Mastering Game Mastering - Simple tips I learned the hard way

Adam Phillips
May 4, 2018
TableTop RPG
I will state this now, “Being a Game Master (GM) in a tabletop roleplaying game is not for everyone.”

It takes a special kind of person to GM a tabletop RPG game and actually do it well. Being a GM means that you don’t get to make your own character and be able to partake in the wonderous and surprising experiences that the players enjoy on their adventure. Instead, you are the one crafting those experiences and encounters while subtly guiding them through the story’s campaign, and if you do it right, they won’t even realize that you were guiding them at all. It is never you against the player, but more like the Player Characters (PCs) are really cool main characters in a story that you are creating with them. Just remember that it is not like The Walking Dead, you don’t want to kill your characters off, but that still doesn’t mean it can’t happen.

In the end, the most important thing about Game Mastering is having the satisfaction of challenging your Player’s skill set and finding ways to make each of them to feel useful in their encounters and situations they find themselves in. You should be able to celebrate their successes with them, and reward them for thinking outside the box, defeating enemies and puzzles,  roleplaying their characters and being a team player. Never forget the GM Golden Rule - When the group is having fun, you will have fun with them too.

Flexible Questing

Another important job of a GM is to have a campaign ready. To me, the thing about trying to prewrite a big long campaign is that you don’t ever really know how the players will react to your story and if they are going to go in the directions that you want them to. In order to help more subtly steer them somewhat in the right direction, you can try to make your quests for the players modular. What I mean by this is, let’s say the group is not going and talking to the alchemist like you wanted them to, and it would be bad as a GM to just force them to go, so instead you just let them do what they are doing and eventually they can run into another person that is more along this unexpected path that they are now taking. This person might be a hunter or something, but either way, he can give them the quest that the alchemist was going to give them. The task can be changed to something related to him, but it still gets the players moving back in the direction that you wanted, or you could just say that he was hired to do this quest for the alchemist but he can’t, and is now passing it along to the party.

So when I think of the quest, I make it modular by not assigning a specific quest-giver and task, but moreso just saying I need to have a quest that will take the players to this spot on the map, whatever the quest may be. So the players might just be going to a cave to pick some rare mushrooms, but they will stumble now onto maybe a slave trading group and either fight them or be put into slavery. I like to try to write my campaigns more modular and open-ended in that manner because it helps me keep the sessions more seamless and running smoothly.

Adaptable Combat

There are always going to be combats when you are running a tabletop RPG, but how do you judge effectively how many enemies you should throw at the players? You don’t want to give them too few enemies and the PCs just mop the floor with them, and you also don’t want to go too monster heavy and just wreck the players either.

It is difficult to find that fine line of an appropriate balance of monsters that effectively challenges the PCs and leaves them feeling like their victory was well earned. Staying modular is the way to go with this too. Use the balancing system that the game provides for you, but also pay attention in the fight, if it looks like the players are destroying, bring in reinforcements and/or up the HP of the monsters. If the players are losing, then do the opposite, lower the monsters’ HP/stats, or have some run off and do something, effectively balancing the fight and properly challenging the players. It’s always really cool for the players if they feel like the odds were stacked against them and they still came out on top, or at least with their lives.

Closing Remarks

Now I am no perfect GM by any means. This blog is not to make anyone think that the way they like to run their sessions is wrong. These are just some of the things that I have learned through years of GMing and feel like this helps me be a better and more efficient GM. What do you think about these simple tips and are there any good tips that I missed? Let us know in the comments below.

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