Note: I am going to use the terms GMing and DMing a whole lot along the article. GM stands for Game Master, the storyteller, arbiter of rules ; the one running the game. DMing is a subcategory inside GMing, as it stands for Dungeon Mastering (or Dungeon Master for DM), which is just a term trademarked by D&D that means exactly the same as Game Master, except it can only be used when talking about D&D. For this reason, I will continue to use the terms GM and GMing throughout the article, but know that everything still applies to DMs as well.
Lately, I’ve made a new friend that showed an interest in starting GMing. However, she didn’t know which was the best way to start. With over 4+ years of articles I should have one about that, right?
NO, I DIDN’T.
I’ve got a load of tips on specific things, or things closer to starting DMing (dungeon mastering)/GMing, but I didn’t have an exact answer in the form of an article. However, I do have 6+ years of experience game mastering many games, so I felt sure I could create an article about it, not just for her, but for anyone else in this same position. Hope you find it useful!
How can I start GMing?
I do have a short easy answer for this, which is the same one I applied when I began: Just start. Tell as many players as you want (if possible no more than 4 at first) to gather at your house, saying you will be playing a roleplaying game. You don’t even need to buy dice to start, as there are many digital dice rollers online! Get the rules of the game you all want to play the most, read just enough to get the game going, and start!
Myth: It’s expensive to GM
There is a barrier for many people, and that’s because they think that playing or running a game is expensive, especially if you are the one GMing. This couldn’t be further from the truth. There are thousands (if not millions) of extremely cheap, or free games you can run! Even if what you are looking for is running one of the big games such as D&D, most of the time these have free starter stuff you can find online. For D&D, for example, I have two whole articles created on how you can run games on a budget (Part 1, and Part 2), with many of these tips applying to other games.
There are many games that can be a much easier entry point to GMing than the big complex games, many of them for free! Honey Heist is a free one-page-rule game that got popularized by Critical Role. I recently got to try out A Familiar Problem created by the same guy (Grant Howitt) and Marisha Ray, which is the same style of game, getting me and my friends to laugh out loud for 2 hours straight. However, if it is something like a medieval fantasy game that you are looking for, I HAVE to recommend the extremely simplistic free game “A Dungeon Game” from Cris Bisette. It is a very simplistic version of D&D, which may serve as a fantastic stepping stone to that game (or you might like it so much you decide to keep using it). Lastly, there are tons of Starter Sets for free to try out games online. This can help you decide which game to spend the money on. Remember these are games you usually play with 4+ people, with campaigns that may last for months… You do the math, it’s definitely not expensive if you split the cost into equal parts.
Lastly, Itch.io is filled entirely with millions of indie tabletop roleplaying games from all genres for you to try out, most of them being extremely simple to start with as they don’t usually have a lot of rules. Consider checking them out by looking for your favorite genres in media! Alternatively, there’s always some big bundle going on that gives hundreds of games for a small amount of money that is also donated to some charity. That’s usually a fantastic way to get to know new games while spending very little, and supporting a great cause in the process!
What Do I Need To Start?
Will to GM. That’s it. I have GMed several games with no preparation at all. This is something that does require practice, and I have quite a bit of experience, so it’s unfair to say this. However, I took my first steps in TTRPGs GMing (because I don’t believe my first time as a player to have been a true introduction to roleplaying games), meaning I made thousands of mistakes to get where I am, and that’s part of the process!
What do other people have to say about this subject? I asked
Chat GPT to get some answers, and I will indicate if I believe these statements to be true based on my opinion (I used D&D as an example, but these tips apply to all roleplaying games):
Read the rules. This is the most important tip. You don't need to know every rule inside and out, but you should have a basic understanding of how the game works. The Player's Handbook is a good place to start
- Definitely not the most important rule in my opinion, but I do agree that it is important to have a basic understanding of the rules. Even if you make mistakes or forget a rule, you and the players at the table can search the rules and all learn together. On my first D&D session I DMed, I forgot how initiative worked!! GMing a game you have already been a player in can work as well, but don’t let that limit you if you haven’t!
Be prepared. This doesn't mean you have to have everything planned out, but you should have a general idea of what's going to happen in the session. You should also have some notes on the characters, the setting, and the plot.
- Start slow. I recommend not starting with a campaign but with a one-shot. This means you don’t need to care as a GM about the characters’ backstories, and whatever happens during the session won’t matter for future games (unless you truly want to). After that, I recommend checking out my article on improvisational GMing, which is the kind of way I like to GM.
Be flexible. Things don't always go according to plan, so be prepared to improvise. If the players decide to do something you didn't expect, go with it. The best DMs are the ones who can roll with the punches.
