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How to be an amazing GM

Updated: Mar 9



Introduction


Embarking on the journey of a Game Master (GM) or Dungeon Master (DM) for the first time can be a thrilling yet daunting endeavour. It's a role that holds the key to worlds of adventure, mystery, and endless possibilities, where the stories you and your players create together become memories that last a lifetime. This article is designed as a beacon for those about to step into the role of GM or DM, providing you with essential insights, tips, and strategies to navigate your first game session with confidence and creativity. Whether it's mastering the rules, setting the scene, or responding to the unpredictable choices of your players, we've got you covered. Prepare to unlock the secrets to a successful and memorable debut in the world of role-playing games


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.





Understanding Your Role


The role of a Game Master (GM) or Dungeon Master (DM) in tabletop role-playing games is multifaceted, combining elements of storytelling, adjudication, and facilitation to create an engaging experience for the players. At its core, the GM/DM's role is to serve as a guide, not a dictator, steering the narrative and the world in which the players operate, while simultaneously ensuring that the players' decisions and actions drive the story forward.


A key aspect of understanding your role as a GM/DM is recognizing the importance of player agency— the players' ability to make choices that significantly impact the game's direction. Balancing player agency with the need to maintain a coherent narrative is one of the most challenging aspects of the role. The GM/DM must craft a world that responds to the players' actions in a meaningful way, allowing them to shape the story through their decisions while guiding them within the bounds of the game's universe​​​​.


This balance requires flexibility and creativity from the GM/DM. It's essential to prepare a framework for the adventure that accommodates various paths, ensuring that players feel their choices matter. At the same time, the GM/DM must be ready to improvise when players take unexpected turns, weaving their actions back into the narrative to keep the story cohesive and engaging​​​​.


Effective GMs/DMs listen to their players, adapting the story and challenges based on the group's interests and actions. This dynamic storytelling approach creates a collaborative atmosphere where the players and the GM/DM are co-creators of the game's narrative. It's a delicate dance between guiding the players through a preconceived plot and allowing them enough freedom to explore and impact the world in their own unique ways​​​​.


In summary, understanding your role as a GM/DM means embracing the role of a guide who facilitates the story, encourages player agency, and adapts to the unfolding narrative. It's about creating a rich, responsive game world where the players' choices lead to meaningful consequences, enhancing the overall experience for everyone involved.


Mindset


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, or in the Arcverse, a Fey or a Firg


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.


Example


In the session "Mysteries of Eldoria," the GM, Alex, planned an adventure for their players set in the mythical land of Eldoria. Initially, Alex prepared a detailed plot where the players were expected to follow a specific path to uncover the lost artifact of Eldor. However, as the session unfolded, Alex noticed the players seemed less engaged, merely following the breadcrumbs without real involvement in the story's direction.

Recognizing the issue, Alex shifted their approach. Instead of telling the players what their characters see and do next, Alex started posing questions like, "As you stand before the ancient ruins of Eldor, what do you wish to explore first?" and "The village elder has pleaded for your help; how does your character respond?"

This subtle change transformed the dynamic of the game. The players, now empowered to shape the narrative, began discussing amongst themselves, strategizing, and taking initiative. One player, intrigued by the lore of Eldor, suggested they visit the local library to research the artifact's history, a move Alex hadn't planned for but seamlessly integrated into the story.
The session became a lively exchange of ideas, with players actively contributing to the unfolding mystery. Alex guided the adventure with gentle nudges, ensuring the players' decisions remained central to the narrative while still steering them towards critical plot points, like encounters with rival adventurers and clues about the artifact's location hidden in ancient texts.

By the session's end, both Alex and the players felt a deeper connection to the story they co-created. Alex learned the value of guiding instead of dictating, understanding that a GM's role is to facilitate an engaging and responsive game environment where player agency thrives. This approach not only made the game more enjoyable for the players but also for Alex, who found joy in the unpredictability and creativity of collaborative storytelling.




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.


Wait, how do I tell a story?


How does anyone tell a story or a joke or fireside tale? In each instance we know what the destination is, the payoff, the punchline, and in many ways the role play game is similar. We know where we're tying to get to and what they payoff should ideally look like.


