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Eight Game Mastering Truths

It doesn’t matter who you are, what games you run, or how long you’ve been game mastering — these eight truths are universal to GMing:

GMing is More Work than Playing

Most gaming books gloss over this one, perhaps thinking that no one in their right mind would ever put on the GMing hat if they actually knew how much work was involved.

I dislike that approach — I think every prospective GM should know that yes, it is a lot of work, but:

  1. It’s not always a lot of work
  2. The work doesn’t always feel like work
  3. That work is incredibly rewarding

For Some, GMing is More Rewarding than Playing

If you don’t find GMing more rewarding than playing, you won’t be GMing for long. Every gamer I know fills one role — GM or player — substantially more often than the other. Each role is different, and each one holds a different (though interconnected) appeal.

The balance is important, though: Every GM should get a chance to play at least occasionally (it’s a great break, and an even better way to learn new GMing tricks), and every player — yes, every single player — should try GMing at least once.

This is a pretty basic truth, but it’s an important one: If you don’t find GMing more rewarding than playing, don’t do it.

GMing Makes You a Better Player

When you see the game from behind the screen, you notice all sorts of things you simply can’t spot as a player. And many of those things actually make you a better player.

For example: As a player, it’s not hard to hog the spotlight without really noticing it; as a GM, it’s painfully obvious when someone is hogging the spotlight, and equally obvious how detrimental that can be to the game. Once you’ve seen it happen as a GM, you’ll watch out for it as a player.

You also develop a different perspective by running games — the most notable aspect of which is your focus on making the game fun for everyone at the table. That translates quite well to playing, as does being able to spot when your GM is trying to make something specific (and fun) happen — so that you can move in that direction.

When Your Players Have Fun, You Will Have Fun

As the GM, once you sit down at the table the majority of your fun flows from your players. (Pre-game, your fun is largely internal: prep is all you, as is the fun you derive from it.)

If you sit down with just one goal, and that goal is “Make my players have fun,” you will succeed.

This shouldn’t be your only goal (as some of the other GMing truths indicate — for example, you need to set out to have fun yourself, as well), but this really is the touchstone of good GMing: enabling your players to have fun.

As the GM, You Are Also a Player

Being a player means that you’re entitled to just show up and have fun, too — your focus shouldn’t be entirely on the hard work that’s involved in GMing. It should also be on taking your own preferences into account.

Because while focusing on your players is a winning strategy — arguably, the winning strategy — it shouldn’t happen at the expense of sparing a bit of focus for yourself.

GMing Requires You to Be Proactive

In the most basic, traditional model of a gaming session, players are largely reactive (with much of their fun coming from deciding how to react to the unexpected, in character), while the GM is almost entirely proactive — making things happen, and then seeing what the players do.

Even if you run your games in a less traditional way, fundamentally you, the GM, are required to be more proactive than your players. This starts with prep (assuming you don’t improv exclusively) and flows all the way through the end of each gaming session.

I really wish I had learned this sooner, because I spent a lot of time early on in my GMing career expecting my players to follow my trains of thought, plot threads, and other obscure trails through the game. If I had instead assumed the responsibility of making sure that fun stuff happened, we all would have been better off.

You Will Make GMing Mistakes

The tricky thing about being proactive is that it guarantees that you will make mistakes. There’s just no way around it — when you do stuff, and that stuff impacts everyone at the table, you’re going to do the wrong thing from time to time.

The important bit is not letting your inevitable mistakes (and sweet baby Jesus do I make a lot of GMing mistakes) get you down. Feel bad, apologize if needed, make amends or retcon if it’s appropriate, and then move on.

Later, when you’ve got a bit of downtime, think about what went wrong, how it might have been avoided, and how to do better next time. Like nearly every craft, making mistakes is a fabulous — albeit painful — way to learn.

Reading Your Players is Essential to GMing a Fun Game

The absolute worst GMs are the ones who don’t care to know anything about the gaming tastes, preferences, and tolerances of their players — and don’t really give a shit that they don’t know.

This truth covers a couple of different things. It covers the GMs who are just there to tell their story, and fuck you if you don’t like it (though they would never think of their games that way); but it also covers GMs who don’t pay attention to their players during each gaming session.

When I’m running a game, I take notes about what worked and what didn’t, based on observing my players at the table. And I have a running mental file on each of them — what they dig, what they hate, what they’re getting burned out on, etc.

Number Nine and Beyond…

What other GMing truths have you observed? And do you take issue with the idea that there are universal GMing truths?

And in Unrelated News…

My wife, Alysia, and I just had a beautiful baby girl: Lark Gillian Ralya, born 2/11. We are — to say the least! — thrilled (and a bit exhausted, too).

I am also now on Twitter [1] and Facebook, and I always enjoy linking up with Gnome Stew readers.

18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "Eight Game Mastering Truths"

#1 Comment By MarioB On February 26, 2009 @ 4:56 am

All sooooo true πŸ˜‰

I think every player should at least GM for once. Even if they totally dislike it. Just to get a glimpse on what difficulties a GM has to face. πŸ˜‰

Oh and btw.: Congratulations to you and your wife!

