forgot the name of the NPC the players are meeting for the third time.
The second part of picking the right game is picking a game that fits your skill level. Part of me wants to say find an easy game, but that’s not necessarily the right answer. Easy doesn’t necessarily mean better or new GM friendly. Sometimes a mathematically crunchy game with a 1000 page rulebook is exactly what a new GM needs, due to the fact that the game will have mechanics for everything. When the GM isn’t sure what to do, there will be a rule to fall back upon. These kinds of games are great for new GMs who aren’t comfortable making things up on the fly. Sticking to rule heavy games and published adventures can give a new GM confidence.
An added bonus with crunch games is that players that dig these kinds of games usually come with a solid level of rules mastery themselves and can help facilitate running the game by clarifying and reminding you of rules. There is nothing wrong with leaning on player rule knowledge while playing a game.
While some new GMs are going to feel more comfortable with a stack of rulebooks to stand behind, most are going to be more relaxed starting off with a system that is rules light. Something without a lot of learning required before the game starts. This is where many of the more modern indie games can really shine. There are one page RPGs out there like Rocker Boys and Vending Machines as well as cheap short rule sets like Fate Core. Another thing to consider are games with shared GMing responsibilities. These give you a chance to get a taste for GMing without all of the focus and responsibility falling on one player.
The middle ground is probably my favourite way to learn and play in a new system and that’s the RPG beginner box. These were huge in the 80s and I’m pleased to see them starting to make a comeback. Most of the major RPG publishers now put out some form of beginner box or set for their system. D&D for example has a bunch of them. There’s the Starter Set, the Essentials Kit and the Stranger Things Starter set. Other games have their own starter sets such as the great Star Wars Edge of the Empire Beginner Box .
These boxes walk your entire group through getting into whatever game it is one step at a time. They are written for new players and new game moderators alike. What I love to see in modern intro sets is more and more advice for new game masters. This includes things like how to find a group, what to do before the game begins, tips on how to schedule a game night and not just things like how to run a combat in that game.
The quality of these boxes does vary though. Some seem to be marketed at people who already know the game systems and arejust moving onto that edtion. Check out my review of the 5e Shadowrun Beginner Box for an example of one of these. I suggest doing a bit of research to determine which is the right starter box for you.
Watching what other Game Masters are doing is a great way to learn new table skills.
One of the most eye opening things for me growing up as a young game master was going to the University of Windsor’s Gaming Society and playing in other peoples games for the first time. Everyone has their own unique twist to how they run games, different skills they are good at, and different ways to present and handle information. The more people you can play under, the more you can learn. Seeing how different people handle different situations can be very educational. Even now, every time I play under a new GM I see something new. Something I can take home with me and then use to do a better job the next time I run my own game.
In today’s world, you don’t have to actually join another players game to sit at their table. Every week tens of thousands of people watch Matt Mercer run Dungeons and Dragons on Critical Role. Along with that, there are a ridiculous number of actual play streams out there. Then there are actual play videos on Youtube, and an even higher number of audio only RPG podcasts. If you want to watch someone else GM, it’s just a click away.
One thing to remember; some of these people are paid professionals. People whose livelihood is centered around running games. Their entire professional lives are centered on running an entertaining roleplaying game for an audience and they have the time and means to fine hone that craft. It’s unlikely you can devote all of your downtime to better describing a town in vivid detail or spend hours practicing an NPC voice. Also realize that running a game to entertain an audience is not the same as running a game to entertain a table of players.
A little old school book based research won’t hurt a new Game Master.
Watching other people run games (either literally watching or playing as a player) is a form of research. Research is an important aspect of improving any skill. When I say research it makes me think sitting down with a pile of books and reading. Well book learning counts here too.
There are a surprising and growing number of books published on the topic of running role playing games and doing a better job of it. Personally I’m a big fan of the books by Engine Publishing, Never Unprepared, Unframed and Odyssey, There are plenty of others out there, with more and more being released every year. No longer do you only get GM advice in actual RPG rulebooks.
Then there’s the internet. There are any number of blogs, forums, podcasts, videos, and other sites dedicated to honing the craft of facilitating an RPG session. You are reading one of them right now and I’m sure you are capable of finding many more.
The fast track to becoming a good game master starts with actually running games.
There are books and blogs to read, podcasts and videos to watch and listen to, you can play under a variety of different moderators or watch them on stream and learn from what they are doing, but nothing, nothing beats actually sitting down and running a game yourself.
Listen to Shia LaBeouf, Just do it!
I’m sure there are other things people can and have done to help hone their GM skills. Things to fast track the path to GM greatness. I want to know what those things are! Let us know your tips for new GMs, in the comments below.