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D6 Basic Ways to Improve Your GMing

Gamemasters are the beating heart of an RPG home game. Their hard work creates the adventures player characters play through and the world their characters experience. If you’re a GM you are constantly honing your skills. Here are d6 basic ways to help you improve as a GM or start for the first time.


As you consider these ideas, think of tabletop RPG home games as a three legged tripod. You have creativity and story telling, rule design and adjudication, and the social interaction with your players that all combine to make up actual RPG game play. If you deeply understand and apply these first three concepts, you will have the basics to understand GMing. The last three concepts are needed to be a competent GM and build on the first three ideas.
  1. Read Books: A foundation for running RPGs, reading fiction lays the groundwork for world building, NPC creation, and adventure ideas. Read everything not just fantasy, science fiction, or horror. Non-fiction too. A book on architecture may hone your map making skills. A murder mystery may inspire your next adventure when the king is assassinated. You want to steep yourself in the underpinnings of the hobby: Tolkien, Lovecraft, Burroughs, Vance, Heinlein, Howard, Asimov and more. Don’t neglect the newest works either though: Tad Williams, Terry Brooks, Neil Gaiman, Chine Melville, Jim Butcher etc. I also enjoy J. A. Jance’s modern crime thriller series starring Sheriff Joanna Brady. If you are at a loss, choose a Hugo or Nebula award winner or a Pulitzer Prize winning book to read.
  2. Read RPGs: If fiction builds your appreciation of world and NPC building, then reading RPGs will hone your knowledge of rule design, game play, and GMing. Read more RPGs than you play and you will be exposed to a variety of new ideas, new ways to run games, and even new ways to think about running game. I may never run certain RPGs but my understanding of my favorite RPGs are greatly broadened by reading the rules for other systems.
  3. Play as a Player: If you want to understand your players, what hosting a game looks like, and the nuances that go into GMing then play a few games as a player. The easiest way to understand a player’s mindset and goals is to be one yourself. Just remember to leave your GMing hat behind and put all your effort into helping the GM and other players create an engaging game session. Remember how you felt as a player and keep those feelings, thoughts, and goals in mind the next time your GM.
  4. Know your RPG: You read a lot. You play every once in a while as a player. To take your game to the next level, also delve deeply into the actual RPG you are running right now. Take time to reread rules, especially those sections that trip you up. Delve into the lore of the RPG and seek to deeply understand the tone and themes of the game. Immerse yourself in your RPG of choice.
  5. Know Your PCs and Your Campaign: Take the time to understand the characters your players are running, not just the game stats but who they are, where they have been, and where they are going. Try to memorize the names of each player’s character and use those character names in game. Review your previous adventures in the campaign. Update NPCs who survived previous encounters, update visited locations, move the timeline forward, and figure out what scheming villains have accomplished since last session. Remember what your players enjoyed in previous adventures and build on those experiences while at the same time introducing one or two new concepts and experiences.
  6. Know Your Adventure: Whether you write your own or use a published adventure, you need to organize your adventure. You need to carefully read a published adventure and turn the information into your own adventure notes. Try to configure encounters to one page including map and rule information like stats and defined terms. Write quick reminders on how certain rules work. If you can’t remember what the blinded condition in D&D 5E does and you need it for fighting a medusa, write needed details in your adventure notes. Keep a random list of NPC names and leave space for information you don’t want to forget after you actually run an adventure or as a place to count down hit points. Monster and NPC stat blocks usually leave out critical information like what class features and feat do, spell descriptions, special weapon and gear abilities, and more. Decide what you need to know to run the creature and record the information in your adventure notes.
If you use these basic tools you will continue to hone and improve your GMing craft. If you’re thinking about GMing for the first time these techniques will help get you a good start and will support you as you continue to GM for your players. If you’re already an expert GM, consider these basic techniques as kudos: you’re doing great, keep doing what you’re doing, and continue to hone your GM craft.
 
Charles Dunwoody

Comments


Thank you - that's all really good advice, some of which I have forgotten now and again.
You're welcome. I appreciate your feedback.

Play as a player is a difficult one for me. I was able to play in Dark Sun a few months back and we still talk about that campaign. My players got to see another side of me and I got to see gaming through their eyes.
 

lyle.spade

Explorer
You're welcome. I appreciate your feedback.

