Great Scott! It’s International GM’s Day again! To celebrate, Gnome Stew decided we’d steal a time machine or two — those doctors are fine, right? — and use them to go back in time and tell our past selves some good GMing advice we had yet to learn. So, with the usual level of professionalism and tact you’ve come to expect, the Gnomes of Gnome Stew (as well as a few companions…) rev it up to 88 and go back in time to give ourselves some sage advice.
Hey, listen a sec, past me. I know you don’t think you could ever actually GM a game, but you are so wrong. Deep down in your core, you KNOW what makes for a good game, so the mechanics can come second. Believe it or not, when you step away from the crunch of D&D, Champions, WoD and all the others, there are (or will be) plenty of other games that put the characters and the narrative first. Those are going to be your games. Trust your instincts, listen to your players, and you’re going to be just fine. I promise, it won’t suck.
To my younger self: Darling girl, the biggest enemy you’ll ever create is yourself. Buck up and trust yourself. You have good ideas. Don’t let anyone convince you a girl can’t know the rules. Give your game time to grow into itself– you don’t have to throw every plot in at once. Always check that you really have the right song picked, and your volume isn’t too high. And yes, you have to insist: no laptops, no cell phones, no iPads. They’re never actually just checking the rules.
Look buddy, I know you think you know everything about DMing already, the fact that you’re nodding your head means you don’t, but you’re actually pretty terrible at this GMing thing. Don’t look at me like that and don’t worry, you’ve done a few things right. Remember those times you didn’t have a session planned, but you ran the game anyway using your ideas you were gonna make session notes from and had a blast? Do that every time, refine your process for that kind of gaming, and you’ll probably save yourself eight years of frustration. Mic Drop. I’m Out. What are you, 22? You’ll figure out what that means in a decade or so, too.
[2003: The TARDIS whooshes and opens into a cavernous basement, black with red accents, emptiness punctuated by a well-loved Xbox next to a clunky little TV on the floor and a desk littered with books and notebook paper scrawlings]
Hang in there – someday you’ll go to a big high school and then a big college, where people will think you’re cool for playing MUDs and Diablo and D&D. There’s not a lot to learn from the girls who want to make you “hot,” but do take notes on makeup – it’ll come in handy for cosplay. That lonely summer before high school spent escaping to Morrowind, Sigil, and learning Esperanto and Elvish script will totally pay off. Love D&D, but know there’s a whole world of other games out there and on the rise. When you finally decide to run games for yourself, fake it till you make it – and you will make it.
Hey, FG, listen up: the reality is that you’ve a lot of painful lessons ahead of you and waving you off won’t help you learn them. You get a lot more right than wrong, and the wrong only improves you. So chin up, and don’t take it so personally! Gaming isn’t an identity and it gets better when you divest yourself of all the BS and just have fun—and there’s a lot of BS! It’s just gaming, so lighten up, Francis. (But while we’re at it, go all in on the Saints in 2009…)
You’re going to be running hundreds of games across thousands of sessions. Some will suck, but a vast majority of them will hit the mark. Be prepared for the failures by knowing your successes will far outweigh the low spots. If you relax a little more and just say “yes” to the players a few more times, things will be more fun, more memorable, and more epic in scope. Live like a hero through your imagination and adventure like there’s no tomorrow!
Hey, young GM John – Ask more of your players. Ask them how the awesome critical hit looks, ask them what response they are expecting from their elaborate plan, ask them what things they want as they level up. Find out what it is they want from the game, and then give it to them. You will all have more fun that way. Don’t feel like you need to take the reins and provide a fun experience, they’ll provide it so long as you encourage it and say yes. Oh, and keep just goofing around with making stuff. It never looks super-good, but when you drop that airship on the table the players all gasp and get way more interested. In fact, never worry if the first attempts at anything are crappy — they are — just keep trying.
Hey Matt, these are the things you will struggle with for the next few decades: start early. You won’t always like prep as much as you do now. Fiddle with new ways to do things that don’t require as much paper. Keep enjoying the beauty of an elegant rule, but don’t let it blind you to the impact that slavish devotion to them has on your game. Loosen up a little and don’t be so hard on other GMs. They may not do things YOUR way, but that doesn’t make it the wrong way (In fact your way may well be the wrong way. That’s a free life lesson along with your GMing lesson.). Now go play.
Hey Past Phil, its Future Phil here. There is so much I could tell you about GMing over these past 30+ years. Let’s keep it simple: GMing should make you a little uncomfortable, every time you do it. If you are comfortable at any point, then you are stagnating. When that happens; change it up, do something new, push your boundaries.
Greetings from the fuuuuuuture! You’ll still be gaming in 30 years, but you’ll look back and realize you often did a lot of un-fun stuff because you thought it was necessary in order to enjoy the fun stuff. If you’re gaming and something isn’t fun, stop doing that thing and see what happens. Spoiler alert: You’ll have more fun. /fist bump with fireworks, vanish in a puff of smoke.
Psst. Past Scott. C’mere. Notice when players have their characters do things for cool reasons instead of loot, then use those motivations to invite them into the next adventure. Some people you will play with are just fellow gamers, not real friends–that doesn’t make them less fun at the game table, but don’t be disappointed that they won’t help you move. When people don’t like each other, their characters will also quickly find excuses not to like each other… sometimes crashing your game. Real life concerns always trump the game–no matter how inconvenient it is for you. (Keep gaming; you’ll meet a lot of good people and make a lot of friends doing so!)
Hey there, past Senda. I know that you thought you were a terrible GM for a long time because of your preconceptions about the “right” way to run a game. It’s time to expand beyond d20. Stop worrying about the rules so much, relax, and start focusing on this amazing narrative we’re creating together. So minis aren’t your thing—that’s fine. Drop the prep and surf the inspiration waves!
Troy – I know you love running D&D, and that’s great, but there ARE other games out there. D&D can still be your first love. But if you learn to play other systems and guide your players into other settings, be they modern, historical or futuristic, you might not get hung up when, I dunno, a new edition of D&D doesn’t live up to your expectations for a while. (Oh, and buy as many metal miniatures as you can before the cost of tin goes up).
<sound of TARDIS materialising>
Hey, Old Me, how are you…oh, sweat suits and rap music..it must be 1984-ish? Wow. Oh well, at least it’s not as bad as that lime green shorts and Flash t-shirt combo that’s coming up in a few years… Anyway, remember when you hit upon that idea to stay away from long campaigns and invest in mini-campaigns of 3-5 good, solid adventures? Well, although you end up abandoning that because you and your buddies – well, our buddies – have nothing but free time, in the future, when you have a job and a family – wait, what? No, I’m not going to – spoilers! What’s a spoiler? Never mind. Just trust me, you’ll be saving yourself a lot of unfinished campaign heartbreaks if you keep things short and sweet and your groups will love you for it.
<heads back to TARDIS; pauses and turns around in the doorway>
Oh, one more thing! There’s going to be a girl who asks you if she can play D&D with your group. Before you awkwardly blow her off, I just want you to know that she’s into you and she becomes a model in a few years…wait, what? That was last year? <awkward pause and then a shrug> Ah, well, everything works out for the best in the end! See you in thirtysomething!
<closes door – TARDIS dematerializes>
What do you wish you could tell your past self about running games and Game Mastering? What wise advice would you impart to avoid the pitfalls of the early Game Master?