Gamemaster, Referee, DM, GM, whatever tabletop gaming system you play chances are you’ve heard that the Gamemaster is the most vital role at the table. It’s said that they are the one player around which the entire game pivots.
Many of us have been told that without the skills and investment of time and money by the Gamemaster the campaign will falter, the group will dissolve, and all will be left in smoking ruins as if a great dragon has come down from the north. We are told that the Gamemaster is the driving force behind the campaign, that their imagination and description are vital to player immersion.
A quick flick through social media will show armies of gorgeously painted miniatures, entire villages built bespoke for a single session, flat screen monitors built into timber tables displaying animated maps. As a Gamemaster it seems you stand amongst intimidating company.
There’s a secret to being a successful Gamemaster that is often overlooked. The truth is everything you’ve read so far is misleading. None of it is helpful to being a GM, especially the perception of that role at the table being vastly more important or challenging than any other players.
It’s no secret that being a Gamemaster for tabletop roleplaying games can be a daunting prospect. But I am going to walk you through what will up your game as a Gamemaster, and help you build memorable sessions that players will still be talking about years later. This is my article with tips for becoming a better DM.
Whether you are just starting out or are a tabletop veteran there are some mindsets and skills you can develop that will improve your contribution at the tabletop and help you become an even greater Dungeon Master
The first one might sting a little, so let’s get straight to it…
Being a great DM: this game is not about you
It seems counterintuitive at first, especially with media portrayals like the one above that position the GM at the center of the gaming universe. It bears saying again; playing roleplay is not about you.
Tabletop roleplaying games are a collaborative experience, it is what sets them apart from reading a book or playing a video game. A group of people come together to tell a story and to share experiences in a world or setting that is important to them.
Having a fantastic gaming experience doesn’t rest solely on the shoulders of the GM. You don’t need to assume that responsibility. Take a deep breath and let it go. You are part of a team. You are in this together. You may, at times, lead that team but you are not by default always the leader.
You are a collaborator, with a set of responsibilities different from the others at the table.
The tools you use may be different to others at the table but that doesn’t change the fact that you are participating in a shared experience. The truly excellent DM knows they are only part of the equation. So come to the table without the notion that you are there to entertain and lead. Your player party is all in this together and great games come from knowing that.
Establish boundaries early
Personal boundaries in gaming are important, but that is not what this topic refers to.
‘In game’ boundaries are just as important.
What is the focus of your game? Determine with your players what sort of game it will be. This is easier if you know the players, and much harder if you are in a new group. Many will say “a bit of everything” is what they like. Speaking from experience, almost no one wants a bit of everything! Everyone has a preference, but we all love different aspects of the games we play. If you are truly in doubt, make a survey for your players til fill out.
Some love the rules and mechanics, other love to act and sink deep into their character. Some players love the idea of exploring a world not their own, and others still love the thrill of overcoming adversaries in game.
Its best to figure out which of these is most important to both you and your players as early as possible. If politics make your head hurt steer clear of them in your game. If your players all treat combat and gaining experience as their main drivers don’t plan a romance-focused game. This goes without saying but really digging in early can save a lot of headaches and player fatigue later.
There is a chart in the Cyberpunk Red Core rulebook which is designed to help you figure out what kind of player you are. This is a fantastic tool for understanding your players and yourself and can help with developing a fulfilling and exciting campaign no matter the system.
You don’t need to know everything
We cover this more in the later topic ‘understanding the core rules of your system’ but the same approach works for your game’s setting. Find a corner of the world to explore and go from there.
Make up a village or use a pre-existing one from a supplement. Make a particular starport the players base of operations in Sci-f games. Maybe all the players live in the same apartment building or the same city block?
The setting of Ten-Towns in Rime of the Frost Maiden is a good example of this. The environment in that setting makes it less likely that players will head off the beaten track and you can open each area up as you get more comfortable.
In Starfinder by Paizo, players are often the crew of their own ship. There are different ships in nearly every one of their supplements to fire your imagination or the party can build their own. Give the players a home that is familiar and detailed and they will cherish it.
It’s okay to get things wrong
Flashing red lights won’t descend from the roof if you make a mistake! Sometimes lore gets mixed up, sometimes you forget a rule, or an NPC name, or a character’s special ability, or you refer to their helpful patron as “The Lich” and spoil the secret.
The list of things that can go wrong is as long as the list of things that can go well, and that’s the important thing.
