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IN THEORY: The GM Levels Up

What player doesn’t like to “level up”? Their characters get improved abilities, and perhaps new ones as well. They can now face stronger adversaries and overcome greater challenges. It’s one of the true joys of the game.

Gamemasters (GM’s) level up as well, though not in a formal fashion. With experience, most GM’s will hone their skills and even develop new ones. In this article, we’ll look at six theoretical GM levels. Obviously not every GM progresses in this exact order. However, it may provide a framework for thinking about how we develop as GM’s. It might even suggest new areas to venture into. Think of it as sort of a Bloom’s Taxonomy for gamemastering.

We all started here. When we first decide to run a game, we focus on knowing the rules and the adventure well enough to make it through a session or two. Making it through by the skin of your teeth is considered a major success. Often at this level, GM’s run published adventures or sample adventures provided with the game book.

This level should not be denigrated. We all have to start somewhere. If we switch games or systems, we could do worse than run published adventures. They help us better understand the rules and the setting, and can still provide memorable sessions. In a way, we never actually leave level one, we only build on top of it.

Most GM’s will want to design their own adventures at some point. LEVEL 2 is a great place to learn the system and how rules interact with one another. We may even realize that writing a good session is harder than we thought. This is a level to make mistakes and learn from them. No matter how carefully you plan things out, your players will find a way around them and push your improvisation skills forward.

Once a GM is comfortable running and writing sessions, they can focus more on the storytelling aspects. They learn to be vivid in their descriptions, and more dramatic in presenting non-player characters (NPC’s). This may be the level where GM’s start to speak in character. A skilled LEVEL 3 GM learns how to do all this without taking anything away from the players. Descriptions can be dramatic, but not too long. NPC’s shouldn’t hog the spotlight, only provide chances for player characters (PC’s) to ask questions and get answers.

If you’ve played with a strong LEVEL 3 GM, you remember their sessions well.

At this level, a GM starts to build more choices into their sessions. For example, instead of just suggesting that players talk to the barkeep, they might design four or five patrons. Then players can talk to whomever they’d like. Adventure outlines become less linear. There may be several ways to enter a dungeon or encounter area and the GM can handle that just fine. Want to climb in through the second story instead of going in the front door? No problem. (I’ll just switch the floorplans!)

At this level, GM’s will challenge themselves to try different types of stories. For example, they may try to bring a mystery TV show feel to a fantasy game. They may take PC’s to alternate worlds, or mix a little science fiction into their fantasy games (or vice versa).

Not every gaming situation requires a tightly woven, epic campaign. However, it is something most GM’s will want to try at some point. A strong campaign can provide life-long memories for both players and GM’s.

At this level, GM’s start planning multiple sessions, thinking ahead to an epic finale. Sessions don’t have to follow that plan rigidly, however it does provide a general road map. GM’s will begin to drop hints about quests to come. They’ll subtly introduce villains who will plague the PC’s down the road. They may even adjust published adventures to support their ongoing storyline.

At this level, GM’s try to bring something deeper to the table. Now, don’t get scared thinking that it has to be “War and Peace.” One way to add meaning is to design adventures that support the PC’s goals or touch upon their backstories. These types of adventures provide deep connections for individual players, and also the ones who support them in reaching their goals. Rotating the spotlight between PC’s helps all players feel included. In fact, a few sessions based on each PC can provide an excellent campaign.

You might even try to include themes in your sessions to give them meaning. Perhaps PC’s work to defeat giants who are enslaving dwarves. This can touch upon the theme of the value of freedom. Literary dabbling can be tricky. We aren’t writing novels and players often make unexpected choices. However, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try, gently. For myself, this is an area I’d like to develop more.

As GM’s, we don’t develop in a linear, step-wise fashion. It may be more like a buffet. Sure, we all start out at one end of the table, Level 1. However, we may skip ahead or go back for seconds, and probably will do this for our entire gaming career. The idea of levels does provide a way to think about where we’d like to go as GM’s. You may rank things differently or include different elements. But you probably still have a path in your mind, a destination you’d like to reach. I’m not there yet either, and that’s the fun of it.

How about you? What levels might you wedge in between the ones suggested here? What more advanced levels would you add? Tell us below.

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "IN THEORY: The GM Levels Up"

#1 Comment By Philippe Marcil On April 3, 2017 @ 7:08 am

Really cool article, I like the ideas of growing up as a GM.

However, I switch back and forth from those various level depending on my available prep time and the game I am playing.

Sometime, I just want to get by the next session as a Level 1 GM, especially if I am writing my own adventure. Other time I can work on my session and plan a lengthier story arc as a level 5 GM.