Play as a player is a difficult one for me. I was able to play in Dark Sun a few months back and we still talk about that campaign. My players got to see another side of me and I got to see gaming through their eyes.
Great point. I have traditionally loved running games for the sake of the big story, surprises at the table, and drawing out of players story and character that they might not, otherwise. At least that's what I aim for. I also tend, like many GMs I know, to GM too much, too long, and my players quietly accept this - and none step up. Then I get burned out.

I've been running pretty much nonstop for well over a year for a weekly game, in person (aside from video for a while in the first months of the plague), and finally I asked my group to set aside that game and have one of them run a few sessions. One did. And then I asked another to run a one-off, which he will this weekend. And then I'll take up the job again, but this time only for a block of maybe two months, and then I'll either hand it off to another player, or run something else (that helps).
 

I've been running pretty much nonstop for well over a year for a weekly game, in person (aside from video for a while in the first months of the plague), and finally I asked my group to set aside that game and have one of them run a few sessions. One did. And then I asked another to run a one-off, which he will this weekend. And then I'll take up the job again, but this time only for a block of maybe two months, and then I'll either hand it off to another player, or run something else (that helps).
How did it go? Did you have fun? Was it hard to transition from GM to player? Is this switching GMs helping stop your burnout?
 

lyle.spade

Explorer
How did it go? Did you have fun? Was it hard to transition from GM to player? Is this switching GMs helping stop your burnout?
It went well but each session, as time passed, took more effort - mentally and emotionally - to plan and run. Transitioning from GM to player took constant reminders to myself (internal monologue) to SHUT UP and not try to explain rules or take up the words of an NPC. It helped that we played in a totally different system and genre (we'll do that again this weekend).

Switching GMs is to help reduce burnout, and also to switch up stories. There are so many good games and systems out there and I see no reason to lock myself into one to the exclusion of others. Too much opportunity cost there.

As I said, I'll go back to DnD in a bit (Eberron) and will run an old published adventure from the 3.5 days, updated and made to fit into what had been our existing Eberron campaign. And then I'll pitch Star Trek Adventures, for 6-8 sessions, or coax my buddy into running Conan (the awesome 2d20 version).

That variety - GM, system, genre - should keep things fresh.
 


I think one of the best things you can do is get feedback from your players whether its outright asking them, poll them or casually bring it up in conversation. 9 out of 10 times IME they will not give you feedback for various reasons unless you ask. Sometimes DMs including myself think that the campaign is going great when in reality its not. If as a DM you dont know somethings wrong you cant fix it.
 


I think one of the best things you can do is get feedback from your players whether its outright asking them, poll them or casually bring it up in conversation. 9 out of 10 times IME they will not give you feedback for various reasons unless you ask. Sometimes DMs including myself think that the campaign is going great when in reality its not. If as a DM you dont know somethings wrong you cant fix it.
I agree. This habit is similar to but different from knowing the players' characters. I think a brand new GM would need to be careful what they ask for and how they ask. If I have players grouse at me I just write it off as a bad day and try to glean any useful bits from the complaints. But a new GM needs to develop both some confidence and thick skin so they don't think they suck at GMing. Also, new GMs may not know that players don't always know what they want. Monty Haul (giving away too much treasure) campaigns can happen when a new GM tries to give the players what they think they want.

So I would consider gathering and acting on feedback a more expert GMing skill.
 

Can I have an Amen?

So many people forgot the deep importance of fantasy literature, they prefer to watch youtube now.
I think YouTube is fine for entertainment and for getting deep GM advice if you dig deep enough. Watching someone GM isn't going to improve my skills though.

If a GM wants to go beyond reading going to a Shakespeare play would be better for honing skills than watching people play D&D on YouTube. Or watch a YouTube channel about history, architechture, fighting, horses, how to write, model buidling really anything factual. Even if the YouTuber doesn't have all the facts straight or correct, the GM can glean bits and pieces to improve their own campaign and adventure building skills. Heck, join Toastmasters and learn how to speak to an audience.
 

I agree. This habit is similar to but different from knowing the players' characters. I think a brand new GM would need to be careful what they ask for and how they ask. If I have players grouse at me I just write it off as a bad day and try to glean any useful bits from the complaints. But a new GM needs to develop both some confidence and thick skin so they don't think they suck at GMing. Also, new GMs may not know that players don't always know what they want. Monty Haul (giving away too much treasure) campaigns can happen when a new GM tries to give the players what they think they want.

