Shortly after I started writing TT, I asked this open question: how did you learn to GM? Your answers were elightening and entertaining, and they revealed a number of commonalities in the way GMs learn their craft.
I wanted to wait until the TT community had grown to ask the obvious follow-up question, and it’s grown a lot since July. So how about it — how should GMs learn to GM?
Most GMs seem to have followed one of these two paths: play for a little while, then start GMing; or jump right into GMing, without playing first.
Several folks mentioned this ingredient: having GMed for a while, really learning the craft by playing certain indie RPGs.
Only one GM mentioned this, which I found very interesting: learning by getting pointers from another GM.
Let’s use those 4 elements as the basis for a list of ways GMs can learn to GM, and expand the list with several other options — some of which don’t exist (yet?), others that aren’t in widespread use. First, the four gleaned from your responses to the original question:
- Play for a little while, then start GMing.
- Jump right into GMing, without playing first.
- GM for a little while, but really learn the craft by playing indie RPGs.
- Get pointers from another GM.
Here come the new approaches:
- In a class.
- Through a mentorship, apprenticeship or tutor.
- Through GM workshops.
- By reading a solid treatise on the basics.
- By working through self-directed lessons (workbook, online, etc.).
…and one suggested by Scott, in the comments:
- Self-directed learning using online resources (forums, websites, blogs).
Would taking one of those approaches have helped you figure out what a GM does? Or let you improve the “work to fun” ratio in your sessions more quickly? Does the idea of GM workouts have any merit as a learning tool?
And perhaps most importantly, would you want to learn (or have learned) to GM in a more formalized way? And if so, what might that formal approach look like?
(And just to finish things off, what isn’t on my list, but should be?)
Yep, that was you, Frank. You also have the honor of making the 1,001st comment here on TT. 😉
You mention workshops and panels at cons as a resource — do you think that format would work for someone who has never had any contact with GMing, or even with RPGs, before?
I certainly learned from a combination of mentorship and in-the-field experience.
An older gamer in the group I played in when I was 13 took me under his wing; we’re still friends.
It was a good exerpience.
I can be a bit of a chatterbox…
Hmm, workshops and panels as a resource for people who haven’t GMed before or role played at all? Well, the second class might be unlikely to be at a convention, though SF conventions are a resource, and CCG players frequent the game cons and might break out into the wider world of RPGs (also board gamers and miniatures gamers).
Workshops and panels would certainly help someone who has been a player who is now thinking about GMing his first game. The player has the grounding in gaming to understand what the workshop and panel has to offer.
For the CCG/board game/miniatures player, they might want to play in a game before attending such a workshop or panel, but they at least have some grounding in games.
The SF con goer may be the hardest to reach.
I guess for those who have no exposure to RPGs at all, venues to play games are valuable. Again, the store or game club is a valuable resource.
Hmm, in thinking about how one might structure a class, I really want to say the students should arrive with some role playing experience. I can imagine teaching a class of 15-20 people who already know how to play. I can’t imagine teaching 15-20 people how to play. If the class had to be a from ground zero, I’d recruit some assistants for the first session or two so the class could be broken into groups of 4 to play.
I’m just trying to think how you could structure the class. The mentoring worked because I was totally engaged in learning and playing the game on my own, so an hour or two of mentorship here and there went a long way.
Judd: Can you elaborate on your comment a bit? I’d love to hear how much of your learning was field experience, and how much was mentorship, especially early on.
Frank: For complete beginners, a workshop-style class, broken down into groups, sounds like it would work.
For folks who have some experience (either playing or GMing), what about having a veteran GM sit with you during games — taking notes, providing tips, taking the reins if you don’t feel comfortable with something?
I basically learned using the sink-or-swim method with a bunch of friends in the neighborhood. The game actually belonged to someone else, I was the only one who had any interest doing it. Fortunately, everyone else had as good of a grasp of the game as I did and mistakes were not noticed.
I don’t currently play them, but for learning how to GM, I don’t think you can beat the RPGA campaigns (e.g., Living Greyhawk and that ilk).
RPGA gaming provides a wealth of important aspects for a neophyte GM:
– You play under a multitude of different GMs. You can see what some do well (and copy that); you can see what others do poorly (and hope not to follow that example).
– The first time you run a game, you will have had the opportunity to see how a more-experienced GM ran that exact scenario.
– If you set it up right, you can start off GMing for people with more experience playing or GMing, who can give you feedback afterward.
