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How Did You Learn to GM?

A simple question to which the answer will, I suspect, vary pretty widely: how did you learn to GM?

For me, the short answer is, “From playing with Dave, David and Stephan.” The long answer follows — and the real answer comes at the end.

I got my start at age 10 with Avalon Hill’s Lords of Creation boxed set, which I bought on sale at a bookstore because it looked cool. I was fascinated by the equipment list (a fascination that continues today), and when I had friends over we’d each “buy” a certain amount of gear, and then I’d narrate some things that happened to both of us (playing ourselves as characters). Looking back, this was basically just an extension of “let’s pretend” games with the addition of a few loose rules.

On the bus to and from day camp that year, I did something similar with a friend whose name I’ve long since forgotten: more like storytelling with some interaction than actual gaming. Shortly thereafter, I met Dave, my first GM — and he introduced me to red box D&D, and actual rules. I couldn’t believe how cool it was, and playing it solo (one GM and one player) was a lot of fun.

I found out about a gaming store that was an easy bus ride away from my apartment, and went in search of what I’d played. They didn’t have D&D, for some reason — but they did have AD&D 2nd Edition, just released that year (1989). Books in hand, I started GMing for my best friend, Bud — again, one-on-one. I don’t remember much about the specifics of the game, though I know I didn’t use published adventures very often.

To get around not having more players, he played a host of other characters in addition to his main PC — and once in awhile, I’d take over one or more of them, and use them as NPCs as well. I tweaked the game quite a bit, often in pretty silly ways, and every time I learned something new or figured something out, I tested it on Bud (and that practice, to some extent, also continues today!).

From 12 to 16, I ran solo games for my friends. To this day, I have no idea why it never crossed my mind to get them together in once place and run something for them all at once, but I suspect it had to do with solo gaming still feeling pretty natural. More relevant to this post, I also played in a solo game with another of my friends, who was also named David (at one point, I was close friends with 7 Davids!).

David’s main game was set in the Forgotten Realms (still my favorite published setting), and he knew the world and the rules very well. We also sometimes played Marvel Superheroes, which I remember as being pretty madcap (I ran my whole superteam as PCs).

In high school, I ran a couple of short-lived games for two school friends, as well as a brief campaign for Bud and another friend at home. This pretty much stopped when I met my third GM, Stephan. Stephan was the GM for my whole group of gaming friends in high school, with others in the group (occasionally, myself included) taking turns once in awhile. He was (and still is) amazing at improv, and can happily — and successfully — run a game at the drop of a hat.

After another 4 years of gaming, I felt like I pretty much knew how to GM. In retrospect, I was wrong in some ways — but I knew enough to run some fun games in college, learn from the unfun ones and make some great friends in the process.

So…where’s the real answer to my question? The real answer is that I have no idea exactly how I learned to GM!

It wasn’t like learning to ride a bike, where there’s that one moment where you get it, and after that you can ride a bike, forever. And while I can pinpoint a few things — like the second Dave’s vibrant portrayal of the Realms, which was part of what led me to try and run immersive games — and the obvious bits like learning the rules, coming to understand how a GM could manage a group of players, and having fun gaming under good GMs, there’s so much more that I couldn’t identify if my life depended on it.

I would say that I considered myself to be a GM after my first couple of years running games (about 4 years after I first started gaming), and that from that point on I was no longer learning to GM, but instead improving on what I knew.

One thing I’m also quite sure of is that there was never a moment where one of my GMs sat me down and explained things to me. All of my learning came through playing in games, watching what other GMs did (not consciously, either — I didn’t keep notes, or set out to learn the craft) and trying things in my own games. “Organic” would be a pretty good one-word description of my learning process.

These days, it’s a bit clearer. I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning how to GM, and I’m much more active about trying to improve my craft than I was before I knew that there was a craft to improve! I still learn a lot from playing in games, watching what other GMs do and trying things in my own games — but now there are other resources as well: messageboards like EN World [1] and The Forge [2], not to mention sites full of advice, like Roleplaying Tips [3], and books all about GMing (Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering, etc.). I’m guessing that if I started learning to GM now, some things would go quite differently — but others would probably stay the same, and I think the organic aspect of the process would be very likely to remain.

