A friend and one of my regular players in various TTRPG campaigns recently asked me for GMing advice.
While I could wax lyrical for some time, I thought it might be more pedagogically helpful to write something down and force myself to be dense. Therefore:
You’ve been asked to GM a game, and asked me for advice. I’ve often told you I think you’d be a good GM, and hope you’re going to find out that I was right.
Equally, I assume you like how I run games for you, so here’s some of what I’m trying to do - and some of what I ought to be do - for your consideration.
1. You Are A Player Too
One of the things I like about you as a player is that you’re very good at remembering that your thanking me for the work that goes into GMing, engaging with things I care about, and not spending the session doing things that annoy me is all important to me.
I hope your players are the same. You ought to enjoy GMing, and not find it overwhelming, stressful, or something that feels like a job. Unless you’re being paid for it.
So know what you find fun. Some people talk about gamist (we play for crunchy competition) narrativist (we play for story) and simulationist (we play to explore carefully-simulated worlds/characters/genres) play. I suspect you’re a narrativist at heart, with a spot of gamist and an appreciation of simulationism. But think about it, and discover as you play.
I love building worlds that reflect the themes of a story so players can intuitively explore them. I love tender moments between characters. I love some other things. What you enjoy will become obvious in time.
2. Underplanning Is Freedom
You’re going to want to plan; to anticipate every place the players might go and every choice they might make.
Don’t. Don’t. Don’t.
Sketch out a clear goal or hook for them. Note down a few interesting places, people, and scenes. Have two or three things that might make it hard for them to achieve their goals.
“Goal/Hook: You’re trying to infiltrate the enemy high command. Places: Enemy top secret HQ. A guard post outside. The kitchen where prisoners work. The sewage tunnel from the beach to the top secret latrines. People: There’s the evil general, bored guard, eager-to-please prisoner, and your way-too-formal handler. Scenes: Meeting any one of those people is a scene, especially in the ‘wrong’ place.” That’s a scenario right there.
Keep it simple. An NPC starts with a function (A merchant, a murderous rival, a urchin who can serve as a tour guide) and a quirk (shouts unexpectedly, wipes their nose, likes puns). If the players care about them, start giving the NPC a goal or set of moral values (wants someone to write a song about them, ardent pacifist, wants to complete their set of novelty china).
If the players care.
3. Make The Players Feel Cool
The players are playing because they want to have fun of a kind a computer cannot provide. So notice what they care about, and give it to them.
If they try to do something, tell then to roll - but make sure they succeed. It’s more to decide if it’s triumphant, adequate, or in a way that puts them in a worse or embarrassing position somehow.
If they care about something, reincorporate it later. That’s why a throwaway NPC you found intimidating kept coming back. Likewise the pathetic evil overlord, awful billionaire, and others.
They’ll care about things they invent, so ask stuff like “how do you know X? Where does Y hang out?”
And they’ll care about people who care about them, so make characters in-world view them as possible friends, allies, or just unusual and interesting people. Give them bonds together as a group - a band of revolutionaries, thieves on the run, travelling players.
Out-of-game, make sure what they want. If they’re there for crunchy combat, give them an interesting fight. But if they’re there to explore their character’s existential void after achieving a lifetime goal, give them options to find out whether they want to become the greatest assassin in the world, or just settle down with someone and walk off into the sunset.
Which is not what we’d expected when you started that character.
4. You’re Running For Beginners. Don’t Forget What It Was Like
You’ve said you want to run Dungeons & Dragons, your favourite TTRPG, and one that you know inside and out.
That’s great! Just remember:
They’re less into D&D than you. Although you like the thousand pages of rules more than me, your players will not have read them.
The first page they will read is their character sheet. At first level, it wants a player to understand hit points, d20+stat, armour class, 7 dice shapes, 6 core skills (not the same as the 6 saving throws, here’s how Wisdom and Intelligence are different), proficiency bonuses, 2-3 class-specific abilities, 1-3 species-specific abilities, a background feat, 20 different named skills (Survival does not help you survive combat), rolling damage, and that’s before we get into how to the context that determines what numbers are good and not, interact with other beings in-world, actions in combat and initiative, or spell save DCs, attack modifiers, and picking spells from a list of hundreds that is restricted by class except when it’s not and also requires an understanding of elements, D&D geometry, and the vast gulf between what a player imagines ‘fire bolt’ (awesome name, sounds a lot like the iconic fire ball) to do, and the practical effect of ‘oh, the wolf is still alive even though you rolled maximum damage.’ Nor how swingy the game is - you might have +5 to your Athletics, and that is really good, but you rolled a 2 so it still sucks.
Any two of those things would be a lot for a new player to grasp. My first GM laughed at the stupidity of playing a goblin druid trying to climb a tree to escape, as though I was supposed to know which of the horde of new things I saw across three A4 pages of unfamiliar terminology was a) useful and b) optimal.
It was not fun. Every other new player I went to that game with walked away and never played again.
While I said don’t prep much, this bit you have to prep. Because you’re going to make sure their character builds are a) functional b) simple and c) something you can teach them how to run. D&D is not an intuitive system. It’s forty years of different systems all being hacked together.
You never felt that, in part because I never let you.