The only difference is that we're guiding the players there, to the puzzle, the final battle, the heist, the negotiation, the search through ancient lore - when they get to the place we want them to reach it's the players that create the payoff, the GM just sets things up.

Start by vividly setting the scene for your players, just as you would describe the opening of a novel or a scene in a movie. Use descriptive language to paint the picture of the environment where the adventure begins. For example, "You stand at the edge of the Whispering Woods, where the trees sway as if sharing ancient secrets. The path ahead is shrouded in mist, and an eerie silence blankets the air."


Example


In the fantasy RPG scenario "The Curse of the Crimson Throne," the Game Master (GM) sets the stage for an epic adventure where players are tasked with uncovering the source of a mysterious plague ravaging the city of Eldoria. The GM knows the destination: confronting the corrupted sorceress responsible for the plague in her hidden fortress.


Setting the Scene

The GM begins by describing the dire situation in Eldoria, with citizens falling ill to the unknown plague. The players, forming a group of diverse characters, are recruited by a secretive guild that suspects magical foul play.


Guiding to the Puzzle

Through clues gathered in their journey, the players learn about an ancient artefact that could reveal the sorceress's location. The GM guides the players to an ancient, rune-covered obelisk deep in the Eldorian forests, leaving it to the players to decipher the runes. The puzzle-solving process is player-driven, with the GM providing hints only when necessary.


The Final Battle

Upon solving the puzzle, the players discover the entrance to the sorceress's fortress. The GM describes the ominous setting and the guardians that stand in their way. The players strategize and decide on their approach, leading to a climactic battle that is dynamic and shaped by the players' tactics and decisions.


The Heist/Negotiation

In a twist, the players learn that the sorceress can only be defeated by destroying the source of her power—a crystal hidden within the fortress. They must choose between a direct confrontation or a stealthy heist to steal the crystal. Optionally, they could attempt to negotiate with the sorceress, offering a chance for redemption.


The Search Through Ancient Lore

Throughout the adventure, the GM sprinkles hints of an ancient lore that explains the sorceress's fall from grace. This backstory enriches the narrative and offers players a deeper understanding of their adversary. It's through the players' initiative to piece together this lore, leading to a richer payoff when they finally confront the sorceress, armed with knowledge that could sway the outcome.


The Payoff

The payoff is multifaceted and created by the players: the method they choose to confront the sorceress, the use of knowledge gathered throughout the adventure, and the culmination of their strategies and decisions. The GM's role is to facilitate these moments, ensuring the setup allows for a satisfying conclusion that feels earned by the players' actions.

This example illustrates how a GM guides players through an RPG, setting up the framework of the adventure while leaving the actual creation of the story's payoff to the players' decisions and creativity.




Facilitating Player Engagement

Engage your players by making them active participants in the story. Encourage them to describe their characters' actions and decisions in response to the scenarios you present. This could involve asking them, "How do you approach the mysterious figure standing by the roadside?" instead of telling them what happens next. This approach empowers players to contribute to the narrative, making the experience more immersive and collaborative.


What Creates Engagement

  1. Intrinsic Motivation: Players are more engaged when they find the game intrinsically rewarding, rather than playing for external rewards. This aligns with self-determination theory, which highlights autonomy, competence, and relatedness as key drivers of intrinsic motivation​​. Actionable Advice: Give players autonomy by allowing them to make significant choices that affect the game world and their character's story. Design challenges that are closely matched to the players' abilities to foster a sense of competence. Facilitate relatedness by encouraging teamwork and character relationships within the story.

  2. Challenge-Skill Balance: Engagement thrives when the difficulty of the game's challenges is in balance with the players' skills, a concept central to Csikszentmihalyi's flow theory​​. Actionable Advice: Tailor challenges to match the party's level and abilities. Offer varied difficulties and let players choose their path, enabling them to seek optimal challenges.

