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First Time GM: Job Description

Posted By Kurt "Telas" Schneider On May 20, 2010 @ 7:41 am In Intro to Game Mastering | 10 Comments

Over at the Suggestion Pot, Inumo wrote:

As a first-timing DM, one thing that I’ve noticed lacking in many first-time-DM articles is just the basic, taken-for-granted stuff; how to use secret information, how to paint an environment picture, easy ways to keep track of initiative/char. stats/etc. for all the PCs and monsters, how to avoid MMO-style number-crunching, that kind of thing.

Which led directly to First Time GM, a series of articles dedicated to the newly-minted game master, making his first tentative die rolls behind the screen. First Time GM will cover a broad range of topics, from advice on finding players, to techniques for managing information at the table, to handling those “WTF?” moments, hopefully touching on many of Inumo’s topics along the way.

Of course, much of this material will be old news to the seasoned GMs among us, but hopefully everyone will find something they can use, or will share the fruits of their experience in the comments.

What does a GM actually do?

To launch the series, let’s take a look at what a GM actually does at the table when he or she is running a game. This is not an exhaustive list, and does not include many of the things that a good GM will do, nor does it include ‘game prep’.

  • Plays the NPCs, especially the opposition. Walton the shopkeeper, Helpless the Henchman, the Dark Lord of Lost Socks, and Kobold #4 are all the GM’s characters.
  • “Runs” the environment, including locations, the weather, and inanimate objects like traps, by describing how they appear and what they do.
  • Decides what aspects to focus on, such as combat and negotiations, and what aspects to “hand wave”, such as travel, research, etc.
  • Acts as the final arbiter of the game rules, although many GMs will defer to their players or provide temporary answers pending further research.
  • Manages the flow of information from the world to the players, paying particular attention to the plot-centered aspects of it. From one point of view, RPGs educate the players about the world their characters inhabit.
  • Improvises when the party does the unexpected, whether by creating a neighboring town that the PCs unexpectedly visit, or merely by deciding if there is any loose dirt in the room.
  • Decides when to stop the session, and when to press on.
  • Takes notes for future reference.

Some of these are relatively simple to do, but others can take the full mental bandwidth of a veteran GM. But wait, there’s more…

“I have people skills; I am good at dealing with people.”

In my opinion, the most important aspects of the GM’s job involve dealing with his or her players. It shouldn’t come as a shock that many GMs have weak people skills. Most folks are oblivious to their own social shortcomings; even if they are aware of them, it’s not easy to change a lifetime of social habits.

The first time GM should be aware of the need for social skills, as he or she may be called upon for the following (again, not an exhaustive list).

  • Enforces the rules of expected behavior at the table, even if they are decided by the group as a whole.
  • Keeps the game moving by the judicious pruning of small talk, tangents, “this one time in bandit camp”, etc.
  • Manages the ever-changing dynamics of a potentially disparate group, also known as ‘cat herding’.
  • Deals with players who may occasionally be distracted, rude, absent, over-eager, easily offended, bored, or just plain difficult.
  • Prevents the strong personalities from steamrolling the wallflowers.
  • Adjudicates disagreements over the rules, acceptable levels of metagaming, personality conflicts, what’s for dinner, etc.
  • Ensures that every player and character gets a bit of the spotlight.

Again, much of this is relatively easy to handle, but a GM may need to handle multiple issues, with each answer pulling him in a different direction. At times, the GM is the busiest person at the table. With a list like this, it’s a wonder that anyone ever agrees to run a campaign, much less a one-shot game.

But it’s not really that bad. GMing is one of the most satisfying hobbies I’ve ever had. With a good group of players, the right preparation, and a few easily learned techniques and skills, GMing can sometimes be easier than playing a character.

In future articles, we’ll delve into finding good players, preparing efficiently, and managing everything the players can throw at you. For now, one of the most important things for a first time GM to remember is that it’s just a game. The campaign will not come to a screeching halt if you make a mistake, and your players will probably be much more forgiving of your mistakes than you will be.

As mentioned earlier, this is old hat to most of our readers, but it should give the ‘wannabe GMs’ a decent overview of what a GM actually does behind that little screen. Future articles will have more detail and will dwell on a specific aspect of GMing. Every group, session, ruleset, and campaign is different, so your mileage may vary. I’m only presuming to speak from my point of view, so if I’ve missed something truly egregious, please sound off in the comments and let us know.

