Being a Game Master (GM) is a very important occupation. You provide a stage for your players to have great adventures, heroic battles, and powerful moments. It is overwhelming and requires a deft but powerful touch. I am no expert, but here are a few things that I try to keep in mind every time I host a game.
It Is All About The Players
Your players are the most important part of tabletop RPGs. They drive the story even if you are controlling the world, monsters, and the narrative. Think of it from a game designer point of view. You are providing the playground, but it is useless if no one wants to play there. This is again the most important part of any tabletop RPG experience. It should be fun or there is no point to playing. Every decision, every predicament, every fight should be in service of this.
Your Players Are Not Perfect And Neither Are You.
The players will make mistakes, and that is ok. The important thing is to go with the flow and to give them second chances when needed. As the GM, you are the facilitator and leader of the group (even if you aren’t the leader of the party). Think of it like an office meeting. You are trying to bring together a group for a common purpose, and lots of times that includes conflict management with a dose of encouragement. Remember that you make mistakes as well, and treating your players with respect and patience will make for a happy group. Encourage people when need be and always try to build upon mistakes in positive and constructive ways.
Do not hesitate to encourage and offer advice. You are the director so steer the game as needed, and it will go a long way to making a fun and enjoyable time.
Prepare! (Even Though You Will Never Know What the Party Will Do)
As the leader of the group, you should be the most prepared. This means you should know the ins and outs of how your world functions and will react to player actions. You should have enemies, dungeons, and situations prepared in advance in some functional way. Depending on the system, this might be having stats of enemies and monsters written down like with a more number-based games like Dungeons and Dragons.
Recently, I have been running Dungeon World games that allows for a lot more improvisation and on-the-spot creation. However, I still like to be prepared. If the party is angling toward a dungeon, you, as the GM, should know what is in there and why. Maybe you don’t know every exact detail of every room or what monsters are where. But, you should know the why and how, the look and the feel, and what the party could expect venturing into a particular cave, castle, or haunted mansion.
You should also prepare for unforeseen eventualities because your players are going to be unpredictable from time to time. I like having non-player character names that could be inserted anywhere. You should have monsters that would logically be in a the particular situation and certain traps that are your favorites just in case.
The important thing is to know the overall story arcs and situations that inhabit your world. Your players will crash into them eventually.
Tailor Your Game To Your Players
I always practice the bend but don’t break philosophy when running games. Similar to the previous point, your players will sometimes do things that you don’t expect. Understand this and make sure that you cater to those inclinations. I personally dislike strict adventure modules because it gives no leeway to the player ambitions, but for some groups, they want things to be less open-ended and playing through a tight narrative can be appealing.
Like a good host, you should be able to read your party and understand what they want. Sometimes that means more role-play and sometimes that means more action. Some groups want a gritty, smaller scale campaign, and some will want a big, raucous hero fantasy romp. Get to know your players and center your mindset around this.
On a more personal level, always try to provide situations where particular players have the opportunity to shine. Know what classes they are playing and make sure to provide a spotlight for everyone. This is extremely effective in non-combat situations. If someone is playing a mage, try to incorporate something arcane or magical that only they can deduce. If there is a bard, provide opportunities for them to use their charisma or music to advance a situation. If your party doesn’t have a rogue, don’t put them in a situation that requires a lot of stealth or lock-picking. Every situation should have multiple solutions and always leave room for players to come up with their own. Players love when they surprise the GM, and I guarantee they will be more inventive and fun than most things you can conjure up. Think of the best video games and how something like Deus Ex will have different paths to similar outcomes. We all love those kinds of games so emulate them.
Everyone wants to feel needed. You will always have players that are very self-motivated and eager to use their abilities. They will make natural leaders and usually talk a lot. You don’t need to worry about them as much. They can take care of themselves. If someone isn’t talking or isn’t involved, provide them with opportunities. This could even be as simple as having a NPC address that player directly. Keeping everyone involved and interested is key to being a fun and dynamic GM.
Variety is Good! And Describe Everything!
Every predicament does not have to come down to a hack and slash final combat. Not every quest needs a demon to slay at its end. Your sessions will feel more alive and varied if the players aren’t using combat as the end all-be all for every problem.
