Top 10 Tips for New Game Masters (Or GMs who have lost their drive.)

Overprepared GM


So let me begin by welcoming you to the blog. The GM tips section is going to be about giving some food to thought for GMs of all experience levels. I thought I’d start with some tips for the new GMs out there. These tips still apply to old GMs too, because I think we often forget the basics.

So my wife, Mrs.GingerFox, is starting to think about running a game for our weekly group. It’s funny, she’ll get really excited when we play, but then gets anxious when it’s time to talk about how to run and plan games.  Likewise I have many friends who, throughout the years, have often gotten really buzzed about talking about running their awesome games. Then, when asked “Cool, so when are you going to run it?” you get a hesitant pause and then some excuses. Thinking about this has made me wonder just what does a new GM, or a GM who has been out of it for a while, need to hear to give them the confidence to run with it?



So, of course, stepping into the world of Internet Blogging means the most obvious way to address this would be in a Top 10 List. So without further ado, lets see Number 10!


10. The unknown isn’t as scary as you think.

I think the biggest issues starting GMs have is anxiety about their game; the greatest reason for this is the unknown. Sure, you’ve been a player loads of times. Sure, you have great ideas. But when it comes to working out how to GM a lot of people start freaking out: “What if players don’t like it?” “What if I make a mistake?”  “What if I ruin everything?” “How am I going to run things?”

All this talk of the unknown is only going to scare you off. It makes you put the brakes on things. The worst one of these is “What if I don’t have the right answer?”

I’ve been GMing games since 2002, and I can tell you all right now there is never a “Right” answer in role-playing games. Likewise in that time I have never NOT had AN answer to an unexpected issue. What you don’t know now can be made up on the spot, even if you aren’t amazing at improv skills.  You pick a direction and go with it. And more often than not, when YOU are making things up, and YOUR PLAYERS are making things up, that is when the games we talk about for years to come stem from.

Don’t be afraid of the unknown. After all, Gnomish Merchants use the same word for mistake as they do for opportunity.


9. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

A lot of GMs tell me “My campaign is not ready yet. I need more time to prepare. I still have more campaign to write.” That says to me one of two things. Either your campaign is WAY TOO BIG (See #3) or you are micro-managing the game to the tiniest point.

A lot of GMs tell me they are afraid; afraid of giving players too much power, or not enough, or saying the wrong thing, or not being able to improv. These are all small things.

In both instances you are giving yourself unneeded stress. Trust me when I say, none of this will matter when it comes to game-day. The number of times I’ve seen micro-planned games derailed and GMs roll with the flow is uncountable. The number of times a GM decision or lack of improv has impacted a game to the point where its unplayable/unfixable is too few to remember.

Be confident in yourself and your game will run smoothly. Keep in mind The Golden Rules (#1) and you will have a great time. Most of this is thanks to our next great tip.


8. Players are almost never seeing your mistakes.

I make it a habit of asking players about the games I have ran. I think this is good reflective practice. I can’t tell you the number of times I have been walking/driving home with a friend after a game where I felt I messed up big time and asked them about it only to discover they didn’t even notice it or worse that in fact that was what they enjoyed most about the game.

Like a musician who plays a dud note, or an actor who says the wrong line, if you are confident and keep moving your audience will almost never even notice that you made a mistake to begin with.


7. You only really need to know 2 rules.

Here’s a little secret to all of those who are daunted by the complexity of rules. You really only need to know 2 rules when you begin. Usually they are 1)The minimum rules of Combat – i.e. Basic Attack, Damage and Healing. and 2) Skill Checks – How players are challenged individually by tasks. With these basics (which should appear in every game you GM) you can gm for years without learning the finer rules of a system. But if you want to learn more rules, you can introduce them one by one. It will help you learn and also slowly increase the difficulties for other players.

Additionally, most of the time, Players will be responsible for the rules they bring to the table. If something comes up that you don’t know about, ask them to look it up/show you how it works.

i dont know how to do anyhthong

6. Preparing is often your enemy, not your friend.

As mentioned in #9. You don’t need to prepare every facet of your game. In fact this can limit your game. I once played a game where a GM had planned everything in this tiny garrison which the players were meant to turn up at. He had a whole 280 page exercise book filled with diagrams, character names, items for sale in shops, alignment charts. Everything! the problem was he tried to convince our players to go there by having an NPC ask us, and we said “Um… not really. We aren’t interested in fighting a war, we want to explore.”

And that was the end of that adventure. We didn’t realise we were meant to go along. We thought we had the choice to explore. The GM then went on to use Random Dungeon charts to create a really engaging and dynamic game.

The point is that most GMs are capable of improving amazing games with minimum preparation. And most players dislike being railroaded. Put these two together and you get a pretty strong case for bare minimum planning. (Also, planning is boring. You could be spending that time playing.)


