“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”
Ernest Hemingway

GM’s day was just a few days ago, and I was pleased to be thanked on social media by a few people I’d run for in the past. It’s nice to get recognition for the work we put into running games and helping to enable the fun of our players. (You could always go buy your GM something nice from the Drive Thru RPG sale in addition to thanks.) But, for all the work we do as Game Masters, it’s good to understand that we are all learning and improving. There is never a time in our lives where we have reached the peak and made it to the top, the pinnacle of our skill and ability.

Game Mastering isn’t even some art to be mastered, it’s a cog in the machine that is our  interaction at the gaming table. It’s a social role. We may shoulder more of the responsibility for keeping the game and social interaction based around the game moving, but we are still one of the people enjoying the fun as well.

Thinking of GMing in this light, I got to thinking, as I often do, about how to improve the games that I run. I’m often looking for some new way to wow the players and make a memorable experience for them, but then I thought about it from the angle of making the game more fun rather than being technically better. Running a better game rather than a better session of Savage Worlds. Sometimes my attempts to make incredible games interfere with the games being as fun as they could be. It’s one of my personal flaws. I watch for it and think about it, but I do so because I acknowledge it as a flaw. So, I sat down and wrote out a list of things I could do to be a better Game Master, not just create better games. This is my five minute list:


I can be a better Game Master by…

  • not getting so wrapped up in trying to make an awesome game experience and focusing more on an enjoyable one.
  • doing more reading of the source material beforehand. I am very good at winging it, but I would be better with more prep.
  • stepping outside of my comfort zone and running games that broaden my horizons. Too often I run games that already fit my niche or to playtest and improve something I’m working on. I don’t make enough time to run games that teach me something new.
  • not caring if I have a well balanced game with enough combats, intrigue, traps, or whatever elements I feel I need but I really don’t. If the group wants to spend their time shopping, the combat can wait till the next game.
  • cutting things off at natural stopping points rather than trying to get just one more thing in for the session since we have another half an hour.


Rather than looking at what mechanical elements and rules make us better at the technical skills, we improve by looking at the whole situation and allowing ourselves to openly admit areas where we can be better. Even the attitudes that serve us well in some circumstances don’t always serve us well in the long term. They may drain us or make us ignore other areas of enjoyment because we are striving for the brass ring.

So, I want to challenge you to take 5 minutes to write down a list of 2 or 3 things that you could be better at as a Game Master. Do it privately or post it in the comments to encourage others to share. Even briefly thinking about your Game Mastering style and putting it in writing somewhere will yield new understanding about why it is we do what we do and why we deserve thanks on GM’s day.

So, gauntlet thrown.

I can be a better Game Master by…



17 replies
  1. randite
    randite says:

    My 5 min. List (Mildly edited for clarity and because I apparently can’t write anything without at least 2 parenthetical asides.)
    I can be a better Game Master by…

    – Keeping it simpler.
    – Focusing more on the fun elements of actual play rather than cool world-building shit. (In other words make my world-building play-focused.)
    – Give myself more time right before the game, to refocus my thoughts and gather my wits into the same basket.
    – Continuing to try new games, techniques, and ideas.
    – Actually playing a bit more and learning from my fellows’ strengths and weaknesses.

  2. Razjah
    Razjah says:

    I can be a better game master by:
    -Running games outside of “standard fantasy”
    -Spend an hour before the game going over my prep so that it is fresh in my mind
    -Work harder to make my NPCs different from one another. through accents, use of props, mannerisms.
    -Give better descriptions/prep them. I can come up with decent descriptors on the fly, but they have a much smaller vocabulary than I like.
    -Stop fretting about party balance and just play the game, it will work out over time.
    -Work harder to weave a story, rather than opening up a sandbox for the PCs to go play in.

    I think that covers it for 5 minutes. Looking at this is a bit rough, but now I have a list to tackle next time I’m GMing.

