10 Simple Rules for a New GM (Part 1 of 4)

Recently, I was talking to my youngest daughter regarding gaming and our conversation turned from online games to tabletop roleplaying.  This is when she said:  “I really want to run a game, but I don’t know how.”  I was taken aback by this as my daughter is fairly bright, creative, and a good writer.  At seventeen, she is preparing to begin her first semester of college in a few weeks and she had been playing RPG’s with her friends from high school for about three years.  Most of that experience has been with Pathfinder.

Personally, I was the DM for some Basic D&D games back when I was 11 years old.  I sucked, but I tried it and my friends at the time didn’t care.  I had tried introducing all of my kids to RPGs when they were much younger through Star Wars Miniatures.  The kids had enjoyed it but my son was not impressed with tabletop gaming when World of Warcraft was available, his twin sister was more into anime rather than gaming, and my youngest was probably seven years old those first few times.  Rather than push my hobbies onto them, I let them all develop their own likes and dislikes.  A decade later, I was seeing the results:  my daughter had not had a strong role-model as a GM and she was doubting her own ability to lead a game.

This was the first time I had regretted not giving my daughter a better foundation with roleplaying.  She had told me enough about her Pathfinder games to know that it was pretty typical of those with immature players; GM constantly tried to kill the players, he had one favorite player that was a girl he liked, etc.  But through her adolescent introductory years in the hobby she had really not had a chance to watch a good GM at work.  Granted, I’m not perfect, but I’ve had decades of my own missteps to learn something about the art of the GM.  In the moment, I didn’t have any pearls of wisdom to offer her except my confidence that I’m sure she would be great as a GM; she’s creative, good at writing stories, and she already knows what not to do as a GM.

I’ve had a lot of time now in the past week or so to think more about this exchange and I’ve decided to help out my daughter by organizing my thoughts and giving her some solid guidance on how to be a GM.  I’m sure that other gamers who’ve thought about taking on the GM role might also find some good information here.  What I’ve come up with are essentially “10 Simple Rules for a New GM.”   I feel that these rules can be lumped into three core aspects regarding being a GM.  The first four explain the “Role of the GM,” the next two concern “Creating the World”, and the final four involve “Being the GM.”  Together I hope that they result in a GM that knows the story they want to tell, can build the world where they want the story to take place, and then own it.

I will be presenting the rules here over the next three weeks.  To kick things off we will begin this week with Rule #1.  This is the first of the four regarding the Role of the GM.  Come back next week for the second installment!

10 Simple Rules for a New GM

Rule #1 – Pick a game system and genre that you really enjoy!  (Role of the GM)

When you choose to sit down at the head of the gaming table and be the GM you are, at the heart of things, making a commitment to tell stories.  The way the players and you work together to tell those stories will be within the ruleset of the game system you choose.  If you don’t already know what game system you are going to GM and what setting you are going to play in, then this will be the next choice you will have to make.  For example, I love Star Wars RPGs as I really love the Star Wars setting and I get just as much or more enjoyment from being the GM for Star Wars games as I do being a player of those games.  So, whatever game system or genre you decide to GM make certain that it is one you enjoy or, better yet, are passionate about!

As the GM you should have just as much fun as the players do.  Someone asked me once:  “If you like Star Wars so much, don’t you want to play the game too?”  Of course I do!  But I have never felt like I was suffering for the sake of my friends by taking on the GM role.  I have the satisfaction of knowing that the adventures my players experience have come from my imaginary romps through the sandbox of George Lucas.  The villains, allies, and plot twists they experience have all come from me.  When the players successfully complete a heroic session and walk away from the table giving high-fives and swapping their war stories I feel the same rush they do as I was there with them.  We have created a tale together.

I have played lots of games where I didn’t really love the genre or system; the fun was in the people I was with.  They were good games because the GM was vested in the story and that enthusiasm made the experience at the table fun for me.  It is a much worse experience for everyone if the GM is clearly not “into” the game.

Maybe the GM doesn’t know much about the system or lore of the setting or maybe the players have different expectations?  This was clearly why I’ve never been able to run super hero games.  Sure I know a lot of the lore about my favorite Marvel and D.C. heroes and I collected comics for a number of years, but my friends I played with in college all had PhD’s in Super Hero Lore.  My first and only attempt at being the GM for a Marvel Super Heroes game was an unmitigated disaster; my scenario lacked depth, the villains were woefully underpowered for the players, and I didn’t have any experience using the system.  Despite that initial experience I went on to play in a Marvel campaign for a number of years, but I never wanted to try running games in that system again.   The GM for the Marvel games I played in knew the setting, created compelling story arcs, and crafted memorable villains that challenged us.  The world was a living, breathing world thanks to the life he put into his creation.

Whether your tales will involve high-sorcery, horror, space exploration, or a dystopian future, make certain that you have found the genre and system that works best for you.  The stories you create will be memorable to both your players and you and will live-on beyond the session in your minds.  Your players will appreciate the passion and depth you bring to the roleplaying experience!



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Brian Wilson
Brian (aka Stayker) got started with RPGs playing and DMing the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (red box) back in 1979. He has played or GMed RPGs across all genres since then, but his primary focus since 1989 has been on Star Wars RPGs. His first d6 Star Wars campaign continued for 13 years of adventures in that galaxy far, far away. Brian currently lives in Wisconsin and he has a wife and three children. He has a 20+ year career in local government and previously served in the U.S. Army Reserve as a First Lieutenant. He has always wanted to be a writer and is very happy for the opportunity to write articles for d20radio.com!
Brian Wilson

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