I recently started running a Night’s Black Agents game, after coming off of running both Fate and Savage Worlds. This was my first time running anything with the Gumshoe system, and I found myself, for the first time in quite some time, having to get use to running a new system. In order to get comfortable running the game, I was going to not only have to learn the rules, but learn how to GM the game as well.

Learning to GM a Game

GMing a game is more than just understanding the rules of how the game is played. In order to GM a game, you have to learn how the game is meant to be played, so that your actions at the table express the game as it was intended by the designers. When we do this, the game flows well. But, when we are not GMing the game as it was intended, through ignorance or a misinterpretation of the text, our sessions can be rocky or awkward.

Much of what you need to know about GMing a game falls into three areas:

  • Mechanics – these are the rules of the game as written in the rule book.
  • Core Activities – these are the things that the players typically do during the game. Things like: exploration, physical combat, investigations, trading, etc.
  • Setting or Genre – this is the context in which the core activities take place. While a fantasy game and a Sci-Fi game can both focus on exploration, how those are done in the context of the genre will be different, and will have some tropes in common and other differences.

When learning a game, we need to understand all three of these concepts so that we can express the game properly to the players during play. Depending on the writing and organization of the rule book, some of these areas will be easy to understand, while others will be harder. The best games make sure that all three of these things are clear, but there are times and games where one or more of these may require more research to fully understand.

Note – if your intent is to do something outside of the rules and the intended play style of the game, then you are going Off-Label, and I have more to say about that in a past article. This article assumes you are looking to run the game as the designers intended.

How then can we figure out how to GM the game?

Start With the GMing Section

It should be obvious that the first place to look for how to run the game would be in the GMing section. An excellent GMing section will tell you everything about how to run the game, and will define core activities as well as provide tips on how to convey the setting/genre. Sadly, this has not always been the case, and many older games have weaker GMing sections, or the sections focus less on how to play as they do on fringe rules, adventure design, etc.

For a few examples of games that get it right, check out the GMing sections of: Night’s Black Agents, Fate Core, and Monster of the Week. Reading of any of these sections will make you feel empowered to play the game.

 A well-written game will help you to learn to run the game, but if that information is lacking or hard to understand, there are numerous ways to figure out how to best GM a game. 

Read Between the Lines

There is the adage Rules inform play, something that I hold to be true, but I think that you can extend that adage to also include Rules inform GMing. If the GMing chapter has not laid this out for you, you can look at the rule book and deduce the core activities of the game. Here are a few techniques that I have found to be helpful:

  • What is this game about? – Sometimes in the Introduction of the book, the designers will mention what the game is about. If you are especially lucky you might find Sorensen’s Three Questions. Once you understand what the designer intended the game to be about, you can determine the core activities.
  • Page Count – Look at the page counts of the actual rules. Omit things like spells or magic item lists from your analysis. Check out what sections have the most pages. Often page count implies importance. So if a game has devoted 10 pages to overland exploration, but 30 pages to combat, combat is likely to be an important component of the game.
  • Figure out the Currency – Games often have a currency of points (or other things) that can flow to and from the players. Look at what the currency is and how it is obtained and you can get some hints on importance. In Fate Core Fate Points are the main currency of the game, and the Compel is the major way they flow to the players. Thus, Compels are an important part of GMing Fate.
  • Follow the Crunch – In addition to page count, look at the overall complexity of different activities in the game. The more complex the rules are for a given activity, the more importance that will hold. Do not look at individual rule complexity as that can be misleading, otherwise you would think D&D 3.5 is about Grappling. Rather look at it from more of a macro level, and you will see that combat is a complex system, and again likely to be important.

Learning it Externally

Besides reading the rules and studying the game, which you should do no matter what else you do, there are plenty of external sources for learning how to GM a game. Thanks to the Internet, this information is readily available if you go looking. Here are some tips for external sources:

  • Blogs – Many game designers have blogs, and often they talk about about their games. In addition, other bloggers, both designers and other gamers, will post materials about how to run specific games. For Gumshoe there is an excellent series of articles by Wil Hindmarsh called No Clues Without Consequence.
  • Podcasts – Game Designers love interviews, especially before or during a Kickstarter or publication. These interviews often have the designer talking about how the game is run, or what special things it does. They are great sources of finding out how the game is intended to be played.
  • Publications – Some games or types of games have supplements that discuss how to better run the game. Often these have supplemental rules, but avoid adding the rules to your game right away, and just read the advice.
  • Actual Play – There is a vast community of actual play podcasts, where gamers record themselves running different games. By listening to these, you can get a feel for how the game is run.
  • Convention Play – One of my favorites, is to play a game at a convention before I decide to run it; a test drive of sorts. If you like the session, you may be able to talk to the GM for a few minutes for some advice.
  • Other Gamers – You can always reach out on social media to your friends or acquaintances to find out if anyone has run the game before and has any advice. There is often a G+ community for the most popular games, the active ones are valuable when learning a game.

Genre Immersion

Many games are designed to emulate a specific genre of story. A good way to get a feel for how to run a game is to study the genre it is emulating. Understand the tropes which make the genre, so that you can incorporate them into your GMing, both during prep and when you run. Night’s Black Agents is a combination of Vampire stories and Espionage Thrillers, therefore spending a weekend watching the Bourne movies is not only a good idea, but necessary (or at least that is what I told my wife).

Merging it with your Style

Finally, let’s not forget you have your own GMing style. You have a way you like to prep a game, how you manage your campaigns, and how you run your table. With everything you learned about what the game is designed to do, you need to merge that with your own style in a way that makes the game natural to run.

With Night’s Black Agents I was concerned that a game heavy in investigation would cause me to have to change my lighter prep style, and my enjoyment of improv at the table. After understanding the importance of the communication of the clues through a combination of the rules, some podcast interviews with Ken Hite, and the articles by Wil Hindmarch, I realized that I could focus my prep on what the clues were, but be far more flexible about how the players went about collecting them. This allowed me to keep my prep light and the flexibility to allow the players to drive the direction of the game during play.

Investigate and Incorporate

GMing a game is about understanding the core activities of the game and the genre context in which those activities take place. A well-written game will help you to learn to run the game, but if that information is lacking or hard to understand, there are numerous ways to figure out how to best GM a game.

How do you figure out how you are going to GM a new game? What techniques do you use? Do you GM every game the same way, or do you adapt your style to the game you are running?