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Introduction to Game Mastering, Part 2: What You Need to Get Started

Welcome to 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.

Building Blocks

In the first Intro to Game Mastering article, we covered the golden rule — the foundation of all great GMing. But apart from knowing that rule, what do you actually need to become a game master?

You need these seven basic things:

This article will cover the first four; Part 3 of the series will cover the other three.


Roleplaying is fundamentally a creative hobby, and you’ll need every ounce of your creativity as a GM.

Creativity plays a role in writing adventures, dreaming up campaign and story arc plots, creating maps and other props, bringing to life memorable NPCs, and handling the many, many enjoyable curve balls your players will throw you during play.

You may not think of yourself as a creative person, but if you’re a gamer, you read Gnome Stew, and you’re considering GMing, you are a creative person — and you can become a GM.


If you’re going to run a game, you need a game to run. The right game meets one or both of these criteria:

If either of those statements applies to the game you’re considering, it’s a good choice; if they both apply, it’s a great choice.

There’s also a third criteria that’s important, but slightly less so for your very first game:

Once you have some GMing experience under your belt, the third factor — player excitement level — is the single most important consideration. (For more on that topic, check out Player Buy-In Trumps GM Interest.) But right now, it takes a backseat to the other two factors — provided your players aren’t actually opposed to your game choice, of course.

Chances are, you’ve got a game in mind already that sounds fun to run; if not, give some thought to what you’ve played, and what you enjoyed most. Games in that vein are likely to be worth considering. (If you’ve never played an RPG before, starting out as a GM is a challenging route, but certainly not impossible. You’re going to have to extrapolate from some of the tips in this article, though.)

Once you’ve picked a game, buy it. You need a copy of the rules to bone up on before the game, and to reference during play; borrowing a friend’s book won’t cut it for long. If any other books look useful for your first few sessions, buy them too — but don’t feel any obligation to read them all.

You’ll also need dice and a scratch pad; I recommend a watch (to keep tabs on pacing) and a reference tool of some sort — the inside of a GMing screen, a quickstart rules sheet, or even just a list of rules you put together in Excel.


With any luck, you’re already part of a gaming group — but that’s not a given. If you are, then as long as your players aren’t dicks, they’ll be glad to have another potential GM in the group and will understand that your first foray into GMing isn’t going to be perfect.

You should feel comfortable GMing for your first group. If you don’t feel comfortable GMing with your current group, consider why that is; they might be receptive to talking through your concerns. (We’ll get to this in the Confidence section of the next article.)

If you don’t already have a group, welcome to a situation you will find yourself in many times throughout your GMing career. You do have a leg up on the average gamer, though: you want to GM, and it’s nearly always easier for a GM to find a group than it is for a player.

There are many ways to find players, but the three most common and successful are:

Mention that you’re a first-time GM, but don’t present it as a downside (it’s not). Build your group based on social contact: meet in a public place and hang out for a little while (your gaming store works well if they have room), and make a point of talking about other topics as well as gaming.

Listen to your gut, and reject potential group members (or avoid joining an established group) based on social cues, not gaming preferences. Jerks in real life will also be jerks at the gaming table; people you’d enjoy spending time with outside of gaming are equally likely to be fun to game with.

Rules Knowledge

You don’t need to be a rules expert to be a great GM. That’s worth repeating: You don’t need to be an expert. Knowing the rules well will never hurt, but not knowing them inside out is absolutely not a barrier to trying out game mastering.

Rules knowledge is important, but not critical. If a game goes well, it usually won’t be because of how well you know the rules; if it goes poorly, there are generally several other reasons ahead of a lack of rules knowledge.

If you’re already familiar with the RPG you chose for your first GMing experience, you have most of the rules knowledge you need — but there are a couple of areas to pay special attention to: combat and PC abilities, as they will come up often and generally involve more mechanics than other aspects of the game. As a player, you may not have read the whole rulebook; as a GM, you should.

If you’re not familiar with the game rules you chose (having picked based on your excitement level alone), the same tip applies: read the whole book. Can you get by without doing this? Sure, but you’ll be better off for having read it all, even if you don’t remember every last rule.

