• A GM At Any Stage, Part 2

    by  • March 31, 2012 • Essays • 5 Comments

    In Part 1, I discussed how hard it can be to break into a GM position, regardless of the game, regardless of whether you are in a LARP or tabletop.  I also listed a few of the impediments that came to mind.  In this conclusion, I’d like to list a few ways in which a person can break into that role.  Some of these are my ideas, but most have come from other players, both male and female.  Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet.  It takes determination, support and the willingness to make mistakes to become a GM.

    1.  Find a mentor.  Find someone who knows how to play and is willing to mentor you.  This will take extra time on their part and maybe extra patience, so be careful whom you ask.  They should be someone who bolsters your confidence and helps you formulate your ideas.  They should be as excited about you running a game as you are nervous about running it!

    2.  Be an assistant.  You can be someone’s assistant!  This way you can learn how to develop plot, run combats, design an environment (if it’s tabletop), manage a large group of people (if it’s a large LARP).  You can bite off small bits and pieces and even run some stuff on your own for a session or two as your confidence builds up.  A lot of times, secure and well-adjusted storytellers will welcome the help.

     3.  Play with friends or people you trust.   if they’ve never played before, or are novice players, then the pressure is definitely minimized.  If you play with experienced players, make sure they know you are learning and be open to their help and suggestions.  They can be amazing resources.

    4.  Pick a game you feel comfortable with.  If you’re just starting, don’t start with the hard ones like Champions/Heroes (shudder!)  Start with a game you feel comfortable with and really enjoy.  Mouse Guard is a relatively simple game with cute mice, but dangerous situations and heroic challenges.  Or start with the ultimate simple game….Fiasco!  Practically 100 percent role-playing.  You just need to know the rules, which are simple, and you need to shepherd people along.  Or even try a board game tie-in like Castle Ravenloft or Arkham Horror, although those can be as complex as the real thing sometimes.

    5.  Take risks.  Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.  You’re only human.  Even the most experienced game masters make mistakes and run plots that don’t work.  Don’t take it personally if you do the same.  Retrace your steps and try again.  Listen to your players.

    6.  If it wasn’t explicit enough in #3, let me be explicit here.  If you’re just learning to run a game don’t start with jerks!  Even if you want to prove yourself to them for whatever reason.  Get comfortable and deal with them later.  They’re not going anywhere, unfortunately.

    7.  Read and plan.  Learn your world.  Plan what you want to do.  But don’t overdo it.  You can get too bogged down with details, but you should do enough to make yourself feel comfortable.

    8.  Listen to podcasts and read blogs.  Those are safe ways to learn from others without having to deal with them.  Use their wisdom and experience from afar.

    9.  Set the mood.  It’s only a game.  If you act as though this is just a game and not some sort of test or baptism by fire, then others will pick up on that.  The ST, GM, DM whatever always sets the tone of the game.  The stakes will be high for you if you act like they are.  People pick up on the general dynamics and tension, or lack of, in a room.

    10.  Have fun! If you keep trying and you never have any fun, it’s not worth it.  Try something else.  Life is too short.



    I was always interested in D&D from the time I found Basic and AD&D at my local hardware store while in junior high. I bought both and found out that only boys played and I wasn't allowed to play with boys :-(. At the age of 38, I joined a group with my husband and played tabletop for 2 years. Now we LARP together in World of Darkness games. We are also working on some Call of Cthulu, Mouseguard and Savage Worlds tabletop games. I'm probably the odd person out having come to the hobby so late in life compared to others. My special love is plot, character development, interaction, and DRAMA!! In real life, I'm a tax auditor and an animal shelter volunteer.

    5 Responses to A GM At Any Stage, Part 2

    1. avatar
      Jason Morningstar
      March 31, 2012 at 23:54

      My suggestion, maybe an addition to your list, is to play games without a GM a bunch, particularly ones that distribute authority equally. You’ll get to do all the GM stuff, but so will your friends at the table, so you can learn from them and they can support you as you experiment with the role. Many GMless games (a misnomer; GMful is probably more accurate) are highly structured, which can also be helpful in this process, and often have the advantage of being designed for a single session or short run.

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      • avatar
        April 3, 2012 at 14:33

        This is a great thing to do, absolutely! But it can be hard to make the leap from GMless to GMed. I know personally, I still tend to pick GMless games when it’s my turn to run stuff. There’s not many GMed games I feel comfortable running still.

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    2. avatar
      April 1, 2012 at 05:12

      To save yourself headaches and hassles, it helps to decide in advance how you want to handle unexpected rules questions during the game. My rule of thumb is that I’ll make the decision that makes the most sense without stopping the game to look it up unless a player convinces me it’s going to be bad for the game to wait. So far, that’s never happened (and no one’s really tried). The caveat to that is that I let them know we can look things up after the fact, and I’ll make adjustments, if needed. I do that at conventions and my regular games.

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    3. avatar
      April 1, 2012 at 22:13

      I think talking to your players in the planning stage is important. Find out what they want from the game, set up their characters with them, give them NPCs with a great back story to make friends with (or enemies), that will do a lot for your story and may create stories in itself.

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    4. avatar
      April 1, 2012 at 22:30

      There are few books that give ref advice worth much, and the AD&D 1e DMG is one of the few that does. I recommend it to anyone looking to get into refereeing fantasy games, even if they don’t intend to run AD&D 1e. When I get new players interested in refereeing, I tend to point them towards that book as a first step, and then we talk it over.

      There’s a few other pieces of advice I’d give to new referees to supplement your post:

      1) Get rid of any idea that there’s some prototypical campaign you have to live up to the standards of. Campaigns work in all sorts of different ways, with different focuses, styles, etc.

      2) Guide gameplay with the stuff you find cool and interesting. If you like maps, then feel free to use lots of maps. If you don’t like prepping tons of long-form notes, then don’t. If you like making and referring to handouts, then use them. If you like battle map tactical stuff, then have lots of fights. Players will tell you if you’re overdoing it or if they want different stuff.

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