Taking on the role of GM is thought to be a drudgery, or set aside for a select few when in reality it is an experience that every role-player should try at some point. The reasons may vary from person to person, it is true, there will be those who have a greater eagerness to run a campaign because they feel confident in their storytelling abilities; it may also be that it has been a long time since you and your friends got together to play Dungeons and Dragons because your GM moved away or abandoned you without explanation, and so someone has to run the campaign.
Whatever your motivation for deciding to take your place behind the screen, don’t despair, just like with any other hobby or skill, it all takes practice, trial, and error until you make it look so easy that everyone will want to GM.
The important thing is to take the first step, leave the fear behind and start creating. It doesn’t matter if you have just learned to play or if you have been a player for years, that’s not what will make the difference between being a good GM or not, the key is in the attention to detail and luckily I have separated them in 10 Commandments.
The 10 Commandments for the good GM
- Don’t be too hasty: unlike players who had to remember their stats and the contents of their inventory as well as their spell list if they had them, the GM has to anticipate the decisions of his players, so it is necessary to prepare with time a scenario as complete and detailed as possible.It is recommended that you make one or two drafts of what you want to play and how you imagine the world you describe will look like in front of your players’ eyes; try to put yourself in your players’ shoes and everything will flow.
- Don’t set the standard too high: no one expects your first campaign to be legendary, it’s possible that even when you put in the time and rehearsed what you could, things don’t go exactly as planned.Making mistakes is the road to redemption as a storyteller, mistakes and each game make us a little better for the next one even when things get out of control.
- Don’t give everything away: sometimes we tend to let situations pass to the players that rob us of control of our campaign. We let ourselves be tempted by that phrase that says: “it is better to die early being the hero than to live long enough to become the villain”; nothing could be further from reality.As GMs we have a responsibility to make the game fun, challenging, intriguing and addictive. We can indeed allow certain circumstances for the benefit of the campaign and the players, but we must not give in too much or we will be burying everything we have worked for.
- Learn as you play: surely at some point, your players will test your knowledge of the game, and you may not have all the answers, and that’s okay, you don’t have to know every rule in every book written so far by heart. Fortunately, we have technology at our fingertips and almost any doubt can be solved in seconds.You can turn those moments of doubt about rules into opportunities to encourage your players to learn more about their character and how to find the information they need to improve their experience as well.
- Engage your players: Every session is different from any other, the only constants are your control as GM and the interest level of your players. Make each player commit to their role, make them responsible for their decisions and actions for themselves and the campaign, regardless of race, class, or alignment.Remember they are all building a story, and everyone should come to feel that they were an active part of it.
- Be an ally of your players: sometimes luck is not on the side of your players, and that simple battle could turn into a TPK. Although some campaigns and games are designed on the dynamic of discarding characters one after another, not all of them are like that, and many of us prefer to keep our character as long as we can. In that case remember that the players are your allies, and you are not against them.Of course, there are also moments of stupidity and they deserve to be punished, if the players are making decisions to act recklessly and wishing for a bad ending, you have to fulfill their wishes.Use your GM powers to intervene or suggest other types of decisions/actions to resolve the encounter, you don’t always have to solve everything with spells and swords, there is cunning and diplomacy. In the same way, the villain may want to show how powerful he is and challenge you to meet him again to settle the score.
- Get out of the routine once in a while: Let’s be honest, you won’t always have time to write the continuation of your campaign’s adventures, or maybe you’re in a writer’s block or exam season or whatever else keeps you distracted. From time to time you may choose to allow yourself to use material made by someone else.Using third-party material allows your players to get out of the rut, allows you to get to know other tools, other resources (weapons, spells, monsters, subclasses), or even other narrative styles.
- Break the mold: the game and its rules system are a guide and a suggestion of how to play, but in the multitude of possibilities, in the creative capacity, in listening to your players, and in contributing to your story you will find that the rules may be too small or useless.In that case, you can choose to start making your own rules at home, you won’t be the first or the only one, you may even find someone out there with the same creative concerns as you, and who can inspire you to go beyond the basic rules and challenge you and your players to find a new game experience.
- Find your voice: this is probably one of the hardest things to do and will probably take the most time. You don’t have to try to run things like the legendary GMs we see on YouTube or Twitch. To get there they had to try different ways of playing their characters, different ways of including and motivating their players, and different styles of running a campaign.Be patient, remember to be flexible in the face of criticism, and take what helps you to improve, you will find little by little what your strengths are to exploit them and you will know how to cover your weaknesses so they don’t show.
- HAVE FUN: This is the most important commandment, no matter how long you have been a GM, no matter how many rules you break, no matter how many players you have, what matters is that you have fun telling and making stories. If it’s fun for you, you can make it fun for your players.
Greetings and see you next time.
Book illustration, GB_Art/Shutterstock.com