GM Advice: 8 Tips for Beginning GMs

GMing is one of the most rewarding aspects of roleplaying. It’s also one of the most daunting, particularly for new gamers. Luckily, it’s actually pretty easy to do well.

By Matt Morrow

By Matt Morrow

 

I’ve been gaming for 30 years and in that time I’ve seen thousands(ish) of gamers take their place for the first time behind the screen. Recently, my youngest son ran me through his first dungeon. Rules, logic and verisimilitude were all thrown aside in the pursuit of fun. We had a great time – I even survived – and it got me thinking about advice for beginning GMs.

If you are a beginning GM, consider the following when planning your first game:

  1. Remember Rule 0: Everyone at your table is there (hopefully) to have fun. As long as everyone has fun, the game was a success. Everything else is pretty much irrelevant. After all, what’s the point in running a game that follows the rules and module text to the letter, but which no one enjoyed? That doesn’t mean give the PCs an easy ride or deluge them in treasure (unless it’s a trap). Focus on the fun and everything else will come.
  2. Remember Rule 1: At the table, you are the ultimate arbiter about how the game is run. Use this authority wisely, but don’t be afraid to make rulings and move on. You can always readdress them after the game in the pub with a beer!
  3. Keep It Simple: For your first adventure, keep it simple. Run an easy dungeon crawl for low-level characters – don’t shoot for a high-level game or one with a Byzantine plot. Keep it as simple as possible and focus on the basics. Basics are fundamental to the game. Once you’ve got those down, you can advance to more complex adventures.
  4. Accept You’ll Get Stuff “Wrong”: Remember the best GM in the world started out knowing next to nothing about how to run a game. As long as your errors don’t end up with someone losing a character or a major piece of magical equipment, ultimately it doesn’t really matter as long as everyone is having fun (see #0 above).
  5. Prepare: Be as ready as you can for the game. If you need to read the module three times, do so. Make copious notes, look up relevant rules, spell descriptions and so on and prepare any game aids such as maps, figures and anything else you’ll need. Doing all that before the game is much easier than doing it with your friends waiting.
  6. Delegate: You don’t need to do everything. Someone else can run initiative, clean off the battle matt and so on. Let them help, so you can focus on running the game.
  7. If You Need Help, Ask: If you get stuck with a ruling or need some advice about how to handle a situation, simply ask. You can either ask the group, or speak privately with an experienced player or GM. Gaming is a cooperative experience and your friends want you to have a good time – remember that.
  8. Relax: Relax and enjoy the game. If you are stressed out about running the game, you won’t enjoy the experience. If you don’t enjoy the experience, chances are your players won’t either. More importantly, you won’t want to run another game which is a shame as GMing can be incredibly rewarding.

Help Fellow GMs!

Do you have other advice for a beginning GM? If you do, why not leave it below and help a beginning GM improve his game today!

This post is part of a week-long celebration of my 10-year-old son starting his first campaign for a group of his friends. He’s been slaving away over his dungeon for weeks and hopefully, they all enjoy themselves and become life-long gamers. I also get to play in the campaign, but of course I’m playing the cleric. For other posts in the series, search “beginner” in the search box at the top right of this page.

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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11 thoughts on “GM Advice: 8 Tips for Beginning GMs

  1. If you’re new to GM’ing and you have a more experienced player at the table (always helpful) sit them next to you. That way you can confer with them more easily than trying to talk across the table. It’s a little thing but it makes a difference.

  2. Love the list!

    -Keep Reading: If you are running a Pathfinder game, spend some free time on their PRD. Other systems, open your core rule books to a random place and read a page or two. Fantasy books, science fiction, and any other genre. You’ll find inspiration or remember some rule in these reading sessions.

    -5 Minutes: Don’t spend more than 5 minutes looking something up whether that is a rule or a piece of treasure in a hoard. Remember Rule 0, some of the most fun my players have ever had were spur of the moment rulings or off-the-cuff treasure pieces.

  3. Love it. So important to remember the basics, even for us grognards.

    Popped over here from your interview on Tribality.com; specifically J.M. Perkins post on survivalist dungeons. Looking forward to finding out more about what you do.

  4. Love Rule 0. Always keep that in mind. If something is going to ruin the enjoyment of the game; fudge the dice, make an “on the spot” ruling. Most importantly have fun!!!!

  5. I have been playing and DM’em for many many years and still to theis day I go to rule 7 ask “what do you think? you have DMed before?” its a great rule and it never hurts to ask for help. hell I’m 56 now and still ask questions

  6. This.
    It’s not only for beginning DM’s. Every DM can use the reminder every once in a while. I have a special place in my heart for rule #3, I tend to overcomplicate stuff.

  7. Don’t overdo it. Feel free to disallow certain supplement books from the table if they add more problems for you.

    It’s your game world. Run it as you see fit.

  8. I am running a Pathfinder campaign. I’m pertty new at DM’ing and a novice with the Pathfinder ruleset. I’ve got a couple of teenaged girls, my adult daughter and a friend playing. We play on Skype, as we are not local. I find delegating looking up rules to my daughter, who is a whiz at all things electronic, helps me a lot. She posts the relevant rule to our Skype chat, I read it and make a ruling based on how I want to run the game. I then jot that down for the future!

    One day I had a couple of other people involved that know the rules better that happened to be watching on… pretty soon I was deluged with rules from three directions! oops! I muddled through, but won’t be doing that again. My daughter’s written RAW is great, non-intrusive and lets me have information before I rule. I double check later with others I know to be more expert (sometimes rules are written in one place and modified in another). If I want to change my ruling, I just do that at the start of the next game – “Hey guys, turns out we didn’t use the RAW, what I will do from now on is…. ” That actually moves along well for us.

    I highly recommend getting a decent night’s sleep ahead of time too, if possible! We played yesterday and I had a terrible time remembering anyone’s names….. lol I blame a poor night’s sleep and a morning game! (I pull the age card out too, one of my players is my 13 yr old grand daughter!)