That’s my experience. What was yours?

Edit: I posted this same question over on EN World and The Forge (my first post on the latter!). If you’re curious to see how others answered, check out this thread on EN World [4] and this thread on The Forge [5]. Interestingly, I was more or less completely wrong that answers to this question would vary widely: by and large, most posters in these threads had quite similar learning experiences. I think that’s ripe ground for a future TT post.

(The seed for this post was planted when I read a post elsewhere that talked about the idea of having classes for GMs — an organized learning process, in other words. For the life of me, I can’t find that post, and I have no idea where I saw it. If it was yours, pipe up in the comments!)

18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "How Did You Learn to GM?"

#1 Comment By Bankuei On July 24, 2005 @ 1:48 pm

Hi,

What an excellent topic! I was really thinking about going into this sooner or later- but here you are!

For myself, I learned how to GM the very hard way- being the first person to get the game, and then trying to figure out how it all worked and teach others. My cousin gave me the blue dragon box of OD&D, which, was despite my good vocabulary, beyond me at the time.

It wasn’t until a few months later when TSR released Red Box Basic D&D that I understood how things worked and then proceeded to show my friends. Alas, D&D just couldn’t hold our attention for long- it was competing with Nintendo and a lot other instant gratification games. I couldn’t really get folks into gaming until Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Robotech were released by Palladium, and, at the time, no videogames were out for either.

This is the reason I’m so very much attuned to how well or poorly the written advice in games is for GMs. 🙂

Chris

#2 Comment By Mike On July 24, 2005 @ 4:09 pm

Well, I learned to DM by watching.

I cut my RPG teeth when I was 13 on OD&D. My first DM was an English Literature major that had a very active imagination, a lean towards the “thinking man’s” way of playing, and a way of describing things like an empty room that would make you feel like you were in a ballroom. He is the only DM that I have ever played with, and that’s over a span of 17 years, that wrote every bit of material himself.

I was in his group for almost three years until he moved away to attend graduate school. He ended the campaign we were in by the characters being figments of a little boy’s active imagination, ala “Timmy” from The Twilight Zone movie, and we got to choose whether to become one of his fond memories, become real in his world, or wait for him to ‘imagine’ us again.

I have tried to pattern my style somewhat after his, while making sure I add myself in as well.

#3 Comment By Mark Serrahn On July 25, 2005 @ 7:58 am

Fun topic and site (great job, Martin!).

I learned to DM basically by just jumping into it. My situation is almost always that I don’t want to organize a gaming group, campaign, or even DM, but end up doing so because otherwise there just isn’t a game (i.e. our short-lived Banewarrens campaign). Hence, I started with the old red and blue box sets when I was around 10 years old, serving as DM for myself and a friend or two: for those first adventures, I’d draw dungeons on graph paper with where the monsters lurked and we’d all play, deciding as a group where to go first and what to fight. Basically I was DM and player, and quickly learned the value of being an impartial DM regardless of the situation, including my own character’s demise (the lesson of impartiality is something I’ve valued ever since, hence am a “roll in the open” style DM). In these early days, there wasn’t an “adventure” per se; just a “monster hunt” and the games were extremely basic. Find monster, kill, loot, repeat.

Eventually I started to actually pay more attention to the rules rather than just using them for inspiration, but for the most part I was on my own, stumbling through them, often making rulings on the fly that in retrospect, where incredibly silly. Luckily, I must have been doing something right: I ended up serving as DM for a variety of games and players, from Gangbusters, Star Frontiers, Marvel Superheroes, Top Secret, to numerous homebrew games. Over time as the mechanics of the games started to make sense, the creative “story” elements really became more important and I worked on developing plots, descriptions, and characters. I read a lot of adventures from Dragon magazine (back when it included an adventure each issue) and borrowed heavily from TV, movies, and comics.