  3. Social Interaction: The social aspect of RPGs, from collaborative storytelling to shared victories, is a significant engagement factor, emphasizing the importance of group dynamics and social learning theories​​​​. Actionable Advice: Encourage player interaction both in and out of character. Use NPCs to engage players in meaningful dialogue and create situations that require player collaboration to solve.

  4. Meaningful Choices: Offering players meaningful choices that have visible consequences in the game world supports the psychological need for autonomy and reinforces the player's impact on the game narrative​​. Actionable Advice: Present dilemmas that have no clear right or wrong answer but have significant consequences on the story. Allow player decisions to shape the game world and the narrative in noticeable ways.


What Kills Engagement

  1. Excessive Control: Micromanaging player actions or over-relying on railroaded storylines diminishes autonomy, leading to reduced motivation and engagement​​. Actionable Advice: Avoid strict adherence to predetermined outcomes. Adapt the story based on player actions and decisions, even if it leads in unexpected directions.

  2. Lack of Relevance: Content that feels irrelevant to the players or their characters can disengage them, as it fails to meet their need for relatedness and significance​​. Actionable Advice: Tailor the game's themes, challenges, and storylines to align with the interests and backstories of the characters. Incorporate elements from each character's background into the main narrative.

  3. Poor Pacing: Dragging narratives or excessive downtime can bore players, while non-stop action can overwhelm them, disrupting the flow of engagement​​. Actionable Advice: Monitor the pacing of your sessions. Alternate between action, exploration, and character-driven scenes to maintain interest and allow for character development.

  4. Social Disconnect: A lack of cooperation or conflicting player goals can erode the social foundation of RPGs, leading to disengagement​​. Actionable Advice: Foster a cooperative team dynamic and address conflicts between players promptly. Encourage players to set common goals and work together towards



Balancing Structure and Flexibility

While it's important to have a plot in mind, be prepared to adapt based on player choices. This means having a flexible approach to storytelling, where you can modify the story's direction in response to unexpected player actions. If your players decide to befriend a character you intended as an antagonist, for instance, be open to rewriting that character's role in the story.


Balancing structure and flexibility in role-playing games is a delicate art that requires understanding the dynamics of storytelling and player interaction. A well-structured story provides a framework that guides the narrative, ensuring there's direction and purpose. However, too rigid a structure can stifle creativity and player agency, turning the game into a passive experience rather than an interactive adventure. On the other hand, too much flexibility without enough structure can lead to a lack of focus and direction, making the game feel aimless and unsatisfying.


Incorporating Player Actions into the Story

One of the core aspects of balancing structure and flexibility is incorporating player actions into the story in meaningful ways. This involves listening to the players and being attentive to their goals and motivations. For instance, if the players express interest in exploring a part of the world you hadn't fleshed out, consider developing that area and integrating it into the narrative. This shows the players that their actions have a real impact on the world and the story.


The Importance of Improvisation

Improvisation is a key skill in managing the balance between structure and flexibility. Being able to think on your feet allows you to adapt the story to unexpected player decisions or outcomes of dice rolls. Improvisation doesn't mean pulling ideas out of thin air; it often involves recontextualizing existing narrative elements in new and interesting ways. For example, if players unexpectedly ally with a minor villain, you might improvise a redemption arc for that character, weaving their motivations and backstory more deeply into the main plot.


Setting Boundaries While Encouraging Exploration

Setting clear boundaries is crucial for maintaining balance. This doesn't mean limiting player freedom, but rather clarifying the scope of the story and the world. Boundaries help manage player expectations and provide a coherent framework within which they can explore freely. At the same time, encourage exploration within these boundaries by presenting multiple paths and choices that all lead to meaningful outcomes. This way, players can shape their journey while staying aligned with the overarching narrative.


Adaptive Storytelling Techniques

Adaptive storytelling involves adjusting the narrative based on player choices and developments within the game. This could mean altering the fate of key characters, changing the political landscape of the game world, or introducing new story arcs that follow the players' interests. The key is to remain open to change and to view the story as a living, evolving entity rather than a fixed script.


Collaborative Narrative Building

Finally, consider the storytelling process as a collaboration between the GM and the players. Invite players to contribute ideas for the story or to develop aspects of the game world. This collaborative approach enriches the narrative and deepens player investment in the story. It also distributes the creative load, making it easier for the GM to adapt and improvise as the game progresses.

