GM Advice: 8 Characteristics of Great GMs

Practically anyone can run a game. To be a great GM, though, you need  so much more than a basic understanding of the rules, a module and some dice.

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)

 

The GM is pivotal to the success of a game session. If the GM is crap – or off his game – the chances are the session will suffer. While it’s relatively easy to muddle along all truly great GMs have certain characteristics:

  • Honesty: This is a total no brainer. As GM, you really shouldn’t be cheating. If you feel the urge to cheat – particularly to screw over the PCs – you shouldn’t be a GM. Impartiality is key to a GM’s role. Of course, sometimes a GM may fudge a die roll or two to keep the game moving, but that’s not really cheating as long as it’s done for the greater good (for “good,” read “fun”).
  • Effective Communicator: Roleplaying relies on good verbal communication. As the GM, you’ll likely be doing more talking than anyone else at the table. It falls to you to describe the physical situation, portray NPCs and answer questions clearly and concisely.
  • Flexible: Of course, the GM is in charge of the game. That doesn’t mean, though, he can’t be flexible. At some point, the players are going to do something odd you didn’t anticipate. A good GM can think on his feet and deal with whatever is going on. Similarly, a GM should be as flexible as to which character options to allow his players (as long as he thinks they are balanced and will add fun).
  • Proactive: GMs spend more time working on the game than anyone else. They don’t have a boss and so they must set his own targets and goals. Being proactive and being able to plan ahead are vital skills for a GM to cultivate.
  • Organised: It doesn’t matter how awesome the campaign is, if the GM can’t find the adventure, stat block or whatever the session is likely going to grind to a halt. Being organised pays huge dividends over the course of a campaign. It massively reduces the amount of stress besetting a GM. It also dramatically reduces prep time.
  • Creative: This is a fundamental part of the GM’s role. The GM is responsible for designing and developing the campaign world. Even if a GM exclusively uses published adventures and settings he still needs to tweak them to better suit his players’ style of play and preference. He’s also got to think on his feet –players, after all, have an annoying habit of doing the unexpected.
  • Positive Attitude: The GM – to a large extent – determines the mood of the table. Everyone turns up to have fun. A miserable GM puts a dampener on everyone’s fun.
  • Commitment: GMing requires a much larger investment of time than playing. A GM needs the commitment to keep going even when he’d rather not. While GMing isn’t a full time job, it consumes a lot of leisure time. A GM needs to be committed to the game and the campaign he is running.

Help Fellow GMs!

Can you think of any other characteristics great GMs have? Share them in the comments below and help your fellow GMs game better.

Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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27 thoughts on “GM Advice: 8 Characteristics of Great GMs

  1. Totally agree with all points here, and I would add one with the caveat that you may have included it without specifically including it (If you understand my meaning)

    I would add Intuition. Games often lead into unexpected gaming territory and it’s not always clear what the group needs or wants, even to themselves. While talking with the group can relieve some of the pressure, a sense of intuition about what would work best with really new materials seems essential. Intuition lso plays a part in the selection of encounters.

  2. I’d like to add that a good GM is continually asking herself, “Does this choice make the game more fun for the players?” whenever she has the opportunity to make a decision. This goes for writing and for running games. Whether you’re choosing how to handle a ‘bad’ decision a player made, deciding on the outcome of a choice you never expected, managing the tone at the table, or writing something new from scratch, I think you should always be striving to make the game into what your players want it to be, to allow them freedom with their actions/choices (as long as they work within the rules/world and are fair to everyone at the table), and to run with their decisions, turning them into dynamic, exciting, cinematic moments that everyone at the table can remember for years to come.

  3. I often think a good GM is similar to an orchestra conductor, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conducting
    The primary duties of the conductor are to unify performers, set the tempo, execute clear preparations and beats, and to listen critically and shape the sound of the ensemble.

