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.


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

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)

Are you thinking Historian via world lore? Or edition lore? Because a GM that can draw in earlier edition adventures and lore can really engage players. Heck, Wizards basically just puts out previous edition worlds and Magic the Gathering worlds now, so there is a player base for it.

For the waterslide (not my original idea but building on what I hear and read) please stay tuned. That is the next GMing with Joy article.

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I was thinking "Historian" as in the GM who only runs campaigns set in real world historical settings (with or without their attached fantasy elements). I suppose it could also apply to someone who wanted to run a campaign in FR during the eras of the Dragon-Giant Wars, or during the Phaerimm Empire.

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