#2 Comment By greywulf On February 26, 2009 @ 9:21 am

Amen to all that.

I can add just two more:

The more you GM, the better you will become. I have one player who GM’d once, back in 1985, and the game (for various reasons, and certainly far from his fault) fell flat. He’s never GM’d since, despite all of our attempts to get him behind the screen again. We’re sure that if he does, he’ll make a terrific GM as the depth he puts into his characters is second to none. Don’t be like our player. Becoming a GM takes practise, and being a great one doubly so. Don’t be disheartened by a few bum sessions. We all have ’em.

The more you diversify, the better you will become. Every genre you play, read or watch on TV leaves a mark. If all you DM is D&D, give a different genre (sci-fi or superheroes, say) a chance and you’ll see your D&D through fresh eyes. Perhaps those other games have mechanics you can bring to the table, or there’s tropes from the genres that you’ve not thought of before. Diversification is the mother of all innovation, after all. The more widely you cast your creative net, the bigger fish you’ll…. ok, enough with the metaphors. I’m sure you get the idea. Don’t get stuck down a single track with your gaming and the whole table benefits.

#3 Comment By greywulf On February 26, 2009 @ 9:22 am

And congratulations!

#4 Comment By Blotzphoto On February 26, 2009 @ 10:36 am

Congrats! We’re expecting our third next month…

#5 Comment By Blotzphoto On February 26, 2009 @ 10:42 am

Oh yeah.. on the GM’ing thing. I’m primarily a player nowadays. Back in the day (the teenage years) I was the GM of last resort and often felt I was doing a poor job. So when I found a group I liked where I was not needed to GM, I was pleased.

Then 4th edition came out and I nominated myself as the guinea pig GM.
Things I learned
A. Players can be really whiny. At least they sound that way when you’re on the other side of the screen.
B. I’m not the target demographic for 4th edition.

So now I’m all ready to get back in the saddle on a more full time basis, if only I can convince the group to play castles and crusades.

#6 Comment By Nephlm On February 26, 2009 @ 10:43 am

Start with a congratulations of course….

Then hem and haw about your premise.

There is a certain model of game where this is 100% true but there are a number of games where it doesn’t apply and prep is actually impossible because the players have a lot of narrative authority.

I just got back from Dreamation 2009 and played InSpectres, Misspent Youth, Coming of Age and Shock. I also run Primetime Adventures at home. In all of these games narration rights are at stake and in some of them the first stage of play is world creation so there is no prepping.

The GM is expected to participate in every conflict so that’s more work but not an order of magnitude more. I think it’s at least as true that playing a game where narration is at stake will make you a better GM.

So if we look at these less traditional games, the truths are a lot less universal

* GMing isn’t an order of magnitude more work in many of these less traditional games.

* People will feel more comfortable as GM or player but in some games the division doesn’t exist or is less clear cut.

* Playing all parts of the game make you a better player at any one of them, but again the division is less clear cut.

* Every person at the table should approach the table with the goal of making sure everyone else at the table has fun. That perspective isn’t limited to the GM.

* I agree that the GM is also a player.

* Being a player at the table should require you to be proactive, our idea that it doesn’t comes from prep heavy games where players can’t really step outside of the prepped material. A skilled GM can make a player not notice that they are so constrained but the constraint is there.

* Everyone at the table will make mistakes. That’s okay. For that matter it is often entertaining.

* Since every player should be trying to create fun for the other players, every player should be trying to read the table.

I don’t expect most people will agree with that perspective but I thought I’d inject a different approach on the subject.

#7 Comment By BryanB On February 26, 2009 @ 10:43 am

Congratulations on the new arrival. πŸ˜€

I think it is important for a GM to have an open door policy between sessions. Constructive feedback is critical to learning what worked, what didn’t, and what can be improved. I’ve met a lot of GMs who weren’t open to this type of feedback or they ignored the feedback when it was given. Some even take it personal, no matter how delicate the feedback.

As a GM, I am my own worst critic. I can take any constructive criticism in the spirit for which it is intended. That is another point. I think all good GMs realize that they make mistakes in their rules adjudication or their adventure design. The good GMs realize that the GM art is a constant learning process, which is accompanied by a whole lot of fun. I’ll second Martin’s suggestion that people who don’t have fun GMing just shouldn’t do it. But the craft is something that can be improved upon and developed over time with experience. Constructive feedback is essential to that learning process. Be open to it…

#8 Comment By Rafe On February 26, 2009 @ 11:28 am


One big GM’ing truth (for me) is: Don’t Provide the Solution (or even sometimes the result). Provide the problem, and don’t plan for what happens. Let what happens happen and run with it. The players will feel as though they’re having an impact and 3-6 players’ imaginations will trump your one imagination.

