Many moons ago, when an old Hollywood actor was serving his first term in the White House and Han Solo was frozen in carbonite, I learned how to play Dungeons & Dragons (Moldvay) with an older friend. He ended up being Dungeon Master most of the time; I only filled in when he was unavailable or I wanted to run a new published adventure that I’d just purchased.

Martin’s recent article caused me to reflect that it was my first GM, rather than any setting, that really shaped how I ran games. In some cases I aped what he did; in others I specifically did the opposite. Here are a few of the major ways that my first GM shaped my style:

Short Campaigns – My first GM ran long campaigns that ended only when we’d gotten bored of the characters. I went through four generations of a family during my first AD&D campaign. Still, in spite of the longevity, nothing seemed particularly epic or memorable about the characters. When I took the reins, I deliberately aped James Bond movies (opening with an unrelated action scene) and tight plots to keep things moving and ensuring that my campaigns ended with the players wanting more.

No GM Avatars – My first GM always had his own PC traveling with the party. Worse, the GM Avatar often hogged the glory. His Avatar was always the best at what he did and often rode in like the cavalry to save us at the climax of an adventure. He’d admitted to me that this was largely because he wanted to play more and was always stuck GMing, but I make a point of not creating a GM Avatar for my campaigns.

Soap Opera – I learned to play RPGs at the tail end of 9 years old; my parents expected me to play outside most of the time. As a result, a lot of our games had to be run outside, where it wasn’t convenient to carry around dice, books, and character sheets (and we didn’t have any of them new-fangled tablets!). Thus, my first GM adapted and ran more personal plots and subplots that involved deep role-playing and less dice rolling. That stayed with me and even today I tend to pepper my campaigns with interesting NPCs and juicy subplots.

Trying New Systems – My first GM hated learning new systems and would rather shoe-horn new ideas into the one or two systems with which he was familiar. That left me with a bunch of games he’d never run, so I did. As a result, I love trying out new systems and see how they affect the play style at the table (although I did go through a “let’s make everything GURPS” phase in the 90s, so perhaps this one took more time to develop).

Fudging – This goes a bit hand-in-hand with the Soap Opera, and for many of the same reasons. My first GM didn’t hesitate to fudge things, usually for our PCs to come out on top. I’ve incorporated a “soft mechanics” stance in my own style and often fudge rules or let things slide in order to keep the game moving and entertaining.

So how about you? Is there a GM that shaped your style in some way? Did you incorporate her style, reject it or simply admire it? Have you ever tried to emulate a style and it just didn’t work, or make something work that your first GM couldn’t?

Walt Ciechanowski

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.

10 Responses to How My First Game Master Shaped My GMing Style

  1. I was also more influenced by the people I played with than the settings I played in. In some ways, it’s the fault of my early GMs that it took so long for me to step up to the plate as a GM. There was a subtle sexism there, automatically assuming that as a girl I wouldn’t or couldn’t GM, but there was also an egotism in both of them that built what they brought to the game into this sacrosanct, magical thing. This isn’t to say either of them are bad guys, but it was what it was.

    Years later, with the encouragement (“So when are you going to run a game?”) of a different group of players, I finally stepped behind the GMs screen. I do find myself influenced by those original two GMs, though.

    With my very first GM, I developed an aversion to random, meaningless character death. Without intending to be mean to the players, he often stacked the deck against the PCs and death was a common occurrence. Not an unusual thing back in the late 80’s, but still something I came to hate. He was very good at bringing a sense of humor and whimsy to the table, though, and I’ve always liked bringing a bit of laughter to the game.

    The second GM had a tendency to start campaigns that the players would get really excited about and then drop them abruptly. I hated having so many unfinished stories for my characters. As a GM, I haven’t always been successful in completing a campaign, but it’s something I do try and keep in mind. The good stuff I got from him, though, is having character driven stories in the game. There were a reason his players were always excited about their characters – they mattered. That was probably one of the most valuable lessons I picked up from him.

  2. My first GM didn’t really count as it was one off session that was just for me to get into the idea of role playing. My first campaign GM was certainly a very big influence on me, and my playing/GMing style. He ran a sandbox styled Cyberpunk 2020 game, with the emphasis on player lead action and NPC interaction, with combat being a bit more cinematic than the rules allowed, and usually over pretty quick to get back to the fun stuff.

    Although I now use combat as a role playing tool, and thoroughly enjoy the descriptive aspects of it, everything else comes from this guy. Heck, my next campaign is going to use the CP2020 rules, take place in a huge sprawling city, and focus on exploration and interaction above combat.

  3. I actually think it was my 2nd game master and not my first who influenced by style of GMing the most. For my first game during high school I wasn’t really self aware enough to notice anything about it and I didn’t start GMing until I was playing with the second guy anyway.

    But, he had a strong influence on the way I describe encounters and in making games feel more like action movies than board game movement.

    Though I did get some bad habits from him as well, like the GMPC, and uber rail-roadyness when things didn’t go my way. I’ve since corrected those mistakes and have had great games because of it.