  3. drow
    drow says:

    i can be a better Game Master by…
    having more dice
    killing the PCs and hearing the lamentations of their women

  4. Blackjack
    Blackjack says:

    I would rewrite the fourth item on your list. A good GM spends effort to design adventures and challenges that give different party members with different skill sets the opportunity to shine. The trick is not getting upset when the players choose to spend a lot of time on one thing. If they’re engaged, they’re having fun. Don’t drag them on to something else just because you planned it that way.

    • Razjah
      Razjah says:

      This is true, how many GMs have awesome stories when the game went in an unexpected direction because of something a player did?

  5. clight101
    clight101 says:

    I can be a better GM by

    – Utilizing props in unique and different ways other than just handouts or terrain for the mini’s.

    – Running more games which focus on investigation because I’ve thought and studied it a ton but I need to get a little more hands on experience with it.

    – Being better about utilizing technology for my games.

    – Have better communication about the games I’m running with my groups outside of the game table.

    • Razjah
      Razjah says:

      What do you mean about using technology for your games? Like Obsidian Portal and other sites or stuff like iPad and other tablets at the table?

    • Dreamtide
      Dreamtide says:

      clight101, I’m glad you brought up technology. I agree in that right now there is a TREMENDOUS amount of untapped potential for us GMs in that regard. Just to throw one of of many examples out there, I was recently running a scene where one PC was trying to open a puzzle lock on a door while the other held off baddies; the PC on the door was playing over Google Groups and I found myself really wishing I had some kind of tangible… puzzle program (?) for him to work with rather than just dice rolls.

  6. clight101
    clight101 says:

    Also just wanted to say great post John. That Hemingway quote pretty much sums up what most people should be thinking, not just about GMing, but about a lot of things.

  7. Dalton
    Dalton says:

    My quick three:

    – Listen to the players for both what they want and don’t want in their game experience.
    – Flexibility in all things game related. Sempre Gumby!
    – Remember, the point is to have fun.

    Good article. Thanks for the post.

  8. Dreamtide
    Dreamtide says:

    I can be a better game master by:
    1. Remembering that my players haven’t read all the books. I fear that too often I throw out subtle twists in the plot and the intrigue is lost on my players, only to have them later say “Woah, what? When did this start happening? He’s with the bad guys?!”
    2. Like randite, I need to remember that although my players will feel a higher sense of ownership if they’ve had a hand in world-building, that doesn’t necessarily make a better session.
    3. When the game depends on player investigation, I need to remember that just as they don’t already know the clues that are there to find, they may also not be aware of the process of investigation that I have in mind that finds those clues.

  9. DireBadger
    DireBadger says:

    * Whenever the PCs go somewhere to infiltrate or fight, ALWAYS sketch a map. Otherwise there WILL be confusion about what is where – somehow I can’t communicate my ideas to players nor vice versa, unless there’s at least a sketchmap.

    * Introduce fewer NPCs but develop them more.

    * Keep more control of pacing. Get more scenes done in a session.

  10. Philmagpie
    Philmagpie says:

    Hi John,

    Excellent advice.

    I would add Run More Games, using both your favourite rules set AND others. Broaden your horizons, even if only to return to your favourite system and make it better.

    Also, share your ideas with other GMs, help us all to improve.

    All the best

  11. Willj
    Willj says:

    • Running fewer games and spending more time prepping.

    My current schedule has me playing two to three times per week and running two to three times per week. As a result, I often have very little time to prepare. I’d love to have the opportunity to build 3-D terrain and have the perfect mini for each encounter.

    • Slowing down game play.

    I run a lot of Pathfinder Society scenarios. By nature, these games should be finished in one sitting. They are designed to run 4-5 hours. However, to finish in this time, you have to keep players focused and moving. Sadly, this also means there simply isn’t time to get diverted by role play heavy conversations or allowing players to get distracted from the story. I need to learn to turn this off when not running a PFS game or constrained by time.

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