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First Time GMing – Doing a Job That You Don’t Know How To Do

Posted By John Arcadian On August 6, 2008 @ 2:58 am In GMing Advice | 14 Comments

I remember my first time GMing. It was after the third game I’d ever played in any system, ever. I caught the bug. I wanted to GM and do a better job than our current GM. Boy were there LOADS of things that I didn’t know. I hadn’t read enough of the powers and skills to know how to use them, I was too eager to make cool things happen, I railroaded.

Be it GMing, taking a new job, or trying to stat out the beast with two backs our first time at anything is always fumbling towards ecstasy . So in the case of GMing, how do you avoid the first time GMing mistakes?

You Don’t Avoid Mistakes, But Neither Did Anyone Else
We learn from the mistakes that we make, and sometimes we learn from the mistakes that others make. When I first wanted to GM, it was because I wasn’t a fan of a lot of the stuff that our current GM was doing with the game. The bad things he was doing were not the bad things I did. I avoided his mistakes, only to make my own.

Listen, Listen!
Listen to the players, watch the players, and try to pick up on their reactions. If you have a feeling that the game is going down a bad road then take a break and ask for opinions. The players know if they are having fun or not. Listening to what is good and bad from the people involved in the game can help you turn it around. Usually you find it is not actually so bad.

Be Forgiven My Child

If it is early into your GMing career then it is understood that you are trying something new. Players who have taken their turn in the GMing seat will understand the pressures of first time GMing. They went through them. Players who haven’t GMed haven’t tried what you are doing. They’ll catch the bug someday though, and then you can be the experienced GM looking back and going: Wow, I remember my first time.

Lower Your Expectations Of Yourself
One thing that looking back on my first experiences GMing has made me realize is that the person that disliked my first time GMing most was myself. I didn’t meet up to my own expectations, but mine were nigh on impossible to reach. I wanted to impress everybody. I wanted the standing ovation. I wanted to be a phenom. Nobody ever really does that. The best people in any field started out small and learned their way up. So aim at having fun with the game and don’t be afraid to take small steps.

So the ever popular first time question. What was your first time like? What was the one biggest thing you wish you had or hadn’t done with it? And please, please, please, try to keep the comments clean-ish!

About  John Arcadian

John Arcadian is the head of Silvervine Games, a freelance writer and art director, a website developer, a builder of sonic screwdrivers, and a purveyor of kilted mayhem. When he isn't out causing trouble in his kilt... Well, no, that is pretty much what he does when he isn't running RPGs or or trying to take over the world.




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14 Comments To "First Time GMing – Doing a Job That You Don’t Know How To Do"

#1 Comment By JohnTaber On August 6, 2008 @ 8:33 am

One thing that I like to recommend to new GMs is to remember that it is ok to ask for a short break to gather your thoughts. For example, players never do what you expect. If you need a sec to think tell the PC you want a 5 minute break, take your notes, and fix em. I have been GMing for 30 years and I ask for breaks from time to time. ;)

#2 Comment By LesInk On August 6, 2008 @ 8:37 am

Hmm … the first time I DM’d, I was about 12 years old. Yes, that was young, but I DM’d to an audience of one that I look back now am glad I had. I learned that although I may have known about the creatures, I didn’t know about all the creature powers (did I know that the monk could out run the purple worm?). It started as a basic dungeon crawl, but quickly a fictional story took form as somehow a mage vampire with special powers linked to blood sucking machines entered the scened. I look back and laugh — I was so creative. My older cousin was a marvelous friend who rolled with it and we had a fun time. But I knew I had to learn alot more and stick with the basics. I knew I needed to learn more as a player first.

The next adventure was much simpler — low level and a typical dungeon crawl with simple low level monsters. And from there, I just let it grow of its own accord.

#3 Comment By Patrick Benson On August 6, 2008 @ 8:45 am

The first time I GMed it was a Basic D&D game and it was awesome! Not because I was a wonderful GM, but because I and my players were all equally inexperienced with the game. I didn’t really have any pressure or standards to live up to. I just ran with it and the players did as well.

There were too many traps, too much treasure, and way more secret doors than needed and it didn’t matter. We just had a good time because it was just a game and the role playing was the icing on the cake. I got lucky that everyone at that first game liked being in character.

You can’t imagine how crushed I was when I started to play (not GM) AD&D and joined a group of “real gamers” as they put it. First they mocked my playing Basic D&D, and it just went downhill from there. I found another group quickly with gamers who understood that I was learning. That made a world of difference.

