A lot of great GMing advice posts are out there,* but most of them focus on abstract, big picture suggestions. That’s great, but what about when you’re in the trenches, running the game? Fortunately, plenty of advice is useful to you right now.
1. Eat Before You Run
Running a game is hard work, and you need calories to do hard work. People don’t think about this because games are typically run sitting down and don’t fit the image of heavy exertion. But would you conduct an important meeting with vital business partners on an empty stomach? That’s the kind of exertion roleplaying games take.
If you’re an adult with a job, you’re probably already struggling to fit game time into your schedule. There’s a temptation to just go straight from work to the Friday night gaming table, maybe grabbing a candy bar if you’re lucky. Do not give in, no matter how pressed for time you are. Running a game requires the full use of all your mental faculties. You have to be quick on your mental feet, keeping the plot in your head while being ready to adapt to whatever curveballs the PCs throw. When time is short, it’s better to have a shorter session than run hungry.
The same applies to hydration and sleep. Have a glass of water handy when you’re running, to keep your throat in shape if nothing else. Voicing a session’s worth of NPCs will take it out of you. And if you thought running while hungry was bad, try it with no sleep. It’s similar to running while drunk.
2. Organize Your Notes by Scene
Unless you are one of those rare GMs who doesn’t need to take notes,* organizing them is a challenge. Plenty of articles will tell you how to plan your sessions, but what about notes themselves? You’ll be referring to them throughout the session, and that won’t do you much good if you can’t make heads or tails of them.
Rather than writing your notes out in one giant block like a novel, organize them into television style scenes. This is practically a requirement for games like Prime Time Adventures, but it works well for any type of story-driven session where the PCs have a degree of agency. After all, you can’t assume that your PCs will talk to the police commissioner before they confront the crime boss. They might decide the cops are just getting in the way and take matters into their own hands.
With your notes divided by scene, you can skip around based on when the PCs decide to do things. Use bullet points or font choices so you can easily spot where a scene begins and ends in your notes. This isn’t proof against the PCs doing something you didn’t anticipate, but it gives your plans more flexibility.
3. Manage the Spotlight
You don’t have to be a veteran GM to know that some players are more active than others. Almost inevitably, your group will end up with a mix of players who confidently take control of their own destiny and those who wait for the adventure to come to them. It’s easy to get complacent and let the former dominate your game. Do not allow this to happen.
On the surface, it might seem like the passive players just don’t care as much, but that’s rarely the case. They might be new to roleplaying, unfamiliar with the system, unfamiliar with you personally, or just shy in general. If they didn’t care at all, why would they spend hours sitting at the game table? It’s your job as the GM to help these less confident players become part of the story.
With that in mind, track how often you let each player take center stage. Take notes if you can’t keep the number in your head. If a player starts to fall behind, make a special effort to engage them. Weave a plot device that requires their character’s unique skills, or create an NPC who will speak only to them.
Left on their own, players who don’t naturally seek the spotlight will never get it, and their condition will become self perpetuating. Over time, they’ll lose investment and possibly leave your game entirely. Giving them extra opportunities will pay off in the long run.
4. Visualize the Scene
We all have at least one story where the rules lead to a situation that made no sense in game. Maybe it was in Call of Cthulhu, when a PC rolled a random insanity that had no relation to the eldritch horror standing before them. Maybe it was in 7th Sea, when your party defeated a medium-sized army by abusing the minion rules.
While these can be good for a laugh, they aren’t great for your game. Unless you’re running a slapstick comedy, your characters need to take the game seriously, and it’s hard for them to do that when the rules keep generating absurd situations.
Instead of playing a scene out strictly by the rules, imagine what it will look like first. Your party of 7th Sea swashbucklers is about to clash with a group of 200 brutes (one-hit minions). The PCs are so tricked out that they’ll win easily. To maintain your game’s credibility, describe extenuating circumstances that allow this to happen. Perhaps the PCs are in a well fortified bottleneck, allowing them to fight the enemy one at a time.
On the other hand, some rules are too silly for abstraction. The only way to deal with Call of Cthulhu’s random insanity mechanic is to house-rule it. No amount of clever description will make it okay for PCs to roll nymphomania in response to seeing a shoggoth.
Visualizing a scene will also help you avoid creating situations that are absurd. You don’t want to get caught describing a bunch of ninjas ambushing the PCs in an open and well lit room.
5. Don’t Use Combat If You Don’t Need It
There’s value in combat and other extended conflict mechanics,* but it’s something that has to be used sparingly, even in groups that enjoy it. Combat quickly loses its luster if you do it five times a session.
Even with all the advances roleplaying games have made, most systems still imply that combat should resolve dramatic situations. Sometimes combat even seems appropriate but doesn’t fit what the PCs are actually trying to do.
For example, breaking into the dragon’s lair sounds like combat, right? Except the PCs aren’t really trying to kill the dragon; they’re after the famed Jewel of McGuffinia. Combat is for killing the other guys. Making the PCs roll for initiative will shoehorn them into it when they’re just trying to smash and grab.
When something exciting happens, ask yourself: are the PCs trying to kill someone? If they are, then combat is appropriate. If not, you can resolve the situation with a series of rolls from related abilities instead. In the above example, a Stealth roll, followed by Athletics and Navigation* will do nicely.