Something else that I think is really important is to get everyone in on the premise of the game. I’m talking more than buy-in. Last night was my first time playing Burning Wheel (though I’ve been “tracking it” for quite a few weeks). We did world burning and character burning (creation). It was awesome. We just dumped out ideas, added new ideas, conflicts and twists and built up our entire campaign foundation as a group. We’d all be in detox or 6 feet under had we made a drinking game out of whenever “Oh, and what about…!” was heard. We were all involved and we all have a stake in it. Based on that, we created characters as a group that would fit well or centrally within it. Four hours of fun and we didn’t roll a single die or even really play. We had the world, the idea, the struggle and conflict (tonnes of conflict) and rough character concepts/roles.

So the truth there is: Get the Players Involved In Everything to Do with the Game. (Well, obviously not secret antagonists and such GM’y stuff, though even that is often fine.)

#9 Comment By brcarl On February 26, 2009 @ 12:29 pm

Congratulations and welcome to fatherhood, Martin! I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but it will change your life. Good luck!

Um… no real comment on the topic, unfortunately. I agree with what Martin said. Yeah.

#10 Comment By Scott Martin On February 26, 2009 @ 3:36 pm

I agree with every point. I particularly like encouraging people to step over and try the GMing role– especially if you haven’t tried it much or at all. The later points in the article (you will make mistakes, reading your players, GMing requires a proactive stance) should encourage you to try GMing again, even if it didn’t fit perfectly last time you tried.

Practice does help. Like Greywulf’s example, there are some people who last tried GMing long ago. If you didn’t try it much, please try again. You might find another side of gaming to love. A [2] might be a great way to get lots of people enjoying the other side of the screen.

#11 Comment By havoclad On February 26, 2009 @ 3:42 pm

Perhaps the flip side to practice makes perfect…

I think that all prospective GM’s should be aware that a lot, if not most of their campaigns will die a quick death.

The campaigns that last will be the ones people remember and talk about years, or decades later. The many abortive attempts that failed right out of the gate will be all but forgotten.


#12 Comment By elburbo On February 27, 2009 @ 2:49 am

Congratulations! Long-time reader, first-time poster. I just had my first baby, Daria, on 2-14-09.

#13 Comment By Balam Shimoda On February 27, 2009 @ 8:59 am

[3] – Your comments certainly hold true for story games, but then very often story games don’t have a GM in the classic role-playing sense. One of them (don’t remember which, but our local story games fiend keeps rambling on about it) has one player and 4-6 GMs! My point is, these rules hold true for GMing a role-playing game. If you’re participating in a story game, you’re not a GM, so don’t whine if they don’t fit your situation.

Now there is one role-playing situation where rule #1 doesn’t fit. I find it’s actually a lot harder to play D&D4e than it is to run it. Players have way more options to keep track of than the DM does nowadays. It certainly holds true in every other game I’ve played and run, though.

#14 Comment By Nephlm On February 27, 2009 @ 10:37 am

[4] – I don’t mean to whine, just pointing out that there are many games, enough so there is a name for them, Story Games, where these GM truths don’t apply.

I specifically wasn’t venturing into GMless or multi-GM games. There is a spectrum between traditional games and story games and few games are all the way on one side or the other.


#15 Comment By Balam Shimoda On February 27, 2009 @ 10:41 am

[5] – Sorry, I just read back and realized how flame-y my prior post was. I view story games through a very dark lens because of how they nearly broke up (and did fracture) one of the best writing guilds in the Denver area.

#16 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On February 27, 2009 @ 12:13 pm

Congrats on the youngling, Martin! You will now find out just how much can be done on how little sleep.

My “GMing Truth” is that GMing makes you a better people-person. A good GM need to be sensitive enough to see what’s going on, bold enough to say what needs to be said, and diplomatic enough to say it without offending anyone.

#17 Comment By Martin Ralya On February 27, 2009 @ 4:09 pm

Thanks for all the congrats! She’s been a peach so far, and except for the lack of sleep thing fatherhood is totally awesome.

And congrats right back at you, Elburbo!

[3] – All points well taken. I have very little experience with story games; most of my indie RPG experience is with the more traditional end, like Burning Wheel.

That said, I’m familiar with the basics of some of the games you mentioned (I’ve read PtA, read about InSpectres; plus others, like Universalis), and I agree that some of these truths hold pretty well in those cases, too. But beyond that, I’d be arguing hypotheticals against your actual experience, which is never a good idea. πŸ˜‰

[6] – Amen. I wish I’d heard this advice 20 years ago — it would have saved me a lot of heartache!

[4] – With regard to 4e and complexity on the player side of the screen, I haven’t run 4e yet but having played it I see what you mean.

I heard something else about 4e that rings true not to long ago: In previous editions, the casters were the most complex, detailed classes, and fighters were the simplest option for a new player. In 4e, that’s completely reversed — “Don’t give the new guy the fighter” is pretty good advice.

#18 Comment By Hypnotoad On March 2, 2009 @ 6:41 pm

Gratz on the Daughter.

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