top of page

What does the Games Master do in a Role Play Game?

If you are a first time games master (GM) or in D&D parlance Dungeon Master (DM), and the new role play game rulebook you ordered has arrived, you might find yourself wondering what to do in your first ever game session. If so, then read this blog, book mark it and come back to it on the big day because contained within are all the hints and tips you will need to make it a success.

If you're a seasoned GM/DM, some of this will seem obvious, so feel free to skip on to the next article, this is specifically for the first time GM.


Before you start preparing your game session it's important to be in the right frame of mind, and for many the idea of running a game can be quite daunting. There are many questions that one will typically have:

* Do I tell players what to do?

* Do I tell a story?

* What do I do if I can't remember all the rules?

* What happens if they lose interest?

* How do I remember all the different things (Orcs, elves, vampires, killer robots) in this world?

* How do players do things in this game?

If you've been having any of these stress thoughts, then take a breath because were going to go through them one by one:

Do I tell players what to do?

In a word, no, you guide them through what is possible. The rulebook for a role play game will normally have specific character classes (warrior, mage etc) or races (which is a hideous word, so we here at Verse Online use origin) such as Elf or Dwarf. These enable players to create characters using dice rolls and imagination that have specific abilities and powers which are set out in the rule book. You are less the dictator of the game, ordering people around, and more the interpreter of the game, explaining what is possible and what is not. Each game has an element of randomisation or chance within it, normally involving dice rolls, which again show what is possible and what isn't. Your players are the ones who decide what to do, based on the possibilities that are open to them.

Do I tell a story?

In a word, yes, but it will be unlike any story you've told before. The last time you read a book you were engaged in a dialogue between you and the author. The author told you the story and you interpreted it in your imagination. If you have children or are in early years teaching, you've probably been the intermediary between the story and the listener, as you read the words of the story teller to your children and you both did the imagining. A GM tells part of the story:

"It is dusk when you find the small cabin in the woods, the last rays of sunlight become dimmer and the forest suddenly seems darker, stranger and less familiar. A sense of foreboding falls over the party..."

The way in which the game deviates from other forms of story telling is through what happens next. It is the players around the table who create the next part of the story through their actions and interactions with the world you have presented them with. There are certain things they can do, and certain things they can't do as we've established and you as the GM establish what is and isn't possible. Some adventures are very linear and have a series of events, one after another that players must experience and trials they must overcome, these are generally referred to as 'Railroad' adventures. The other main style of adventure creation is called the Sandbox, and this structure is much more free form. It involves creating a place for the PCs to explore, a mountain range, a city block, a tavern, and letting them wander round it in whatever way they wish. There might be an overall story to follow, there might not be, and the adventure and fun and meaning are created by the players.

Anyway, we get ahead of ourselves here, we'll come back to adventure styles again in the future.

The key takeaway here is that you are the guide in a collaborative story telling experience that is co-created by the players, guided by the game rules and shaped by some randomisation thrown in for good measure.

What happens if I can't remember all the rules?

You might as well price this one in from the get-go, you will forget rules and to begin with you might still be wrestling with some rules even when you run your first game. So what?

You will probably find that the players you start playing with are as unused to the game as you are (and experienced players will help out normally or at the very least cut you some slack). The point here is to read and absorb as much as you can before the game starts, but to relax about being imperfect once the game has begun. Certain mechanics will be used so regularly that they will become second nature to you in no time. Nobody expects perfection (and if they do, really don't play with them, it will only bring unhappiness to all concerned), they want to have a good time.

What happens if they (the players) lose interest?

Hmm, good question. Some people try role play gaming and decide after a session or two that it isn't for them. That's ok, this is meant to be fun and it isn't compulsory, if they aren't into it, don't inflict it on them.

For everyone else who likes RPGs there are reasons why they lose interest and here's a short list:

  • This isn't the genre for them, perhaps you all might want to try cyberpunk, vampires or Cthulu if classic fantasy isn't their cup of tea.

  • You get bored and they sense that. Going through the motions of a campaign each week that isn't inspiring you spreads dull vibes to others. Ask yourself whether the thing you see in others is actually how you're feeling.

  • They aren't playing characters that speak to them or they riff with.

  • There is too little challenge in the game and it's too easy.

  • There is too much challenge in the game and it's too hard.

  • They game has stopped being about what the players do and instead is about what the non player characters around the players are doing (you are telling them a story that they aren't participating in).

One possible solution is to talk to the players and ask them to tell you how they feel. The game isn't meant to be a battle for control, where you inflict something on the players, but also, you shouldn't bend to every whim:

"I would like more treasure, easier victories, and generally lots of glory"

Yeah dude, I'm sure you would (actually, people think they want these things but actually they don't).

How do I remember all of the things?

You won't remember everything in a fantasy world that you've just started to learn about. You might already know a lots about the Tolkien universe or Star Wars (there are excellent RPGs for both these universes if that's your thing). The trick is to explore the world just slightly more quickly than the PCs do. Start small and understand the world you're playing in bit by bit if you need to (very quickly, if you enjoy it, you will devour all the lore voraciously.

How do players do things in games?

In most role play games, when the players are presented with a challenge or an adversary, there are a number of actions they can take, either through combat, skills, using magic or special abilities. The players, when designing their characters, have the option of choosing different abilities, skills and attributes and purchasing equipment. They become the experts in what their characters are capable of and will often know this far better than you do. In each round (a sequence in the game where all players decide in turn what they are going to do), they choose actions to take which normally involve rolling for success. It's the outcome of these rolls that the GM interprets (compares with the rules and adds a little judgement periodically) to decide whether there has been a success and how this shapes events (and the overall narrative).

Ok, how are you feeling after that? Did we slay a few demons there? It's our sincerest hope here at Verse Online that this is the beginning of a lifelong joy for you, because role play gaming is one of the most extraordinary, fun, exciting, engaging and collaborative things you can do. If you want to have weekly updates on how to run role play games check out our new series - The Two Minute GM