5. The things you do need to prepare are in-case things don’t go according to plan.

I’m not saying everybody should go into a game cold turkey. You may find yourself needing to prepare things ahead of time. Though usually these are things to fall back on later. I usually recommend new GMs prepare the following things before running a game.

  1. A list of random character names. About 100 of varying deliberately different names should be good. (You may also like to randomly generate celebrities/famous characters to play your NPCs too so describing characters becomes easy.)
  2. A location that can be a base of operations for your players. A town or something that players can become familiar with. This should include major businesses such as a merchant, an inn, a shady dealer, a healer, a class trainer and a big-wig who can give rewards for stuff.
  3. A list of rumours and hooks. These should be simple and vague. “People have gone missing on the mountain road” “Our delivery was meant to be here two days ago and its still not here yet.” “I swear I saw something moving in the lake when I was fishing.”
  4. A treasure list of appropriate items and rewards for players. These can be crossed off. (D&D4e has a good system for generating level appropriate gear.) ps. don’t forget to include ways for players to heal on the run so they don’t have to go back to base-camp after each fight.
  5. a random monster list, just in case you need it.
  6. One major quest idea, and a dungeon (or equivalent) for players to be directed to. All role-playing games work best with a major mission of some kind.

Everything else you can almost always wing.


4. Do some practice games with someone you trust.

So you’ve got your basic list prepared, you know how combat and skills works,  you have a major quest in mind, but you are still nervous about your first game. That’s cool man,  I wouldn’t expect you to jump in the deep end.

Grab a friend you know you can trust. Get them to knock up a character, and run a prelude adventure with just the 2 of you. Create a simple 3 room dungeon of sorts and give them your own personal adventure.

Say your player is a cleric, perhaps their superior priest needs them to go and investigate some followers of an opposing deity. They are making a camp in an abandoned mansion and trying to convert it into a temple. BAM! you now have a little adventure to GM. Likewise any player can have a single intro game.

If you do this with a person who is experienced and you trust you are going to have a great time and build your confidence along the way. Do this 3 or 4 times to iron out the kinks, then try it with a bigger group. (A good way to convince a player to help you is to let them get xp and items for their trouble. That means they get a tiny advantage when the group actually comes together.)


3. Keep the scope small to begin with.

A big problem we see in new GMs is they begin with a big idea and an end game. “I want players to end up fighting a war against the necromancers of the crimson skull and save the world from a zombie influx.” This means 10,000 hours prep time and your players are never going to be that strong in a handful of sessions.

Start small. Always!

Level 1 players need time to get to know their character and develop it. Having a small scope at first gives them this time. It also gives you a chance to see how your players actually play your game. 3 room dungeons are excellent for this. If you do a handful of quests with 3 room dungeons you are going to be able to throw a variety of enemies at them and see how they react.

It also means you are going to have less prep time required for your major missions. It also means that if something isn’t working right and you have to abandon a storyline mid-game you can with ease. Nothing is worse than throwing out months of planning.

Finally it means that your session times will also be smaller, and that means more success for you and your players, which in turn means more confidence.


2. Trust your players to drive the story.

Two words; “Yes, and…”

This simple technique has changed the way I play. When a player gives you a suggestion (or asks a question) you respond with “Yes.” then add a twist “And [something different].”

This works because players get what they want and you get something you want.

Player “Can I research to find the tapestry I saw in the vision.”

GM “Roll.”

Player “I succeed. Do I find it.”

GM “Yes, and you know exactly where it is. Unfortunately you know this because it was in a news report that tells you it was stolen. Suspects include Badguy Von Villain pants, your long time rival.”

Your players WANT to play!
Your players WANT to succeed!

Nine times out of ten, they will drive the story. (or at least, one or two players will drive the story.)


1. The golden Rules. (The GM is always right, and Have Fun.)

Finally, the best tip you can get as a new GM is this. There are 2 golden rules to all role-playing games. The first of which is Have Fun! Everybody should be having fun. Otherwise, why play a game right? The second of which is The GM is always right! Players sign up to a game because they need someone to determine if they succeed or fail. That means the adjudicator,  the one who runs the game, is always right.

This means two things. The first is that you have to be a fair GM and make sure everyone is having fun. But secondly and most importantly, Very few people are going to argue with you. And the ones who do are stopping you from having fun, and therefore doing the wrong thing.



So hopefully this post is going to make you want to go forth and GM a game. I really hope that my friends feel this way after reading it. I’m dying to be a player more often. If you have never GMed before, or haven’t GMed in a while, please consider what I’ve said here. GMing is fun and helps you understand the game better.

And always remember the golden rules: You are always right, and everyone should have fun…. Including you.

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One Response to “Top 10 Tips for New Game Masters (Or GMs who have lost their drive.)”

  1. […] my husband has written an awesome post on his site for first-time GMers, which can be accessed here. It’s a great read, and very encouraging for someone like me who is quite anxious about trying to […]

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