GMing with Joy: GM Tools That Can Last a Lifetime

While numbers are hard to pin down, in my experience the average length of a typical table top roleplaying game campaign is six sessions. Yet many rulebooks are two hundred pages or more. This contrast between endless campaign presentation and short-term campaigns may lead to false expectations and game master burnout. But it doesn't have to be this way: GMs might take the sheer size of role-playing games as an incentive to up their game mastering, sharpen their skills, and run longer games. Here's how.

crpgmyth.jpg

Cthulhu Role Playing Game Myth - Free photo on Pixabay - Pixabay

Building the Foundation​

The nature of tabletop role-playing is that a game with infinite possibilities has to be condensed down to (usually) one person, a game master, to present it to players. That's no easy task.

When a rulebook comes out from an established tabletop publisher, they can often be hundreds of pages, full color, hardcover, and maybe some extras like ribbon bookmarks and maps. A GM purchasing this tome of wonder is likely inspired by the possibility of all glorious campaigns to follow. If the GM also picks up an adventure path, they're all set right? Professional rules and the entire campaign all ready to go, you just have to sit down and astound my players! Well, it's a bit more complicated than that.

Let’s say you want to drywall your basement. It's your first time working on a basement and you’re excited. A company delivers hundreds of pounds of sheetrock to your house. They even have a bonus package complete with screws, tape, putty, sandpaper and more. You just need to provide the tools and watch a YouTube video. Then you can drywall and have it come out looking professional, right? Well, no.

More likely, you learned by helping someone more experienced put up drywall. Later, you started small on your own first project, like your garage. In tabletop role-playing games the same idea applies. You likely started as a player first or, if you were a game master, you just ran a session or two. You started small and built up from there.

As much as the tabletop gaming industry tries, there's still a steep learning curve for game masters, even when the rules are easy to follow, the book is laid out well, and there's published adventures to run. Purchasing all those books is just the beginning, not the end, of a game master's journey into a new game.

Shiny New Game vs. Harried GM​

When a new role-playing game debuts, it has so much promise. The beautiful well-made RPG book may be a year or more in the making, a work of astounding effort by a group of highly-motivated and highly-skilled creators. When the game fails to live up to that promise, it can be crushing. But as GMs we need to cut ourselves some slack.

As a GM trying to prep for a game, you also have to contend with the rest of your life. Your kid might be struggling at school, you may be struggling at work, and your house may need repairs. All these factors vie for your time and attention. Thing is, this isn't unusual for most game masters.

And yet, RPGs are often presented as being endless, a lifelong commitment. If the average campaign lasts just six sessions, why are publishers creating hundreds or even thousands of pages of well-made and beautiful content?

There's lots of reasons for this, but it's not uncommon for publishers to cater to the "ultra-GM." You know the type, those who have amazing campaigns that are lushly detailed on streaming and podcasts. These are skilled and highly experienced game masters taking their tabletop role-playing game to the next level. If you're just starting out, this can be quite inspiring ... and a little intimidating. Most of us are just barely holding our game together over those six sessions.

So start small. Focus on yourself, and not the glorious, endless campaign that lasts for years. Becoming a good GM is itself a worthy goal. Strive for greatness but give yourself some grace; it's not easy to be a GM, it's not easy be an adult, and it's not easy to have a job or kids. Combining all these factors is a lot to take on. Not everyone wants to be a content creator themselves, and that's okay.

Basic Tools

In GMing with Joy: Long Term Gamemastering I discussed real basics like taking care of yourself as first steps. Once your health is attended to, start working on your tools (laid out here as if you are rolling up a GM character, that's you!). Any or all of these basic tools may not have been used in a while, but a GM needs to at least have some interest in getting better in each area if they want to improve.

D6 Basic GM Toolkit

  1. Good reading and comprehension skill
  2. A willingness to lead a small group
  3. A desire to entertain by creating and facilitating shared adventures
  4. Basic math knowledge including understanding probability
  5. An interest in developing and sustaining long-term an interconnected small group activity that happens over months or even years for hours at a time
  6. One or more GM subclass abilities
The GM subclass abilities may be dormant at first, but once unlocked they become one of the most versatile tools a GM wields. These subclass abilities define an individual GM and mark him or her as unique. The work toward mastery in one or more of these subclass abilities provide much-needed energy and enthusiasm for any beleaguered GM.