#2 Comment By John Fredericks On April 3, 2017 @ 4:13 pm

Thanks Phillipe for commenting. I agree, these levels are not in any way fixed. I know I bump back and forth a bit too. Best of luck with your gaming.

#3 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On April 3, 2017 @ 7:14 am

Great article, John!

Here are some of my thoughts (think of them as feats):

House Ruling: Sometimes things don’t work the way you want and you want to change it. This feat is about learning how to craft house rules and anticipating conflicts with other rules so that they integrate well into the system. House ruling also covers how to ignore rules that hinder your enjoyment of a system, as well as knowing when to keep “hands-off” when you think you need a house rule but you really don’t (in my circles we call this “fixing a problem that doesn’t exist”).

Leadership: This is putting the “master” in “Game Master.” Leadership is effectively getting “buy-in” into the type of campaign that you want to run and the ability to effectively put out the fires that crop up along the way. It’s important to note that Leadership is not always about getting your way; it’s knowing both when to stand your ground, when to compromise, and even when to admit that you’re wrong.

Party Support: For whatever reason, sometimes you’ll want a character in the party that’s controlled by you. Party Support is the ability to integrate a GM-controlled character (GMPC) into the party without hijacking the leadership or stepping on toes. I’ve seen a lot of advice against having GMPCs, but sometimes they’re necessary and, when used properly, they can add a lot to a campaign.

Righting the Ship: Sometimes when things spiral out of control we panic and start making bad decisions. We may let one botched scene torch an entire campaign or watch it degenerate into something else entirely. Righting the Ship is knowing how to relax and give ourselves time to think it through before acting rashly (sometimes a short break is enough; other times you’ll need to end a session early to give you more time). This feat also covers knowing how to adapt a campaign that went “off the rails” if the players are really enjoying the new direction (and you don’t mind running with the new version).

Rules Mastery: This one is more of a feat chain, since I’m constantly going back to it. Rules Mastery is not only about knowing the rules, but how and when to apply them. No matter how high up the level ladder I progress as a GM, there’s always a moment, sometimes months into a campaign, where I realize I’ve been ignoring a helpful rule or misinterpreting one to the game’s detriment.

#4 Comment By Philippe Marcil On April 3, 2017 @ 8:37 am

I really this idea from Walt list.

House Rules should have advanced feat where you build your own system.

Let not forget the very important feat of Borrowing Ideas from other sources to help you create your own adventures or scenes.

#5 Comment By black campbell On April 3, 2017 @ 10:07 am

I like the main conceit of the article, as well as these wee feats. I’ve found the “Party Support” is important, myself. There are certain NPCs that are simply too useful or popular in a party. Our current D&D game has a half dozen NPCs that are there to help with the action, and one of them is a GMPC, of sorts, more because she provides the opportunity to create some conflict and motivation for the party.

The trick is not to make them become the centerpoint of the group. When I was running Battlestar Galactica, one of the main NPCs eventually became more important to the plot than the PCs, but they never took the limelight — they were a plot device; the characters still called the shots.

#6 Comment By John Fredericks On April 3, 2017 @ 4:16 pm

Also good points, Black Campbell. It is the balance between having a good time as a GM versus stealing the show.

Thanks for commenting.

#7 Comment By black campbell On April 4, 2017 @ 2:27 pm

An idea so good it needed more time on my site, Walt. I also extolled the main post and linked to it in another post, John.


#8 Comment By John Fredericks On April 3, 2017 @ 4:15 pm

Thanks for the kind words Walt. And those are ALL great points. You should think about pulling them all together and writing an article. Good points all around. Those are truly expert techniques. (you have to buy the second box set to get those!)

#9 Comment By Curmudgeon On April 4, 2017 @ 10:01 am

Interesting–I find myself gravitating right now to level 6, having begun a series of planescape adventures that will explore themes of the soul, afterlife, and compromise.

I think the following has been the most meaningful level-up for me:

Encouraging new players: At this level, you actively work to add people to the hobby. You welcome the opportunity to explain the hobby to those who haven’t played or haven’t even thought about playing, and you are excited to create opportunities — either in your regular game or through one shots — for new players to learn. You’ve become comfortable quickly explaining the core mechanics, integrating new and old players into the group, and making sure new players are involved.

Encouraging new GMs: At this level, you are not only encouraging new players in your own games, but inspiring others to GM games and serving as a resource for them. You not only are comfortable running your own games, but you are comfortable explaining the mechanics and design processes to others. At the higher end of this level, maybe you’re forming a new community that goes beyond your own group, or helping to build or improve on an existing community.