Up next: Looking for Group

About  Kurt "Telas" Schneider

Kurt Schneider played D&D in 1979 at summer camp, and was hooked. He lives with his wife, daughters, and dog in Austin TX, where he writes stuff, and tries to stay get fit. Look for his rants under the nom de web Telas or TelasTX. Quote: “A game is only as balanced – or as good – as the GM."




10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "First Time GM: Job Description"

#1 Comment By robosnake On May 20, 2010 @ 8:00 am

I think I would replace “GM” with “DM” here, because behind the (overall, good) advice you’re giving are assumptions that exist in a game like D&D (DM controls all information, sets scenes, etc.) but not in other games that might have a GM. For example, Dogs in the Vineyard, Mouse Guard, Mortal Coil and How We Came To Live Here all have GMs but they function very differently from the way a DM functions.

Having mentioned that, I was also thinking that a first-time DM could benefit from some of the ideas in the above games as well as other indie/story games. The players surprise you by going to an unexpected town? Have the players name it, and give them little skill challenges to determine how helpful the town will be to them. Find out what they’re looking for and then let the dice decide whether they find it – within reason of course. Also, beforehand, set expectations at the table, so that you’re having to corral players less. If everyone decides what the social expectations are, it’s a lot easier to just remind them later, rather than having to be Stern Dad or Nagging Mom DM.

#2 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On May 20, 2010 @ 11:48 am

“GM” is pretty much the universal term, used in Pathfinder, GURPS, RuneQuest, Savage Worlds, etc. “DM” is usually reserved for D&D.

I am aiming this series at traditional role-playing games, which is where the vast majority of gamers are. However, more detailed articles in the series will definitely include some “indie” techniques.

#3 Comment By evil On May 20, 2010 @ 1:10 pm

I think the best advice for a first time GM is the same as the one for breaking out of prison: Be confident and look like you belong there and no one will question you. I’ve seen a lot of new GMs who aren’t sure of their own abilities and let players (especially the rules lawyer type) run them down with rhetoric. Once you’re confident and in control, then you can relax and let players enjoy your world.

#4 Comment By zerfinity On May 20, 2010 @ 9:53 pm

On every mailing list, forum, and newsletter I have read about GMing, it always comes back to the people skills. The other things can be out sourced or compensated for with planning, improvisation, a good spread sheet, or a variety of other “tools”. The people skills can’t be outsourced; the buck stops with you.

One thing I would add to the list of people skills is making sure that your own needs are met in the process of all that other adjudication.

#5 Comment By Katana_Geldar On May 21, 2010 @ 6:09 am

My best generic advice is that you don’t know what it is like to GM until you sit in the chair. Try and relax, remind yourself to give yourself a break and remember even if you’re only doing ONE session running the game makes you a better player.

#6 Comment By Patrick Benson On May 21, 2010 @ 2:18 pm

Right on Kurt! Right on!

People skills trump mechanics any day of the week when it comes to RPGs. I’ve played games like DitV with jerks and the rules were not enough to save the game. I have also been railroaded in a game where the GM only seemed to use his own judgment to run things and loved it. Granted that these are the extremes, but knowing how to interact with others in a social situation will go a lot further with many different game systems (and the rest of your life) then knowing a great set of game mechanics. Combining the two can’t hurt, but if you have to choose go with the people skills.

#7 Comment By Diceman On May 24, 2010 @ 3:15 pm

generally speaking, you mention what can be classified as “running the game-world”, “running the system”, “running the plot and the game-events” and “running the players”.

what about running the game itself? the tempo of the game, the genre, managing player expectations (creating, supporting or destroying them), etc? was it left out because of the “new GM” focus?

#8 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On May 24, 2010 @ 3:30 pm

@Diceman – It’s funny you should mention that; I had originally included most of what you mentioned, but then removed them simply because I wanted to cover the basics of GMing for the new GMs.

In other words: Bingo! :D

(“New GM” in this instance means a novice GM; this isn’t some new philosophy of GMing like New Coke or New Math.)

#9 Comment By Diceman On May 24, 2010 @ 3:56 pm

In that case, I’ll add one more thing, crucial from the very first GMing day.

It is the GM’s job to provide interesting and meaningful choices for the players, and then present them with consequences fitting the choice they’ve made.

#10 Pingback By Who has the power in a game? | Moebius Adventures On May 31, 2010 @ 10:13 am

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