I learned 2 things from these experiences: 1) If the group is having fun you are doing it right and the rest is just details. 2) The people in the group are more important than the game.

My point is that I made horrible mistakes when I first GMed and no one cared, because we had fun. As a first time GM be concerned with the players (and yourself) having fun first and foremost, and the rest of your GMing skills will improve with experience.

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On August 6, 2008 @ 9:18 am

I also began GMing young [sixth grade], but I remember parts of it clearly. I didn’t have much of a plan at the time (lots of notes, etc., yes) but I didn’t really think I was bringing anything new to the table. It was just afternoon entertainment– sometimes better than afternoon cartoons, often worse.

Your advice still holds true– every time I GM for a new group or in a new system I need your four points of advice.

#5 Comment By John Arcadian On August 6, 2008 @ 11:41 am

@ JohnTaber: You are right about new GM’s not realizing that they can take the time to gather their thoughts. There is such an expectation that everything has to keep moving and progressing at every second. I think it comes from stepping over the player/gm line.

@ Lesink: “The next adventure was much simpler — low level and a typical dungeon crawl with simple low level monsters. And from there, I just let it grow of its own accord.” That is the best way to do it. Start with something simple to get the taste, then build into your own style.

@ Patrick Benson: I was a monty hauler my first few times as well. The 2 lessons you mentioned are the key things that I think of when I think of a good game. Did people have fun? Am I with people I enjoy hanging out with and whatever game we make happen is cool!

@ Scott Martin: Thanks! I didn’t even realize they fit a four point model so succinctly. Your first times sound like it went pretty well. Getting better than afternoon cartoons (some of them) is always great to do. I’m not sure some of my games are as entertaining as the latest Avatar episode, but I know they beat out Kung Fu Skunk! . . . Sometimes. :)

#6 Comment By Swordgleam On August 6, 2008 @ 2:43 pm

My first time didn’t go so great. It was early in high school, and I decided to try running a one-shot tri-stat game during lunch one day. No one else had played tri-stat, but I recall managing to explain it fairly well. The problem was that my own DM, who was fantastic but could sometimes be a jerk, happened to wander by that particular lunch. He didn’t play, but he hung around and pointed out all the things I’d overlooked. I ended up spending most of the game time scrambling for explanations.

I’d say it was a good learning experience, though. I’ve gotten better at planning realistic scenarios, and also at making quick excuses. :D

On the “be forgiven” topic, I’d say you’re spot on. I recently spent some time stuck on a broken-down train in Ireland with one of my players, and I convinced him that we should take turns running games of Toon. My normal tendency towards zaniness is exacerbated in a game like Toon, so I wasn’t the easiest player to deal with. (He had some sort of preconcieved notion about how I wouldn’t just kidnap the princess.) We got through a very fun brief adventure, and he admitted to having an entirely new respect for just what it is that I do every other week. Now I’m trying to figure out ways of conning the rest of my players into DMing even a brief, silly game, just so they know what it’s like.

#7 Comment By Daenu On August 7, 2008 @ 5:57 am

My first time DMing a game was, oh… a month ago? Month and a half tops. Before the game, while I was still rustling up players, I devoured every single GMing blog around. I think that’s the -only- reason I ended up not railroading. Much…

All through out the game I kept realizing things, like “Uh Oh, the goblin informant doesn’t have an exit strategy” and “but… she’s just sitting there…” As in our elven wizard was on night watch and she succeeded on her Listen check just when the goblin crit-failed on his Move Silently check! He dropped his short sword and cursed for minutes, then ran away, while she crawled up next to the half-orc fighter and held her knees and rocked for the rest of the night…. I didn’t know what to do. Meeting that goblin was important. Then I rememebered a post about using treasure to tell the story (link?), and had a false front pop out of the hilt of his sword with a note inside. Unfortunately, none of them spoke Goblin. I should have read the player’s sheets more thoroughly, but we statted then played that very night. Oi… At least that only took time to correct, until they could find someone who does speak Goblin.

Overall, though, these blogs (I read three daily and the rest randomly but a lot) absolutely help out the beginning DM. Thanks!

#8 Comment By koranes On August 7, 2008 @ 7:02 am

My first time GMing was my first roleplaying session ever … when I remember this days, well … It was not good, we haven’t had fun, and I thought roleplaying was dungeon after dungeon.

