Gamemaster’s Guidepost: What I Think a Good Gamemaster Is

I am forever a GM by choice. I have very high standards when it comes to the sorts of games I’ll play in for protracted periods of time. If I’m in your game more than four sessions it means you met my standards and are continuing to meet them. Now that doesn’t mean a hill of beans. There are tons of players out there and lots of GMs eager to have them, but I was talking to a friend of mine about the things I think make a good gamemaster and I thought, “This could be a blog post.” So here we are.  Just like what I think a player should be, here are the top seven things that I think are the most important in a gamemaster to get me into one of their games.

7. Creativity

Clocking last because creative GMs are a dime a dozen. It is important, no one wants to play a game with a GM who is constantly fumbling at adventure books to run their game. While that is something I can understand, I prefer my GMs to be able to create their own material or at least adapt it. I’ve done my time with GMs who just use adventures and won’t stray off the path of them for anything and I refuse to waste my time there anymore.

6. Preparedness

This is another important one…but not terribly important. Is the GM prepared for the session as they intend it? Do they have maps, spare dice, notes, etc. ready? The PCs will change things (that’s why #4 is so important). But if they are not even ready from the last week I’m probably going to be wondering why. As a player I put in a lot of effort to my GM’s games and help them as much as they’ll let me. As a GM it’s like an extra job for me (I work 20-30 hours a week on my games) and I take it serious. If we’re doing something other than beer and pretzels then you should be taking it serious too.

5. Engagement and Communication

This is a big one, and really should be higher, but hell. There are other more important ones. Is the GM engaged with the campaign? Is the GM engaged with the players? Are they communicating well? If not, why? This is probably the first thing you can notice with most gamemasters and it’s a good indicator on how they will be as a GM. Are they asking their players follow-up questions to described actions? Do they consult rules-knowledgeable players? Are they asking twice and acting once? If they are doing these things you probably got a good GM on your hands

4. Execution and Rules Knowledge

The execution of the game engine and the GM’s knowledge of its rules is important, but not important enough to get into the Big Three. I can deal with a GM who doesn’t know the rules perfectly well as long as he tries to execute them in a fair manner. Rules knowledge is also important, but can be ignored safely if the GM is moving the game forward fast and everyone is having fun.

3. Improvisational Ability

Another “big” one: A good improv GM can be…well, amazing. Sean Punch aka Dr. Kromm is the epitome of a “by the seat of your pants” GM. I got to play with him once and it was one of the highlights of my gaming career. He referenced the books ONCE and kept the game going so fast I had a hard time to keep up. That is the kind of GM you want to be. When the time comes, damn the rules and full speed ahead.

2. Consistency

Consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, but RPGs have hobgoblins so that’s fine by me. This one needs a little explanation. Consistency in a roleplaying game doesn’t mean the equivalent of fictional ramen for every session, it just means that the GM isn’t going to throw the players for constant loops every session (unless it’s supposed to be gonzo anyways). One session will lead naturally to the next and for the most part be non-jarring. So something like, “This campaign is going to be about police work in the mid 1980s and then something nuts happens” is fine, but if every session something that changed the tone and genre happened. Things need to make sense and if they don’t then things gets crazy for me and…I’d be looking for the door.

1. Logical

I like my GMs to apply a certain amount of logic to everything they do. This doesn’t need to be formal logic – just (like in #2) things need to make sense within the framework the GM is providing to everyone. Also (and this is close to #5) a good GM will look at where they are failing, apply some logic to it, seek help from their players (if needed), and then patch the campaign. So how can you tell if you got a GM like this? Most simply: do they pause to formulate a fix when something goes crazy and the players engagement goes down? What about intersession discussion of things? If they are doing this they are probably already thinking about what to do next to ensure the player’s fun is maximized.

Picking Over the Bones

Looking back at this I could probably apply a few more, but these are the big ones for me. My time is precious and I’m willing to share it with whoever asks, but my patience is not. This is one of the reasons (other than really I love to run games) I GM is because I try to apply my exacting standards to myself and my players. I don’t always succeed – but I always try. That’s the important part. The effort. I can forgive a lot of sins for someone who tries their damnedest at something and being a GM is no different for that.

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