6. Know What NPCs Want
GMs spend a lot of time trying to make their NPCs more lifelike and memorable. That’s all for the good, but the most important thing is knowing what each NPC is trying to accomplish. This’ll help a lot more in the long run than a funny voice or flashy attack.
Players will notice if NPCs act inconsistently from one scene to the next, and it will damage their credibility. You can write out back-stories and stat blocks, but none of that will keep an NPC consistent like knowing what they want. General Iron-Eyes wants to reclaim his people’s ancestral homeland, and every action he takes is aimed at his goal. Knowing that, you won’t have to stop and wonder what he’s going to do each scene.
This is especially useful when the PCs do something you weren’t expecting. In your scramble to react, you can fall back on well-established motivations. You weren’t expecting the PCs to kidnap the Guardian Griffon’s pups and raise them as pets, but you do know that fewer griffons around will make General Iron-Eyes think he can succeed at taking back his homeland right now, even if the PCs are currently camping in it.
7. Let Rolls Stand
When you call for a roll, the results won’t always be what you wanted. Maybe Sir Galbor wasn’t supposed to succeed her stealth roll to sneak into the castle, or Father Melbran wasn’t supposed to fail his oratory roll to drum up an anti-goblin militia. Either way, you can find yourself in a situation you didn’t plan for.
Many GMs try to extricate themselves by calling for more rolls until the PC either fails or succeeds how the GM wanted them to. Sir Galbor may have succeeded her stealth roll to get past the outer wall, but now she’s got to roll for the inner wall. You see this is a lot in games like Call of Cthulhu, when the PCs fail a critical Idea or Spot Hidden roll, and the GM just has to call for another until one succeeds.
This poor solution tries players’ patience and damages the integrity of the dice. Dice are brought out to resolve a situation that doesn’t have a clear outcome. Players will stop taking them seriously if they know you’ll keep making them roll until they get the results you wanted.
While you might have to fudge the dice occasionally, once a roll is announced, let it stand until there’s a real reason to roll again. Do this even if the roll is inconvenient. Take a moment to figure out what you’re going to do now that Sir Galbor has successfully made off with the Sword of +5 Plot Protection, rather than making her throw the dice again and again until she fails to get it.
8. Listen for Intent
No doubt, a player in your game has occasionally stated a course of action that sounded absurd. Perhaps they proclaimed a plan to intimidate their way into the king’s court, which is silly because you just finished explaining how much of a stone cold badass the Guard Captain is. In that situation, it’s tempting to let the PC futilely attempt a task you know they can’t succeed.
However, all that will accomplish in the long run is to build frustration. Instead, pay attention to the player’s intent, rather than the exact wording of their action. What the PC above really wanted was to intimidate their way into the king’s court. You know the Guard Captain is immune to intimidation, but a side entrance could conveniently be protected by less experienced soldiers.
Work with your players when they try to do something. Instead of expecting them to fully plan every detail of their PCs’ lives, figure out what they’re trying to accomplish and help them get there. If it’s not obvious, ask for clarification. Players are, in general, pretty smart. If they ask to do something that sounds impossible, it’s more likely that there’s been a misunderstanding than that they’ve suddenly taken leave of their senses.
9. Clarify What’s at Stake
When dice are rolled, something has to be on the line. Otherwise, there’s no point in rolling. The tricky part is making sure everyone knows what that is. What is a PC risking with this toss of the dice? Is it their treasure, their reputation, or their very life? A lot of bad experiences come from player and GM disagreeing on what an important roll was supposed to mean.
Sometimes it’s obvious. In most combat systems, the stakes of an attack roll are whether or not the target will take damage. Outside of combat, it gets murkier. If your PC is leaping over a bottomless chasm, they might think a failure means landing wrong and twisting their ankle, while you thought it was an endless fall into the void.
It’s vital to clarify the stakes when a character’s life hangs in the balance, but smaller stuff is important too. Social PCs want to know if failing their Poetry contest will make them a laughing stock or if they’d just have to brush up on their rules of verse.
Stakes for success are important too. If you thought a PC’s hacking roll was going to get them an important clue, and they thought it would reveal the bad guy’s master plan, that’s a problem. If there’s any doubt what the outcome of a roll will mean, take a moment and make sure you’re all on the same page. It’ll save you a lot of frustration and argument later.
10. When in Doubt, Make the PCs Look Badass
At their heart, most roleplaying games are scenarios of empowerment. Players generate characters with abilities far beyond their own and send them out to have adventures. They want those characters to succeed or, barring that, at least look good while failing.
Few things are more disheartening to a player than feeling like their character has momentarily become incompetent. They’re playing a master thief after all; how is it they can’t pick an average lock? The dice have come up a failure, and now the player feels lame as they imagine their character inexplicably becoming terrible at their job.
Combating this is all in the description. Rather than the master thief simply being unable to get the locked door open, she was nearly there when a group of security goons came around the corner. There followed a thrilling chase where the thief just barely got away, no doubt after doing some backflips.
It’s amazing how much better players will take failure when you make their character look good. The same applies to just about any situation. Players will, in general, have more fun when they feel their characters are a force to be reckoned with. You don’t want to use this all the time, of course. In certain moments, a PC will want to demonstrate vulnerability, and horror games run much further into disempowerment territory. But it’s a good baseline to start from.
The bottom line is that you want players to feel good about your game. We’re all busy people, and there’s no reason to devote four to six hours of our week to a roleplaying game we don’t enjoy.
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