Assuming you’re GMing for a good group, they’ll help you with the rules, rather than jumping down your throat if you miss something. If they jump down your throat, you’re GMing for the wrong group.

The key to rules knowledge is feeling comfortable with the game you’re about to run. That might mean taking notes on things you get stuck on the first time around, buying a GMing screen to have ready access to tables and other items, or running a mock combat by yourself to get a feel for that sub-system; it all depends on how you learn.

Next up: the back three — An Adventure, A Bit of Planning, and Confidence.

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.

5 Comments (Open | Close)

5 Comments To "Introduction to Game Mastering, Part 2: What You Need to Get Started"

#1 Comment By Rafe On July 8, 2009 @ 7:40 am

I would amalgamate A Bit of Planning and An Adventure, since those are usually the same thing, or rather A Bit of Planning leads into An Adventure.

One critical element is understanding the RPG’s purpose or underlying philosophy: How does it get to the fun? For instance, if you approach Dogs In the Vineyard with a D&D mentality, the game will fail horribly. The same can be said for most RPGs. Understanding the theme/philosophy of the game system itself goes a long way to having fun with that system. Players and GMs have to adopt new perspectives and be willing to “unlearn” other RPG methods to have fun with different systems/games.

So, from my perspective, it’s critical to know how a particular RPG runs and delivers the fun.

#2 Comment By Patrick Benson On July 8, 2009 @ 8:40 am

@Rafe – I don’t agree with the analyze the RPG approach, but that is because my preference is to give any system a shot and to see what sticks. Reading an RPG is like reading a recipe to me. You need to prepare and taste the dish to really understand what the recipe is about, and even if it is a bad experience at least you have had the experience.

That said, I do agree with the advice that you shouldn’t bring your “D&D expectations” to the table when playing a different system. Keep an open mind and really indulge in the system.

Martin – I’m liking this series. I would add that new GMs should not expect every game to be the “BEST EVAR!” Keep your expectations realistic and just plan for the evening to be fun for you and your friends regardless if the fun comes from the game or from the socializing via the game.

Your plot does not have to be an epic and original work, your prep does not have to include every last detail, and even your rules knowledge does not have to be memorized word-for-word.

Just relax and be prepared to ride with the chaos. GMing is like surfing. We don’t control the waves (the players and their reactions and perceptions of what occurs in the game world), we just seek them out and ride them for as long as we possibly can. Along the way we might try a trick or two, but GMing is really less about control as it is about reaction.

#3 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 8, 2009 @ 2:32 pm

Martin – I like how you break down and simplify such complex things as ‘becoming a GM’. These are great, even for old farts like me.

@Patrick Benson…GMing is really less about control as it is about reaction.

I smell an article here.

#4 Comment By Rafe On July 8, 2009 @ 6:54 pm

@Patrick BensonI don’t agree with the analyze the RPG approach, but that is because my preference is to give any system a shot and to see what sticks.

I totally agree. Without playing to see what stands out, how can one get a clear idea of the design philosophy (without extensive forum reading, creator interviews, etc)? I simply meant that each game comes with its own “play flavour,” to so speak. Playing without that knowledge in mind (even for the first time) tends to lead to poor experiences when trying new or different systems as people bring old conceptions to the table (they expect apples and but it’s all about oranges).

Ex: Approaching Dogs in the Vineyard as though it were the Dark Tower RPG means you lose the entire moral/religious authority element, which drives the entire conflict system. The “I’m a gunslinger! Woo!” player will be quite disappointed when he realizes he’s required to judge Brother X for sleeping with Sister Y, though Sister Y is betrothed to Brother Z, who thinks Sister Y is his property… and not just blow a hole in some demon-possessed jerk.

#5 Comment By Martin Ralya On July 9, 2009 @ 11:19 pm

@Rafe – I tend to fall towards the “run it and see” side of things, but I definitely see your point. You need to understand a game’s built-in expectations so that you can clearly explain how your players might have fun with it — and how that might be different from what they’re used to.

@Kurt “Telas” Schneider – Thanks! That’s exactly what I’m going for.