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Level up your GM skills with these amazing non-gaming resources

At this year’s Fan Expo Canada, I spoke on a number of panels about adventure design, getting started in RPGs, and game mastering best practices. A familiar theme arose in every panel – improving relationships between the GM and Players. Questions ranged from “how do I get my players to play MY campaign?” to “one of my players is constantly on their phone playing games – how do I stop them?”. GMs of all experience levels appeared to all be suffering from one common problem – player engagement/investment in the shared narrative.

While there are some amazing gaming-specific resources like the various Dungeon Masters Guides and The Lazy DM’s Workbook by Michael E. Shea, I want to highlight two amazing publications outside of the world of tabletop roleplaying games. The first is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People – a self-help book written in 1936. This book features a number of sections detailing lessons on how to cultivate better personal relationships. Most interesting to the task of being a dungeon master is, “Six Ways to Make People Like You”.

  1. Become genuinely interested in other people. In order to form lasting relationships with your players – thus forming a bond between them and the narrative – a good GM must be genuinely interested in the stories THEY want to tell. Remember, playing a tabletop roleplaying game isn’t about your story. It’s about the shared journey of everyone involved at the table.
  2. Smile. Smiles have the special ability to make others feel safe and welcome at the table.
  3. Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language. Players put a lot of effort into crafting interesting character backstories and iconic names. You can make a player feel valued and important by using their character name during the session. Player buy-in can only be achieved when the GM genuinely values the effort they put into character creation.
  4. Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves. A good game of D&D is a conversation between the players and the GM; not a lecture from the GM to the players. A good GM knows when to sit back, encourage player contribution to the world and narrative, and care about what each player says. By listening and giving them agency over their character’s fate, people will feel encouraged to seek the spotlight for themselves.
  5. Talk in terms of the other person’s interests. Make players feel valued by acknowledging and utilizing their ideas. In turn, they will value yours.
  6. Make the other person feel important – and do it sincerely. My golden rule of Dungeons & Dragons is that the GM is supposed to be the biggest fan of the players. You help them feel things, enable them to do amazing feats, and challenge them along the way. Nuff said.

Bruce Tuckman’s Developmental Sequence in Small Groups describes that path that teams commonly follow to achieve high performance. Think of them as stages of group development. In this 1965 article, he coins the phrase “forming, storming, norming, and performing”. This phrase accurately defines the trajectory of a newly formed gaming group.

During the Forming stage, there are generally mixed emotions amongst the group members ranging from excitement to anxiety about the task/adventure/session ahead. Some may be nervous about creating their first characters. Others are nervous about playing with a new group. For new gaming groups, the GM takes a dominant role at this stage – as both a model of positive behaviour and the facilitator of the game. People will start to work together and make an effort to get to know each other. The Storming stage is where conflicts are resolved and trust is built. Conflicts can arise because of differences in personality, play style, and in-game goals. The use of safety tools like the X and O cards may be used, and confidence in the group’s ability to accept mistakes, ask for help, and move forward with new knowledge can be established. When you reach the Norming stage, things might look a lot like a seasoned gaming group. Differences are being resolved and the group is growing to appreciate everyone’s strengths. Importantly, your “authority” as the GM is being established. Your rapport with the group allows you to take a step back and hand over the reins while you moderate. When they are Performing, Not only should you actively give the players more agency as they progress towards the goal, but the conversation at the table becomes highly egalitarian.

Bruce Lee said, “use only that which works, and take it from any place you can find it.” This holds true for playing tabletop roleplaying games. If you want to foster positive, collaborative relationships with the members of your gaming table, consider resources that you might not find at your local game store.