D6 GM Subclass Abilities

In addition to the toolkit that unites all GMs, each GM has one or more subclass abilities. A GM may only have one of these abilities to start and that is fine if they continue to hone that ability. Some GMs may have two or more and develop additional subclass abilities as they develop their craft over time and through practice. Here are six, there are many more and some prestige abilities that usually only advanced GMs acquire and practice.
  1. Writing and world building skills
  2. Painting miniatures and crafting terrain
  3. Creating art and/or maps
  4. Creating in game props
  5. Finding and/or creating TTRPG music
  6. Game design (home brewing)
A GM working toward mastery in even only one of these subclass abilities will likely impress players around the table. Painted miniatures, a well-crafted world, an in game letter that looks real, and more really bring a game to life. They also allow a GM to put creative energy to work in areas outside of GMing alone which can fan enthusiasm and beat back possible GM burn out. Most are also solo activities which is a nice change of pace for GMs. We'll dive into these subclass abilities in future articles.

Expert Ending

I think these two d6 lists make it clear why tabletop RPGs is a challenging business to make profitable. TTRPGs combine a wide range of talents and interests, but most games require a game master, and that is a very select group of amazing people. Those GMs who embrace a lifestyle of RPG play are extraordinary. They are willing to spend several hours around a table with what to outsiders seems like an arcane ritual that only makes total sense to a select group of players.

TTRPGs are a lot of work, but the end results are so worth it. It's amazing to see that hard work pay off over years of gaming. Bonds of friendship get formed that last a lifetime and gaming stories still get told decades later. I encourage you to keep your GMing tools honed and develop your GM subclass abilities to a high level. I’ll be right there in the gaming table trenches fighting the good fight with you. Embrace the gaming lifestyle and game on!

Your Turn: How have you increased class abilities on your GM journey?
 
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Charles Dunwoody

Charles Dunwoody

aco175

Legend
Your Turn: How have you increased class abilities on your GM journey?
I have been trying to write more. I do not read as much as I did when I was younger, unless some blogs and a Golf magazine counts. I have been active writing on DMsGuild though since it opened in 2016. I think I have 40+ modules there of varied length. Some have maps and some are just a few pages of side quest stuff, but I can see improvement from the earlier modules to the newer ones I have written.

This has also given me a basic shill of an adventure and a bunch of filler maps and monster stats to use if I'm in a hurry. I have reused a few locations in newer adventures and I find that I'm better at just pulling something up on short notice if I need without being overwhelmed.
 

The Soloist

Adventurer
My GM abilities peaked during 4e. I wrote a 50-page gazetteer with a world map and many local maps in Illustrator. After that I never did as much work because it was unnecessary (mostly unused by the players).

The last time I wrote an original campaign was two years prior to Covid. I put much effort into making maps, terrain and painting miniatures. We played every three weeks and it went very well until Covid struck. We tried continuing online but that didn't work. I wanted to continue after Covid but two of my players divorced. Because of the political nature of the campaign, it was impossible to continue without them.

It's not the first time I spent hours creating an original campaign. While I enjoy drawing and designing adventures it took a toll on me over the years. All the accumulated failed campaigns have created a sort of angst against creating new material for groups that fizzle. These days I GM Dragonbane for my new group. We play the official Adventures book. Everything is ready. No angst.

When I want to create original stuff I do it for myself, and solitary play through it.
 
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J.M

Explorer
Good article. I think a super important and underappreciated GM skill is spotlight management. That means allocating time to all the players of course. But it starts with the GM not hogging all the spotlight for themselves. One thing I see too often among GMs, including myself on an off day: They talk too much. Better to establish a scene quickly and vividly (this is where skill at describing can be important), then let the players take the lead.
 

GuardianLurker

Adventurer
I think your d6 Subclass list is woefully incomplete. Glaring omissions :
7. Portraying NPCs in an engaging manner.
8. Designing/Building Engaging/Challenging Encounters
9. Character Spotlight Management (as mentioned above)
10. Incorporating/Engaging Character Backstories/Subplots in Play.

I also think you put a little too much emphasis on prop creation - not that they don't add to the TTRPG experience, but I don't think they're the big payoffs.

I also feel you miss two other very key entries in the Basic Toolkit:
7. Rules Competence/Mastery of your chosen game
8. Rendering Trustworthy/Fair rules judgements (e.g. Not just ruling against the Generic A6e Player because they are an as*, or the converse, etc.)

Addendum: And to answer your question - play other games, and pay attention to what that GM does right. And to a lesser degree, other players.
 

Mr. Patient

Adventurer
I think your d6 Subclass list is woefully incomplete. Glaring omissions :
7. Portraying NPCs in an engaging manner.
8. Designing/Building Engaging/Challenging Encounters
9. Character Spotlight Management (as mentioned above)
10. Incorporating/Engaging Character Backstories/Subplots in Play.