So I would consider gathering and acting on feedback a more expert GMing skill.
I asked myself if this was appropriate to the thread and I concluded that it was worth mentioning. It is questionable whether this is a basic, intermediate or expert GM skill, but I think it depends on the player/GM dynamic and skill level of both in regards to their game system(s) and their experience roleplaying. I believe that the point of gathering feedback is to use the responses good or bad to either make the game better or salvage it before its too late. I think its a skill that any level of GM should consider. In the interest of not derailing the thread comments I'll leave it at that. Perhaps this is something to consider for the topic of an article for another time.
 

I asked myself if this was appropriate to the thread and I concluded that it was worth mentioning. It is questionable whether this is a basic, intermediate or expert GM skill, but I think it depends on the player/GM dynamic and skill level of both in regards to their game system(s) and their experience roleplaying. I believe that the point of gathering feedback is to use the responses good or bad to either make the game better or salvage it before its too late. I think its a skill that any level of GM should consider. In the interest of not derailing the thread comments I'll leave it at that. Perhaps this is something to consider for the topic of an article for another time.
I think this is a fine topic to discuss if it interests you. You make good points. And I will return to this topic in future articles.

The real question becomes, do either the players or the GM know how to make the game better? Of the two, I'd think the GM is more likely to know. But does she really know? Does buying a campaign path in hardcover or six softcovers mean the GM is going to thrive? Not if the GM relies solely on that resource. I actually think a big adventure path would be one of the hardest ways to try to learn to be an excellent GM. So much info dump, not so much GM skill improvement.

That is why I think honing GMing skills is so important. You can't know what you don't know. And much of running an actual campaign has to be learned on the job. However, you can do a lot of improving in between sessions of all the skills needed to support fine GMing. And out of that mélange can come the knowledge of what makes your individual campaign better which in turn should please your players. Even if they don't alwyas know what will make them happy, the GM will be able to figure it out. So yes, the GM needs the feedback. But first, the GM has to figure out what makes her own game better!
 

The real question becomes, do either the players or the GM know how to make the game better? Of the two, I'd think the GM is more likely to know. But does she really know?
Lets for this topic put the GM and players into the context of a new GM starting at square one running a campaign for new players. The GM reads the entirety of the game system, and the players read the PHB, and make characters both agreeing on playing a desert themed adventure. The GM runs a short one session game that they've created on their own. Games over and the GM thinks it went great, but the players are left feeling that the adventure could’ve taken place in any type of environment as the GM didn’t account for the effects of a desert environment such as heat, dehydration, and crossing over difficult terrain such as sand dunes, etc. So sometimes the players are aware of ways to make things better that the GM didn’t consider. Once the players bring this up to the GM, or they ask, then they can proceed to pursue the ways to improve their game and hone their GM skills as you have outlined as a gradual process over time, on areas that are most important based on what the GM and players expectations of the game are.
 

Lets for this topic put the GM and players into the context of a new GM starting at square one running a campaign for new players. The GM reads the entirety of the game system, and the players read the PHB, and make characters both agreeing on playing a desert themed adventure. The GM runs a short one session game that they've created on their own. Games over and the GM thinks it went great, but the players are left feeling that the adventure could’ve taken place in any type of environment as the GM didn’t account for the effects of a desert environment such as heat, dehydration, and crossing over difficult terrain such as sand dunes, etc. So sometimes the players are aware of ways to make things better that the GM didn’t consider. Once the players bring this up to the GM, or they ask, then they can proceed to pursue the ways to improve their game and hone their GM skills as you have outlined as a gradual process over time, on areas that are most important based on what the GM and players expectations of the game are.
Great example. I agree with you on how feedback here is important. I do think the feedback comes too late in this case. I am actually turning in an article about how to start a campaign. I agree this start seems typical. GM reads/makes adventure. Players make characters. Play.

The part I'd like to see GMs add is a discussion with the players on what they want to see happen in the game, BEFORE the GM makes that first adventure. In your example, the GM may assume the players want their characters to face off against desert monsters. But the players want to face the desert itself as a danger. If the GM knew this ahead of time, she might have incorporated a sandstorm and busted waterskins into the adventure. Maybe started out in a sandstorm instead of facing down gnolls.

So not so much feedback but design input from the very beginning.