    I like to think of a game group like a band. Lots of people perform musically but not a lot of people perform well together. I think a DM has a duty to create a positive gaming environment along with developing a group that plays well together.

  4. The only thing I personally would add to this is:
    Knowledge (of the game itself).
    Can you imagine the campaign of a GM for Vampire when all they have ever played is Star wars? This is why I suggest playing at least one or two solid campaigns to completion with different GMs of the game you want to start up to get a feel for the system, the game mechanics and more. It also keeps the GM humble knowing how it felt when they were a player. If the player soon to be GM is comfortable in their skills as a GM and can run the game they feel just fine then at least study of the game system is required before hand. And sadly I say this because I have played games with GMs that just thought itd be cool to run a campaign in an RPG that they have never touched before.

    • “This is why I suggest playing at least one or two solid campaigns to completion with different GMs of the game you want to start up to get a feel for the system, the game mechanics and more.” That would be nice but it’s not always going to be an option. If you want to run anything other than D&D or Pathfinder you’re lucky to find one campaign to play in, if that.

  5. Good thoughts! Here are some more…

    9. FIRM WITH PLAYERS: A GM has to be willing to confront disruptive, juvenile and rude players.
    10. UP FRONT: Kind of a combination of HONEST and PROACTIVE. A GM needs to be up front about his GMing style, campaign premise and approach to play from the start. Does your game emphasize hack’n slash or story? How much role-play? How much realism? What about player feedback? Don’t say your campaign is one thing and then run another.
    11. SCREEN PLAYERS: A good GM will screen his players so that he doesn’t have the wrong people in his game that may disrupt play.
    12. TIME MANAGEMENT/PACING: A good GM will not spend two hours on one player’s scene while spending 5 minutes on the next. A good GM will not take 8 hours to do what should be done in 30 minutes.
    13. STORY and R/P: Even hack’n slash campaigns should have at least a rudimentary or basic story and character interaction. Without story or r/p, RPGs simply revert back to very bad board games. Every GM should have story and r/p to some degree even if only on a very limited scale for hack’n slash campaigns.

  6. I tend more toward non dungeon-crawl games (Doctor Who, Call of Cthulhu, etc.), so there’s another one that I think is important to the list:

    BE OK WITH LOSING

    The idea that gaming is “DM vs the players” is vastly outdated. Your villainous plots EXIST to be foiled. If the Nazis succeed in raising Cthulhu or The Master destroys the Universe, what are you going to do next week? Your grand master plan can and SHOULD be brilliant, but there should also be plenty of room for it to fail and plenty of opportunities to make it happen.

    Look at the movie “Goldfinger” (If you haven’t seen a 50 year old James Bond film starring the best Bond by now, you DESERVE to be spoiled.): Goldfinger’s plan is brilliant and insane, the intelligence agencies know he’s up to SOMETHING, but nothing as bold as nuking Fort Knox, and Bond is his prisoner and under constant guard. Everything is going according to plan, but he couldn’t have possibly factored in Bond seducing and turning his trusted henchwoman.

    The villain in your game can be upset that his plan has been foiled, but YOU can’t: That’s what the players were SUPPOSED to do. Remember to leave a few holes in your plan for them to find, and don’t be upset if they find one you didn’t think of.

    • This is a great point, and definitely applicable to all games. I’ve played with GMs who think they should win, and it’s really frustrating and not fun at all. Note: not the same as a GM playing his NPCs like they want to win.

  7. Great list, a couple of things you may want to include are Being Firm and Consistent as well as not being afraid to kill characters, control the use of out of game knowledge.

    If you make a choice as a GM, if its good or bad (we are human after all) stick to it, and keep it consistent, e.g. if you make a choice where spell XYZ resolves and does ABC123 in a session, have spell XYZ always do ABC123 even if it is not how it is intended to be used in the rules, that being said if you made a choice that the same spell XYZ does ABC123 don’t let it do 123ABC just because it seems ok. Players are curious creatures and they learn quickly and will let your actions in the game define the world to them. Having the rules change is very very bad for an enjoyable experience.

