I've been a game master from the moment I discovered RPGs. Being a writer (in my head, anyway), it was a more or less natural transition for me. That being said, there were still plenty of bumps in the road that I had to work to overcome along the way, just as any GM does. I'm hoping that this article will help those of you sitting on the fence (and those who requested this topic) make the decision to dive into the role of the game master.
This is a topic that is going to be covered in a future episode of Play on Target as well (this summer sometime, probably), but due to the requests I decided it was worth doing an article about. I am planning on splitting this article into two parts. In this week's article I will be focusing on helping those interested in game mastering but unsure where to start. Next week, I'll be discussing common mistakes I've seen (and made) in new GMs and how they might be resolved. *Note - the second and third section do contradict each other. One might work for some people, another for others. A lot can depend on the group.
Be Comfortable With the Genre
This is always one of my recommendations to newer GMs. You're trying something you've never done before, whether you're already a role player or not. It's a lot more work logistically than being a player and you may well be learning a completely new system. There is no reason you need to make your life any more difficult than necessary. Look for a game that will be a good fit for you genre-wise.
Think of the types of books you like to read or movies you like to watch. Then find a game that falls under the same heading and run that (or even a game based on an existing property you love). If you're a huge Star Wars fan, make your first GM experience a Star Wars game. If you exclusively read science fiction, then that's what you should run your first time as game master, even if that's not what your group is used to. The goal with this is you'll have less to worry about in the playing it by ear portion if you're already familiar with the setting and/or tropes of the genre than if you're diving into completely unfamiliar territory.
Run a System Your Players Know...
GMing is an extremely daunting task, particularly the first few times you act in that capacity. If you're with a close group of friends who you're comfortable with, why not run a game they all know well? That way, when you have a hiccup, you'll have people to turn to for advice. As long as you don't have any extreme rules lawyers in your group and are comfortable being told how things work (or, preferably, where to find info you need), then this can be a successful way to get used to GMing. You'll have people around you who can help you get used to the rules, which means one less weight you'll have solely on your shoulders while you get used to the ins and outs of GMing in general.
...But Really, Don't
I've run into very few groups that don't have a rules lawyer/know-it-all in them. These players can be intimidating in general. Taking into account that you're trying to to step into the driver's seat (so to speak) for the first time, this intimidation factor of having someone who likes letting people know he's better versed in the system than they are can increase tenfold.
The easiest way to resolve this issue is simply to make sure you are running a system that absolutely no one at your table is already familiar with. This works particularly well if you're following the first piece of advice from this article and making sure you are running a game in a setting/genre you are already familiar with. This puts more onto your shoulders right off the bat as you are the "expert" in the system, so anything you can do to make your prep work easier is extremely beneficial.
Get Your Players to Help
This one is pretty cut and dry. There are a lot of things generally left up to the GM that you can enlist your players' assistance with. Here is a brief list of duties that you can pass of to your players that will lighten your in-game stress a bit as well as keeping players involved in the game at every turn:
- Initiative - Hand this one off to a player at the beginning of combat. Let her take note of who has what initiative and make sure everyone knows when it's their turn to go. This person can also generally keep track of status effects and how long they last.
- Mapping - This one goes way back, but there was a time when players actually had to map out where they were exploring. Use a map that works with dry erase markers and instead of drawing the map out for them, show them where to start and have them draw it out as they explore. This will save you running around the table every time they enter a new area you didn't want to already have drawn out for them.
- Combatants - This often works better if someone isn't involved in a conflict overly much (for whatever reason), or the combat is large-scale. Let the players control the friendly NPCs in such conflicts. One less thing you have to worry about when you're controlling all the "monsters."
Run a "Beginner" Box
I put beginner in parentheses above because (as you'll see) not all box sets ideal for beginner GMs are labelled "beginner" on the box itself. These are box sets that include everything you need to play the game, simple (or simplified) rules, and generally make sure people new to the role playing hobby aren't completely overwhelmed. There are a lot of these in the market these days, some better than others. Below are a few that I feel are of note.
- Dragon Age (Set 1+) - This set works great for beginners for several reasons. It's familiar to a large subset of people who may be new to tabletop RPGs as the source material is a video game RPG. It's a simple system that doesn't take much to learn and each set adds new things to the system. For those unfamiliar with the setting, it's still a solid fantasy RPG for those familiar with the genre. Genre: Fantasy
- Star Wars Beginner Box - This one has some pluses and minuses to it. It is Star Wars, which many role players will be widely familiar with. It comes with everything necessary to play, from the special dice required for the game to a group of prebuilt characters and adventures. The system is simplified from the full version. This last, however, is also the downside, in that you can't (as of this writing) simply take the characters that you've played through the beginner box with and port them over to the full game without alteration. Genre: Space Opera
- D&D Gamma World Role Playing Game - This most recent iteration of Gamma World (by Wizards of the Coast) is probably the best (in my opinion) entry point into 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons for those who are interested. Even without taking that into account, it's a good standalone system. Again, everything needed to play is there: maps, rules, tokens, etc. It's a pared-down version of an already new-to-RPGs-friendly system. Genre: Post-Apocalyptic (and Comedic, though not absolutely necessary)
- Pathfinder Beginner Box - This one is one of the most oft-spoken of when Beginner boxes are brought up in conversation. It comes with prebuilt characters, a map, nice quality tokens (nice quality everything really), simplified rules, and characters can be easily ported over to the full game once the beginner adventure path has been completed. The really nice thing about this is for those GMs not wanting to get into adventure/campaign design, there are a ton of adventure paths available to run players through that are extremely well-written. Genre: Fantasy
Next week I'll be back with part two, in which I will discuss common mistakes I've seen (and made myself) and recommendations of how to address them.