Over at the Suggestion Pot, Inumo wrote:

As a first-timing DM, one thing that I’ve noticed lacking in many first-time-DM articles is just the basic, taken-for-granted stuff; how to use secret information, how to paint an environment picture, easy ways to keep track of initiative/char. stats/etc. for all the PCs and monsters, how to avoid MMO-style number-crunching, that kind of thing.

Which led directly to First Time GM, a series of articles dedicated to the newly-minted game master, making his first tentative die rolls behind the screen. First Time GM will cover a broad range of topics, from advice on finding players, to techniques for managing information at the table, to handling those “WTF?” moments, hopefully touching on many of Inumo’s topics along the way.

Of course, much of this material will be old news to the seasoned GMs among us, but hopefully everyone will find something they can use, or will share the fruits of their experience in the comments.

What does a GM actually do?

To launch the series, let’s take a look at what a GM actually does at the table when he or she is running a game. This is not an exhaustive list, and does not include many of the things that a good GM will do, nor does it include ‘game prep’.

  • Plays the NPCs, especially the opposition. Walton the shopkeeper, Helpless the Henchman, the Dark Lord of Lost Socks, and Kobold #4 are all the GM’s characters.
  • “Runs” the environment, including locations, the weather, and inanimate objects like traps, by describing how they appear and what they do.
  • Decides what aspects to focus on, such as combat and negotiations, and what aspects to “hand wave”, such as travel, research, etc.
  • Acts as the final arbiter of the game rules, although many GMs will defer to their players or provide temporary answers pending further research.
  • Manages the flow of information from the world to the players, paying particular attention to the plot-centered aspects of it. From one point of view, RPGs educate the players about the world their characters inhabit.
  • Improvises when the party does the unexpected, whether by creating a neighboring town that the PCs unexpectedly visit, or merely by deciding if there is any loose dirt in the room.
  • Decides when to stop the session, and when to press on.
  • Takes notes for future reference.

Some of these are relatively simple to do, but others can take the full mental bandwidth of a veteran GM. But wait, there’s more…

“I have people skills; I am good at dealing with people.”

In my opinion, the most important aspects of the GM’s job involve dealing with his or her players. It shouldn’t come as a shock that many GMs have weak people skills. Most folks are oblivious to their own social shortcomings; even if they are aware of them, it’s not easy to change a lifetime of social habits.

The first time GM should be aware of the need for social skills, as he or she may be called upon for the following (again, not an exhaustive list).

  • Enforces the rules of expected behavior at the table, even if they are decided by the group as a whole.
  • Keeps the game moving by the judicious pruning of small talk, tangents, “this one time in bandit camp”, etc.
  • Manages the ever-changing dynamics of a potentially disparate group, also known as ‘cat herding’.
  • Deals with players who may occasionally be distracted, rude, absent, over-eager, easily offended, bored, or just plain difficult.
  • Prevents the strong personalities from steamrolling the wallflowers.
  • Adjudicates disagreements over the rules, acceptable levels of metagaming, personality conflicts, what’s for dinner, etc.
  • Ensures that every player and character gets a bit of the spotlight.

Again, much of this is relatively easy to handle, but a GM may need to handle multiple issues, with each answer pulling him in a different direction. At times, the GM is the busiest person at the table. With a list like this, it’s a wonder that anyone ever agrees to run a campaign, much less a one-shot game.

But it’s not really that bad. GMing is one of the most satisfying hobbies I’ve ever had. With a good group of players, the right preparation, and a few easily learned techniques and skills, GMing can sometimes be easier than playing a character.

In future articles, we’ll delve into finding good players, preparing efficiently, and managing everything the players can throw at you. For now, one of the most important things for a first time GM to remember is that it’s just a game. The campaign will not come to a screeching halt if you make a mistake, and your players will probably be much more forgiving of your mistakes than you will be.

As mentioned earlier, this is old hat to most of our readers, but it should give the ‘wannabe GMs’ a decent overview of what a GM actually does behind that little screen. Future articles will have more detail and will dwell on a specific aspect of GMing. Every group, session, ruleset, and campaign is different, so your mileage may vary. I’m only presuming to speak from my point of view, so if I’ve missed something truly egregious, please sound off in the comments and let us know.

Up next: Looking for Group