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Taking the Chair

In a previous article, I said it was time we all stepped up and tried GMing for a change. However, I do appreciate it isn’t that easy. If you are thinking of running a game but you don’t know where to start, here’s some helpful advice.

chair.jpg

Photo by Kelly Miller on Unsplash

Don’t Panic​

My first advice is the most important: don’t sweat this. You are new to it and your group should appreciate that, but if it all goes wrong it is not the end of the world. It is all just a game and if it all goes dreadfully badly, call it a night and break out a board game if there is time. No harm, no foul. I should add that if your first game is awful; try not to let that put you off. There may be something you can learn from the experience that will make it worth taking another try. It might not even be your fault. Take a break, see how your usual GM handles the game (maybe ask them how they would have run that session) and give it another go when you are ready.

Play a Storygame​

There are a lot of ‘GM-less’ games out there and somewhat ironically they are a great way to build up to running a game. Most of them aren’t absent of a GM, they just insist everyone takes turns being the GM. Fiasco is a good example and there are plenty more. In such games you are free to experiment with narrative, test your improvisation and get a feel for being the one in charge of the story. But you only have to do so for your turn and can easily pass on the reins.

Get Your Group Onside​

Make sure everyone is okay with you taking over while you’re still learning. Your players might have a reasonable objection, such as a campaign coming to a climax they want to get past before trying something else. But if the usual GM needs a break, they may also jump at the chance when the alternative is not gaming at all. Get players on your side before you start and they will undoubtedly help you through your first session.

Assist Your Usual GM​

Consider running a character that is more of an NPC. You might be the patron who hires the party or the noble they have to protect on their journey etc. While you’ll play a character for the most part, you are really an NPC with a lot more focus. With a particular agenda and goal for the story you can help run the adventure from the inside (which is why the others in the group should know you are ‘in collusion’ with the GM). You will know more about what is going on and can assist the GM in driving the story in the right direction. With more confidence, you might end up running all the NPCs, and by association any combat. Eventually you might take on more responsibility until the usual GM is basically watching you and advising now and again. It is a little trickier as the usual GM needs to plan the adventure around you taking over. But they may also welcome the help and input.

Love the Game You Want to Run​

Don’t let anyone talk you into anything you are not comfortable with. You are going to have to build the world and make the calls so it should be a game you love and ideally know well. Being a GM is an investment, and playing a game you don't like will make it a real slog.

Know The basics​

You should know the basics of the system you are using, but just the very basics are all you need. If someone else at the table knows the rules, they can usually help you through it. But you can always just declare you are not going to use any rules beyond a basic skill test (with only a couple more bells and whistles for combat). Rules are not the be all and end all of GMing. You can know the rulebook by heart and still be a lousy GM. As long as you have a grasp of the fundamentals (which you’ll have as a player of the game quite probably) you are good to go.

Use a Published Adventure​

It is best to use a published adventure on your first time in the GM chair, even if you already have a cool idea for one. Using a published adventure isn’t so much about giving you training wheels as giving you a solid foundation to build on. Such an adventure will have predicted most of the pitfalls already and give you a solid base to start with. While your idea for an adventure might be awesome, save it for your second go. Until you’ve run a game, there are a host of eventualities you might not have considered. If you enjoy the experience, you’ve got all the time in the world to run as many adventures as you like.

Read the Adventure Twice​

Santa checks his list twice and so should you! On the first read of an adventure you'll get the idea of what it’s about. The second read will not only help you understand the details but also help you remember everything. Obviously you don’t need to run from memory, but a good understanding of what is coming next and what the adventurers may have missed in the previous section will help you tremendously. What happens next is the one thing players can’t help with, so you need to have it clearly in your mind as much as possible.

Run When You Are Ready To​

Make sure you are ready to run the game when you come to sit in the chair. If you need another week to read the adventure again, take another week. While you shouldn’t keep postponing your debut, you shouldn’t feel pressured either. So, only run when you are ready, but do try and get ready in time if you can.

Figure Out the First Scene​

The hardest part of any adventure is arguably starting it. You’ll sit in the chair; get out your dice and the adventure you have read several times. The players look at you expectedly and you just go blank. What was that first scene? It’s a bar but what sort of bar? Which NPCs were there? Who should I describe first? It can be a minefield. So take a moment before game night to consider how you will set that first scene and what you’ll say. It might be as easy as reading boxed text, but what will you want to point out to the players when you finish?

Once that opening scene is out of the way, you are off and from here the players and their characters will help you guide the story. You just need to get the ball rolling usually. But once you have done that, congratulations, you're a GM!
 
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Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine

Arilyn

Hero
I like the idea of a gaming group playing a casual game with a weekly rotation of GM. Everyone takes a turn but no pressure to remain GM for weeks. And I've always thought co-gming is a great idea for a brand new GM or even seasoned ones. There's a need for more GMs, and there's plenty of advice, but GMs are often just jumping into the deep end.
 