    I had a chance to game with that same GM after I got back from college. His style hadn’t changed at all and because we wouldn’t go for his super convoluted plots when all we wanted to do was shoot stuff (in Shadowrun) and do some John Woo action the game never went anywhere and fizzled, with some hurt feelings in the process.

    Just as illustration, I had a character I ran in the game since I started, a Physical Adept, I ran him for 1 year in high school and then two years after I returned from college. In that time I never ever got a call back from any of my contacts.

  4. My first GM was seemingly a system master with 1e speaking with the confidence that his rulings were accurate and appropos, even if they truly weren’t (though most often correct.)

    He never ran a GMPC, as he’d taught me, there are too many roles to play as it is with monsters and NPCs – no time, nor no reasonable concept for the GM to run a PC as well.

    Fudging was avoided if possible – meaning there are times when the dice roll truly ruins a plot or an upcoming battle, so in very rare cases, the GM fudged. But this happened so seldom, it was never caught by the PCs. Most cases fudging is in favor of the party, but rarely the villain or monster got the fudge.

    I didn’t move on to other systems until I joined the army and left home – in the mid 80’s, when that great experiment began. After 4 years of dabbling, when I returned home, 2e was the system, and due to not wanting to try new systems (by the other players in the group) we stuck with D&D exclusively and played on for the next 20 years.

  5. First GM? Yep, those games Clive ran inform almost all of my attempts since then.

    GM Avatars? You mean Gandalf? Hooray for Gandalf and the Riders of Rohan, who follow Gandalf!* 8oD

    I can sympathize, but these days it is better to pick an easy-adoption system (Savage Worlds is my EOS of choice) and get a rotating-GM game a-going than insert GM Avatars into the game.

    Besides, the GM gets to play Wild Card villains and they are much more fun than PCs because WCVs can see the scenario notes and the giveaway side of the GM screen. 8oD

    * One for the old DM of the Rings fans out there.

  6. My very first GM was for 4e and it was a short game. I didn’t really learn much from him other than 1) keep party size manageable (we had 14 PCs once) and 2) having a player step up for a leader role is awesome (not mechanic leader, but to help keep the group on task and moving).

    My first “real” campaign GM taught me a few important lessons:
    1) Your fun is more important than the party’s
    2) Deus Ex Machina to save a villain is fine, especially if it instantly defeats all the party’s work, prep, spell selection and contingency plans based on reasonable expectations of enemies
    3) They HAVE to save the world, even when powerful mages and knights give quests to a middling party.
    4) Saying your party is a freelance mercenary group means that they should just follow your carrot
    5) Not answering questions you didn’t anticipate is best so you don’t look like they caught you off guard
    6) NPC should act like dicks, even allies and friend
    7) ALWAYS seek to ruin the spell selection of your party, sorcerer with only wide range spells- nothing but corridors!

    It goes on, but you get the point. So I took those lessons as what not to do since I hated being railroaded and having our party basically treated like crap. I like much more character driven games and lots of ways for the party to influence the world. I think it is this desire that drove me to Burning Wheel and enjoying it so much. In other games, trying to bring the character’s desire to the game is important to me. All due to the above lessons.

    Also, if your in Eberron and ex-soldiers being asked to do stuff by the archmage of Aundair (who can kick your whole party’s ass) it doesn’t make sense for him to pass the buck on world saving. When said party of greedy ex-soldiers who turned to mercenary work since they had little skills to apply in peacetime wants to get paid- pay them or kiss your plot goodbye.

  7. Honestly, I was my first Game Master. I bought the books at a yard sale (only the ‘expert’ rules for levels 3-10 of original D&D) read them, learned how to figure out rules, and built our first few adventures. We later got a current Basic set, and I ran that one too. It was several years before anyone else played ran a game and I was able to run a real character (I didn’t know that the GM wasn’t supposed to have a character, but he was ‘balanced’ with the other characters). I’ve learned a lot from GM’s since, but there is nothing like hitting the ground running.

  8. I learned the most from my players. Early on, I was the “Designated DM”, and made more than a few mistakes. I gamed for my friends, and thankfully we could talk about what was fun and what wasn’t.

    When I returned to gaming, I was damned lucky to find an excellent GM. I could have come back to one of the “Elite Game Masters” from Fear of Girls, and had a very brief hobby. I learned a lot from him, including when to hand-wave the unimportant stuff, how to leverage the Internet to support a game, and how to ask the players for their input.

  9. My dad bought the D&F Basic Set when I was 9 in 1984. He ran a few games for my older brother and I. He had a few NPCs in our party and we played two PCs each. After that I ran games for my friends and followed a similar pattern. I tried other ganes. buying them as often as I could or I got them as gifts. Star Frontiers was a favorite.

    The playing style when I joined a group in 1988 in a local game shop. Everybody only played one PC and there were no DM PCs (DN Avatar). I got into Cyberpunk 2020 at this time.

    As the game store group broke up — the store manager was running it and he had been caught stealing gaming supplies — my older brother and I got several friends together. This was to be the group that really taught me what to expect in a ganung group and how campaigns should be ran. One DM, while very fun, taught me what a DM Avatar was. I got to really hate that character, but at least at that point I realized how they bother the players.

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