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?
 
Last edited by a moderator:

log in or register to remove this ad

Charles Dunwoody

Charles Dunwoody

GuardianLurker

Adventurer
I'll agree that Fair Judgement isn't a starting skill. Neither is Group Management. However, both are foundational skills, in my mind - basic in the sense that if you haven't acquired them (not mastered, acquired) you can't fully claim to be a GM. Ditto for Rules Competence.

Now as an experienced player and GM, I'm more than willing to help a newly growing GM with these. That's part of being an expert/semi-pro/dedicated/responsible(? I'm not sure the right adjective here) GM. But someone without Rules Competence, nor any desire to acquire it, isn't a GM - they're a Director or a Playwright, most likely Improv because of Players, but still not a GM. Directors and Playwrights are closely related classes, but not the same.

Nor would I consider 7-10 to be skills that all GMs have. In fact, I don't think I've ever played with a GM that's managed any two of them. I'll also offer that Spotlight Management is as much as a different skill from Group Management, as Painting Minatures and Terrain are from In-Game Props. I'll also disagree that 9 and 10 are table-specific, I've seen too many diverse examples of them for that. Heck - in my opinion, that's one of the reasons the original WoD took off in the 90's; the games did a much better job of supporting more character engagement.

As for Expert GM skills, I couldn't really judge that on the basis of the article -it didn't offer any examples. For that matter, we've been talking about 1-10 as skills, not proper Subclasses. If we do that, perhaps a better breakdown might be:
A) Gamesman - All about the expression of the mechanics; Encounter design, opponent building, "dungeon" design.
Quote: "Let's Play!" "I've got a cool idea for a combat."
Happy When: The players engage with the encounter. "Man, did you see how I climbed that dragon's neck to stab it in the eye?"
B) Director - All about the Story; character interaction, npc portrayal, plot & story, setting/worldbuilding
Quote: "Your mission..." "I've got a story to tell you."
Happy When: The players engage with the story being told. "I would never have suspected the Baker was actually an Assassin for the Butterfly Guild."
C) Architect - All about the World; world building, homebrewing, setting
Quote: "So. Where to now?" "Your characters are exploring my world."
Happy When: The players engage with the world, exploring it. "OK, so dragons and dwarves hate each other because the most valuable ores the dwarves mine are also dragon vitamins?"
D) Propsmaster - It's all about making immersion easy; props, minatures, terrain, sounds, etc.
Quote: "Take a look!" "Tah-dah!"
Happy When: The players engage with their props. "Wait, guys, this loose anchor by the goose feather in the painting has to mean something. They're the only things actually illuminated by the lantern."

In this, the "Basic" skills are ones that every GM - including the beginning ones are expected to have. The "Intermediate" skills are the ones that launch a subclass, and the "Advanced/Expert" skills are the ones reserved to the subclass. As to how many skills are in the class, and how many in a subclass, I don't know.
 

log in or register to remove this ad


I'll agree that Fair Judgement isn't a starting skill. Neither is Group Management. However, both are foundational skills, in my mind - basic in the sense that if you haven't acquired them (not mastered, acquired) you can't fully claim to be a GM. Ditto for Rules Competence.

I respectively disagree. If you're willing to get in front of a group of other people and run a TTRPG for them, especially more than one time, you are a GM. The courage it takes to do this job cannot be overstated and it should be acknowledged and celebrated.
 

Dr. Bull

Adventurer
Dear Mr. Dunwoody:

I am grateful that you have posted this and I am also glad to join this conversation. As a long-term DM (with 40 years of experience), I like to read as much as I can about time-saving strategies and alternative perspectives to DM'ing. This was one of the best articles I've read on ENworld for quite a while.

I've enjoyed reading your previous posts and I would like to offer my own perspective:

During Covid, I had a face-to-face gamer group of 4 people who formed a "social Covid bubble" for almost 2 years. We gamed for 4-6 hours, every other week, for a total of 58 gaming sessions (they are well-documented). The party consisted of 2 rogues and 1 bard; they spent a lot of time on specific goals and quests, but it all boiled-down to the "sandbox". Essentially, I used the map of the Sword Coast as a guide, but every location was altered to suit the needs of the current issue at hand.

In the end, I relied heavily upon advice from the "Lazy DM" to improvise along the way. Thankfully, the players and their characters developed a lengthy list of character traits and motivations. We could have kept the campaign going for many years, but 2 of the players moved away.

In short, I re-learned several lessons. The first lesson was to find excellent maps. The second lesson was to ask the players for a laundry list of character backgrounds and motivations. The third lesson was to embrace improvisation within a specific (clearly defined) world.

