A surprising amount of work goes into being a competent GM, let alone a good one. In the course of one adventure a GM has to be a writer, an actor, an architect, and a judge. A good GM has to be fair and impartial, willing to make tough decisions on the fly, but also to hear the players out before doing so. It means knowing the rules of game, and knowing when to break them. When a GM is clicking on all cylinders, the game takes a life of its own and offers up an experience like no other. A bad GM will have people fleeing tables, stopping only to chuck the fragments of their torn up character sheet into the garbage can. So that, in a roundabout way, brings us to why you’re here: you want to improve as a GM.
Whether a scarred veteran of a thousand campaigns, or someone deciding they want to have their turn behind the screen for the first time, you can always improve, and should strive to. The aim here is to help with that improvement. There is no magic ticket to becoming a good GM; you’re only going to get as good as the work you’re able to put into it. Just think of this as a friendly voice offering advice and encouragement to do the work.
So, let’s kick off with the most important thing, a question to ask yourself: Why do you want to be a GM? Think this through before you keep reading. Go ahead; I’ll still be here when you get back.
OK, so now, whatcha got? Did you say, “To create a story,”? That’s a common answer, and one that I have a ready response to. If you want to create a story, I suggest that you go write a book instead. I know this sounds like a jerk thing to say, but I mean it. You’ll get to tell a story and not annoy a table full of people at the same time. Believe me when I tell you I’ve been gaming for over thirty years, and I’ve never played in a game where the GM sat and told us what our characters did and have it be a good time. A lot of people will tell you (I always picture them holding a monocle to their eye as they lean forward in their wing back chair as they do so) that Story is the be all and end all of a RPG. You can take the approach of telling a story with your game, but you’re going to have a lot of really bored players fiddling with their phones.
Having a story thought out ahead for the campaign means your players are just along for the ride, their impact on the surroundings negligible. Their actions have already been determined for them, the outcome of any fights they find themselves in already known. The game has been reduced to a dice to a dice rolling exercise. The PCs could leap into the belly of a volcano screaming, “Top of the world Ma!” and they’ll somehow make it out if the story demands they survive. Even worse, if the story demands the PC die then no player action can save them. They might as well just become partners with Harry Callahan and make sure to mention several times they’re a week from retirement.
So what then? If there isn’t a story then what is there? Just the PCs running down a hallway filled with orcs like some sort of demented frat initiation? No plot, no anything? Far from it, gentle reader. While the story is a shifty eyed silent film villain, shared narrative is like Dudley Do-Right untying Tess Trueheart from the railroad. With a shared narrative, your players’ actions are what are driving the plot, not some story you’ve already created.
This brings me to one of the best pieces of advice I can give you; when player’s actions matter to your world, players become invested in that world. Once they start caring about how their characters actions affect the campaign, then you’ve got them. Set the hook and reel them into the boat. Great games come about from the players having a good time. Your goal is to make sure the group is having fun, (which doesn’t mean you have to be a doormat) not massage your own ego. You might have an idea for the best story ever written, something that would make James Joyce want to slug you out of jealousy, but save it for a book.
If your answer was you want to run a game because you want to have a good time with your friends, then you’re on the right track. Maybe, you have a great idea for a campaign setting and you want to see how it shakes out. Once again, High five, old chum!
So let’s talk about the decision to run a scratch built campaign vs a pre-fabricated campaign. While not as prevalent now as it was back in the day, certain kinds of GMs looked down on using modules and pre-made campaign settings like it was a form of cheating. Unless the GM slaved away for hours, bleary eyed and sleepless, then it wasn’t really being a GM. If you run into these people feel free to ignore them, as they’re idiots. As someone who has been working on one campaign world for twenty plus years, I feel fully qualified to say there is nothing wrong with running a pre-made campaign world. Anything that gets you fired up, and gets you to the table ready to roll is a good thing.
This is actually a golden age for pre-made settings and adventure modules. There is a wealth of options out there, and they’re often system neutral. Look at it as a buffet of gaming; pick and choose what you want. One of the best things about modules and canned settings is that you can change them around as you see fit. If you come across an event or encounter you really like, but some aspect of it doesn’t suit you or your players, change it so it does. There is no point where the Nerd Police are going to knock on your door if you don’t run a module word for word, so feel free to play with it.
If you’ve decided to have a go at making your own world then be prepared, because you have some work ahead of you. It’s worth it though; believe me when I tell you world creating can be some of the most heady, rewarding fun you’ll have running a RPG. One of the best things to remember when creating your world: It’s your world. It can be whatever you want. Do what thou wilt. Let your imagination run wild and be creative. Trust me, no matter how “out there” you make it, there’ll be a system to support it. No matter how goofy you think it is, someone else has made something goofier. Just make sure it’s something you love and want to put time into, because you and your world are going to be spending a lot of time together.
Now that your mind is filled with grand visions of the Campaign To Be, let me reel you back in a bit. In order to achieve your goal, you’re going to have to start small or you’ll run the risk of being overwhelmed. Think of a good campaign like a jigsaw puzzle. Looking at the box you can see what the puzzle looks like, giving you a goal, but in order to put it all together you’re going to start with one little piece at a time. So start small and work your way up.
So for now, decide on what you want your campaign to be, what you’re looking to get out of it, and who you want in it. I’ll be around again to help you get things off the ground next time with how to find the right players for your new group. Feel free to ask any questions below, or talk about how your world is going, or even what your favorite Hall and Oates song is. I’m open to about anything. Until then, happy gaming.
Written by Brent Baumunk
Catch Brent as he GMs the podcast “Are You Wearing A Helmet?”