I started playing World of Warcraft (WoW) at the end of 2005, and it’s been a blast so far.

Me being, well, me, I’ve been thinking about what lessons GMs can learn from WoW ever since I logged in for the first time, and here they are: 9 GMing lessons you can learn from World of Warcraft.

One thing before we get started: WoW was developed by a massive team of game designers, over a long period of time, for quite a bit of money.

Your game is put together by you, over however much time you can squeeze in around real life, for free.

Does that mean you can’t run a fantastic game? Absolutely not! But it does mean that few games are going to hit all 9 of these high notes, and that’s okay. Every game you run should be a learning experience — these are lessons, but they’re also goals.

1. Everything should be fun

Many massively multiplayer games require that you kill endless armies of the same boring enemies to level up. You can do this in WoW, too, but the quest system is so robust and rewarding that you don’t actually need to.

Every moment of every RPG session you run might not be fun, but there should be a lot more fun stuff than boring stuff. I know that sounds basic, but think back to your last session — were there low points? Did one of your players seem bored? Did you slog through something dull to get to the meat of the adventure?

Those are all opportunities — things you can work on to make sure you’re maximizing the amount of fun everyone at the table, including you, has at every game.

2. Details matter

As a longtime player of an older MMO, Ultima Online, and after a bit of experience with EverQuest, one thing that really struck me about WoW is how many of the details they got right — it’s a very polished game.

Taking a bit of extra prep time to really sex up your encounters, make a couple of extra notes about key NPCs or work on props for your game can make a similar difference at your table, too.

3. Travel should be easy

The Warcraft world is massive, but getting from place to place is simplified by the inclusion of mounts, gryphon “taxis” and free ocean voyages. Travel thus remains part of the game — as it should in tabletop RPGs — but it doesn’t distract you from doing fun stuff for very long.

4. Item management should be simple

With a bank box, several bags, automatic stacking of like items, game-wide mailboxes and countless other features, WoW makes dealing with your character’s stuff very simple. Item management can be a massive pain in the ass in some games (D&D, anyone?), but you can take steps to speed it up — which leaves you more time to focus on having fun.

5. Every class should have lots of things to do

When WoW characters group to tackle quests and dungeons, every class contributes different talents — and every player has something fun to do. As a GM, you should design every adventure to include multiple opportunities for each PC to shine.

6. Style should shine through

WoW absolutely oozes style — and it’s got a unified style. When your games have their own vibrant, obvious style that ties everything together, they become richer, more memorable and more fun.

7. Everyone should leave every session jazzed about the game

In nearly 200 hours of gameplay, I can count the number of times I’ve logged off frustrated on one hand. WoW delivers fun very, very consistently, and you should strive to do the same thing in your games. If something isn’t fun, don’t do it again!

8. It’s okay to make changes after the campaign begins

WoW’s developers tweak the game through patches — many players would say they tweak it too often, but the principle is sound: Don’t be afraid to change things that aren’t working, add new elements or otherwise alter the game after it begins. Just don’t forget to include your players in this process!

9. Err on the side of being over-the-top

Part of WoW’s style is that everything is larger than life — slightly (or more than slightly) cartoony, in a good way. In tabletop gaming, just as you shouldn’t hoard your best ideas, you shouldn’t be afraid to be over-the-top.

Your players are much more likely to look back fondly on a slightly too-crazy game than they will on a slightly too dull game, after all.


If you play WoW, here are a couple of details about my WoW experience to put things in perspective: I’m still on my first character, a level 42 (currently) rogue on Icecrown, a PvM server. What do you think I’d put on this list after another 6 months of gameplay? Another handful of alts? After playing on a PvP server?

Whether you have or haven’t played WoW, though, what do you think of these lessons?

Update: I submitted this post to Slashdot, and it’s generated some heated comments over there — definitely worth checking out if you want to see some different perspectives on this article.