5 Non-Traditional Tips for a First-Time GM

There are Endless Possibilities

I’m GMing!?! What the Heck Do I Do?

So you’ve been watching Critical Role or another live-play tabletop RPG on Twitch or YouTube, or perhaps you were at your local game store and saw a group of people playing Call of Cthulhu, or perhaps like me you were introduced to tabletop roleplaying games by a sibling. Whatever way it happened, now you’ve decided to take the plunge into the world of being the Gamemaster yourself. Congratulations! and welcome to my favorite part of roleplaying. Some people find it liberating, the ability to make a new world and to be responsible for the overall movement of the story. Whereas others have those same thoughts but find the prospect…terrifying. I have both of those responses every time I start preparing for my next session.

I think a typical first response, once you start breathing again – whether from overexcitement or dread, is to jump online and google how to GM, or hit up social-media, tabletop RPG forums and ask, “I’m GMing for the first time, what should I keep in mind?,” or watch video after video about GMing on YouTube. So when you’ve done all that, why bother reading this entry on the subject? Because I’m not going to rehash what everyone else has already said a 1000 times in a 1000 different ways. These are my 5 top suggestions for a new GM that are often overlooked but just as important.

#5 Pick a Game to Play

Okay, I know, it’s kinda a no brainer; I want to play (fill in the blank). But before you do, ask yourself this question: What sort of stories/adventures do you and your friends want to tell? There are some game systems, like Dungeons & Dragons, that are massively popular and it’s easy to find a ton of material for these systems and lots of people willing to play. And I’m not going to knock these systems because they’re popular; I just recently finished a 2+ year campaign with D&D and one of its earlier iterations is what started me in tabletop roleplay gaming. There are other companies who have used the same basic mechanics to create other genres with it, but unless you want to play high-fantasy (lots of magic and non-human creatures), combat-heavy games, you might want to check out something other than Dungeons and Dragons, 5th edition.

What genres do you like: mystery, science fiction, Victorian literature, medieval Japan? Chances are that if it has a category, there’s a rule set for it. I don’t promise it will be easy to find, but tabletop gamers tend to be passionate about things … need I say more? And just because there is a game made for a specific genre, still doesn’t mean that’s the one you should play. There are setting-neutral systems as well, such as d20, FATE, Savage Worlds, and Apocalypse being the more popular ones right now. Before you runoff, I’m not suggesting you need to do a whole bunch of research, read all these systems, and then pick one.

What I am suggesting is that by asking about genres, it gets you thinking about the type of scenarios you and your group want to play. Because you like these types of genres, you already know the basic structure. Now you can tailor your searches for games with those types of components or mechanics. When deciding on a game, remember that people play roleplaying games to have fun and have experiences together, don’t let the game mechanics get in the way of that. If your group already has a familiarity with a certain game, give it a go regardless of the genre. The more perfect system for your group’s style of game play might come later. But there are those groups that find learning new systems one of the joys of game night too.

#4 Learn Just the Basics

You’ve heard it said that it is not necessary for the Gamemaster to know all of the rules of the game before playing, and that is absolutely true. Period. Full Stop.

Okay … but what should we know before we get behind the screen for the first time or the second time or even the third time? Just the Basics.

My TTRPG Library

If you go down to your FLGS (friendly, local, game store) you will find shelves of books with rules and supplemental rules, the same is true with the digital versions you’ll find on the game publishers’ websites or aggregate sites like DrivethruRPG. When starting out, don’t go out and buy all the books, and I will even go so far as to say DO NOT buy the main core rulebook for the system. And no, I’m also not advocating going and finding pirated copies of books online either. Most modern games publish a Quickstart ruleset, which is usually free. These Quickstart games typically provide a stripped-down version of the rules, some pre-generated characters, and even an adventure to play. If you’re really lucky there will even be a section with adversaries. The abbreviated ruleset is the gold here; it’s what the publisher considers absolutely essential to running their game. So answering the question of “what rules do I need to know before GMing;” the quickset, starter rules. Also it is not necessary to memorize it either but read through it a couple of times, write down some notes about how social and confrontational actions work, as well as anything you think is a bit quirky with the game. Doing this simple process will create a general familiarity with the text so that if you don’t remember how (fill in the blank) works, you at least know the general area where you can find the info quickly. And if there is a section in the Quickstarter with at least a small number of adversaries, you have a bonus with enough material to keep you and your gaming group going for a while.

#3 Play the Clichés

The advice to ‘play the clichés’ follows along the lines of keeping things simple. It’s a popular idea currently to try and make something new, as if this is the best way for a memorable game. But let’s go back to the genre and style of stories and adventures that you and your group like. These genres have recognizable pieces and tropes that are a part of them, and generally it is these clichés that people like about the genre. With all the other responsibilities that a GM has, particularly when doing it for the first time, rely on those tropes to help you.

There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations.