My first “real” experience as DM wasn’t until high school (1993 or thereabouts), where I responded to an ad in a gaming store and once again ended up in the DM chair, this time for a group of six players I had never met (a bit nerve wracking!). I brought a friend of mine along to play and for morale support, which was very helpfully. I hadn’t actually played much (I think only twice at that point) as opposed to serving as DM, but ran the campaign very successfully for a year (until I moved): it was a great learning experience and framework for what to do and what to avoid.

#4 Comment By Martin On July 25, 2005 @ 9:39 am

(Chris) What an excellent topic! I was really thinking about going into this sooner or later- but here you are!

When I thought of it, I was sort of surprised that I hadn’t seen it covered elsewhere. It probably has been, but it was new to me. 😉

This is the reason I’m so very much attuned to how well or poorly the written advice in games is for GMs. 🙂

It certainly would have been nice to have more guidance from the rules when I started out — which is part of why I wish I could remember where I saw the post on classes for GMs. I don’t think that’s necessarily the solution, but more “how to,” and “try this” and “this doesn’t tend to work” would be great to see in gaming books.

(Mike) Well, I learned to DM by watching.

Welcome to TT, Mike! 🙂 I don’t know if you’ve taken a look at the EN World thread about this question (linked in my post), but this is a pretty common answer (along with “I learned by jumping in”). I think that says some interesting things about our hobby — both about what’s there, and what isn’t present at all.

(Mark) I learned to DM basically by just jumping into it. My situation is almost always that I don’t want to organize a gaming group, campaign, or even DM, but end up doing so because otherwise there just isn’t a game (i.e. our short-lived Banewarrens campaign).

(Some context: I was part of one of Mark’s groups, and our game was short-lived due to scheduling problems. It was a lot of fun, and Mark is an incredibly detail-oriented and ambitious GM.)

Great to see you here, Mark! 🙂 Your answers — jumped in, and GM by default — also seem to be common to a lots of folks’ experiences. I can vouch for your talent, so it’s pretty clear that this method works. I am surprised to hear that you often GM by default — I had assumed it was more often by choice.

Maybe a lot of us make that assumption about our GMs. Thoughts?

#5 Comment By ffilz On July 25, 2005 @ 11:30 am

Hmm, I sort of learned through a mishmash. I was introduced to D&D when a friend got the original Basic (pale blue cover with a dragon on it) set for his birthday (we were into wargaming, I had actually looked at it in the store, but since it didn’t seem to use miniatures, I was turned off and bought Tractics instead). Since I was initially not into this “no miniatures” game, I chose not to play that first night. Instead I watched my friends play (my friend’s older brother had played some D&D – I forget if he DMed or just helped). I started to read the rules. That night, instead of sleeping (the party was a sleepover) I stayed up all night reading and absorbing the game. The next day, I started running the game in the back of the station wagon on our way to and from Battleship Cove (MA).

I started frequenting one particular hobby shop more and more, and eventually the owner said I should talk with this Glen Blacow fellow. Glen gave me a lot of suggestions (and eventually even played in a few of my games). I also hooked up with some local high school kids, one of whom gave me some ideas (I think he was the first one who really introduced me to the idea of purpose dungeons instead of collections of random rooms).

But basically I learned by the seat of my pants. I only rarely played, though I also occaisionally watched other games.

Frank

#6 Comment By John On July 25, 2005 @ 12:11 pm

I learned to GM when I read Dogs in the Vineyard. I’m not kidding.

I *started* GMing when I was 9 years old and playing Gamma World with my neighbor. But we had no idea what we were doing, and we weren’t a part of the gaming community at large, and there was no real advice in the books, so we just created our own kind of fun with numbers and dice.

I ran games consistently for the next 15 years or so, and on and off for 7 more. And I think I got pretty good at it. I learned a lot, simply by trial and error, and social skills (cueing off the responses of my players, both overt and subtle). We had some truly excellent games over the years.

