Last week, one of the groups I play in decided to end our Pathfinder campaign, and after some discussion it was decided that Bob is going to run Numenera for us. It has been a little while since Bob has run something, and we got to talking about getting back behind the screen again, along with some concerns that Bob might have. Having just come back from my own slump, I thought I would share some advice with Bob…and you all as well.

A Little Background

Our group has 6 members (5 players and a GM). Of the five players, four are local and one is joining us remotely via Google Hangouts. Bob’s last campaign was about a year and a half ago, when he ran some 4e using the Wizards published adventures for us. While Bob has been a player more than a GM, he is no stranger behind the screen.


I asked Bob to toss out a few questions and concerns about returning to GMing after a long hiatus. Bob had five things he was concerned about, and my responses are below:

Rust – It’s been a long time since I ran a game, how quickly can I get back in the groove?

Sure you are going to be rusty when you start. The good news is that GMing is like any other learned skill, and deep in your grey matter the reflexes are laying dormant. Once you start GMing, those reflexes should come back pretty quickly. One advantage you have is that your hiatus was just from GMing and not playing. As a player you have been watching other GM’s run things, and soaking it in.

Before you start running, I would recommend getting caught up on GMing advice. Obviously you should be reading Gnome Stew, but also check out G+ communities, podcasts, etc. The more you are reading and listening about GMing the more you will be thinking about GMing and that will also help to clear the rust.

This will be a theme for the rest of my answers: take it slow. Keep your first few games simple and focus on shaking off the rust from one or two areas a session. Give yourself a goal for each session: good NPC dialog, strong descriptions, running a complex combat, etc. Design the sessions to let you work on those areas. After a few sessions, when you are feeling comfortable, you can write and run what feels natural.

Learning a new system – Can I master the system fast enough to guide the players smoothly through the first sessions?

No one masters rules the first time they GM in that system. There are some things you can do to make rules mastery less difficult. First, learn the core system solidly. If you know the core system everything else will come quickly, plus if you have to improvise something, basing it off the core system will always be your best bet. Take the time to study the core mechanic: read it, read any examples, and test it out in your mind.

Next, make your own GM’s screen. It does not have to be a screen per se, it could be something like a set of reference tables. The important part is that you take the time to extract tables and rules from the rulebook and condense them into some format you can use. The act of creating the material will help to reinforce the material, and when you are running the game, you will have the reference material for use.

Finally, phase in the rules via the story you run. When you learn a new system don’t try to run a session using every rule. Rather, write your first sessions to introduce a few rules at a time. Start with some scenes that have the players trying out the core rule, with a few skill checks. Later in the session you can have a combat, but keep it simple: simple adversaries, simple terrain, no advanced combat options. As you get comfortable with rules, write scenes that will include more complex rules.

Remote player – I’ve never run a game with a remote player before. Can I manage the flow to keep him involved and entertained?

In a hybrid group its easy for the remote player to get drowned out by everyone at the table. Make sure that you are getting face-to-face time with the remote player during each scene. Periodically ask the remote player if they have any questions or need something cleared up.

When the table gets overly excited, often during combat, you will need to calm the table to make sure that the remote player understood what is being talked about, and that their contributions can be heard. During combat, take the time every few turns to re-cap what is going on at the scene level, before the remote player’s turn, to make sure that the player is fully aware of what is going on.

There are going to be times when there is a miscommunication or communication gap, and the remote player missed some important information. Don’t be afraid to rewind the game and let the player take back an action. It can be frustrating for a remote player to take a move that was ineffective or be forced down a certain path because of a lack of information or a misunderstanding.

I’m on my own – my best work was done using packaged material/modules. Will I be able to prep an engaging story?

Cracks knuckles. I think I can be of help here. 😉

You can prep your own material, it just takes time and imagination. The problem you will have initially is that you are not going to have good control of either of those things, and on top of that you are going to be juggling learning the rules, managing players, and kicking a campaign off.

Make it easy on yourself and use some tools that will help shortcut some of the work. For starters use Eureka or a book or tool like it, to generate plots. This will take the pressure off of you to generate an engaging story right off the bat, and save you time in your prep since you just need to flesh out the plot into some session notes. Second, use something like Masks, Story Forge cards or another book/tool like it for NPC’s. This will give you interesting NPC’s without having to create them from scratch, and also save you prep time. As the campaign gets rolling, and the other areas of the game are under control, ideas will come to you and you can get into writing your own stuff all from scratch.

Lastly, I would be remiss not to mention Never Unprepared to learn the process of prepping a game, and techniques for streamlining your prep. Aside from the phases of prep, I would focus on the Time Management section, to help you better understand how much time is going to go into your sessions and how to plan your prep so that you are not under the gun. Then, take a look at the Templates section, so that you create templates to focus what you write down in your notes, shortening your prep time and making your notes more useful at the table. Later on after you have more sessions under your belt, then look at Prep-Lite to streamline your prep and give you back some time.

Overall confidence – I’ve run more stinkers than gems, and player confidence in my skills wasn’t high. What if I lose them early? Will I get another chance later?

First thing. Fake it before you make it. Players can smell a lack of confidence behind the screen, so push that down and use any bravado (true or false) that you may have and get the game running on that.

Second, confidence comes from victories, regardless of size. Start small. Your first instinct will be to try to crush a home run on the first pitch. Avoid that thinking. Just hit the ball and get on base. From there, get to second, to third, and then bring it home.

Make your first sessions simple, straight forward, and fun. Run them well, by knowing the scenario and relevant rules. Engage the characters by incorporating some of their backgrounds into the story. When it doubt, side on making things a bit easier rather than harder when it comes to opposition (skill or combat). Let the players have some early wins with the system as well, they will love being the heroes and badasses. There will be time later to present tougher opposition.

Get feedback from players right after the game, then take that feedback and work to improve your next session. Borrowing from my PM background, use three questions:

  • What went well? – These are the kinds of things you do in future sessions.
  • What could have been better? – Don’t do those things in future sessions.
  • What surprised you? – Surprises are differences in expectations, and they can be good or bad. Find out what the surprise was, and see if you need to do something differently in future sessions.

With one game down, focus on running the next one, and the next one. As your confidence grows you can worry about big campaign arcs and complex plot lines, but first get those early wins under your belt.

Why Do We Fall, Bruce?

Getting back behind the screen after a long hiatus can be daunting. Have your GM skills faded away like your understanding of high school chemistry? Likely not, your GMing reflexes are likely intact but your GMing muscles have atrophied. Take it slow to rehabilitate those unused muscles and in time your muscles will match your reflexes, and you will once again be running great sessions.

As for the rest of you… Have you ever been away from the screen for a while, and how did you get back into the swing of things? What advice do you have for Bob before he gets behind the screen?