Mark Twain

There is no denying that some of those tropes can be problematic with modern sensibilities, e.g. the damsel-in-distress. Go ahead and subvert it, no where does it say that it must always be a beautiful maiden who needs rescuing. But if you are running a swash-buckling, adventure someone is going to need to be saved; that someone can just as easily be a farm boy as it could be the oft-used maiden.

I’m not able to give you a full list of the various tropes and clichés from every genre, you’re probably already way more familiar with them than I am for your preferred story type; use them. These are your adventures, your overall story structure for your gaming session. Let’s take a pulp-adventure story like Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark as our example. We aren’t necessarily going to retell the story – but we can! – instead we ask what are the elements that made it a pulp-adventure:

  1. a MacGuffin that needs to be found
  2. a love interest
  3. a dangerous opponent who wants the same MacGuffin

Billy the Kid, Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill, and Calamity Jane

Add or subtract whatever you think makes the story the story. But just to go with the example, let’s say we’ve decided on playing the Deadlands RPG. We’re playing a group of Texas Rangers, who have received intelligence that Padre Juan Hidalgo is seeking the Cross of Coronado (a little nod to our source). The Padre wants to use it to raise the dead and create an army of zombies to reclaim Texas for Mexico. Recent reports are that he is in Nacogdoches. One of the Texas Ranger characters has an old lover in the city, whose mother was a Caddo shaman. We have our three main elements: the Cross of Coronado, the former lover (and possible lead), and the deranged Padre Hidalgo with potentially a horde of undead. Now just add a few locations that again play on those tropes (a saloon, a shoot-out at a corral, a jail break … you get the idea) where they find information that leads the Rangers to the cross and to the priest for the final confrontation that gives the nice ride-off into the sunset.

Is it original? Not particularly. But it gives a thrilling story for a gaming group that likes the Old West, zombies, and pulp adventures to spend a few hours discovering the cross and stopping Padre Hidalgo.

#2 Fall Forward

Remember how I mentioned up in #4 that the GM should familiarize themselves with the basic rules of the game system? I realize that it can still be several pages. I picked up recently the Quickstarter for a game called Exoria, and it has 23 pages of text for the rules and setting; for some that’s a lot to keep in mind. I know for myself that it would be easy to make the wrong call on a rule … or even worse, a player wants to do something that isn’t in the Quickstarter or even in the Core Rulebook if you went ahead and bought a copy. And that’s okay.

Bleak House, BBC (2005)

But what do you do? The game needs to go on because nobody wants to call it quits in the middle of the game. A quick thinking player might even see your frustration about not being able to find the answer and offer to change what they wanted to do. But no, there’s no reason to be intimidated about the rules. I follow the advice of Gary Gayax, from whom I’m paraphrasing but essentially, who said make the rules fit for your game. If you are uncertain about a rule, decide on it with what will be in the best interest of the character doing an action (‘Fall Forward’). As an example, let’s say we are playing the Good Society RPG and dealing with a Victorian court-drama, the player wants to argue before the magistrate that their fellow player should be let free because the police officer was prejudiced against him on account of the player character being Irish and assumed he was the thief they were looking for. The first player isn’t a lawyer, so normally they would not be allowed to argue before the judge; yet no where in the Quickstarter do you find anything allowing it or disallowing it. Let the player use a mechanic in the game to determine success anyway. They plead an elegant case and the judge decides to let the other player go, but the pseudo-lawyer will have to spend the night in jail for breaking protocol (it was Victorian England afterall!) Let things progress, let them move forward; and let the rules be betwattled.

#1 Don’t Get Stuck

Don’t get stuck sounds like a natural progression from the previous tip, and I suppose it is. I think of it however as something a little more fundamental. If something didn’t feel right with the game, its not necessary that you simply put up with it or stick with it. I’m not talking about player dynamics here – which if there are issues on the interpersonal level it’s best to talk those out with the other players right away – but with the game mechanics. Hopefully everyone had a good time and wants to have a repeat on another night. But that doesn’t mean it has to be the exact same game mechanics. If there were things with the rules of the game you didn’t like, ask the other players for thoughts and input on the game play. And dare I say … maybe pick a different gaming system.

It doesn’t take long in the tabletop-roleplaying-game scene that you come to find that there are more options out there for playing than you could possibly ever do. Each of those systems cater to various preferred modes of play ranging from the most complex, where you might want to have a Master’s degree in Number Theory, to if it sounds cool, you can do it. The rest of us usually fall somewhere on the continuum of complexity. At its core, TTRPGs are about telling stories with friends over an adventure, guided by some rules, with an element of unpredictability thrown in. So try other systems if the first one you picked up isn’t to your liking. It’s just another benefit of those free, Quickstart rules … you don’t have to sink in a lot of money to try them out. For we all know the second thing you discover about roleplay gaming is that it can be – doesn’t have to be, mind you – expensive. So before you commit to buying books, dice, miniatures, maps (again these are all great tools but not necessary), it is nice that you can test drive most games for free or at a very small cost.

And apart from everything else, and my little bonus tip; it’s just a game. Get together, throw some dice and have fun with it.

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