Introduction to What it Means to GM or DM
So, recently, we've had a wave of new table-top RPG games start by various people. The content, length, and players of all of these campaigns is different. Are you playing D&D? Which edition? Pathfinder? Star Wars? Call of C'thulhu? There are a lot of options for game settings but there isn't a great pool of information for people that want to find out how to be a Dungeon Master or Game Master. That isn't to say that there isn't a lot of information out there, but that it's spread out over many media sources. Luckily, most of the information is relative to any game setting. The numbers and names of things may change, but the role of Game Master or Dungeon Master is mostly the same. You create, implement, and pace the game. You are the narrator of the story your players are telling.
Where to Start
The first thing to do is to decide whether you are running an already established setting, a module, or making something of your own (homebrew). Is this a single session game? Is it meant to be a lengthy campaign? How often is it run? Weekly, biweekly, etc? All of this will help you to decide what the setting is. Most of my campaigns are run in a setting that is medieval fantasy, but that should never stop you from running something that has a space exploration, grim dark, steampunk, or noir setting. Establish early on what kind of setting you want your players to be in. There are only as many limits as you can imagine. Next, find out if there is a resource that is already placed in that setting. You don't have to use every aspect of that information, but it can help you to establish what kind of game you want to run. Make sure to give credit where it's due! Pick and choose storytelling devices from what you can find to help fill in the gaps of the game you want to run. There are MANY, MANY, MANY tabletop RPGs out there, not just the widely known games (D&D, Pathfinder, Star Wars, Shadow Run, and Call of C'thulhu). Once you have that information ready to go, you move on to the next step!
Every GM is different. Some GMs require that people play in person. They set up elaborate atmospheres with candles, music, and lighting. Some play online with some great resources such as Roll20 or Tabletop Simulator. The method of play isn't just important, but rules implementation. Do you play rules heavy? This means you focus on the games rules as set in stone. There is always leeway, but not much. Do you play rules light? This means you try to follow the spirit of the rules, but that's not the be-all, end-all of your game. Is the Rule of Cool in effect? This means that when a player wants to try something that seems awesome, you give them the opportunity to try, regardless of how it would turn out in real life. I personally love the Rule of Cool. Want to front flip over a pit of spikes? Go for it! You better not fail the roll, though. This creates narrative and increases the fun of both you and your players. Letting your players know how you run games is like setting up a little agreement between everybody that helps set the mood of the table. Playing in a role-play heavy group, or a dungeon grind group lets people know if they can spend a session in town chatting up villagers or if they need to buy more rope and head to the nearest cavern. Know whether you are going to have heavy combat sessions lined up, and when the players need a break from that kind of play. You also need to establish whether or not people can expect to make characters that are as optimized as possible to be champions instantly, or let them know that this is pretty loose, and you'd prefer they accept their character's flaws. A great ploicy is to remind your players that they are heroes. Your job is to make sure their deeds are legendary. Don't actively try to kill them, but definitely challenge them! Try to get a back story from each character. This gives you a way to invest players into the narrative in a personal way.
Your First Session
Try to be a little bit more creative than "you're at a pub and there are other strangers near by." This may take time to get your players introduced to each other, it could be distracting, and it is also pretty bland. This isn't to say that you can't do it, but it's pretty bland. Establish if the characters are already together or if they are individuals that need to be made into a team. Give each of them a note from a mysterious source. Have them near an area with an encounter to start the session, forcing them into action. Also, aim for a couple of goals. My personal goals for the first session is to set a small hook, for example: "A young noble lady has been kidnapped by a group of rough gang members. The local lord, and father of the young lady, wants you to get her back. Each character has been offered a contract to extract the maiden, and the lord expects you to work together." This forges a party and gives them little time to think as an individual. The group must now act and think as a party. If somebody wants to be difficult, have the lord pull them to the side, and insinuate he knows something deep and dark about the character that he can use as extortion. This may set up a great narrative later in the campaign, as the player now has an interest in seeing things through with the lord.
Keep things moving! make sure there are as few lulls in action or narrative as possible, but make sure to give each player time to shine. This is a great way to introduce the party together and let them see the benefits of keeping the others around. Don't just throw combat after combat at them. Let them find ways to interact with NPCs. "The party corners a member of the gang in a warehouse while they try desperately to reach the noble lady. With persuasion, they are able to extract information from the dubious man, and get the exact location of the maiden. On their way to the final conflict to rescue the lord's daughter, they turn the ruffian in to a constable wandering by." Introduce puzzles, locks, traps, NPCs, and notes to the party to keep them on their feet.
Making your first session epic hooks the players into the setting you made, and gives them purpose in being there.
