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Introduction to Game Mastering, Part 3: More Things You Need to Get Started

Welcome to Gnome Stew’s Introduction to Game Mastering series. If you’re new to GMing, this series is for you — and even if you’re an old hand, you might pick up a trick or two.

Want to read other articles in this series? Click on the “introduction to game mastering” tag at the end of this article.

In writing this series, I assume you have some familiarity with gaming terms and jargon. If you see a term you don’t know, just hit up Gnome Stew’s RPG Glossary [1].

This is Part 3 of Gnome Stew’s Intro to Game Mastering series, and continues the list of things you need in order to start GMing that started in Part 2 [2]. (Part 1 was all about the golden rule of great game mastering [3].)

Here’s the whole list (bold terms are covered in this article):

An Adventure

For your first time out, I recommend using a published adventure. The majority of RPGs have several available, and many include one in their core rulebook (though more often than not, these are pretty mediocre).

Published scenarios have generally been playtested, thought through with an eye to the “average” group, and have good production values — often including maps, handouts, or other goodies. They’re also a window into what the game’s designers thought was most fun about the RPG you chose. They don’t always hit the mark, but they hit it often enough to be useful.

There’s no secret to choosing your first adventure: just pick one that sounds like fun, and run with it.

Once you’ve picked an adventure, read the whole thing. Then read it a second time with an eye to the rules — and if anything doesn’t make sense, reread that section of the rulebook. That will give you a good foundation for the next step: planning.

A Bit of Planning

If you’re planning on kicking off a campaign with your first adventure — the traditional route — then you’ll probably want to have your players create their own characters, rather than using pre-generated PCs (which are often included with adventures).

Character creation for an ongoing campaign is a meaty topic, and will be the subject of a later article this series. Don’t worry about it right now — let’s finish covering the basics first.

If, on the other hand, you’re just getting your feet wet, aren’t sure you’ll enjoy GMing, or there’s no slot in your group’s rotation for a new game at the moment, you can either go with pre-generated characters or have your players create PCs without worrying about their long-term viability.

There are also a few other things you’ll need to plan:

It can be easy to overplan, especially when you’re a first-time GM — don’t fall into this trap. The important thing at this stage is momentum. You’ve done the reading, you’ve picked an adventure, you know where and when you’re gaming, and you may have prepped a couple of flourishes to impress your players — you’re ready.


Feeling intimidated is far and away the most common reason why many players never make the jump to GMing: they’re intimidated by how much everyone else in their group knows about gaming — and doubly worried about how experienced their current GM is.

Don’t be.

Game mastering isn’t rocket science. It’s much more akin to a game like Go [4], which is simple to learn but challenging to master — and like Go, you can have fun GMing even if you only know the basics.

All of the many details that go into becoming a fantastic GM can wait — you’ll be surprised how many things you pick up just from running your first session. You don’t need to absorb everything at once.

And consider this: What’s the worst that could happen? Even if everything goes horribly wrong, you’ll have a funny story to share down the road — and you’re not going to lose any friends over a bad game. Whether you discover that you love or hate GMing, you’ll learn something just by giving it a shot — and if you’ve made it this far, you’ll probably love it.

Being confident in your ability to run a fun game is one of the single most important things you can do to become a great GM. The moment you lose your confidence is when things start to go wrong — but when you keep your confidence up, and focus on the golden rule [3], you can run an awesome game.

You don’t have to be cocky, or try to overcompensate — or pretend you know more about GMing than you actually do. If you’re enough of a geek to read an article series on GMing on a gaming blog, you can be a great GM.

Dive in — and have fun doing it.

Next up, in Part 4 of this series: running your first session.

8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "Introduction to Game Mastering, Part 3: More Things You Need to Get Started"

#1 Comment By Scott Martin On August 5, 2009 @ 10:38 am

Remembering that you don’t have to absorb it all at once is key to not getting overwhelmed. If your game has “basic” and “advanced” rules, you can start with the basic rules. If it has long list of modifiers for tasks, jot down the big ones and assume the small ones cancel out.

Don’t worry about whether the built in adventure is strong or weak; it’ll be enough structure to hang your game on. As everyone learns the system (in future sessions), you’ll be able to bend it in the direction everyone enjoys.

Come over to the GM side. Join us!

#2 Comment By John Arcadian On August 5, 2009 @ 2:35 pm

This is some great advice Martin! Confidence is definitely key when GMing. My best sessions are when I’ve felt confident about where the session is going or how I’m doing.

#3 Comment By Noumenon On August 5, 2009 @ 10:24 pm

Little touches can be anything from creating props to match elements of your adventure, making handouts, or hand-drawing maps.

I think that’s too narrow a definition of little touches. They could include stuff like deciding to play the main villain in the style of Captain Jack Sparrow, adding a trench to an encounter to make it more fun to use Improved Bull Rush, or handpicking magic items.

#4 Comment By Martin Ralya On August 5, 2009 @ 10:26 pm

[5] – Those are excellent little touches as well, but not really what I had in mind — I should have picked a less generic term.

The reason I think physical objects work better in this context is because they demonstrate to your players that you’ve gone out of your way to run a bang-up first game.

In-game stuff may not be as easy for a first-time GM to feel comfortable doing, and may be less obvious to your players. There’s no downside to including these kinds of touches as well, but I think for the first time out you get more bang for your buck with props, maps, etc.

#5 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On August 6, 2009 @ 11:34 am

One of the big differences between a novice GM and an experience GM (aside from waistline) is an experienced GM knows that the players are not aware of how much of this he’s making up on the fly.

Novice GMs assume that the players can see the holes in his plots, the hesitation in his rule judgments, and the hasty improvisations. They’re wrong, but they’ve got to learn to trust themselves.

It’s kinda like stage magic in that sense – the experienced magician knows that the audience doesn’t see the card he just palmed, but the novice hopes they didn’t see it.

Geez, did I just sign myself up for another article?

#6 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On August 6, 2009 @ 6:14 pm

Little touches can be things like using inexpensive candies — such as candycorn — for money at the low levels. This gets players used to the price of things when equipping low-level or beginning characters.

#7 Comment By Rafe On August 9, 2009 @ 1:17 pm

[6] – Yes, yes you have, and it sounds like a great one!

#8 Comment By Sewicked On August 20, 2009 @ 10:31 am

The first time that I ever ran a game for strangers (at a con), I had a prop. I prepared, and distressed, a packet of letters that was the impetus for the adventures. I also included a typed copy of what the letters said, since they were so distressed as to border on illegible.

Said players also went in a slightly unexpected direction, but their idea was so good that I gave them something to find. Which gave me the opportunity to introduce non-loot, non-XP rewards.

And if you have a rules lawyer or more experienced GM at the table, use them! Not sure what the rule is or how to adjudicate something, ask. An experienced GM who’s finally getting a chance to play will probably do almost anything to keep your GM’ing experience positive; so you’ll do it again.