I am often asked What do you wish you’d know before GMing for the first time? So I will share some of the things I struggled with at the beginning and how I fixed them.
How much to prepare and what do you prepare before your games?
I found myself preparing all sorts of things that I never needed and not preparing things that actually came up in the game.
This is what I find useful to do before each game
- Have a list of the story elements that happen in the game. These are what I call game beats. Think of them like major plot points in the story.
- Have a list of important locations and NPCs for the game that you are about to play.
- Brush up on the basic rules if you are new to being a GM especially around combat, magic and how monsters work.
- Review your player’s character sheets so you know what they can do and how their abilities work. That will make your game faster because you don’t have to keep pausing to check on things.
- Review your notes from the last game if you are playing multiple sessions with the same characters. Jot down names and relevant info on NPCs, Locations and items that may be important or returned to in this game.
I also like to keep three random lists at hand:
- NPCs Names – A list of random NPC names is always useful. It means you don’t have to invent something on the spot and if you are really prepared then each NPC comes with one or two basic characteristics to make them memorable. For example Pete Bronson is a Blue Haired Dwarf with a deep voice. This is an easy way to fill the world when your players want to “find someone to talk to” or when you are describing folks in a tavern or town.
- Random non magical items that you can pepper into the game when your players loot bodies, dig in a discarded bag or fail at picking a pocket. It makes it much more fun when your rogue fails a roll to pick a pocket and pulls out a half chewed wad of bubblegum instead of the coins he was hoping for.
- Descriptive world building words. Think of 10 or so for each of these – sounds, weather, smell, visual cues – that describe the world in a way that builds the atmosphere. Use these when you are giving the players information on a new place so that instead of saying, the tavern is busy, you say – It’s hot and sticky inside the busy tavern. The gloom from the misty day makes the fire the main source of light in the room. Someone sniffles to your left then a moment later they sneeze.
How to keep players on track?
Something that can be soul destroying for a DM is when players are bored and reach for their phone.
There are a couple of things you can do to keep everyone engaged during the game.
Give them a problem to solve and make it matter. People love to solve problems when they feel like there are real stakes. When players don’t feel like a problem is worth solving then they won’t really try. This is why so many games are about the fate of the world.
Engage your players by telling them the larger things that are happening in the world. Even if their characters may not know it, the players knowing that armies are moving or a magic item was stolen will help them buy into the bigger story. It helps to engage them as an audience and let them know that there are bigger things at play. Think of it as a movie where we get to see what the bad guy is up to even if the hero doesn’t.
Let your players know what will happen if they fail at something, this ups the stakes before an important roll. If a player says to you, I want to try and jump down this cliff into the water, then it is the perfect opportunity to tell them that there are sharp rocks poking out of the water and there is a dark shape just under the water. It looks like a shark. You can aim for the clear patch of water a bit away from the rocks and shark, though, roll and let’s see what happens.
Spotlight all your players every game. Spotlighting your players means that you put a single playing in a scenario and ask them what they are doing. Make their choices matter. Make their rolls matter. It is easiest to do this when there is combat or some kind of important kills check. Spotlighting is a great way to give each player an opportunity to affect the narrative.
Take a break every hour and a half. I like to break just as something is about to happen. It makes it exciting for the players to come back to the table and gives them a little time to think about what they want to do in the scenario.
Don’t let the game go on for too long. It is exhausting playing an overly long game, so figure out how to time your games so that they are interesting but not too long. Even if players want to keep playing, it is not a good idea. Your concentration and stamina are not infinite and neither is that of your players.
What to do when you don’t know something
There are so many of rules to learn, spells to know and feats to understand that it will take you a while before you get the hang of them all. And that is totally okay.
Spend some time before the game brushing up on the rules for combat, conditions and spells that your players or NPCs can cast.
It is also worth looking up rules for situations that could arise like drowning or falling. For example, if you are going to run a game where someone could fall off a cliff or drown then look up the mechanics around that before the game. But don’t sweat if you don’t know something in the moment. It’s okay to ask the group or to look up rules. It’s also okay to make up rules on the spot.
If someone corrects you, listen and look it up after the game. Don’t get into arguments or worry about it. It is just one moment in a much larger game.
Be okay with not being great
You will improve as you go. So even if you are awful, shaky, forget everything, just remember that there is no skill on earth that people are good at when they start. You will improve as you keep working on it. It’s an important part of the learning process because messing up is all part of learning. Feeling uncomfortable is what drives you to improve and to become the best GM you can be.
Start strong and end strong
Start with a session zero and talk about
- everyone’s expectations for the game,
- introduce safety tools,
- introduce the world and the main themes of the game ,
- and build characters together or select characters if you are using pre-generated ones.
When you are discussing your own expectations for the game include things like asking people to be on time, staying off their phones, engaging. You can do this in a way that makes it more of a conversation than a lecture by saying something like – here are some things I would appreciate from you and will also do, let’s add to it as a group and come up with a list of expectations.
Safety tools are tools that help you frame stories in a way that keeps everyone safe and happy at the table. Examples of this are the X Card created by John Stavropoulos and Lines and Veils which first appeared in Ron Edwards’ Sex and Sorcery supplement for RPG Sorcerer. Both are easy to look up and find information about. Here’s the list of Lines and Veils that I use for my table.
I find it useful to introduce the world and the themes before you build or choose characters. For example, here’s an overview of the world in terms of the climate, the economy, major centres or even the town or area where the players are from. This allows players to get a context to the game so they can pick characters they will enjoy playing and come up with backstories that are easier to link into the game.
End with each game session with an end of session discussion about the game. I find it useful to get feedback from players by asking questions like
- What was your favourite moment for your character?
- What did you enjoy more, the role play or the combat and why?
- What was your favourite moment for one of the other characters?
- What do you hope to see more of in future games?
The answers to these questions lets you know where to focus your attention when you play again in the future. I am a big believer in really focusing on what you are good at and making that muscle even stronger so if folks love your descriptions of places then really hone that skill. If people love the NPCs in your world then give them amazing NPCs to interact with.
I know that a number of GMs do the highlights and lowlights or thorns and wishes things at the end of a session. I find that asking folks what they didn’t like very rarely works as one hopes it would. Generally it either has them focusing on the negative which can make the GM feel bad or it just makes people feel awkward because they don’t want to say anything.
If you build trust with your players and let them know that they can come to you one-on-one if there is an issue. And by letting them know that they can do that you open up a safe space where they can talk about issues without doing it in front of other players.
I hope that helped you all in your quests to become great GMs and answered the burning question of What Do You Wish You’d Know Before GMing for the First Time. If you enjoyed this content then keep coming back for our thoughts and ideas on table top role playing games.