    Character death. Do not be afraid of characters being killed, but if at all possible make the death meaningful or suitably dramatic e.g. The characters are in a wild west shoot out, one of the bad guys gets a lucky shot off and kills a character, use that as a role playing scene, how do the players have their characters react to their friend being shot, does the character get a last breath knowing they are about to die, stand up and unload all of their shots towards the bad guys as a distraction to let the party escape, not to mention the chance for a revenge mission or a resurrection mission. As a GM you can kill the characters at any time, this shouldn’t be abused however. Character death being a part of the game helps to build tension and drama, and it helps the players in setting a “realistic” idea of the world as well as letting the players know subtlety that their are risks and they need to use risk vs. reward to be in their thoughts.

    The last point is the hardest to do. Out of game knowledge or Meta-Gaming is when a player will use some knowledge of the game/world/system to their betterment despite it not being within the scope of knowledge that player has e.g. in D&D Trolls are tough to kill unless you use Acid and/or Fire, if a character who hasn’t encountered Trolls before, and has no in game knowledge of them as their character lived all their life in a city and has no appropriate knowledges, it would be meta-gaming for them to know that Trolls are only hurt by Fire/Acid, or the evil mastermind knowing exactly how the players are going to assault his lab. Not all Meta-Gaming incidents are as blatant or obvious, and a lot of it could be attributed to common-sense but it is still something a GM needs to keep an eye on and manage, and the best GM’s I have worked with to create stories have kept the Meta-Game outside of the world.

    • I like these additions. Thanks for adding them. Being consistent in your rulings is incredibly important. Also, being willing to let characters die is a huge part of the game. After all, without risk what’s the point in playing?

  8. On fudging the die roll, I’m a big fan of fudging the consequences instead. I try never to roll the dice unless I’m comfortable with proceeding on whatever results they give. this means fewer, ‘do or die’ and more ‘do or be captured/maimed/made to eat very bad food’. ….also, the option of starting a memorial campaign is an interesting one. You, the children of…., will set out to find what happened to your parents.

  9. Keeps in Touch: Being available via email, phone or text means problems get resolved during the week rather than once everyone has sat down to the table. It also allows players the chance to plan with the GM and each other.

    Cooperative: No one wants to feel like their character is just a Keanu Reeves; ie. a blank slate that could be swapped out with any other character without any real change to the campaign. A good GM should follow his players’ lead as much as they follow his. If a character history involves a shady past, make that past come back to haunt her. If a player talks about nothing but ale and wenches, make sure there’s some ale and wenches. And if the players seem far more interested in the Royal Ball you mentioned in passing than they are in the module you spent three days preparing, then get out your high heels.

  10. I totally agree with this list, but I would add one more thing to it: The GM needs to be a good listener. It’s fine to describe the situation in great detail to the players, but a great GM should really spend more time listening than talking. This is something that Chris Perkins mentions in an interview with him (I cannot remember which) but I reckon it is all-round great advice.

  11. As a DM, I had a players character die when he pushed the character beyond it’s limits knowing he was already seriously wounded. Then the next session (before we started) I asked him to purposefully die on his re-roll character in a fantastic way by pushing the main villain off of a cliff and saving the party with his sacrifice. His next character lasted a few sessions, however, a simple rope swing across a whirlpool, he failed his roll… A rope was tossed into the water, he failed to grab onto it, an inspiration point was used, also failed, and then he failed to stay afloat and was washed under and drowned… (all were easy DC, horrible rolls)… I felt bad for the player, but he was OK with it, since he had failed four times. His current character is doing well, but he recently jumped down a 40 foot hole tied by a rope attached to a tree, in a diving attack against a monster below. He rolled a natural “20” and so he lived and managed to kill the monster below. But is he really trying to see how far he can push the DM’s limits now?