The important thing is to try to always have options. But as always, know your players and know what they want. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with having lots of combat. Combat can be a great exclamation point to a long hard fought campaign. If the big bad has been plaguing the players for months, defeating them in combat can be extremely satisfying. What you don’t want is a party that resolves everything through violence.
This applies to settings. Bring all your imagination to the forefront. Have a long sojourn in a desert, a treacherous hike through frozen tundra, mysterious tropical islands, foreboding swamps, evil temples, endless caverns. Tell your players not only what things look like, but what things smell like, taste like, and feel like. Be weird. Start games in medias res, use flashbacks, role play dreams. I once started a game after a big boss fight with everyone reflecting on what happened. I had the player describe how they won and what injuries they sustained. It challenged their imaginations while shaking up the standard flow of games. I also like to ask what their characters dream about or what nightmares they have. It provides good role play and fleshes out their characters as well as having a great jumping off point for the story to spin in different ways.
Try to remember that you want twists and turns in your story. Be sure to shade some of you villains with conflicting alliances. There are great stories where villains can be redeemed and earlier baddies become allies. Make your campaigns feel like they are evolving and full of life. Also, it will signal to the players that they have agency and their decision matter and reverberate throughout your world.
Have a Villain (And Don’t Make Them Too Mysterious)
Villains and antagonists are great foils for your players, and like every great story can provide impetus and urgency to the campaign. Have a variety of them (Variety is Good!). Smaller, more localized villains can reveal larger and more sinister machinations. Have them be present and tangible. In Lord of the Rings, Sauron was a distant and mostly theoretical foe, but there were orcs, Saruman, a Balrog, cave trolls. Make some villains obvious and overt that provide cover for the shadowy ones.
Like any good NPCs, your villains should be well-rounded as need be, and make the reasons for their actions logical and even understandable. Demons and elementals can be one-sided, but a hostile elf leader might be avenging past wrongs and trying to get even with the local human populace.
Reward, Don’t Punish
This might be a controversial statement, but I don’t really think party wipes are good things. Handling player character death should be delicate. You want players to want to come back and killing a character because of one or two mistakes can feel harsh. Remember that your players aren’t perfect and will mistakes. Character deaths should feel more like Boromir in a heroic final stand rather than Robb Stark in the Red Wedding. Deaths should feel meaningful.
Of course, this is all dependent on your party. Know your players! If they want a harsh, Dark Souls-like campaign then oblige them. In general, I want players to be rewarded. Try to say “yes” to players and suggest options if they are stuck. You don’t want to constantly be saying “No, you can’t do that” like an old Sierra graphical text adventure. Give your players the leeway to surprise you.
If the party somehow outsmarts you or have incredible rolls, be ok with it and be confident in your campaign. Maybe they just got extremely lucky. Don’t take away or minimize their lucky rolls, especially if they put themselves in grave danger. Nothing is more disheartening than a GM that negates lucky player rolls in order to have their well-planned set piece still happen.
Learn to let go of your precious children. Everything you do should serve the players and the story.
Have An Ending
Tabletop RPGs can be never ending. There really is no end game as even intricate modules can go on forever. However, your story arcs should have endings. The players can continue to newer adventures, but there should be closure to story threads as you angle towards new ones. Like eventually defeating an ever-present villain, there is satisfaction to the end of adventure. Your players will appreciate the denouement, and the resolution to old threads can lead to more exciting ones. Maybe the necromancer have an even more sinister master that must also be defeating. Perhaps in helping a rebel king reclaim his rightful throne brought new, powerful, and jealous enemies.
The important thing is to get into the habit of knowing what a resolution to each story thread that you introduce. When the players resolve them, move on to other greater adventures. No one wants to be in an adventure that last forever. All wars eventually end, and even the Hobbits in Lord of the Rings went home to the Shire.
I am hoping that these tips help anyone to become a better Game Master. This isn’t an exhaustive list of important factors, but these are several things I am always trying to be aware of at all times.
Everything here stems from the first edict: It is all about the players. Remember that and you will be fine. Being a GM can be stressful, but it can be some of the most rewarding gaming you will ever do. Happy adventuring!