Agreed, and I would take it even further -- these four are not 'subclass' abilities. They're core. If you can perform these adequately, you're most of the way toward having a successful game. The rest of the subclass abilities in the original list are 'ribbons'.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Not playing favourites among players and-or characters is a key skill, to be sure.

@GuardianLurker
I'd change your first #7 above to read:

7. Portraying NPCs and the setting as a whole in an engaging manner.

#8 falls under "creating and facilitating shared adventures".

9 and 10 are table-specific. Spotlight management is IMO highly overrated; if the players want the spotlight, they'll take it; and if they don't want it, they won't. Focusing on character backstories and subplots only applies to a subset of games and, while important there, probably isn't general enough for a list like this.

I can't think of a good way to word it, but something around giving the players freedom to play the game (i.e. a caution against talking too much, excessive railroading, etc.) could certainly fit as a subclass.
 

I think your d6 Subclass list is woefully incomplete. Glaring omissions :
7. Portraying NPCs in an engaging manner.
8. Designing/Building Engaging/Challenging Encounters
9. Character Spotlight Management (as mentioned above)
10. Incorporating/Engaging Character Backstories/Subplots in Play.

I also think you put a little too much emphasis on prop creation - not that they don't add to the TTRPG experience, but I don't think they're the big payoffs.

I also feel you miss two other very key entries in the Basic Toolkit:
7. Rules Competence/Mastery of your chosen game
8. Rendering Trustworthy/Fair rules judgements (e.g. Not just ruling against the Generic A6e Player because they are an as*, or the converse, etc.)

Addendum: And to answer your question - play other games, and pay attention to what that GM does right. And to a lesser degree, other players.

Just like in D&D 5E, I see subclass abilities as specializations that not all GMs have. Your additions to the subclass list are more what I consider expert skills that all GMs are going to work on learning. No GM starting out is going to be able to do many of those well except for 9. And 5 covers that one.

I also disagree with rendering fair judgements as a basic skill. No GM starting out can have this in his or her toolkit. It takes practice.

I would consider rule competence/mastery an advanced skill. No GM needs this ability to run a game. Better to make a judgment and keep things moving. Which again takes practice.
 

Good article. I think a super important and underappreciated GM skill is spotlight management. That means allocating time to all the players of course. But it starts with the GM not hogging all the spotlight for themselves. One thing I see too often among GMs, including myself on an off day: They talk too much. Better to establish a scene quickly and vividly (this is where skill at describing can be important), then let the players take the lead.

Thanks! I would say that spotlight management gets covered here under interconnected and small group: An interest in developing and sustaining long-term an interconnected small group activity that happens over months or even years for hours at a time
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
Let’s say you want to drywall your basement. It's your first time working on a basement and you’re excited. A company delivers hundreds of pounds of sheetrock to your house. They even have a bonus package complete with screws, tape, putty, sandpaper and more. You just need to provide the tools and watch a YouTube video. Then you can drywall and have it come out looking professional, right? Well, no.

More likely, you learned by helping someone more experienced put up drywall. Later, you started small on your own first project, like your garage. In tabletop role-playing games the same idea applies. You likely started as a player first or, if you were a game master, you just ran a session or two. You started small and built up from there.

As much as the tabletop gaming industry tries, there's still a steep learning curve for game masters, even when the rules are easy to follow, the book is laid out well, and there's published adventures to run. Purchasing all those books is just the beginning, not the end, of a game master's journey into a new game.
This really puts it into perspective for me. I can't drywall my basement - even if I had one (basement, not drywall)! But yeah - GMing takes a lot of skills, and it's not fair to expect anyone to have all of them. But then, who's going to GM when a group doesn't have one, and it's so difficult?

And I had this glimmer of an idea, which there's no way I can flesh out right now: GMing should be a team effort until one player has developed the necessary minimum skills. That takes burden from the learner, which can easily cause premature burnout. And it charts a path to success. A new GM should look at the "basic GM toolkit" (which I might redesign a bit), take on what she's comfortable with, and pass off what she isn't. That way, the game gets going, all the bases are covered, and no one gets hurt in the process.

Not playing favourites among players and-or characters is a key skill, to be sure.
This is a sub-skill of small group management. (Or is that a GM-class: Small Group Manager?)

I can't think of a good way to word it, but something around giving the players freedom to play the game (i.e. a caution against talking too much, excessive railroading, etc.) could certainly fit as a subclass.
Listening? Collaboration? Feel like class skills to me.

Maybe we should call in some of the skill-system-thread experts to determine what skill list is available to GMs 🤓
 

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