– You get to focus just on the actual running of the game. You don’t need to make up the plot or the NPCs or whatnot; you can wait until you feel you have the basics down on how to run a group of people through an adventure before branching out on your own.
– No matter how badly you screw up, it’s going to be over in four hours, and if you’re really doing badly, there’s almost always experienced GMs nearby you can stop and go to for help.
I started Playing D&D some +20 years ago. We used to play on every Saturday afternoon at a friend’s house, where his older brother used to DM.
As he grew older, he was enlisted to the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) and his absences caused us to wish another player could take his throne.
It was that time, when I decided to run a basic Hack & Slash ventures into a deep dungeon. I did not have any of the sets or books, only the 1st AD&D Dungeon Master Guide.
I used the monster statistics from the appendixes and gave out magical items as I saw fit.
Time would pass and on my Bar-Mitzva, I got a few other books that I would then sit and read. Then, came the first adventure I really set down and write.
Writing NPCs, encounters, set events and redo the whole thing when things became much clearer on paper.
That’s when all the real fun really kicked in, by the time I ran the adventure I was 14 years old (OMG, am I this ancient ?!?).
That’s about sums it up for me and “How I played D&D and got to be the DM” story.
Nowadays, there are after-hours classes on D&D and roleplaying for kids & young adults who wish to learn the game.
We also have internet access today, where one can look up for guides, FAQs and whole forums dedicated for DMs.
I used to flesh out my ideas based on old computer games that I played, even took some of my Ultima maps and ran a semi-Ultima based campaign before The Forgotten realms got it’s first boxed set 🙂
I think there are plenty of paths for the newbie GM to choose from today, and I say:
“Let your voice be heard through the games that we all play”.
Interesting topic. Although I think exchanging ideas and experience with other GMs is very valuable (and it doesn’t matter much how you do that), in the end, it’s all about talent and experience. I think the only way to really learn it is to see someone else do it (while you’re a player), and later try it for yourself.
And, like Frank says, in the end the advise that matters most is the advise from your own group. Those are the people you’re GMing for. What might work for another group might not work for them.
So get to that table and start GMing. And don’t be afraid to mess up a couple of times. After you’ve GMed a couple of times, you’ll have some idea of what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong, and that is the time to start looking for advise from GMs who’ve had similar problems.
And make sure you also get some experience at the other side of the table. What may seem cool to you as GM may not be all that much fun if you’re one of the players it’s inflicted upon.
I learned to GM the hard wayâ€¦either I GMâ€™ed or we did not play. I had learned some techniques from the DM who I first learned D&D from, but for the most part, I had to pick up a module and start running itâ€¦.good, bad, and ugly. Over the years, I read articles any article I could find in Dragon to learn new techniques, and I did pick up a lot of good ideas, but what did the best for me, was to just keep running material. Today I am a pretty seasoned GM and have about 20+ years behind the screen.
In my time I have mentored a few other GMâ€™s, players from my main group, who wished to take their turn behind the screen. Of all techniques, I think that mentoring is the best technique for raising new GMâ€™s. In most cases, I would play in the games of the GMs that I was mentoring. Then after the sessions, I would offer advice and let them ask me questions, or tell me what should have happened in a specific scene, etc. In this way, they get honest player feedback, as well as feedback from someone â€œwho has been thereâ€. Sometimes players (who are not GMâ€™s) are so happy to be playing that they do not provide the best feedback for a new GM.
I will also do a â€œbehind the screensâ€ with moments from campaigns we have played in the past and tell them what was going through my mind, as a specific scene unfolds. I think this is a very good way for new GMâ€™s to pick up tips and techniques. As a player in a scene, they understand that perspective, and remember how the scene played out, and then to take them through what you did as a GM gives them insight into your process.
I am also a fan of round table discussions at conventions. Having been to the last few years of GenCon, I find myself in those sessions, listening to panels discussing GM-ing issues. What is really good about the discussions is that you will always pick up something you have not heard before. Even though I have 20+ years of GMâ€™ing under by belt, I go in with an open mind, because you never know what question is going to spark some idea, or challenge some technique that you believe is â€œrock solidâ€.
Also, most of the panel discussions allow audience members to contribute their opinions, to the discussions. I find that I spend about half the session listening and about half the session offering my opinions to other GMâ€™s. I guess in that way as a community we all mentor each other a little.
