Top 30 Game Mastering Articles
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With more than 600 articles in our archives, we thought we’d highlight the cream of the crop — the best game mastering advice, tips, ideas, tricks, and discussion on Gnome Stew, all in one spot.
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GMing Tricks and Tips
Island Design Theory, by John Arcadian
Have you ever prepped a ton of adventure material only to have your players ignore all of it? This flexible approach to plotting prevents that problem — and your players will love it.
Restate the Obvious, by Kurt ‘Telas’ Schneider
What seems obvious to you, the GM, may not always be obvious to your players. This tip is incredibly simple, but has the power to completely change the course of your next session — try it and see.
Player Characters: Emerging Complexity is A-OK, by Martin Ralya
You don’t need to force 10-page PC backstories out of your players. Instead, let their characters evolve organically during play — it can be less work and more fun, and everyone wins.
I Love My Tiny Notebook, by Matthew J. Neagley
You carry a tiny notebook, right? If you don’t, you’re missing out on one of the most essential GMing tools ever created — yours for $0.99 at the office supply store.
D&D Burgoo (3.5): Don’tcha got a job, or something?, by Troy E. Taylor
For fantasy PCs, answering the question “What did you do before you started adventuring?” is one of the simplest tricks for building a compelling character backstory. Try it with your players.
Game Mastering Techniques
Introductory Games for New Roleplayers, by Scott Martin
When you GM a game for first-time roleplayers, there are some special considerations to take into account. It’s all laid out in this informative article, from simplified character sheets to scenario structure.
Lessons From the Long Campaign: Never Write the Ending, by DNAphil
If you’re running an extended campaign, leaving individual scenes open-ended will make for a richer, more player-driven experience. Campaign structure tips galore.
Preparing to Improvise, by Patrick Benson
The best improvisation happens when you’ve laid the foundation for successfully winging it in advance. Minimize your prep and maximize your fun at the gaming table with these techniques.
Short Sessions, by Walt Ciechanowski
There’s an art to running a fun short gaming session, and it’s not just about doing everything faster. From game system choice to goals and rules, here are lots of tips for doing it well.
Campaigns and Adventures
You Think You Know a Genre…, by Matthew J. Neagley
What happens when you cross the Smurfs with zombies? The true origins of the survival horror genre, and tips for running bizarre and memorable games.
Why You Can’t Always Go Home Again, by DNAphil
Returning to a much-loved gaming system from your past can be a bittersweet experience. Here are the hallmarks of a one-campaign RPG, and how to make the most of them.
From Con to Con: The Journey Ends, by Walt Ciechanowski
Planning on GMing an event at a gaming convention? These 13 tips from the trenches at GenCon will help you and your players have more fun with less stress.
The Craft and Art of Game Mastering
5 Mistakes of the New GM, by Patrick Benson
New to game mastering? You’re bound to make mistakes, just like all GMs. Here are five mistakes we all made when we started out — and how to avoid making them yourself.
First-Time GMing — Doing a Job You Don’t Know How to Do, by John Arcadian
GMing for the first time can be pretty intimidating: you feel like your entire group’s fun depends on your actions, and the pressure is on. Fortunately, we’re here to help.
Beware the Retcon, by Kurt ‘Telas’ Schneider
Two practical reasons why retconning — “rewinding” time in your game to fix a mistake — is always, always, always a bad idea. Yes, even just this one time.
Planning and Analysis Paralysis, by Scott Martin
Building on two examples from actual play, here are the factors that contribute to analysis paralysis — aka wasting game time by talking in circles — and advice for keeping it from happening in your group.
Player Narrative, by John Arcadian
Knowing how and when to share narrative control — which you’re already doing in every game you run, consciously or not — can get everyone at the table more involved in the game.
Troy’s Crock Pot: A Little Thing Called the TPK, by Troy E. Taylor
At some point in your GMing career, you’ll preside over a total party kill — a TPK. And despite surges and beefed-up hit points for lowbies, it can happen in D&D 4th Edition.
The Concept of a Star Wars RPG Should Die In a Fire, by Matthew J. Neagley
Why is it that the people least suitable to run Star Wars games are often the ones you find behind the GM’s screen? A painful truism that ignited one hell of a comment thread.
You Should Quit GMing Right Now, by Martin Ralya
The title says it all: You really should, in fact, just quit GMing right now. Ixnay on the amegay asteringmay. Cold turkey. Kaput. Done. Seriously — what are you still doing here?
Hot Button: Whose Character Is It Anyway?, by Walt Ciechanowski
Who has creative control over the player characters’ backstories? Can you, the GM, add elements to them — or are they sacrosanct? Welcome to the world of hot button articles, and the discussions they spark.
Running the Game
Sometimes to Run a Fun Game You Need to Ignore the Game, by Patrick Benson
It might sound zen, but it’s also quite practical: At the end of the day, we run games so we can have fun with our friends — and if that means ignoring the rules to do what’s best for the group, do it and don’t look back.
Troy’s Crock Pot: Oh Darn! The NPC just rolled a 1, by Troy E. Taylor
The funny thing about dice is that they sometimes do exactly what you don’t expect. If an NPC fails a major roll, don’t automatically fudge it — instead, see where that opportunity takes you.
Compensating for Failure, by Scott Martin
In-game failures can be planned for, mitigated with improvisation, and, on occasion, a whole lot of fun. Thinking about the meta aspects of failure can improve your game.
Spicing Up Combat, by Adam Nave
By considering focal points — the most interesting aspects of a battle — and focusing on vivid descriptions, your combats will go from humdrum to fantastic. Simple techniques, solid results.
Don’t Fall For These RPG Arguments, by DNAphil
If you’ve GMed more than once or twice, you’ve heard these arguments. They derail games and reduce GMs to quivering blobs of jelly — but you can head them off at the pass.
Laying the Ground Rules, by Kurt ‘Telas’ Schneider
The foundation of a good social contract for gaming groups is built on establishing the basics and avoiding problems down the road — this article will show you how to do both.
Game Mastering Tools
12 Ways to Use Google Apps at the Game Table, by Adam Nave
Google’s free applications are a great way to organize, manage, and stay on top of your campaign — especially when you use several of them for the same game.
Gnomenclature: A Diminutive RPG Glossary
That title is a lie: There’s nothing diminutive about this glossary — it’s one of the largest on the web. If a gaming term is used by more than a handful of people, it’s probably here.
Review: The Ultimate Dice Bag, by Martin Ralya
The search for the best dice bag ever made is over. No, really — this bag is gorgeous, well-made, durable, and packed with features (and the right price, too). It earns the label “ultimate.”
Where To Next?
You can also dive into the archives or browse your favorite author’s articles using the drop-down menus up top, or search for articles on a specific topic — there’s a lot here to explore.
And if you have an idea for an article on a topic we’ve never covered, we’d love to hear about it in the Suggestion Pot.