Don’t get bogged down! Live musicians will tell you the worst thing you can do on stage is get caught up in your mistake. Smile gracefully and adjust or just keep going. Everyone at the table is a human being, they’ve all made mistakes.
If you are keeping notes and putting in effort and collaborating no one is going to care if you make a mistake. They may not even notice. We are all our own worst critics. Which brings us to our next topic…
Lighten up a little
A truly great GM can laugh at themselves and with their players. Following a tense roleplaying session or vicious battle with some lighthearted entertainment can break the tension in a good way. Throwaway encounters that add flavor to your game can really bring your Gamemastering to the next level, but it is important to establish and understand pacing.
Watch for the respite in TV series and movies and you’ll become aware of how prevalent a narrative device this is. The right moment of levity can make a beautiful contrast in game that will make the session even more memorable. Having a lighter, fun and upbeat encounter can give the natural comedian in your group a moment to shine, and if they have an idea that moment will come, they are far less likely to let humor intrude on the moments of key drama.
Props support but don’t replace a Gamemaster
We are spoilt for choice today, with all the amazing resources available to Gamemasters and players. A table full of amazing miniatures with full color boards is a long way from the scraps of math grid paper and pencils we used in ancient times. The trick is to decide your level of commitment to the tools.
Always ask yourself “Will this add to my campaign?’” And also remember, try not to distract yourself at the table and get bogged down in small details that are not relevant.
I was Gamemaster for a game with an entire table full of steampunk papercraft buildings that towered above the table for a tense climatic chase through a city in the Iron Kingdoms. Thanks to some clever thinking from the players (always the best way to undo any GM plans) I spent more time setting up the table than running the encounter.
In another game, one that was almost wholly theatre of the mind (no props or maps, just imagination) and during an encounter I (in character) reached into my jacket and pulled out a test tube with a glow stick fishing lure inside it. It was placed at just the right angle to appear like a vial of glowing liquid. The players were blown away by that simple device and obtaining the vial of glowing liquid became the focus of much of the session. The simplest of things treated with gravity can take on incredible import.
Both examples wowed the players, there’s no denying. They also appreciated the effort put in on behalf of the group’s experience. The encounter could have been played without either prop. A great Gamemaster knows when to use them.
Striking a balance between imagination and representation is the key to the implementation of props and tools. Use them to your advantage and when it suits you. Don’t let them become a trap or an expectation.
A dry erase gaming board like the D&D Adventure grid can be used for most games that have grid-based combat. The Starfinder Basic Terrain Multi-pack is another great basic asset that you can grow from if you lean more to Sci-fi games.
When it comes to resources for the games encourage players to share the load. If your game requires or benefits from DnD miniatures, I recommend having the players source a miniature to represent their character.
Not only does it get players thinking about their characters between sessions, but it can also give opportunity for players to shine in other areas. Is one of your players an excellent painter? Perhaps they can paint the miniatures for the party. Is one of you players an artist? Task them with character portraits and get every player to give them very detailed character descriptions to work with. Make sure you hold onto these descriptions to use in game!
Don’t let the players without artistic inclinations off the hook. The player who cooks could make something for the table inspired by the game setting, maybe a recipe from the Heroes Feast or inspired by other setting books. Perhaps you have someone who is a natural number cruncher in your group. Have them develop and track a stock market or similar device in the world that players can invest in. Get the poker player to help run a session in a casino. The options are endless.
If players are involved in the creation of the game world and its physical representation the collaboration will be inbuilt rather than being something to strive for. Taking this collaborative approach shares the workload and breaks away from the “Gamemaster as provider” mentality.
Understand the core rules of your system
Being a referee can be intimidating, there’s no denying it. Core rulebooks sometimes have in excess of 300 pages, and some games have vast collections of sourcebooks that each contain rules and lore that all seems vitally important. Trying to grasp all of this at once can make it seem impossible to learn a new system. There are three pieces of advice that I would give to a Gamemaster starting a new system to help them run almost any game confidently.
- Go through the process of making a character from start to finish. Complete every single step as if you were going to join the game as a player and take as much time as you need to understand the process. In learning how to make a character you are learning the system from the perspective of a player. As a Gamemaster players will usually look to you for character creation guidance. You don’t need to make a character of every class or type. Just make a character you like, maybe use them as an NPC later. As a Gamemaster you’ll be able to guide new players to relevant parts of the character sheet during character creation and play. It may seem like a small thing, but it will help you and your players feel more confident.
