Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Gamemastering - just do it

Gamemastering, that is, being the game master (or dungeon master, for those D&D players out there) for a roleplaying game is not something done easily.  I've been playing for thirty-one years, and over those years I've been the gamemaster (GM) since day one.  Starting with the red box Basic Set back in 1985, I've helmed countless games.  I like to think I've become rather skilled at it, if my players are to be believed, but I'm not providing this information to brag, only to provide some context in that I know a bit about what I'm talking about.

First rule of gamemastering: just do it.  Get out there, take charge at the head of the table and run a game.

I leave that on its own line, because that's the most important part.  Gamemastering is, by and large, a performance skill.  I don't mean actual performance, though that helps and can be fun, but rather performing the act of running the game makes you better at it.

"Yes, yes.  Thanks tips, glad you're on that for us." you're thinking.  And in some ways you're right. Practice makes perfect and all that.  However, I've seen people be overwhelmed by the task of running the game, with all the story details, character details, monster/opponent details overwhelms them, because they aren't used to channelling that flow yet.  That's the real core of the practice part.  You've done it enough times that some things become mental muscle memory, and you focus on the action going on in a particular scene.  That's what happened over the many years I've been GMing.  Now I make it look easy, because I've been over the hard parts.  That said, I'm always learning and tightening my game.

If you're a new GM, one thing you need to accept is that your game will not run perfect.  Hell, I've been doing this for 31 years or so, and my game sessions aren't always perfect.  If it goes well, you and the players have fun, and you get to tell a group story, then the real goal has been met.

There are two areas that, if you pay attention to them, can help your first (or latest) session go well:


  • The adventure itself - whether written notes, a published module or something in between, you need this
  • Dice - if I have to explain this...  (mind you, have plenty)
  • Pens, pencils, erasers - include extra for 'that guy'
  • Paper for making notes, maps, etc.
  • A gamemaster screen - yes, I've known GMs who don't use one.  It's creepy and weird.  As a player I don't want to know what's going on there, and as a GM I like to have the privacy to keep things surprising
  • Campaign notes - even if it's your first session, have some idea of who the heroes are, where they are, and what is happening around them
Optional materiel (depending on game system):
  • Vinyl game mat marked in squares - for those games like Pathfinder which work well with minis for combat or situations where you have to ask "where, exactly, does your character step?"
  • Markers for said mat
  • Miniatures
  • Props - this one varies, but sometimes, the right prop at the right time works wonders
  • Read the adventure.  Oh, you wrote it?  Read it again.  Be prepared for what happens in it.  Think ahead to the NPCs and how you want to play them.
  • Make sure your notes are organized.  No one wants to wait while you flip for the random factoid written on the 35th post-it note stuck in your spiral-bound notebook, half the pages of which are scattered on the floor around your chair
It sounds like a lot, but really it's not.  Have the tools you need, and be familiar with the adventure you plan to run.  That way, when the players do something oddball, or a foe dies easier than planned, you can adjust because you know what else is there.  You know that if they whip through one encounter, the guard trolls in the next chamber are probably going to come to investigate.  If you misjudged their power, you can add an extra enemy or two to some encounters (or take them away).

And now a note for players:  cut the GM some slack.  I'm not saying put up with a terrible game, or not give some feedback, but when you know your friend sitting behind that screen is taking their shot as a beginner, understand that they're not going to be as smooth as your regular GM.  He or she will say "give me a sec, have to check something..." so be patient.  If they need to do a retcon here and there (yes, just because the baddies forgot to take your weapons doesn't necessarily mean it was planned that way).  Give them a chance, and they'll tighten their game.  Until one day when they forget to take your weapons it will be intentional, and that encounter, my friends, is like an open book exam.  Bring your worst because you'll need it.

More musings on the fine art of roleplaying games to come, but remember - gather your tools, plan your adventure, and get stuck in and do it.  Practice will make you perfect, and you'll have fun doing it.

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