I like the idea of a gaming group playing a casual game with a weekly rotation of GM. Everyone takes a turn but no pressure to remain GM for weeks. And I've always thought co-gming is a great idea for a brand new GM or even seasoned ones. There's a need for more GMs, and there's plenty of advice, but GMs are often just jumping into the deep end.
We do that, with a regular dose of 5th Edition, then breaks for the GM while others try to run some one shits or short campaigns during the break. I plan to try running the new Ironsworn Starforged during next summer break if Kickstarter delivers early.
 

aco175

Legend
I would echo starting off with a published adventure. Even if it is an older edition that you try to convert and use for a loose story, you may be better off with a frame of the story for the first couple levels.

Feel free to steal things from online to use in your homemade world. A lot of new DMs feel the need to make maps and worlds before getting to the first game. Take something like Phandalin or Netir Vale and just use that. Focus on the story and NPCs.

I would also say to have the players help you with other DM tasks. One of my players tracks initiative and another looks stuff up for me when we need a spell or such. These smaller things helps at the table and frees the DM up for other things.

I'm looking forward to the day my son wants to run his first game.
 

lyle.spade

Adventurer
This is all very good advice - I hope it gets out there to people so that those considering running games can read it. I'll add one thing, as a subset of 'Know The Basics:" make a rules cheatsheet. One page, with summaries of the most essential rules as related to the story you are going to run...and use that, not a book. I've found that when I'm feeling out of my depth, flipping pages in a thick rulebook only compounds that sense of being lost or somehow doing poorly.

I do this sometimes when I run convention games, in order to keep the pace lively - and I establish from the jump that we're not going to refer to the books and that we'll make calls at the table in order to keep things going.

If you make a one page reference - MAKE, not find or copy - you'll do the double duty of helping yourself understand and remember the rules you'll need for that adventure. because you'll be reading and summarizing them into your own words; and, in so doing, you'll have that reference sheet, ready to go, if you do need to use it while in the session.
 

Campbell

Legend
Don't be afraid to try different things. Running different games requires a different skillset. When I was younger there was a period of time when I thought I was not cut out to be a GM. Turns out I just was not cut out for a particular sort of GMing (linear storytelling). When I got a chance to run some other sorts of games I was pretty solid.

Find your people. Running a game is audience specific too. Just because you are not a good fit for a given group does not mean you are a poor GM. It often means there are some stylistic differences.
 



aco175

Legend
Don't be afraid to try different things. Running different games requires a different skillset. When I was younger there was a period of time when I thought I was not cut out to be a GM. Turns out I just was not cut out for a particular sort of GMing (linear storytelling). When I got a chance to run some other sorts of games I was pretty solid.
Great advise, I would echo that you can figure out what you like by running different styles of the dame game. I tend to make more hack and slash D&D over storytelling D&D. I feel I'm better DMing a dungeoncrawl better than a mystery. Challenging yourself to run the different styles will help you overall. One week you have no fights and another you have a series of traps and puzzles and see how you and the players like it.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Definitely run what you love. So much advice telling new GMs to start with a dungeon, but if you hate dungeons there could be a huge motivation problem.
This pretty much, that energy is infectious for the player.

At the other end of the table, I was recently a player in a FATE game, GM was good, and while I would play again, it isn't a system I would ever want to GM; to much to track with aspects, stunts, compels, etc.. So that not only dungeons, it is also the system mechanics that one should be invested in.
 

Ramaster

Explorer
These all sound like great advice, except for the "Run a published adventure" one. I'm not too sure about that... sometimes complete freedom is too much freedom, yes, but following a "script" for your first game might just pile on more pressure.

Of particular note is the "Run an NPC for your current DM in preparation" advice. I hadn't thought of that but it sounds like a good way of taking in some of the responsibility without having to prepare a whole session. The next logical step would be to run combats for your current DM, I guess, to get a handle on the delicate art of "Looking like your are trying to win the combat while you are actually trying to lose".
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos

Use a Published Adventure​

It is best to use a published adventure on your first time in the GM chair, even if you already have a cool idea for one. Using a published adventure isn’t so much about giving you training wheels as giving you a solid foundation to build on. . .

Run When You Are Ready To​

Make sure you are ready to run the game when you come to sit in the chair. If you need another week to read the adventure again, take another week. While you shouldn’t keep postponing your debut, you shouldn’t feel pressured either. So, only run when you are ready, but do try and get ready in time if you can.

Sage advice. But . . .

I'm with @Ramaster. Published adventures aren't for everyone, and can even be like a straitjacket for a new GM. When things go off the rails (which, yeah, they will) a new GM might think he's doing something wrong, and might even try to force PCs back on course. Which doesn't tend to go well. If the new GM is playing a game that requires significant background work, like hefty character sheets or setting-appropriate details, use a pre-gen adventure. If not, draw up something simple and go from there.