- The next step is to grasp the foundational rule of and how it applies to your game. Game designers and RPG writers often include this in the “What is a roleplaying game” section of an introduction and many seasoned players overlook it. But this vital piece of information will help you confidently make rulings on the fly in line with the game’s system.
At its most basic almost every game system can be boiled down to a single equation:
[Success/failure] = [Primary modifier] + [Secondary modifier] + [Tertiary modifier] + [Variable]
This sounds wordy and complicated but put simply this equation represents how most games are written.
Allow me to demonstrate by using a standard roll from the world’s most popular roleplaying game. Say Grognard the Barbarian wants to jump over a gaping chasm. The first thing we determine is the target number for success, or DC. The test is an athletics test, and the character sheet tells us this is a strength-based skill (You knew where to check on the sheet from making up a character previously so the process runs smoothly). So, the above equation in Dungeons and Dragons would look like this:
To cross a chasm the player must beat DC 12 (success/failure) by making an athletics check (Primary plus secondary modifier) on a d20 (the variable).
You’ll find that most systems can be broken down this way, and as Gamemaster, it can be a great standby for those moments when a player comes up with something unique. Combat and contested rolls work the same, but with a variable success/failure target.
If the GM knows the game system’s primary equation, then they can make fair and consistent rulings on the fly and check the actual rules after the session. Using this process rather than frantic page flipping will help you feel more confident as a GM and make for a much smoother session. The character sheet in most games will guide you as to what primary and secondary modifiers are needed. Keep the suggested success target numbers (DC in D&D) on hand and there’s little in game you won’t be able to handle.
Grow from what you know
The next piece of advice is to pick a corner of the setting and stick to it until you are comfortable expanding. Can’t get your head around the politics and machinations of the city of Waterdeep? Don’t set your game there. Keep to the information “on screen” for the players. If you aren’t comfortable with the details of a setting make sure to set expectations in your session zero that the game will revolve around a certain location, maybe a village, or concept (More on how to run a great session zero in a future article). The Dungeons and Dragons Essentials Kit and the Jumpstart Kit for Cyberpunk Red do a great job of this, but you can carry this concept on through your games and expand as you learn more. Use NPCs to introduce greater concepts or wider organizations and themes as your game progresses and the world will unfurl organically for the players in a way that reinforces the sense of reality for your setting.
Tips for becoming a better DM: Challenge yourself
This is the first truly difficult skill a Gamemaster needs. It is the vital ingredient that turns a good GM into a great GM.
As many others have said, A Gamemaster should try and meet requests from players with “Yes and” so that they are open to the exciting possibilities that improvising brings. I want to suggest that you, as an experienced Gamemaster take that further.
Use “Yes and” for yourself when you are coming up with ideas or trying to figure out concepts or techniques. Practice and push those voice talents, build those incredible pieces of scenery, blow everyone’s mind with the plot twist they never saw coming. A GM is limited only by their limitless imagination. No one is looking over your shoulder to make sure you are ‘doing it right’ so have fun. Do the unexpected and you’ll surprise yourself and the other players.
If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to give an example of a time when I challenged myself as a GM. I was tasked to run an RPG in an official capacity for an official convention for a beloved Sci-Fi franchise.
This all happened a long time ago, far, far away mind you. The stipulation from the event coordinators was that any player could come and go, staying or leaving whenever they like so that players wouldn’t miss other events. I had to be mindful of other talks and make sure people had the chance to check their timetables. From the point of view of a Gamemaster I had no idea how to handle this. It sounded like a nightmare!
How could I run a game for total strangers with no experience who could appear and leave at any moment? The answer was simple once I thought outside of what I saw as a comfortable gaming session. I quickly mocked up a cantina, one near a starport on a dusty backwater planet and filled it with characters. My trusty core of players became the staff and regulars in the cantina and people who were interested could rifle through the characters, pick one and join the table for a long as they wanted. It became an organic natural process as each person played a patron coming or going from the cantina and roleplayed, threw some dice and had a good time, me included. The location worked as a shorthand description for every new player. There was no one who sat down at that table who couldn’t imagine the cantina we set the game in. I had answered “Yes and” and won an incredible experience.
So, when the opportunity arises for you to be Gamemaster I want you to seize it! Being a GM is incredibly rewarding. Much like the games we play, being a good GM is a never-ending collaborative journey. As a GM you need to know that you are vital but not all important, focus on what you need, know that you can make mistakes and don’t take yourself too seriously. Grow and challenge yourself and you’ll be a great Gamemaster.