I’m not sure who started ‘New Year New GM’, but I’ve seen it a few times now so I thought I would share my experiences on learning to GM. For this post, my goal is to reach GMs who are going into their first game, either as a brand-new GM, running a table of new players, or experiencing a new environment to run their games (like a convention).
Doing something new as a GM can be stressful. You don’t want to fail. You don’t want to put on a game that either you’re not proud of or isn’t fun. So, is there anything you can do to be ready? There is!
#1 Plenty of Preparation!
When you are getting ready to run your game, you need to be prepared:
(1) Take organized notes of how you want the game to go or read through the prewritten module you plan to run in advance (maybe 2 or 3 times) so you have time to think through it.
(2) Draw any important maps and plan what the encounters look like, what’s in them, and if there is a reward. Even if it will be randomly generated, maybe roll on that table ahead of time so you can keep the game moving.
(3) Plan XP rewards for encounters ahead of time.
(4) Don’t preplan the fluff. Add fluff to fill out scenes on the fly, catering it to your players that session. Fluff includes details of rooms that are not pivotal to the plot of the story, or banter between the players and NPCs that isn’t essential to the key story points.
(5) Most importantly, think through how the various scenes work together to create the story you want to tell.
#2 Organize Your Stuff
You need to be organized. A 3-ring binder or sectioned folder of notes is good. In it you should have:
(1) Notes of each scene/room you are running the characters through.
(2) Maps prepared on battlemats if you are running a combat-miniatures based game.
(3) Pregenerated characters
You should have extra dice, pencils, miniatures, and other items that your players will need stored in something that lets you hand out extra materials quickly. I use a hardware parts sorter, so I can grab my dice box, pencil box, or miniatures box when needed. Ziploc bags are also useful.
Finally, rulebooks, battlemats, and loose paper in a box that lets you store them together is ideal. Everything else you have above can fit into it so you’re mobile if you’re heading to a game store or someone else’s house! If running a game at a convention, you want a box or pack that is relatively light and easy to carry/transport to your game’s location and, at the same time, doesn’t take up a lot of space.
Do not think you can do these things the day of the game! You’ll be running around like a maniac and you’ll forget something. When you sit down with your players, telling them that you need to grab something or taking too long to find what you brought in the middle of the story kills the momentum.
#3 Set Your Expectations
At – or even before – your first game, clearly lay out your expectations. If you’re going to run a gritty modern story, want to try out some specific combat rules, tell that to the players. They can also prepare for it and make sure their characters can actively participate with those rules. If you’re building the characters, build them for maximum integration into the story. Don’t build worthless characters that have nothing to contribute in a meaningful way. The players won’t have fun using characters that feel out of place in the story you’re trying to tell.
Don’t be afraid to fast forward if something you wanted to try doesn’t work. The point is to still have fun, and sometimes resetting expectations can be the right thing to do.
#4 You Can Only Learn by Doing
Watching other GMs run games is fine, but they learned by running their own games. You need to practice. You’re not going to become a great GM by sitting by yourself and writing out stories and plots. Start running games and practice. And at the end of the game, ask your players what they thought of it. Don’t shy away from criticism if it’s constructive. You need to learn and be open to adapting your style.
Your players, and especially your friends, will hopefully tolerate your mistakes so you can learn because GMs are a very limited and typically a precious resource.
#5 Have a Backup Plan (or Sometimes the Players Just Want to be Murder-Hobos)
Players may not know what your expectations are ahead of time (such as at a convention) or will just be inflexible. This is something to always keep in mind. Sometimes players just want combat and lots of it, or something else specific. Player expectations are important too, since they are also choosing to let you run for them.
Be prepared. Have alternatives situations planned to insert into your scenes as needed. For example, sending waves of goblins or zombies at the player characters for combat or a puzzle to replace combat if the players want more investigation. They’ll usually love it and it breaks up any other difficult scenes you have planned. You’ll learn how to adapt like this with time and practice. You’re players will not feel ‘railroaded’ and the world you have created for the scenario will feel more alive and vibrant for the players.
Even doing all of this, and no matter how prepared you are, you’ll probably have some bad experiences: That grumpy player that just wants to ruin the game for the table because they’re having a bad day, or the rules lawyer who can’t wrap their head around roleplay vs. ‘rollplay’. You’ll face these challenges, but being ready to GM will give you the necessary breathing room to deal with any bumps in the road you encounter.