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6 Things First-Time GMs Need To Know Before Their First Game

We all know that there is a large discrepancy between the number of people who want to play tabletop RPGs, versus the number of people who want to host games. In fact, many players can go years without ever being a game master at all. But so every so often, a miracle happens: the stars and planets align, and the gods bestow the desire to host a game upon a mortal.

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It is understandable to have some doubts about trying to develop a new craft—which is, after all, what being a game master or storyteller is. Whether it’s stage fright, or the standard to which you hold your games, everything has a solution and a resolution. As in all the games we know and love, you will never know the outcome until you roll the dice. So here are some things it might help you to know before you have your first game:

Things will go in unexpected ways.

One of the most frustrating lessons a game master has to learn, especially in story-driven campaigns, is that it rarely goes 100% according to plan. The story is what happens at the table, not in the book or in the plans. Whether it’s the mercurial moods of the RNG or the destructive power of a group incorrigible murder hobos, it’s good to be able adjust your narrative on the fly.

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This doesn’t necessarily mean preparing for every possible outcome—that’s impossible. Being familiar with your story universe (or building one well, if that’s the case) will give you a good idea of how it works, and therefore how it responds to your party’s actions.

Borrow ideas from the greatest stories.

The reason that there are some stories that seem to be universally liked is because they share similar qualities. For example, what do the Lord of the Rings, the Godfather Trilogy, and all our favorite stories have in common? What makes certain characters more appealing or divisive than others? What kinds of stories generate discussions and theorizing?

There are qualities to every great story, qualities that transcend genre. Pinning down which of these you’d like to exploit in the collaborative storytelling that is a roleplaying game even before it starts can help you make a narrative that is enjoyable for you and your players.

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It’s the little things.

It’s often the littlest touches that can turn a great game into an amazing game. Things like having a background music, or using candles to underscore the mood of a horror session, or even just making a point to try new and delicious food on your snack breaks can make all the difference.

There are numerous free apps and services out there that provide theme music for free, like Syrincscape. There are also numerous playlists on Spotify that are just a few taps away on the search bar.

Scheduling is a bitch.

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You can have the best party with the greatest chemistry, playing in a fantastically homebrewed universe as great characters, but none of that matters when your party can’t schedule your next session. It is the lament of countless GMs across the world that many a campaign never made it past certain point. It is a grief you will know quite well.

A good way to make sure campaigns run is to set a day of the week or month, and have that be the default. Whether it’s once a week, twice a month, or just the fourth Friday of every month, having a regular schedule pinned down in your calendars will help the frequency and success of a campaign.

It’s easier than you think.

GM-ing a skill, just like any other. In the beginning, the preparation before every session can be daunting, but eventually you will come to a point where you can host a session right off the top of your head. Every GM gains more mastery of the rules and the lore over time, and with the right players, it can get even easier. Whatever system you want to play in and whatever your play style is, try anyway. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to do it again. But what every long-time GM knows is that there is a different kind of joy to be in charge of the story and the game, in addition to playing in it.

Find players who match your play style.

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Some players love getting into shenanigans, and will try to break your carefully-built world just for fun. Others prefer intense sessions of roleplay, and love playing in a world with a degree of verisimilitude. Others like horror campaigns, and some prefer swashbucklers or heists. Others may think story trumps rules, and others may prize narrative above all.

Whatever your preference is, it’s generally good to have all your players on the same page about most things. It will prevent conflict among players, and facilitate smoother gameplay.