There are things that I wish someone had told me when I first started out being a gamemaster. Stuff you only get told by someone who knows (assuming you listen) or things which you learn at the school of hard knocks. Occasionally, you can read about them if some wise and learned master (*cough*) writes them down, but most of the time it’s the first two. So here we go – ten things you should know
1. You Don’t Have To Prepare Everything
No. Seriously. You don’t. If you do you’re going to just get burnt out and that’ll end the campaign – probably in a spectacularly terrible way. No, what you do is take notes. You ask the players questions between games. then you prepare for what they’re going to do. Unless your players are jerks or uninterested they WILL tell you what they want next session. Count on it. Prepare for it. Delve into the needs as you’ve been told and go from there.
2. You Don’t Have To Put Up With Bad Players
“Bad roleplaying is better than no roleplaying.” The hell it is. If you have a toxic player who always does their own thing, never works with the rest of the players, and is constantly at battle with the gamemaster punt that muthertrucker into the void and move on. But “Christopher, they’re my friend!” Well…that does complicate things and at the same time it doesn’t. Don’t play with them. Tell them their behavior will not tolerated – but you can still be friends. Losing your entire gaming group because of one person is not worth it.
3. Get Backup From Your Players
“Théoden King Stands Alone” “No, not alone.” Your players are a resource to be used whenever you need them. A good group will happily help the GM in whatever way they need. Set up the table? Sure. Write up some NPCs. They’re down. The best players can even be roped into sounding boards for plot and it still not affect the game. Get at least one of these players and preferably make your entire group like this.
4. Listen To Your Players
When your players come up with a cool idea don’t shoot them down. Don’t get miffed. My dude, get riffed. Riff right the hell off of what they are doing. Let them be right. Toss your idea out if theirs is better. Who cares who thought of it the only thing that shoulder matter is everyone is having fun, the game is running smooth, and there is much awesome at the table.
5. Listen to Your Fellow GMs
This is important to. Get at least one person who is a GM as a “TTRPG confidant”. Someone you can talk to about player woes, scheduling problems, plots, and more. Cultivate that relationship. Being a GM is not a zero sum game. You are not competing with other GMs (unless you’re being paid for it and that’s a whole other thing.) They are your allies and you should treat them as such.
6. You Don’t Have To Use All the Rules
Memorize everything. Then forget everything. I know. Zen. But seriously. Know the system so you can infer rules on the fly then ignore the system when it causes consternation and not joy. You don’t need to use everything. You just don’t. That said do make sure your players are fully aware of what rules are in force. Nothing breeds contempt at a table faster than the players expecting rules they’re not going to get.
7. You Don’t Have To Be An Adversarial GM
It’s not you vs. the players. It’s you and the players. You’re not some deranged god playing with the lives of paper men. You’re the Admin for the Operating System for the players’ toons. That’s it. You don’t (and shouldn’t) need to be a jerk to them. You’re not toughening them up. You’re not giving them “realism”. You’re not giving them quality time. You’re just being a donkeybutt. Don’t be a donkeybutt.
8. You Don’t Have To “Challenge” The Players Every Session
Presenting a challenge to the players is part of the game. But you don’t have to do it every game. And if you feel like you do you might be ignoring rule 7. When you start to enjoy their suffering you must realize you’ve turned to the Dark Side and eventually that’s gonna lead you to be thrown down an airshaft or something. Of course, some gamers thrive on this sort of thing so this one is more like a guideline than a hard and fast rule.
9. You Don’t Have To Be Solely Theater of the Mind or Fully Tactically Mapped
There was a guy (no, I’m not linking to it) who contended that Theater of the Mind was the only way to play RPGs and everything else was lesser/other. That mindset can $%&! right off. The truth (as I have found it) is somewhere in between. “Big” combats should be mapped, everything else can be Theater of the Mind. And you’ll figure out what combination that is for your players. They may want all combat to be mapped. They might want it all to be abstract. The point here is what works for you works for you.
10. NPCs Are People Too
Sometimes players view NPCs as if they were not important or otherwise not needed except when you need to sell stuff, get stuff, etc. This could be further from the truth. NPCs are valuable GM commodity they anchor the game setting to the players and in turn the GM. They are a line of communication, a dialogue, a comm channel for the GM to give the players information in an in-game way. Abuse of these comms should be met with swift and somewhat hostile disdain. Some players like abusing NPCs. See Rule #2. A good group of NPCs the PCs can talk to is a godsend. Their roles are clearly defined and what they can do for the PCs as well as who they are as beings within the game. NPCs are important. Nuff said. The GMPC is a different problem that deserve its own post because what I have to say is contentious. Essentially, if the PCs want an NPC to hang out with and share in there adventures let it happen. It’s a good thing. Anything to make more ties from the players to the GM or world.
Picking Over The Bones
And that’s ten things I wish I knew when I was an up and coming gamemaster. Lot of long nights and annoying arguments could have been spared if I did. Now you know them. Go forth and game, my children.