How to be a Gamemaster
The first job of the GM is to imagine a situation where the Player Characters (PCs) find themselves. Sometimes a GM will do this in advance by preparing scenes and situations before a session of play, or reading from a pre-written adventure, but, it can also be done at the table, as an improvisation. In fact, because you can never truly predict what the Player Characters are going to do, you’ll likely have to improvise a lot. But that’s part of the fun!
Many GMs like to devour books, watch TV and movies, and listen to music, all to give themselves as much creative inspiration as possible to describe from. Don’t worry about ‘stealing’ from other media, but rather, embrace it!
Perhaps the walled town the PCs are entering could look like Edoras from The Lord of the Rings, or maybe it looks like London during the Blitz, but instead of factories and great smoke stacks, it has magical laboratories and motes of pure sorcery shooting into the sky!
Whilst it’s a good idea to be as creative as possible during this stage, basing what you’re imagining on something everyone knows and understands, a common touchstone will help everyone imagine the same scene.
Describing and Establishing the Fiction
The next job of the GM is to describe what they imagine and to establish what’s known as ‘the Fiction’, which is the shared imagined space all the players at the table have agreed to. Are we in a bustling city, or a small provincial town? Is a dragon flying overhead and roasting everyone, or can we merely hear its wingbeats off in the distance?
The GM is responsible for making calls as to what is and isn’t part of the Fiction, though naturally a GM can’t be expected to detail every single thing that does or does not exist. As such, the other Players are expected and encouraged to ask questions, and it’s the GM’s job to clarify the Fiction until everyone is imagining as close to the same thing as possible. There will always be minor discrepancies, but so long as they don’t get in the way of play, they’re merely flavourful differences.
This description also involves which Non-Player Characters (NPCs) are present, and what they do and say. You might let some of the other Players control NPCs during scenes where their PC isn’t present, but for the majority of the time, the GM will control the NPCs completely. It’s worth remembering that the NPCs are the supporting cast of characters — extras in a TV show, antagonists, recurring-but-not-main characters, and so on. The focus of the story should always be on the Player Characters.
Asking for Player Input
The GM’s next job is to ask the Player Characters what they are doing. Once the scene is set, and the Fiction established, it’s up to the Players to push the scene forward and attempt to achieve their goals (more on this can be found in our Players Guide)
The GM should encourage Players to ask probing questions of the Fiction, and unless there’s a specific reason to disallow something, say ‘Yes’. For example, a Player might ask if a tavern taproom has a chandelier they can swing from to start off a pub brawl with an appropriate flourish. Unless it’s pertinent to the scene that there’s not a chandelier, there’s no reason to disallow it.
Alternately, it may not make sense for a dingy pub to have a chandelier, in which case something like the following is a better response than a flat out No: ‘There isn’t a chandelier, given it’s such a cheap tavern, but there are loose ropes hanging from the sagging ceiling. You could grab one of them and swing into the action, just the same!’ This sort of description is an example of both ‘No, but’, and/or ‘Yes, and’, two powerful tools in the GM’s arsenal!
- No, but is useful to give the Players choices other than what they were expecting. This is a good tool to use when the Players offer suggestions that don’t quite fit, but, something similar could lead to an interesting situation. In the above example, a no, but informs the Player that chandeliers don’t fit in lower class environs, but still lets them be a swashbuckling hero in the scene.
- Yes, and is useful to add to a Player’s suggestion, to increase the drama and tension of a scene, or to expose additional details they may not have considered. In the above example, a yes, and could be suggesting that if the PC swings from the rope, it might bring the whole sagging ceiling crashing down on the tap room!
Letting the Dice Decide
When the Players want their Characters to do something, it’s up to the GM to determine the chances of it succeeding. This falls into two categories: do they simply succeed straight away, or is there a chance of failure? Moreover, is there a chance that something dramatic and interesting would happen if they failed? If there is a chance for dramatic failure, the GM should call for some kind of Test — the specifics of the roleplaying game you’re running will tell you how to do this. But it’s up to the GM to know the rules well enough that they can make these judgement calls.
Samantha’s Character, Sylvia, wants to walk down the street, enter the tavern, and buy a jug of ale. There’s likely no risk of failing to do any of this, and even if there was, there’s probably nothing dramatic about it. The GM doesn’t call for a Test, nor does Samantha expect the GM to, so she just keeps on narrating what Sylvia does.
Sylvia begins gossiping with the bartender, and tries to lead the conversation naturally in the direction of the despotic king, trying to gauge the publican’s political affiliations. The GM might just let this go, and describe what the bartender says… or the GM might call for a Test to do this ‘naturally’ and without arousing suspicion. If the Test succeeds, Sylvia gets the information she wants. If the Test fails, maybe the bartender notices what Sylvia is doing and alerts his friends in the King’s Court, or perhaps he is a revolutionary, and he and his comrades abduct Sylvia at a later date to induct her into their group?
As noted in What is a Roleplaying Game?, it’s not necessarily the GM’s job to know all the rules off by heart, and every Player should learn the rules as they affect their Character. But it is the GM’s job to decide when those rules come into play, and you should make sure you understand them well enough to make judgement calls.
The Cycle of Play
This cycle of play is the engine that runs a roleplaying game, and it’s the GM’s job to keep an eye on it, and make sure it is running smoothly. The GM sets the pace of scenes, and decides when a scene begins and ends. If things are getting bogged down, or none of the Players wish to do anything in a scene, then change to a new one! Get input on what the Players want to do next, or decide on a new scene based on what makes sense to you. Then, at the beginning of a new scene, start the cycle again — imagine, describe, ask for input, and roll the dice when necessary.
Remember, it is important for the GM to imagine and present situations that don’t revolve around the PCs. The NPCs have their own agendas, motivations, goals, and lives, so should be doing their own things whilst the PCs go on their adventures. The Fiction can and should change beyond just what the PCs do to change it!
Myths About the Gamemaster
Being a GM is a lot of fun, but there are a lot of misconceptions about what the GM must do, and often, these misconceptions get in the way of everyone having a good time! The list below outlines what a GM is not solely responsible for, but rather, everyone at the table should take into consideration:
- The GM does not own the story. The story is what happens as a result of the GM presenting situations, and the Players having their Characters act within them. The dice allow all the players together to find out what happens, rather than knowing from the outset. Therefore, everyone equally owns the story, and gets to enjoy it together.
- The GM is not in charge of the fun. Everyone at the table is in charge of bringing their own fun to the game, and in helping all the other players have fun — including the GM. Everyone should be looking to have a good time with friends.
- The GM is not the adversary to the Players. Whilst the GM controls the NPCs that battle the Player Characters, it’s not the GM’s job to try to defeat the Players. Instead, the GM tries to present compelling and interesting situations with risk and drama involved. The GM should be just as happy as the Players if and when the PCs win the day!
- The GM is not the social glue of the group. Sometimes there are problems at the table, as with any group of people spending time together. In the event of something going wrong, it’s not solely on the GM’s shoulders to resolve the social problems. Everyone at the table has a say in what went wrong, and how to fix the issue, and everyone should talk together as friends and equals. Whilst roleplaying games are a lot of fun, they’re not more important than everyone being safe and happy — talk together as people first, and players second!
Gamemastering is a Learned Skill
Gamemastering, like any skill, can be learned and improved upon, but always starts with a first attempt. Whether the first game you run as the GM goes smoothly and according to plan, or falls down in one way or another is unimportant — so long as you all had a good time whilst playing a roleplaying game together! Keep practicing, and running as many games as you can, and you’ll get better in no time.