Balancing structure and flexibility is about creating a dynamic narrative space where the story can grow and change in response to player actions without losing coherence or direction. By mastering this balance, GMs can create deeply engaging and memorable role-playing experiences that players will cherish.



Creating Dynamic Encounters

Introduce encounters that challenge players and drive the story forward. These can be combat situations, puzzles, or moral dilemmas that require the players to make difficult choices. Design these encounters to reveal more about the story world and the characters' place within it. For example, a battle with a group of bandits might lead to discovering a map to a hidden treasure, or a conversation with a dying soldier might reveal crucial information about the enemy's plans.


Leverage the Environment

The setting of an encounter can significantly impact its dynamics. Use the environment creatively to add layers of complexity and strategy. For example, a combat encounter in a crumbling ruin might feature falling debris, requiring players to dodge hazards while battling foes. Alternatively, a confrontation in a crowded marketplace could involve navigating through panicked civilians, adding a layer of urgency and moral consideration​​.


Introduce Time Pressure

Adding a time element can heighten tension and force players to make decisions under pressure. This could range from a ticking bomb that must be defused to a ritual that must be stopped before it's completed. Time pressure encourages quick thinking and can lead to unexpected solutions from players​​.


Vary Encounter Objectives

Beyond "defeat all enemies," consider encounters with varied objectives. For example, protecting a key NPC during an ambush, securing a specific item in the midst of chaos, or even escaping from an overwhelming force. These objectives can make encounters more memorable and encourage players to think creatively​​.


Implement Moral Dilemmas

Introduce encounters where the challenge isn't just physical but moral. Players could be faced with decisions that have no clear right or wrong answer, affecting the game world and their characters' development. Moral dilemmas deepen the narrative and can lead to rich character moments and discussions​​.


Use Multi-Stage Encounters

Design encounters that evolve in stages, each with its own challenges and objectives. For example, an initial skirmish could lead to a chase, culminating in a final standoff in a unique location. Multi-stage encounters keep players on their toes and prevent combat from becoming monotonous​​.


Incorporate Puzzles and Riddles

Not all encounters need to be combat-oriented. Puzzles and riddles can serve as engaging encounters that test players' problem-solving skills and knowledge of the game world. Integrating these elements can provide a change of pace and allow for different types of player engagement​​.


Encourage Player Creativity

Reward creative thinking and unconventional approaches to encounters. If players come up with a clever solution that you hadn't anticipated, be open to letting it succeed if it makes sense within the context of the game. This reinforces the idea that the players are active participants in shaping the narrative​​​​.

Dynamic encounters are at the heart of memorable RPG sessions. By incorporating these strategies, Game Masters can create experiences that challenge players in diverse ways, enriching the story and the players' connection to the game world.


Encouraging Collaboration and Co-Creation

Remember, storytelling in RPGs is a collaborative process. Invite your players to contribute ideas for the story's direction or for subplots involving their characters. This can be done through session zero discussions, where players express their characters' goals and backgrounds, or through in-game decisions that significantly impact the narrative.

Incorporating Feedback and Evolution

After each session, solicit feedback from your players about what they enjoyed and what they'd like to see more of. Use this feedback to adjust your storytelling approach, ensuring that each session is engaging and enjoyable for everyone involved.

In essence, telling a story as a GM is about guiding your players through a shared narrative, creating a space for them to explore, interact, and contribute to the unfolding adventure. By setting the scene, engaging players, balancing structure with flexibility, creating dynamic encounters, encouraging collaboration, and incorporating feedback, you can craft a memorable and enjoyable experience for everyone at the table.


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.


If you find yourself as a Game Master (GM) struggling to remember all the rules during a game session, here are five key tips to help manage the situation and maintain an enjoyable experience for everyone involved:


  1. Lean Towards Player Success: When in doubt about a rule, lean towards a decision that favours player success or progress. This approach maintains the game's momentum and ensures that the session remains enjoyable. Acknowledge the uncertainty and make a note to revisit the rule after the session .