If the group had stayed together, they could have advanced beyond 20th level. We spent over 250 hours together playing this campaign, yet I proved to be "stingy" with their advancement (by the time the campaign ended, they reached 10th level).

I highly recommend your advice, in addition to the "Lazy DM," Kobold Press, Gary Gygax, and others... It is very difficult to be a DM, but in the end, it is worth it!

Sincerely,
- Dr. Bull
 

GuardianLurker

Adventurer
I respectively disagree. If you're willing to get in front of a group of other people and run a TTRPG for them, especially more than one time, you are a GM. The courage it takes to do this job cannot be overstated and it should be acknowledged and celebrated.
That is the first step, yes. It may be the hardest for the aspirant. But it is not a sufficient step. If you want to be more than just an aspirant - and GMing is no different - you have to do more than just show up. Now having shown up, most players and GMs that I know will help you learn the skills you need and assist you until you do.

But enough about that; what do you think of the subclass writeups?
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
. . . If the group had stayed together, they could have advanced beyond 20th level. We spent over 250 hours together playing this campaign, yet I proved to be "stingy" with their advancement (by the time the campaign ended, they reached 10th level).
See Dr Bull, I think you're selling yourself short here. I get the feeling that you were very close to a TPK before the players moved away. Have faith in your murderous GM skills, and repeat the mantra, "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, no PCs ever get to 20!"
 

But enough about that; what do you think of the subclass writeups?

I think those four subclasses you wrote up make a lot of sense. I watch GMs on Youtube and whole channels are devoted to terrain and miniatures like a Propsmaster or mechanics like a Gamesman. GMs who find a subclass like that can build on that strength to sharpen the other tools in their toolbox.
 

Dear Mr. Dunwoody:

I am grateful that you have posted this and I am also glad to join this conversation. As a long-term DM (with 40 years of experience), I like to read as much as I can about time-saving strategies and alternative perspectives to DM'ing. This was one of the best articles I've read on ENworld for quite a while.

I've enjoyed reading your previous posts and I would like to offer my own perspective:

During Covid, I had a face-to-face gamer group of 4 people who formed a "social Covid bubble" for almost 2 years. We gamed for 4-6 hours, every other week, for a total of 58 gaming sessions (they are well-documented). The party consisted of 2 rogues and 1 bard; they spent a lot of time on specific goals and quests, but it all boiled-down to the "sandbox". Essentially, I used the map of the Sword Coast as a guide, but every location was altered to suit the needs of the current issue at hand.

In the end, I relied heavily upon advice from the "Lazy DM" to improvise along the way. Thankfully, the players and their characters developed a lengthy list of character traits and motivations. We could have kept the campaign going for many years, but 2 of the players moved away.

In short, I re-learned several lessons. The first lesson was to find excellent maps. The second lesson was to ask the players for a laundry list of character backgrounds and motivations. The third lesson was to embrace improvisation within a specific (clearly defined) world.

If the group had stayed together, they could have advanced beyond 20th level. We spent over 250 hours together playing this campaign, yet I proved to be "stingy" with their advancement (by the time the campaign ended, they reached 10th level).

I highly recommend your advice, in addition to the "Lazy DM," Kobold Press, Gary Gygax, and others... It is very difficult to be a DM, but in the end, it is worth it!

Sincerely,
- Dr. Bull

Thank you for the compliment, I really appreciate it. I enjoy reading about successful campaigns like yours.

I really like your list of recommended reading and your lessons learned: excellent maps, PC backgrounds and motivations, and improvisation with a specific clearly defined world. I'm going to ponder your lessons learned. I ran a year long One Ring 2E campaign and all three of your lessons learned kept the game going strong.

Not sure if you have heard of the waterslide method of GMing, but I'm tackling that next. It has different or maybe more accurately adjacent advice, but I do like your list as well.
 

Another missing subclass ability: Research.

Unless you built the game world yourself, there will be things to look up in published sources. Even if you did build it yourself, keeping track of everything will involve finding stuff in your own notes if the campaign lasts.

If you're setting things in the real world, or some modification of it (my preferred setting), research is absolutely vital to verisimilitude. The hard bit is stopping when you have enough.
 

GuardianLurker

Adventurer
Research. Hmmmm......
I think a really basic form of it (Basic/Light/Shallow Research?) might be a foundational skill of the class. The in-depth form is certainly part of the Architect subclass. I'm not sure that it's a full subclass itself.

Thinking about it, there might be a "Historian" subclass, but I'm not sure how much that would meaningfully diverge from the Architect.

@Charles Dunwoody
I'm interested in this "waterslide" approach, as it's new(s) to me. Tell me more... (y)
 

Related Articles

Remove ads

Remove ads

AD6_gamerati_skyscraper

Remove ads

Upcoming Releases

Top