Becoming a Game Master

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Ready to try your hand at becoming a Game Master? You're in the right place.


What is a GM?

In a role-playing game, the Game Master (GM) is the game organizer and participant in charge of creating the details and challenges of a given campaign or adventure, while maintaining a realistic (or semi-realistic for cinematic games) continuity of events. In effect, the Game Master controls all aspects of the game except for the actions of the player characters (PCs), and describes to the other players what they see and hear. Other titles that mean the same thing include Storyteller (ST), Dungeon Master (DM), or Narrator.

Game Master Role

The GM assumes the role of referee and describes for other players what they see and hear in this imaginary world, and what effects their actions have. That person is responsible for preparing each game thread, and must have a thorough understanding of the game rules. Different gaming systems may have different requirements and prepared settings. Some systems will require knowledge of several books while others may require only a single book. Being a GM has a different set of rewards than being a PC, and not all Players will enjoy the associated powers and responsibilities with being a GM.

The GM is responsible for narrative flow, creating the scenario and setting in which the game takes place, maintaining the pace and providing dynamic feedback. In a storyteller role, the GM is responsible for describing the events of the game and making rulings about game situations and effects based on the decisions made by the players. The GM can develop the adventure, plot and setting in which these PCs participate or use a preexisting module. This is typically designed as a type of decision tree that is followed by the players, and a customized version can require several hours of preparation.

The GM also serves as the arbiter of the rules, both in teaching the rules to the players and enforcing them. The rules provide game mechanics for resolving the outcome of events, including how the PCs interact with the game world. Although the rules exist to provide a balanced game environment, the DM is free to ignore the rules as needed. The DM can modify, remove, or create entirely new rules in order to fit the rules to the current campaign. This includes situations where the rules do not readily apply, making it necessary to improvise.

An example: the PCs are attacked by a living statue. To destroy the enemy, one PC soaks the statue in water, while the second uses a cold attack to freeze the water. At this point, he appeals to the DM, saying the water expands as it freezes and shatters the statue. The DM might allow it, or roll dice to decide.

This example shows the point that rules do not fit all eventualities and may have unintended consequences. The DM must ultimately draw the line between creative utilization of resources (e.g. firing wooden arrows into a dragon, then using a spell that warps wood at a distance) and exploit (e.g. "horse bombing" - using a non-combat spell that creates a temporary mount, several dozen feet above an enemy). Different games will have different cinematic levels/physics/comedic allowances and the GM will have to weigh each of these circumstances individually.

It is generally considered common practice to refrain from changing game rules in the middle of a campaign unless an exploit surfaces. This is for the sake of continuity and consistency, as well as being a courtesy to the players.

Gaming Groups, Adventures, Campaigns and Game Worlds

Play by Post (PbP) gaming groups consist of a GM and one or more players. Recommended group size is 3-6 players, though a group can be any size.

The Game World is the setting in which the game takes place. It can be a published setting, such as the Forgotten Realms or Middle Earth, or your own homebrew creation. No matter the type of setting, from fantasy to sci-fi to modern or anything else, where the PCs adventure, that's the game world.

An Adventure is one story arc, generally analogous to one act of a multi-act play. It can be much smaller in scope than that, too. A typical adventure will be contained within a single game thread and have a single goal. 'Adventure' is often synonymous with 'quest'.

A Campaign is a series of adventures, usually connected by some kind of overarching plot. Completing the goal of a campaign usually means the game is over.

A Side Quest is an adventure contained within a campaign that usually isn't related to the main plot. It may be put in to introduce a new character, or as filler during a time period when only some of the players are available, or even as a temporary change of tone to relieve game burnout.

Prerequisite skill sets for PbP GM's

All PbP GMs should be well versed in (or at least familiar with) Play By Post Basics before attempting to run a game. Familiarity with the first four volumes of the MW GUIDES is also recommended. Different game systems will have different specific requirements, so get familiar with your game system of choice before deciding to GM in it.

Intro Advice for Gamemastering

All of these concepts are explained in later articles.

  • Choose your players wisely
  • Presentation counts
  • Follow the rule of fun, not the rule of law
  • Don’t pretend to be neutral; you're on the same team as the players, with the goal of having fun
  • Spend time preparing NPCs and your setting, enough so you feel confident presenting them to players
  • Abandon too much plotting, focus instead on creating conflict
  • Keep the pressure and tension high; use instant obstacles as needed
  • Cliffhangers are most appropriate for table top games, less so for PbP.
  • Re-use existing NPCs when possible
  • Up the emotional stakes
  • Keep all the players equally engaged and give opportunities to use each characters’ skills
  • Layer multiple adventures to create depth and choices
  • Prepare to be surprised and turn the tables with minimizing, mystifying,stalling, and delaying tactics
  • Make the Nemesis the center of conflict (even if you haven't revealed them yet)
  • Ask Google first. In most every case if you need to learn something you can research it online by typing the question in your search bar and in most cases there is a wikipedia article as well as a blog and a dozen websites dedicated to the topic in question.

Common New GM Mistakes

This is a common list of rookie mistakes, all also explained in later articles.

  • Killing active PCs. For most types of game, this isn't desirable.
  • Being rude or abusive towards players - this violates the Site Rules, too.
  • Letting things get boring.
  • Taking actions on behalf of player characters.
  • Forcing players to stick to a storyline or predetermined plot.
  • Over/Under-preparing.
  • Speaking excessively OOC when IC would work at least as well.
  • Allowing players to get too powerful too fast, or conversely, never letting them use the powers/abilities/advantages they have.
  • Failing to bring character disadvantages and backgrounds into play.
  • Giving out too much loot too fast.

Back to the GM GUIDE.