But when I read Dogs — a game that actually says “this is how to GM this game” — I was blown away. Sure, most of it was familiar. But some of it wasn’t. And it was all so… clear — in a way that “GM advice” never had been before. The bit about how NPCs should be bursting at the seams to reveal as much information as possible — man! What a simple notion! But it would have made my games about a 1000% better if someone had told me that when I was 9.

Feng Shui came close to this, but it didn’t go all the way. But it deserves a mention.

So I can now say with confidence that I *know* how to run Dogs. And Trollbabe. And PTA. And TSOY. And it’s not trial and error, seat-of-the-pants, one-man-band, plate-spinning, either. I’m looking forward to learning how to really run more games.

#7 Comment By Martin On July 25, 2005 @ 12:35 pm

(Frank) Glen gave me a lot of suggestions (and eventually even played in a few of my games).

Although I haven’t checked EN World today to be 100% sure, so far you’re the only person I’ve heard mention this: another GM giving you pointers. I don’t think that happens very often, which is interesting in its own right. (And welcome to TT, Frank!) 🙂

(John) But when I read Dogs — a game that actually says “this is how to GM this game” — I was blown away. Sure, most of it was familiar. But some of it wasn’t. And it was all so… clear — in a way that “GM advice” never had been before.

That just doubled my interest in picking up DitV at GenCon. Heck, maybe tripled it — that sounds fantastic, even if I just steal the advice to use elsewhere!

#8 Comment By John On July 25, 2005 @ 12:49 pm

Oh! And Sorcerer & Sword. Damn. Can’t believe I forgot that. I have yet to run it, but the GM techniques are solid gold.

#9 Comment By Martin On July 25, 2005 @ 12:53 pm

(John) Oh! And Sorcerer & Sword. Damn. Can’t believe I forgot that. I have yet to run it, but the GM techniques are solid gold.

You’re the second person I’ve seen mention that recently, and for that same reason. I have Sorcerer, and I’m guessing S&S is available via Ron’s site as well (or at GenCon, I suppose). Another one to check out — thanks, John!

#10 Comment By Bankuei On July 25, 2005 @ 3:20 pm

Hi,

Also, chiming in with John’s post- the stuff that REALLY taught me to GM was Inspectres, octaNe, Sorcerer & Sword, Primetime Adventures, and Dogs in the Vineyard.

Chris

#11 Comment By ffilz On July 25, 2005 @ 4:59 pm

Frank here again…

Probably should mention that I started in the fall of 1977 when I was 14.

Learning was definitely a trial and error thing. At least Basic D&D had fewer pages of confusing rules… (and I had been playing WWII miniatures games, so not all the terminology was foreign…).

I notice on Enworld that a bunch of folks mention modules. In those early days, modules were awfully scarce (our first dungeoning was with the geomorphs which came with the Basic set). There is a one page sample dungeon in the book (which was mostly caves – which was to inform my early play – I quickly nicknamed my Chivalry and Sorcery game “Caves and Giant Rats”). When we eventually got the 3 books and supplements of course we had The Temple of the Frog as an example. I was pretty excited when Steading of the Hill Giant came out. White Dwarf magazine was a godsend for modules and other ideas (I have never got that much out of Dragon magazine).

Of course I’m still learning, though I have to admit that I’ve held onto a pretty old school form of play (I don’t even do plotted adventures since I already had a pretty firm style before the heavily plotted modules started to show up).

Definitely what has been most helpful over time is patient players, who are willing to talk about what they like and don’t like about the game. During college, I had one friend who really helped me out. The biggest single thing I learned from him was to make sure that the reward system rewarded the style of play I enjoy.

Frank

#12 Comment By Martin On July 25, 2005 @ 5:17 pm

(Frank) Of course I’m still learning, though I have to admit that I’ve held onto a pretty old school form of play (I don’t even do plotted adventures since I already had a pretty firm style before the heavily plotted modules started to show up).

Have you tried other styles of play and found them less satisfying, or just been very happy with your approach? Or have you stuck with your style for another reason entirely?

