So you and your friends have just purchased a brand new roleplaying game sourcebook, everyone is excited to begin exploring a fresh new world with bold new characters, but somehow you have been saddled with the responsibility of being the Game Master. Maybe you're like me, and you absolutely adore being in the hot seat, or maybe this is your first time. I'm here to tell you that even though it is a daunting task, it is not impossible. If you keep a few things in mind throughout your time behind the screen, I promise you and your friends are more likely to have a great time. I've been a GM for 16 years and I've had the pleasure (or misfortune) of playing beneath dozens of others. I've compiled a list of fundamental advice based on my experiences over the years, that I hope will benefit my fellow Game Masters.
1. Be Confident: You are the one putting the hard work into crafting a story, preparing the maps, and all the other incidental behind-the-scenes stuff that the other players do not have to do and may never even notice. Believe in your ability to present this game to your friends (or the strangers at a con.) You are essentially playing the role of director, referee, story editor, conflict mediator, and cat herder, and you have to be confident in yourself. If you need to make up a rule on the fly, or edit a scene you have that power, use it.
2. Be Consistent: Make sure you are fair, and consistent in all of the decisions you make. If you decide to change a rule that is written in the book, make sure you A.) Inform the players as such, and B.) Stick with the change. Also make sure not to play favorites, every player is at your table to have a good time, make sure to engage with all of the players as equally as you can. The game isn’t fun if it isn’t fair for all of the people involved.
3. Don’t Get Married to Your Story or NPCs: As Napoleon says, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Whatever storyline or Non-Player Characters you come up with, remember that the players are going to react in ways that you did not expect or predict. That is alright, make sure you are flexible. If they deviate from your plan, that’s okay. If you roll with the punches and react with confidence they will assume it was what you meant to do anyway.
4. Respect the Players’ Agency: Too many new GM’s assume that they’re writing an interactive novel that the players have to follow to the absolute letter. This is an incorrect assumption. Roleplaying games are essentially a group storytelling exercise. Yes, you are the one who set the initial scene, but after that, it’s all reacting to what the players do. You present the scene, the players act, you react, the players react, back and forth until everyone has had a good time.
5. You’re Not Going to “Win” and That’s Okay: One mistake a lot of new GM’s make is trying to win the game as if the game is some “us versus them” activity. That is mostly false. Yes, you are playing the monsters and the bad guys, but ultimately you want to see the heroes succeed. That’s not to say you can’t slap them around a little, but at the end of the day, if all of the player characters have died and no one got to feel heroic, I’ve failed. Always be willing to pull punches if you have to, and if a character has to die, make sure it is dramatically appropriate.
6. Set the Tone: It’s important when you set out to write up your game that you communicate with the players about the tone you’re going for. You want to make sure that their heroes fit into whatever scenario you’re envisioning. Imagine if you were writing an epic fantasy Lord of the Rings style story and one of the players shows up with a My Little Pony character, or you’re trying to do a gritty 90s Punisher comic book storyline and someone shows up with Adam West Batman. Communicating the tone you are expecting is key to making sure everyone is on the same page, or even if anyone wants to play your game.
7. Feel Free to Borrow Elements from Other Stories: There hasn’t been a new story since Gilgamesh 4,000 years ago and that was a reboot if there are tropes or styles of story or characters that you love and gravitate towards, feel free to fit them into your stories. Make sure you tweak them a little, try to put your own spin on it, but there is no problem with borrowing elements of other things.
8. Have an Outline: I know I said don’t fall in love with your plan up there but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have some kind of plan in place. Players will always be able to tell if you don't have any preparation done. Even if you're a mostly "fly by the seat of your pants" GM you're going to want some idea of how the session is going to begin. It's hard getting all of these people together to game once a week or every other week, respect that effort by taking the time to prepare.
9. Know your Time Slot: I tend to think of my campaigns as a season of a CW TV show. I usually plan 24 episodes’ worth of content that are 4-hour game blocks each. You’ll find the rhythm and pacing that works best for you with experimentation.
10. Have Fun: This is a game after all. You have to put in an exhausting amount of work and you’re going to want to pull your hair out, but it should be fun for you and the players. If you enter this and let yourself have a good time I promise it will go better for you.
Bonus Advice: Communication is the underlying key to success as a Game Master. I know when you’re elbow deep in creating a dungeon for your friends, it seems like running the game is a solo endeavor. It’s really not. If you talk to your players, get a feel for what they want out of the game, and if you tell them what you want, things are going to go so much easier. This is a social activity, and a little socializing will go along way to greasing the wheels of fun.