#9 Comment By nblade On August 7, 2008 @ 7:47 am

Trying to remember my first GMing days is hard work. That was over 25 years ago. I know was about 10 years old and I was gaming was other 10 years old. I think we had a copy of B1(?) and I think we had a copy of the old Basic Set Rules for D&D. I just remember there was a lot of carnage. I don’t think I don’t think anyone of use at the time understood that it was the GM vs the PC yet. Of course what does anyone expect out of 10 year olds. The odd thing is I still remember that dungeon’s basic layout after all these years, although I did look at it recently and it didn’t match up with my memory at all.

#10 Comment By Scott Martin On August 7, 2008 @ 10:20 am

Daenu: That sounds like great improvisation for a first time! By having the information in goblin, it sounds like your players “had to work for it”, so it was obvious as a replacement clue. Well done.

Koranes: Dungeon after dungeon can be fun for quite a while. Are you still playing, or was the unfun of the beginning a killer to playing together?

#11 Comment By draugen On August 7, 2008 @ 6:35 pm

My first time GMing I ran a (rather brief) Window campaign. It.. did not go well. Which is pretty much to be expected when you take players (and a GM) used to D&D (aka PowerGamers’r’Us – the system expects, and is arguably designed around, a certain level of uber-ness) and introduce them to Window, a system very rule-light, and ‘realistic’ (there was a limit to just _how_ crazily good an archer you might be) system.

There was a (rather decent) plot, involving a demon spirit possessing the village priest (think the video game Messiah) and mass mind control. This got ruined by the most munchkin-y player onboard – he wanted to posess this demon spirit, which i, in my stupidity, let him. This proved no end of difficulty for him, of course, but still.

Which leads me to my second time GM-ing – now. I’ve consistenly been giving my PCs either to easy victories (so i hate TPKs. Sue me :p) or way too cool loot (such as shitloads of very magic gear in a supposedly low-magic setting) or both.

Ah well – life’s a big lesson and all that. I’m at least aware of (some of) my potential issues as a GM, so I’ll know what to check for :)

#12 Comment By John Arcadian On August 8, 2008 @ 10:07 am

@nblade: You bring up an interesting idea. I wonder if first time GMing with later editions differs from first time GMing with earlier editions of a game. Since the basic D&D set had less options you were kind of locked into the play style presented. 3rd or 4th edition with many options might have a different type of experience. . . . Hmmm.

@Draugen: I tend to be like you and avoid the TPK if possible. I prefer the story to the game, but I still want to challenge them. I’ve also had issues where I let players do things that just caused complete chaos to the story. Gotta love munchkins!

#13 Comment By Aaronichi On May 7, 2010 @ 3:34 pm

My first time DMing was D&D 4e, 2 weeks ago. 3 hours before our weekly session, our regular DM dropped out indeterminately, and his alternate did not have material prepped. I had a GREAT IDEA for a campaign, and offered my services. I figured, just to get my feet wet, I’d set up a linear set of rooms and drop the PCs into it out of no where “You wake up in a blank room with a door in front of you”. I came up with a creepy Murderworld type gimmick for the first 4 encounters that were on rails. Every time they went into another room, one of the players would yell “Choo choo!”

2 sessions later, I’ve been reading how to and n00b DM posts all over the internet. I think I have to tools to give my, shall we say, creative role players an experience that will entertain and give them buy in.

#14 Comment By SavageTheDM On December 20, 2010 @ 3:34 am

My first time DMing was was about 2 years ago it was actually a test game just before I took over DMing the next day. it had a vary small dungeon with only one path to take I did not know so much about the game but I think the worst part was my not understanding of The Players freedom to do anything they want including drowning themselves inside of a room filled with a never ending flow of blood. Instead I told my player who was playing as a Goliath named Lu-kag that he could not try to open the door leading to the room they just escaped from. My mistake was telling him what he was allowed to do and not letting him do what he wanted I quickly learned from that mistake but I made another one that no one called me one for a long time and that was NOT ENOUGH preparation. I had nothing other then some sketchy dungeon and some bad guys planed before each game session and I added vary random things that did not effect the story players or world at all as well as incredibly generic NPC’s that when/if they returned acted completely different then before witch confused my players more then the reasons why they were now fighting robotic dragons instead of Half orc bandits or when they met the population of mushroom people who worshiped the warforged in my group as a metal god and moved inside of him(just like Bender from Futurama) .
My advice is this be sure to make a plan and lead your players not railroading them and work the on the things you add to the game or you will just end up confusing your players. I will also mention that You should take advice and lots of it I was to stubborn to do so for a awhile but Now i am a pretty good DM who has a deep story with awesome npc’s and Thanks to all the help I got.


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