Instead of saying "run when you're ready to," I'd say "get ready and do it!" There are countless reasons to doubt being ready. New GMs should just dive in, be humble, and see how it goes.
 

TheSword

Legend
Supporter
Having a pre-written adventure takes some of the pressure of creativity off. You don’t have to worry about coming up with everything, just portraying the NPCs/monsters and laying out the environment.

Some pretty-written adventures like Phandelver are even written with new GMs in mind. They teach the rules as they go along.

I find going off on a tangent is very much party specific. Most groups that I see, aren’t intentionally trying to derail a game. That’s a mark of a very specific type of player or group for whom published adventures don’t work for. DMing for that kind of group needs a whole different set of advice and are a nightmare for a new DM to run for anyway.
 
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Ramaster

Explorer
Sage advice. But . . .

I'm with @Ramaster. Published adventures aren't for everyone, and can even be like a straitjacket for a new GM. When things go off the rails (which, yeah, they will) a new GM might think he's doing something wrong, and might even try to force PCs back on course. Which doesn't tend to go well. If the new GM is playing a game that requires significant background work, like hefty character sheets or setting-appropriate details, use a pre-gen adventure. If not, draw up something simple and go from there.

Instead of saying "run when you're ready to," I'd say "get ready and do it!" There are countless reasons to doubt being ready. New GMs should just dive in, be humble, and see how it goes.

Perhaps "Ask a DM for help when creating your first adventure" might be more helpful. They can steer you away from classic pitfalls and into a fun direction.

Also, discussing this topic with my group one of them suggested some adventures/systems that are more new-DM-friendly such as The King's Road (free on Drivethru).

This is a great topic for discussion.
 

Eltab

Lord of the Hidden Layer
Pre-DM prep:
  • Be the guy with the PHB who can look up rules and inform (not upstage) the DM how to handle something where s/he is stuck or unsure.
  • Demonstrate that you will look out for the other PCs. Go to the aid of an ally in trouble (such as surrounded in combat). Offer gear to whoever is trying to solve a problem / complete a task.
  • Got a new player? 'Mentor' them through their first session or two. As the game plays, explain how their character class does its shtick. Guide them with a handful of options (good ones) for each turn. Team up with your character and give the new fellow a helping hand. Don't be overbearing bossing them around, be the guardrail between them and a hostile world.
 

Another tip: rely on the more experienced DMs in your group to help you out with the finer points of rules. Don't hesitate to ask how something works.

At the same time, don't let them hijack your session. Your ruling is final, and you need to be firm if they try to force you down their route.
 

Emirikol

Adventurer
Advice:
  • don't let campaigns go on too long.
  • Dont punish players with xp loss for their replacemnet characters (to replace a dead character for example). It's a dick move from the old 1974 dnd days when characters died constantly and dying was something to be ridiculed--HA HA YOU DIED--NOW TAKE AN XP LOSS TOO BU HAHAHA!
  • Keep the game moving in combat and plots. Boring players to death with: 1) full character gen for nooB players, 2) slow, awful combats where players are permitted to take 2-10 minutes per turn and spellcasters are casually thumbing the book to METAGAME the situation, and 3)awful, awful, awful "you're being hired..again..here's yet another awful, pointless npc at a desk who has zero to do with the plot other than to hire you (and then perform the cliche' try to kill you later.)
  • don't let any one player hold your game hostage--if they miss or no show, their character disappears. Poof! No xp. Don't roleplay for ghosts. If you need to explain it, let the other players explain it, MOVE ON, and then let the show-up players know you'll adjust the combats accordingly for difficulty (because you've already established that you're not a dick dm in an earlier bullet point).
  • be enthusiastic. It is contagious.
  • keep advertising for new players to replace the flakes until you have a solid group. Everyone needs to agree that consistency (lets say 90% show rate or dont pretend to commit) makes for better groups. Always play as long as you have at least three.

I hope these ideas help.
 

Schmoe

Adventurer
Your last point (prep the starting scene in detail) is a really good one. Even after 30+ years of running games, I can't tell you how many times I've been in that exact situation because I spent all my time thinking about the overall game but failed to think in enough detail about how to setup the initial scene of a new game. Inevitably it leads to a floundering start.

In fact, it's good advice for every session, even if you are in the midst of a long-running campaign. After a week or two weeks or more, the initial scene can be so important in bringing players back into the game and getting it started in the right way. I think you've inspired me to give this more attention going forward :)
 

Don’t be afraid. Don’t fret when you make mistakes, they’re a normal part of the process. Learn from them.

GMing is not as hard as many make it out to be. Nor does it require huge amounts of prep and effort. Try different things until you figure out what’s right for you.
 

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