Then, after the adventure, the GM and players discuss again. Did it go like everyone thought it would? Anyone want changes? Additions? Subtractions? With the understanding the GM will throw in some curve balls along the way as well.

The GM then makes the next adventure riffing off the events from the first one. And maybe throwing in something new to see if the players enjoy the new challenge.

So feedback gets turned into design input and feedback becomes discussion and reshaping. This process is more organic and I think everyone will be happier sooner.
 

Great example. I agree with you on how feedback here is important. I do think the feedback comes too late in this case. I am actually turning in an article about how to start a campaign. I agree this start seems typical. GM reads/makes adventure. Players make characters. Play.

The part I'd like to see GMs add is a discussion with the players on what they want to see happen in the game, BEFORE the GM makes that first adventure. In your example, the GM may assume the players want their characters to face off against desert monsters. But the players want to face the desert itself as a danger. If the GM knew this ahead of time, she might have incorporated a sandstorm and busted waterskins into the adventure. Maybe started out in a sandstorm instead of facing down gnolls.

So not so much feedback but design input from the very beginning.

Then, after the adventure, the GM and players discuss again. Did it go like everyone thought it would? Anyone want changes? Additions? Subtractions? With the understanding the GM will throw in some curve balls along the way as well.

The GM then makes the next adventure riffing off the events from the first one. And maybe throwing in something new to see if the players enjoy the new challenge.

So feedback gets turned into design input and feedback becomes discussion and reshaping. This process is more organic and I think everyone will be happier sooner.
Exactly, I think we're both on the same page here now. You are correct with everything you have said above, and honestly I don't think I could have said it better and don't have anything to add, other than you were correct in sometimes even the players don't knw what they want as you said earlier. I look forward to reading your article on starting a campaign.
 

Doug McCrae

Legend
Read Books
This isn't necessary. I know two very good GMs, Al and Chris, whose games are informed primarily by, respectively, action (especially martial arts) and B-movies. Al is great at describing action scenes. Chris does a good job portraying the criminal underworld; cynical, selfish NPCs; and shocking plot twists.

If you're running a superhero game reading comics and watching movies will help you more than reading books. If you're running Feng Shui you should watch Hong Kong action movies.
 
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This isn't necessary. I know two very good GMs, Al and Chris, whose games are informed primarily by, respectively, action (especially martial arts) and B-movies. Al is great at describing action scenes. Chris does a good job portraying the criminal underworld; cynical, selfish NPCs; and shocking plot twists.

If you're running a superhero game reading comics and watching movies will help you more than reading books. If you're running Feng Shui you should watch Hong Kong action movies.
Do Al and Chris write adventures/adventure notes and/or design their campaign world? If yes, then they need to read. You can't become a better writer by watching movies. I can't see any situation in which a GM does no writing whatsoever.

I would also point out that those movies all start with a written script. And comics are a form of writing as well. If a GM wants to understand deeply how an aciton movie works, understanding the scripts and the writers would be a helpful start.

I would agree that the actors and directors have the biggest impact to the audience in regards to movies. But for the creative endeavour of creating that movie, writing is a big part. And nothing happens without a script.

Finally, Chinese action movies were inspired by Wuxia, often adapted from novels like The Tale of the Extraordinary Swordsman. novel to Wuxia movie franchise

It all starts with the writing.
 

Doug McCrae

Legend
Do Al and Chris write adventures/adventure notes and/or design their campaign world? If yes, then they need to read. You can't become a better writer by watching movies. I can't see any situation in which a GM does no writing whatsoever.
I've played in the games of several good GMs who didn't seem to do any written prep. Al's a great improv GM. His sessions are created in his head five minutes before play starts.

Some GMs are better with less prep, though I'm not one of them. Perhaps it helps them to be more spontaneous and responsive to the players.
 
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I've played in the games of several good GMs who didn't seem to do any written prep. Al's a great improv GM. His sessions are created in his head five minutes before play starts.

Some GMs are better with less prep, though I'm not one of them. Perhaps it helps them to be more spontaneous and responsive to the players.
I've played in the games of several good GMs who didn't seem to do any written prep. Al's a great improv GM. His sessions are created in his head five minutes before play starts.

Some GMs are better with less prep, though I'm not one of them. Perhaps it helps them to be more spontaneous and responsive to the players.
Awesome.
 

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