#13 Comment By Frank On July 25, 2005 @ 5:36 pm

(Martin) Have you tried other styles of play and found them less satisfying, or just been very happy with your approach? Or have you stuck with your style for another reason entirely?

I’ve tried different styles a little bit. Mostly through trying different game systems. Since starting to read The Forge, I’ve thought about GNS, and I have to say that while I understand the ideas of conflict resolution over task resolution, and narativist play, I just can’t really see myself enjoying them, or at least not enjoy running them.

For a while I was on the “I role play, not roll play” bandwagon, but now I realize that statement really doesn’t say much, and is often false.

As to plotted adventures, I think I cottened on to the issues of force and illusionism pretty quickly (not that I never use force and illusionism in my own play – I just realize that my trying to tell MY story just isn’t going to work [besides, I suck at telling stories…]).

Thinking about this question has got me thinking about the various GM training materials out there. I don’t think any of them are ideal, though Robin’s Laws is pretty good (but I think it still leaves out some pretty core things). Monte Cook’s recent articles in Dungeon magazine left me thinking he had written off entire styles of play. I’ve only skimmed the DMG II but I think it’s missing some pretty important stuff.

Frank

#14 Comment By Martin On July 25, 2005 @ 10:43 pm

(Frank) For a while I was on the “I role play, not roll play” bandwagon, but now I realize that statement really doesn’t say much, and is often false.

I can take a shot in the dark on this one — the roll playing goes in hand in hand with system, and therefore with the role playing (for example) — but I’d rather not just assume. 😉 Can you expand on this comment a bit?

#15 Comment By Frank On July 26, 2005 @ 11:49 am

“Role play, not roll play” comes from people trying to distance themselves from hack ‘n slash, or gamism, or even just system heavy play. A big problem with the phrase is that it really isn’t informative. It’s also judgemental in limiting the definition of “role play”.

For some GMs, it may be a code word for “I’m a story teller GM, and you are here to help me tell my story.” For others, it may just mean that they want the players to be more than mindless dice bots.

Since my recent self examination has found that gosh darn, you know, I really enjoy running tactical miniatures based combats, and you know what, plenty of people like playing in such games (so long as there really is more to the game than just a miniatures wargame), then why not celebrate that instead of hiding behind a meaningless code phrase?

Hope that explains things more.

Frank

#16 Comment By Martin On July 26, 2005 @ 2:50 pm

(Frank) Since my recent self examination has found that gosh darn, you know, I really enjoy running tactical miniatures based combats, and you know what, plenty of people like playing in such games (so long as there really is more to the game than just a miniatures wargame), then why not celebrate that instead of hiding behind a meaningless code phrase?

That definitely explains things more, and it’s a very good point. People know what to expect in your games, and whether to avoid them or dive in with gusto on that basis. Much nicer all around. 🙂

Scott, thanks for your response! I don’t think your experience is at all typical — teachers introducing you to the game — but I wish it was moreso. Heck, I might have enjoyed junior high a lot more if something like that had happened. 😉

#17 Comment By Martin On July 29, 2005 @ 8:51 pm

(T.W.) It’s interesting to look back and try to figure out what particular GM “rule” you learned in which situation. It’s a difficult thing…

Reading your comment, as well as others (including those on the threads), I’m surprised it didn’t occur to me to lay things out more like this — what I learned when. When I sat down to write this post, I was more intrigued by the fact that I had no idea -how- I’d gotten where I am, GMing-wise.

Your blog looks good so far — I look forward to reading more of it down the line. 🙂

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#20 Comment By itcomagic On December 18, 2005 @ 7:51 pm

I am thirty-one and have been playing/running D&D for almost as long as the game has been around. My sister taught me to play from the Red Box and my brother-in-law taught me to play from the 1st ed AD&D books. It was a few years of playing before I jumped behind the screen. How did I learn? Mostly from watching older friends and family. It also helped that I loved to read D&D rules, accessories, and modules. I really liked the cartoon, and in a weird way, that helped, also. Mostly, I am the DM I am today becuase I have not put the game aside. It has come from lots and lots of practice and listening to my players.

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