  2. Use a Cheat Sheet: Prepare a cheat sheet or quick reference guide with the most commonly used rules, as well as those specific to your players' characters' abilities and spells. This can help minimize disruptions during the game and speed up rule checks .

  3. Delegate Responsibilities: Encourage players to become experts on the rules relevant to their characters. This not only helps distribute the load of remembering rules but also encourages players to be more engaged and invested in the gameplay. You can designate a player as the 'rules consultant' for quick clarifications .

  4. Improvise with Confidence: If a rule escapes you and looking it up would halt the game's flow, don't be afraid to make an on-the-spot ruling. The key is to keep the game moving and ensure everyone is having fun. After the session, you can look up the rule and clarify it for future games .

  5. Follow Up Post-Session: After the game, take some time to review the rules you were unsure about. This can be done solo or with the group, depending on the nature of the uncertainty. Use this as a learning opportunity to clarify rules for future sessions and to correct any misinterpretations that may have occurred .

Remember, the goal of role-playing games is to create memorable stories and experiences. While rules are important for structure and fairness, they shouldn't hinder the creative flow or enjoyment of the game. Embracing flexibility, being prepared to adapt, and maintaining open communication with your players can turn even uncertain moments into opportunities for growth and fun.


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:

Maintaining engagement in RPGs is crucial for a fulfilling experience for both the Game Master (GM) and the players. Here are expanded insights and solutions for common reasons players may lose interest:


Genre Mismatch

Players may discover that the genre of the RPG doesn't captivate their interest. This mismatch can be addressed by exploring different genres within RPGs. For instance, if classic fantasy doesn't resonate, shifting to cyberpunk, vampire-themed games, or even Lovecraftian horror (Cthulhu mythos) might rekindle their enthusiasm. The key is to communicate with your players to understand their preferences and be willing to explore different settings that might better align with everyone's interests.


A GM's Lack of Enthusiasm

's enthusiasm is contagious; if you're not excited, players will likely sense it and mirror that disinterest. To counteract this, GMs should choose campaigns and themes that they are genuinely excited about. Additionally, engaging in regular self-reflection to identify and address any burnout or lack of inspiration is important. Sometimes, taking a short break or alternating the role of GM among the group can revitalize the game for everyone.


Character Disconnection

When players can't connect with their characters, engagement suffers. Encouraging players to develop backstories, motivations, and goals for their characters can increase investment. Additionally, incorporating elements from each character's background into the main narrative ensures that players feel their characters have a stake in the story and actions.


Challenge Imbalance

Balancing the game's difficulty is crucial. If the game is too easy, it might not feel rewarding. Conversely, if it's too hard, it can become frustrating. Adjusting the difficulty based on player feedback and observing their reactions during sessions can help find the right balance. Introducing varied challenges that require different approaches can also keep the game interesting and cater to different player strengths.


NPC-Centric Narratives

When the game feels like it's more about the NPCs than the players, it can lead to disengagement. To avoid this, ensure that the players' actions and decisions significantly impact the game world and its inhabitants. The story should adapt based on the players' choices, making them feel like the protagonists of the story, rather than just observers.


Open Communication

Finally, maintaining open lines of communication is paramount. Regularly check in with your players to gauge their feelings about the game. Constructive feedback sessions can reveal issues that might not be immediately apparent and provide valuable insights into improving the game. Remember, the goal is to ensure that everyone is having fun and feels involved in the collaborative storytelling process.


By addressing these common concerns, GMs can significantly enhance player engagement and enjoyment, leading to a more rewarding experience for everyone involved in the RPG.



"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?


Almost all role play games use a system of rounds (terms differ from game to game), but it basically describes a short space of time where action happens, players make decisions and use combat and non combat skills.


In D&D a round is about six seconds, where each player in a party can take an action (cast a spell, fire an arrow, move to confront an opponent etc). Who goes first in the round is a very important question and so each combatant (the monster played by the DM, the players and any non player characters), roll to see the order of combat.


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


Here are some other articles that you might enjoy on NPCs, world building, GMing and the like:


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