Fights aren't just about smacking each other around until somebody drops! A great tool is to introduce the party to a terrain that has line of sight issues, boundaries, or obstacles. A ship's deck has cargo, and people can fall off the sides. The deck is slippery, and requires checks to see if they stay upright or slip, and the adventurers can't move as quickly. Is the enemy smart? If it is, then it probably won't be sitting around waiting to die by the hand of your group, but will try to flee. Are you setting up a major villain? Throw something at the party that forces the group to run away. Remind them that you can't win every fight, and keep them hungry. If the party is in a dungeon, and they are about to fight a monster, remember that this is the monster's home. Lead the party toward traps, or activate things in the environment to aid your NPC (or hurt it!). Bashing each other turn after turn is great and all...until it gets droll. Introduce aid to your party if they are having trouble with something they should be able to defeat, or introduce aid to your monster if you want the encounter to be harder!
Giving out shiny new weapons that drastically increase the abilities of your party is great. That is, it's great until the party is too strong, and they easily deal with anything you throw at them. Rewards don't always have to be weapons, armor, and gold! Give the adventures access to areas they couldn't get into before, discounts, or positions of political influence! Consider a base of operations or a small business that could be useful for them. All of these rewards aren't as cool as that awesome sword, but they can add up to a prestige effect. People in other cities know of them, and know they can be trusted. This opens up more adventuring options. Let the party be high ranking members of a faction to give them access to books to research the mysteries of the multiverse! Information is key, especially when they discover a scrap of paper telling them that a lich can die...only if you destroy it's phylactery. I have found that in the long run, players simply replace gear when they move on to bigger and better things, but that 15% discount from a weapons emporium is profound!
There are a few ways to reward player experience. The first method is the most direct. Players kill a thing of given value, and split that value between the party members equally. But, what happens if there is a lot of role play? Do you reward their immersion? Do you let them level up at certain bench marks instead of waiting on numerical values? Personally, I like to tell the players when the level up, and don't let them know how much experience they've gained. This way, they see it as a reward instead of something they've been waiting on. If they are 10 experience short, they don't need to go find a fight, but can finish an arc or kill a boss and I'll let them know when to upgrade their abilities. I also try to keep the group the same level, but that is for my convenience. There are many GMs that allow players to level up at different rates. The barbarian in the party role-plays, is active in combat, and brings excitement to the game, but the wizard just likes to be a Debbie-downer. Reward the barbarian player with more experience to set an example. This doesn't mean that the wizard is playing "wrong," but that the barbarian is doing things that enhance the gaming experience.
Every once in a while, I'll ask my players if they have and comments, questions, concerns, or things they liked about my games. Most of the time I get a "it was fun," "great job," "I liked it." While this makes me feel good, it doesn't help me to fix my game (not saying that you shouldn't complement your GM! Do that when it's appropriate!). I recently asked this question, and had a player convey in no uncertain terms that he didn't have fun with the session, what he found boring, or distracting about it, and that he felt like he wasted a session. DO NOT TAKE THIS PERSONALLY. Unless it's a personal attack, you asked for feedback. I took it to heart and created a better experience the next week that helped that player feel like they didn't waste their breath. I wanted to make a session that moved the narrative forward, and a couple of weeks later, I asked the question again, and got praise from the same player that gave me negative feedback. Everybody had fun with that session, and that's what experience you are trying to create. Not every game is for every player. Don't break yourself tailoring everything to make one person happy, but do try to adjust it to be fun and exciting for everybody; INCLUDING YOURSELF!
D&D Beyond - Pretty much everything you need to get into Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. It has access to rules, character creation, modules, spells, weapons, and so much more. I don't play without this tab open!
Dungeons & Dragons Official Website - Here you can find out what's coming out, get rules and game variants that aren't released in the books, and get access to a number of other resources.
Dungeon Master's Guild - Get access to home made classes, campaigns, or settings made by other GMs.
Kobold Fight Club - Want to create a fight with Fire Goblins that will challenge high level players? Here's the place to go to fully customize an NPC for combat purposes. Make them as strong as you want or as weak as you want, give them abilities they never could have dreamed of!
Obsidian Portal - A great place to find people to play games with, get access to homebrew content, and to explore the worlds others have made.
Dungeon Master's Screen - A great way to see quick NPC creation options, find status effect consequences, and more! All without having to thumb through hundreds of pages of manuals!
OrcPub - A character creation generator with a wide assortment of customization.
Roll20 - A table top simulator built specifically for RPGs. You can go to the marketplace to get access to maps, campaigns, and so much more, or you can use the interface to fully customize your own settings!
There are also some very good YouTube series available such as Geek & Sundry's Game Master Tips or Running the Game by Matthew Colville.
While I won't provide links for these, you can easily google some great series to watch. Examples are:
Dice Camera Action
Drunkens & Dragons
Any other information such as tips, resources, or suggestions that any of our other resident, MadCast GMs and DMs have would be greatly appreciated! Also, can a brother get a sticky?