At the very least I’d urge starting at ‘level 0’, with no class abilities. Or do what I did for you - strip out the whole damn character sheet. Give the six core modifiers, a couple of skills like ‘archery’, ‘animals’, or ‘sausages’ with +2 to each, some hit points and maybe an armour class, a weapon, and/or one simple cantrip - oh yeah, don’t forget that ‘cantrip’ is a specific type of ‘spell’, and your players won’t know the difference, so just call it a ‘spell’ for now. A dumb & fun magic item.
Hit points are usually familiar from video games. Roll a d20 and add a modifier takes time to learn, but they will - and enjoy finding ways to use ‘sausages’, because you’re going to make sure sausages turn up. When they start fighting, roll a d20 and add dexterity fits with what they’ve learned, as does roll a d20, add modifier, and see if it hits. Then they learn about rolling damage. And Armour Class, for how hard they are to hit. And use their magic item in odd ways.
That is already a lot. I added more once you were keen and enjoying it. But first you got to feel clever and competent because you’d got the hang of how those five things work together to tell an awesome story about pinning your father’s killer to a bridge with an arrow, and not the Tale Of You Getting Overwhelmed.
We’ve both seen someone we think very clever spend three years forgetting how to make an attack, then roll damage.
All the essential stuff above is where people get to just name a fantasy - “Fire-slinging wizard”, “Badass sword dude”, “Eowyn from Lord of the Rings” - and pop a small number of numbers on it.
Or, for heaven’s sake, at least consider running Mörk Borg, Honey Heist, or another game that does the simplification for you. They won’t have considered it, but you can bring them a recommendation. Avengers: Endgame may be the film everyone’s heard of, but you’d never start someone’s film-watching life there.
Four stats, and class abilities that all create awesome stories, leave room for player improvisation outside five-foot squares, and well done, now you understand the whole game?
Make them feel confident by letting them be competent.
5. Pace it! Move things On, Let Them Stop
Make scenes quick. You don’t need to track every quarter-mile of road. You remember how boring that was when I tried it. Just a few dice rolls for fun stuff.
Players will get bogged down in planning, riffing off each other, and other stuff. Don’t let them get stuck. Either out of game or in-game, nudge them to move on to the next thing - or at least let someone else have the spotlight, or ideally everyone to share it.
Equally, if there’s a moment happening, ask how their characters feel. Sit in that moment for a bit.
6. Tell Them Everything (If Possible)
You’re not the players’ enemy. You’re on their side. So tell them bits of lore that of course their character would know; if they miss the obvious signs that the murderer climbed up the wall, have an NPC in a tavern say they saw someone do that; give them that little bit of extra information. Heck, point out that their tactically-clever wizard would of course realise that the current monster might be very strong, but can’t dodge for toffee, so will probably fail any DEX saves.
Just hold back on the core mystery-secret until you’ve given at least seven or eight clues. They’ll feel clever, and you’ll be collaborating with them to do so.
You’ll also be allowing them to play competent people, which is nice. And setting them up for a wonderful surprise when they still don’t work out what’s going on, but suddenly the core mystery-secret is revealed and everything makes sense now.
In short: only hide things if there’s an important reason to do so. Let NPCs be talkative (or easily persuaded, or easy-to-work-out-how-to-persuade-them), clues findable, and drop hints if needed.
7. Be Clear About Tone
You’re working together to create an experience (possibly even a story). So before the game starts, be clear about the tone you want.
I promise you: if one player wants a sweeping romance, another wacky hijinks, and another grimdark violence, you’re going to really struggle to enjoy yourself all of the time or help others to.
Know what you want. You’ll probably find out along the way what you most enjoy - for me, I enjoy stories where the players start feeling emotions, the NPCs are strongly-defined and enjoyable to play (whether because it’s fun or because they’re interesting), and where combat happens, it’s important to the story and enjoyably interesting.
If everyone's clear on the tone, they'll probably interpret what you're doing with that lens, and perceive a great story no matter what you do.
8. Make Combat Interesting
If you’re GMing Dungeons & Dragons: it’s a miniatures wargame with some roleplaying elements added on. Your players will be expecting combat, but most combat in Dungeons & Dragons becomes “I do a number! Then I do a number harder!” And there’s only so many ways to describe hitting something with a sword.
My top tips: make it about something for each faction. They’re trying to escape, they’re trying to get the treasure, they’re trying to persuade the other side to back down, they’re trying to kill someone who they care about killing. Suddenly, it stops being such a slugfest.
Then add an appropriate ‘interesting’ element of terrain. They’re in a collapsing palace of mirrors. They’re having to hang off metal chains. The room is flooding. It makes it possible to make fun tactical choices.
And finally: do not worry about it being too lethal. It’s damn near impossible to kill PCs in D&D 5e. I tried to kill one of my own PCs for about ten sessions and failed. Make combat rare, challenging, and interesting.
Also, for the sake of speed: one big, interesting antagonist with scary legendary actions will always run faster than six generic dire wolves.
9. You’re Going To Learn Stuff
No GM is ever finished learning. There are many different ways to GM, and you’re going to find one of your own.
Have fun, you’re going to screw up, and it’s not going to matter to your players.
You’re a GM now.