Lastly, places like this blog, are an excellent way to have that panel discussion, without having to be at a con. Blogs and discussion boards are great ways for our community of GMâ€™s to share ideas. I wish when I was a new GM that I could have had access to the Internet. I went years before meeting another DM, and had to survive on my monthly subscription to Dragon. Today new GMâ€™s can find information all over the net. But it can be at times a double edge sword, as sometimes the Internet is nurturing and sometimes it is hostile, depending on where you go. In some discussion boards, that I have frequented, much more than in blogs, I have seen newer GMâ€™s (especially younger GMâ€™s) get flamed when they ask questions.
Many times newer/younger GMâ€™s get flamed for playing D&D as opposed to more â€œsophisticated gamesâ€, or for running mostly Hack & Slash campaigns. We have to remember that many of us came from those same places, and when you are a new GM, you have to start somewhere, and for many new to the hobby, D&D is the entry-level game, and Hack & Slash is one of the easiest campaign models to run. In order to grow the hobby we need to help these younger GMâ€™s and newer GMâ€™s grow, but before we can do that, we have to help them to enjoy being the GM. As many of us know, being a GM is a very hard job, but one that is full of reward. We have to help new GMâ€™s enjoy being a GM, before we can guide them into honing their craft. The best way we can do that is to go into those forums where the novice ask their questions, and be as helpful as possible, to point them out to FAQâ€™s or previous posts, and to encourage them to run the best Hack & Slash game they can.
Our hobby is made up of game designers who are most often GMâ€™s. In order for our hobby to grow, the number of GMâ€™s needs to grow. And we as a community have a responsibility to find and mentor those new GMâ€™s. To mentor them face to face, when possible, and to mentor them online as well.
I learned by doing, playing and GM-ing within a circle of friends. And I think it would do a HUGE service to the hobby if we stopped transmitting these skills by trial-and-error through localized gamer culture. Structured exposure to a diversity of styles, rules conventions, and preferences would have made me a better GM much earlier in my career – instead, I spent many years convinced that the somewhat unusual preferences of the people I ‘came up with’ were much more common than they really are, and continually frustrated with players who ‘just didn’t understand how to play’.
Playing with a larger diversity of groups, rules, and styles of play has taught me a bunch, but it took me almost 20 years of gaming before I even realized there was anything worth exploring outside of my native terrain. And that only because it stopped working when I tried to play with different people.
I learned by playing a long time and observing pre-existing DM’s before my first forays. I will admit to one game I DMed at “the beggining” (20 years ago or so) after playing a few games. The game was, to be blunt, utter crap. The kind of stuff you cringe at when thinking back. I ran a few games that were better in High School (due to peer preasure in an almost underground cult atmosphere- we never mentioned it in school so I wonder how we even ever got game 1 started). These efforts were still poor by most standards. After meeting up with my current group in 1995 or so, I got exposed to 2 really great DMs and began to take notes on how to make the games infinitely better.
Note the pattern here: it wasn’t until I was exposed to much better DM’s that my games stopped being bad. When we started no one was really a good DM; most adventures were almost like a sheet of graph paper and a random encounters table, nothing more. I think lots of what i picked up is probably taught in writing courses: consistency, reinforcement of plot elements by re-occurence, giving each player a real diversified stake in the quest vs “one group, one goal” mentality (in other words: character developement). Etc.
Phil wrote: In some discussion boards, that I have frequented, much more than in blogs, I have seen newer GMâ€™s (especially younger GMâ€™s) get flamed when they ask questions.
Martin responded: Iâ€™m very appreciative of the fact that TT is the exact opposite of this type of environment, particularly because Iâ€™ve never made any explicit statements about what does and doesnâ€™t fly here.
Actually, there’s a very big difference between a blog and a normal forum; here you decide what we’re going to talk about, instead of newbies asking questions. That makes a lot of difference, both good and bad.
Discussions tend to be a bit more organised and about more “high level” topics, but there are still bound to be newbie GMs who have much simpler, more basic questions that they prefer to have answered directly instead of looking them up in old, big archives. Or maybe they’re about very practical problems, whereas the discussions here tend to be on a more abstract or theoretical level. So there are still very good reasons for newbies to look for forums where they can ask their own questions.
But perhaps this could be a useful addition to this site: a place where new or even very experienced GMs can ask for specific advise about problems they’re dealing with.
