Welcome to the first article Gnome Stew’s Introduction to Game Mastering series. If you’re new to GMing, this series is for you — and even if you’re an old hand, you might pick up a trick or two.

Want to read other articles in this series? Click on the “introduction to game mastering” tag at the end of this article.

In writing this series, I assume you have some familiarity with gaming terms and jargon. If you see a term you don’t know, just hit up Gnome Stew’s RPG Glossary.

The Golden Rule

When it comes to game mastering, there is one rule that will never steer you wrong: the golden rule.

No matter how long you’ve been GMing, or what problems you might run into as you learn more about the craft of being a GM, coming back to this rule will serve you well.

So what is it?

Everyone at the table should have fun.

There are lots of things you need to learn to become a great GM, but to get there (and to enjoy getting there) you need to build on the right foundation. This simple rule is the right foundation.

Why This Rule is Golden

It’s not the only thing you need to know, of course, and it’s not a magic bullet. But every element — literally — of running a good game is based on this rule, and literally every GMing-related problem can be solved in part by considering this rule as you search for a solution.

Let’s break it down into its two components: “fun” and “everyone.”

Fun

Having fun is a large part of why we game, and presumably of why you want to be a GM. There are lots of other reasons, too — hanging out with friends, a love of storytelling, the act of roleplaying, and many more — but at the end of the day they all revolve around having fun in some form.

Remembering that will keep you focused on what you do as a GM. When you’re preparing an adventure, make sure what you’re writing sounds like fun; when you’re actually running it, change things on the fly to make what’s happening more fun, play NPCs to the hilt, and otherwise get into it — all because it will make the game more fun.

The more fun your players have, the more fun you’ll have — and vice versa. It’s a feedback loop that leads to great gaming.

Everyone

As the GM, you’re a player, too. Every game you run should be enjoyable for everyone at the gaming table — fun for all of your players, and fun for you as well.

Everyone has bad sessions, and if you or one of your players doesn’t have fun one night, it doesn’t mean that you’re a failure as a GM. You’re not responsible for how much fun everyone has, but you are responsible for doing your best to make sure everyone has fun — that’s an important distinction.

Keeping everyone’s fun in mind will make you a better GM.

Putting It Into Practice

As you get a few sessions under your belt and hone your GMing skills, you will always benefit from remembering the golden rule of great game mastering: Everyone at the table should have fun.

It’s not rocket science, and there’s no secret to how to use this rule to run better games — just bear it in mind.

It can be easy to forget at times (particularly after you’ve run a session that didn’t go so well), which is why it’s important to keep it handy. (If you need to, write it down on an index card and clip it to the inside of your GMing screen, where you’ll see it at every game.)

That’s all there is to it. Stick to the golden rule, and you’re well on your way to becoming a great game master.

About  Martin Ralya

A father, husband, writer, small-press publisher, former RPG industry freelancer, and lifelong geek, Martin has been gaming since 1987 and GMing since 1989. He lives in Utah with his amazing wife Alysia and their awesome daughter Lark in a house full of books and games.



15 Responses to Introduction to Game Mastering, Part 1: The Most Important Rule

  1. Kurt "Telas" Schneider

    Awesome dose of perspective!!

    We can get so tangled up in the latest gaming craze, our own vision, the rules, and everything else that we often forget about the whole point of this exercise: Fun.

  2. You’re right, it’s the key foundation… and so easy to overlook when you’re combing through stat blocks trying to create “just the right level of challenge”.

    Though a lot of fun comes from a good challenging fight/negotiation/whatever, it takes more than the math behind it to make it fun.

  3. @Scott Martin – It certainly does take more than the math behind it to make it fun. Because I’ve heard many descriptors for GM’s creating statblocks for the d20 system and fun hasn’t been one of them. :D

    I think we can forget the fun, when a game starts to feel more like work. Good advice up there, for if it isn’t fun, then what really is the point of prep?

  4. I have to say that Gnome Stew series are great; I really look forward to them. I still consider DNAPhil’s series re: handling an epic campaign (with references to his IH game) some of the best advice from the ‘Stew.

    I’m looking forward to reading where you head from here, Martin! Bring on Part II!

  5. Corrolary to the Golden rule…
    If a player seems to be having the short end of the fun stick in a session or especially, in more than one session, make it a prority to catch them up in the fun department, if at all possible.
    As has been mentioned, it is too easy to get caught up in what we are doing as GM’s to move plot forward or what we have planned.

  6. Great idea for a series. I wonder how you would rank other important GM rules.

    Also I’m stealing the clip the golden rule to your DM screen. My players seem to have a good time, but making sure is never bad.

  7. Thanks for the warm welcome for this kickoff article — I’m looking forward to writing the rest of this series.

    Looking back over our deep and growing article archives, it hit me that we didn’t have too many articles aimed specifically at novice GMs. I hope this series is useful to novices and experts alike.

    @LordVreeg – Good corollary!

  8. You are wrong. I respectfully think that the first rule of good GMing should be:

    “There are no rules, only adaptation”

  9. Hello. I’d like to say I was impressed by the fact that the Golden Rule, as the author puts it, is many times forgotten at the gaming table! By me of course, by my players… but what if this golden rule becomes a weapon in the hands of not so well-meaning players? How to handle this?

    It happened to me in two cases, at two different times, with two different people using the same “strategy”. They pretended to be bored and they kept complaining not in a direct way but showing somehow they were not having fun (looking distracted, reading game materials, talking about other campaigns, especially nice episodes in which they character were saving the day). I say “pretend” because they didn’t leave the game and when they couldn’t attend, it seemed like a tragedy and pressed everyone to postpone the date. I realised then that both were game masters, sort of power players but not 100% and usually trying to be in the spotlight both as characters and as players (suggesting the other players what to do etc.).

    So basically, I realised they both tried to be back in a game master position, trying to play they wanted to play, sure of the fact that the game they wanted to play was the game that everyone wanted to play! But neither was open about it: they preferred the subtle (!) subterfuge of making believe me and the other players that the game was not fun, or at least not so fun.

    What I am trying to say is: What about the Golden Rule and problem players?

  10. @Tabulazero – I disagree. If what you say is true why bother buying a rulebook? Just have an assortment of dice in front of everyone, and the GM will just decide the rule for each and every situation.

    Even no taking it to that extreme, if the GM makes adaptation his or her goal and the game is not fun would that not be a misplaced priority? I do not see how your rule can be given the highest priority in many situations, and therefore it should not be the “first rule”. To each his own though.

    @Magnificat – Tough one. That would be time for a meeting in my group. I would talk to the players outside of the game and let them know that I want them to have fun, but not at the expense of the group’s fun. How will they make their characters’ spotlight moments fun for the group? If those spotlight moments are not fun, will they cooperate with me when I move the game forward from those moments?

    You know your players best, so YMMV and this approach may not be applicable. With my groups it seems to work well. I’ll give the players exactly what they want if they will deliver soemthing of equal value to the group. Of course, I as the GM am the final say on these matters but if I can involve the group I will. That makes it better for everyone IMO. I hope that helps you, and please let us know if you find a solution that works for you.

  11. @Tabulazero – I see where you’re coming from, and adaptability and rules adaptation are definitely valuable GMing skills.

    We’re making different arguments, though (assuming I’m reading your comment correctly). You’re arguing that in GMing the only real rule is that all rules can be changed, and that that’s the most important thing to bear in mind, right? I would argue that that’s a subset of the golden rule.

    The heart of shaping rules and adapting to your tastes and your players’ tastes is making the game fun for everyone.

  12. Thankyou for not saying rule 0, or that you can’t cheat, or that your word is law, or other such bull.

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