I was reminiscing with a friend I’d gamed with for the better part of two decades and we recalled a time that he almost took the GM’s chair. As we spoke I realized that in spite of all his good ideas and interest in roleplaying, he’d never been a GM.
He had his reasons, mostly relating to nervousness and fear of failure and it struck me that many would-be GMs likely have the same fears. In honor of GM’s Day I thought I’d offer a few tips for first-time GMs.
1. Use the system that you’re already playing.
I’ve found that a lot of newbie GMs take the chair because they’ve bought a new game that looked interesting. Oftentimes this is a mistake, as a new game brings with it new rules and a different play style from what the group normally plays. For a first-time GM, this simply adds to the obstacles she needs to overcome in order to gain confidence.
Also, using the system that you’re already playing means that the players can use the same characters. You already know the personalities and capabilities of these PCs and can play off them. The previous GM can even pitch in by introducing a new PC that plugs any gaps your adventure needs.
2. Run a one-shot scenario.
Offering to take the chair for a single session is a lot less intimidating than starting an entire campaign. Also, it puts the regular GM(s) on notice to be ready for the next session – that weight is lifted off your shoulders. Finally, a one-shot scenario should only have a handful of encounters, making it easier for you to familiarize yourself with the particular rules necessary to handle those encounters.
3. Create your own adventure.
Not long ago I’d have said ‘use a short published adventure’ but my thoughts have evolved on this. Even short adventures often require a lot of reading to fully comprehend (even after decades of experience I still often forget something while running published scenarios). Creating your own adventure is not only a good exercise to get your juices flowing, but it gives the players a better sense of your budding style.
Remember that we’re talking about creating an adventure that can be resolved in a single evening’s play, not a long, involved scenario.
Simplicity is key when GMing for the first time. Don’t attempt to ‘wow’ the players with complex plots or overwhelming odds – just develop an adventure that flows from Point A to B to C. An easy way to do this is to ask yourself if the players would be able to guess the endpoint during the first scene. If they can, then you have a good one-night scenario (in fact, it’s not a bad idea to ask “do you see where I’m going with this?” during the first scene just to make sure).
For example, in a fantasy game the PCs might be hired to escort an ambassador through dangerous territory. In the first scene, the caravan is beset by goblins who get away with a key item needed for the ambassador’s negotiation. Obviously, the PCs need to track the goblins to their lair and retrieve the item so the ambassador can complete the mission. End of nightly scenario.
KISS also applies to rules. Don’t overburden yourself the first time. Stick with the core mechanics and maybe highlight one or two circumstantial rules per encounter (keeping with the scenario above, the goblins may attack during a marsh fog, allowing you to highlight vision modifiers, while tracking through the swamp deals with tracking and slowed movement rules)
You’re going to screw up. It’s inevitable. After 30+ years of GMing I still screw up on occasion, sometimes badly. It’s part and parcel of being a GM. Your players know and appreciate that you’re new at this and they’ll cut you a lot of slack. They may even help you along the way.
Being a GM is a lot of work but it can also be a lot of fun. So long as you don’t bite off more than you can chew (which is essentially what these five points boil down to) you’ll do fine.
Please feel free to offer more newbie GM tips in the comments!
These are good pieces of advice for experienced GMs as well as first-timers. One additional thing I remind newer GMs (as I always try to keep it in mind myself) is that 3 encounters or 3 moderately complex skill challenges will fill a typical playing session. This guidance really simplifies the prospect of creating one’s own adventure. If all it takes to make a fun one-shot is 3 scenes, suddenly it’s a lot easier to be creative. You don’t have to write a saga, just 3 scenes.
Blackjack makes a very good point. The number of required scenes may vary slightly according to the speed of the rules used, and the duration of the Session. A new GM following Walt’s rules would be able to consult the regular GM to establish the number of required scenes. This is a great way to limit the amount of prep required of the new GM.
Write three scenes, run three scenes, job done!
I would only add to Walt’s rules by urging the new GM to have fun too. Being a GM is hard work, but it can be a lot of fun as well. To persuade the new GM to become a regular GM, then they need to enjoy the process, despite any nerves.
All the best