Popular tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons and Call of Cthulhu had fascinated me since I was a kid. Games without controllers, fuelled by player imagination, I wanted to use my adult initiative to create my own games, writing my own plots to capture the attention of a table of players.
My head filled with romantic notions of sprawling dungeons crammed with loot and monsters, I rummaged around the Internet and asked friends for advice on where to start my journey. I wanted to become an officiator of tabletop roleplaying games, commonly known as a Games Master (GM).
I found the learning curve steep, and the initial experience more than a little daunting. Tabletop roleplaying games are about thematic storytelling, using a combination of imagination and a core rulebook. Rules provide the core mechanical components of game, commonly referred to as the ‘crunch’, and provide players with the tools to interact in a world. The GM creates a scenario in which players make decisions as their characters, using their character’s skills and dice rolls to determine outcomes.
Thinking of tabletop roleplaying games as a videogame, players are responsible for making choices on behalf of their characters, while the GM builds everything else; sound, graphics, AI, storytelling and level design.
A year into learning to GM tabletop roleplaying games, here’s some of the best advice I received from seasoned players.
1. Keep the plot simple and accessible.
Creating a long piece of fiction will result in bored players and a frustrated GM. The experience is about collective storytelling, so think of the planning process as a handful of key plot points and twists in a film. Plot points should reveal information and move the story forward. If they don’t, they are probably filler.
2. Make use of your imagination and the five senses of your players.
Many authors and filmmakers have done an excellent job of exposing us to the smells and flavours of their worlds. Don’t be afraid to set an entire encounter in rancid, tropical darkness. Create offensive smells and sounds to heighten the players’ awareness, because threats don’t always carry an axe. Your players are different people who react differently to what they hear, smell and taste. Create mood by stretching imaginations and supporting the narrative with tangible and familiar sensations.
3. Isolate the emotions of the party, make them feel powerful, integral, afraid, and sad.
Your party is a unique snowflake. Be sensitive to their reactions, and continue to customize the world to their needs. The more players become invested in their character, the more confronting experiences can help sculpt sessions. Toy with tangible topics that may prompt conversations about morality.
4. Challenge your players to try something new, make use of their weird and wonderful skills.
Study your players’ character sheets. Know them well. Providing their character with tasks suited to their specific abilities helps keep them engaged. Find a way to utilise the Carnivalist Rouge’s ability to juggle as a plot point; that’s the sign of a good GM.
5. Avoid beige dungeon crawls; Pick lock, Kick door, Kill monster.
Combat-heavy tabletop roleplaying games get old quickly. Just as there are experiences better simulated in a tabletop roleplaying game, videogames best scratch the itch to murder a goblin with a halberd. As a GM, balance blood lust with more imaginative experiences to provide all your players with a sense of accomplishment.
6. Learn the language of your game, and when in doubt, make it up.
Improvisation goes hand-in-hand with imagination. Sure, the rules are important, but as the GM you make the rules. Establish this with your party early, and they will respect decisions made to benefit the session and narrative. Making a cheat sheet for your reference that includes plot points, monster stats blocks and drawings helps minimize time spent flicking through the rule book searching for specific content. It also helps with a very important tool, misdirection.
7. Use a screen and fumble with your dice, a lot.
Messing with your players is the primary role of the GM. Bluffing is key to keeping players engaged. Rumble through a box of miniatures, take notes on irrelevant player decisions. When they make a decision, question that decision. Above all, have a beautiful big GM screen to separate you from the party. And your roll your dice. Instill terror that you are about to unleash seven levels of hell. Make them fear you; then love you when you don’t murder them. Then fear you again.
8. Use miniatures to get your players into the mood.
Buy some nice cheap miniatures. There are countless varieties available, and if your players are new to tabletop roleplaying games, a physical representation of their character helps with engagement. Feel free to grab some pre-painted miniatures, or modify existing miniatures to replicate their specific character. Above all, shows them you are a GM who cares.
9. Print your character sheets on thick, gorgeous stock.
Don’t be cheap. You’ve bought all the books, seven sets of dice, countless miniatures and flip mats. Finish the job by printing character sheets on nice thick stock paper. It also helps if you invest in character building programs (such as HeroLab), especially for new GMs and players, as it removes some of the confusion associated with character creation.
10. Ask questions, read lots, and make the tale your own.
This is a hobby that has been around for a good while. Talk to people who know more than you. Get tips and help on how to run a great session. I’m fortunate enough to have amazing resources available to me, and there are countless websites, podcasts and great people to help. Worst-case scenario, head to your local tabletop game store and attend a public sessions with other new players. Tabletop roleplaying games are, after all, about collaboration.
– Paul Houlihan