(As an example, on rec.games.frp.gurps, someone new to GURPS asked how to handle fights with dragons, since PCs tend not to have the million hitpoints that high-level D&D characters have. Interesting thread, that.)
Scott M wrote: A formal mentorship would have been nice, though it requires an â€œolder, wiserâ€ GM, whoâ€™s willing to sit through a noviceâ€™s game and keep his hands offâ€¦ which would be tough for me. Especially since youâ€™re distinguishing this from player then GM, which implies another (at least novice) GM.
I have some trouble relating to these “mentonships” that some people here mentioned. It sounds very formal (as in mentor-student relationship), and therefore to me kinda unlikely in something that’s just a hobby.
I suppose it relates to a situation where a player new to GMing in a group with an already experienced GM gets advise from the experienced GM. Or maybe where the GM from a newly founded group gets some advise from a friend a more experienced friend in another group. Or something like that. Anyone care to expand a bit more about how this mentoring happens?
Mentoring actually can be very informal. Certainly the mentoring I received was very informal. The first RPG mentoring I received was when my FLGS owner introduced me to Glen Blacow and suggested we chat about D&D. Later, when I became involved in MIT’s game club, which Glen was active in, we would sometimes chat, and he occaisionally played in my game. I was also introduced to The Wild Hunt, which as an APA, was the 70s and 80s version of blogging… In college, Robert Wheland spent many a late hour talking about gaming. We often started talking on his walk home after the student union closed at 1:00 AM, and then we talked on the porch of his home for another hour or two. Robert played in my games once or twice.
Players are an option, too. Players can be a huge source of information for GM’s if they are willing to listen. Even if the players haven’t sat on the other side of the table, a few well aimed questions on the part of the GM will help a lot in figuring out where to take the campaign. Simple stuff, like. “What would you like to see more of? What not?” etc. It shouldn’t be the only source of learning for a GM, but it shouldn’t be ignored either.
Of course you will get players that will give ‘bad’ advice, motivated by their desires in the game, but then, you can get bad advice from anywhere!
Other than the specific individuals I have mentioned, I have gotten relatively little out of players. Part of the problem I think is that dysfunctional gaming has taught many players to keep their traps shut.
Interesting interpretations. I would point out that there are only two ways that people learn to GM. I base this off of my research into leadership and decision making.
It has been shown that people that have to make instant decisions learn to do so one of two ways: By direct experience or by stories told about the experience of others. So what we will do is look at each thing listed above and see which bucket it lands in:
-Play for a little while, then start GMing
Direct Experience (watching someone else do it, then doing yourself)
-Jump right into GMing, without playing first
Direct Experience (doing it yourself)
-GM for a little while, but really learn the craft by playing indie RPGs
“Story” Experience (someone figures stuff out through trial and error and passes on the knowledge in some form, this is largely what the “How you GM this game” rules come from)
-Get pointers from another GM
-In a class
Direct Experience backed up with “Story” Experience
-Through a mentorship, apprenticeship or tutor
Direct Experience backed up with “Story” Experience
-Through GM workshops
Direct Experience backed up with “Story” Experience
-By reading a solid treatise on the basics
-By working through self-directed lessons (workbook, online, etc.)
-Self-directed learning using online resources (forums, websites, blogs)
So in truth the only way to learn to be a GM, is to do it yourself (practice counts) and talking to or otherwise communicating with other GMs. The best way is to get direct expereince at the same time as “story” experience.
That seems like a good generalization/distillation of the different approaches, Aaron — thanks for sharing it.
(Incidentally, are you Jester47 on EN World?)
Yes, I am.
Thanks for confirming that, Aaron. I’ve always enjoyed your ENW posts, and I wanted to check. 🙂
Martin: By mentorship, I guess I mean I played in a bunch of his games. After games we’d hang out and talk about fantasy novels, comic books, girls and gaming.
Shit, I was 13, what else is there? Shit, I’m 30 now and what else is there? 🙂
I think the most valuable way to learn has been to play in other GM’s games (both good and bad) have a solid few experiences early as a player and have a really good person to talk about it with as I went through the experience.
I think that is why I dig Actual Play posts so much, because that is what Jim and I did when we sat on the steps and lawn of my childhood home, we’d go through AP and talk about what worked and what didn’t and why.
Judd: I’d never thought about Actual Play in that way before — as an informal, shooting-the-shit kind of way to figure things out.
Seems pretty obvious, now that you’ve put it that way! 😉