- “Yes and”, and “No, but” are your strongest weapons when dealing with improvisation and flexibility. In fact, it is one of theatre improvisation’s best tools! This can make your game quickly go off the rails, but that’s part of the fun of roleplaying games. With time, you will learn to adapt to it but don’t be scared to tell your players you’d rather stay on the rails if you don’t feel too sure moving in that direction when starting GMing. I talk about all these in one of my articles.
Don't be afraid to say no. As the DM, you have the final say on what happens in the game. If the players are trying to do something that's not possible, or that would break the game, don't be afraid to say no.
- Absolutely true. There needs to be an arbiter in these kinds of games to set the rules in stone. If you are playing a detective game set in the real world you can’t be allowing a player to say they grab the magic broom and explode the burglar’s car with a fireball (unless you ARE playing that kind of game, which could be really fun). However, I am a true believer that GMs should give leeway to players to add their own stuff to the game. Maybe a player wants to have a contact in the city you just got in. In that case, they may ask the GM during the game, and the GM can decide if that helps the story or not (remember to use “Yes, and” and “No, but” in these cases).
Be fair. The game should be fun for everyone, including the DM. Make sure you're not playing favorites, and that the players are all having a chance to shine.
- As with any game, if you are playing favorites, you are just being a d*ck. Don’t do that. It takes away the fun from the game.
Encourage creativity. D&D is a game about imagination, so encourage your players to be creative. Let them come up with their own solutions to problems, and reward them for thinking outside the box.
- You may have a solution to an encounter or a puzzle you created. Nevertheless, the players’ way of solving it may end up being more creative or fun. Reward that creativity! Punishing players for not thinking your way makes the game dull, and causes players to just want to chop enemies and do no thinking.
Be a storyteller. D&D is a storytelling game, so make sure you're telling a good story. The players should be invested in the characters and the plot.
- Plan out what you think will be a good story. Your players will be the ones that make it epic. It’s like when you cook something and you add in the perfect seasonings. Don’t feel like all the pressure is on your shoulders! It’s the players’ job to make the game interesting as well. Creating fun NPCs can help as well, but it isn’t that necessary either.
Have fun. This is the most important tip of them all. D&D is a game, so make sure you're having fun. If you're not enjoying yourself, it will show, and your players won't have fun either.
- NOW THIS IS RULE NUMBER ONE. Even if you feel you suck at GMing, if you and the players are having fun, then you are doing an amazing job at GMing. I can’t stress this enough. GMing should never feel like a job.
I would like to add in some of my own even though I think those ones were great:
- Know when to ask for dice rolls. Depending on the game you are playing, characters may already consider some tasks as basic stuff. You don’t need to ask an adventurer in D&D to roll to climb a ladder. Only ask for rolls when the result might bring something interesting to the story. It can be a bit difficult at first, as one tends to ask for unnecessary rolls when nervous, but you’ll quickly get the hang of it. More on that in one of my articles
- Managing time. Possibly one of the hardest things as a GM. If you end the session and the players feel like they only did one interesting thing then something probably went wrong. Don’t worry, you can do better next time, and this is something I still struggle with. Learning how to manage time might not be the thing to focus on the most when you start GMing, but try to think about it while you are doing it nonetheless so you keep getting better at it. I offer some tips on that in one of my articles.
What if I don’t have players to GM?
Maybe you just discovered the hobby and your friends group don’t want to try it out, had bad experiences in the past, or didn’t enjoy this sort of game… The good thing is that players abound, but there aren’t nearly enough GMs, mostly because people believe it to be a tedious job, too complex, or they’d rather play than GM. There are several things you can do in this case:
- Find a local gaming store. Lots of cities have gaming stores in which people go to play trading card games, board games, and roleplaying games. Try talking to the one working there. They surely will be able to help you find a way to find people interested in the game you want to run.
- Find an internet group. Nowadays, especially after the pandemic, things have been made simpler than ever to roleplay and find people to play with online. Forums, virtual TTRPGs, discord servers abound, and if you search a little you will quickly find a way to GM to a group of people, maybe even from other corners of the world! I created an article on how to keep roleplaying during the pandemic. It still has a lot of valuable information on how to find people online: HERE
- Play One on One/Duet. There usually is at least one other person you can find that is looking to play with you, be it a family member, significant other, or that one great friend. Why not try playing one on one? This means you GM, and the other person is the player. Most games do require you to tweak a few things, while others are entirely made for this style of play. Here is an article on tips to play one on one (or duet, as some people call it), and here are some ideas about some adventures you can build: Part 1, Part 2
In order to want to GM even more, it’s always nice to have some stories to tell. For that to happen you need to find some inspiration. Inspiration can be found in multiple ways, and different people encounter those creative juices doing certain activities. Relaxing stuff that can open your mind such as going for a walk, jogging, or taking a bath always help a great deal. For me, watching movies, tv series, animes, reading books, and playing videogames are the things that give me the most to think about and ideas for new quests or adventures. I have taken entire story arcs from science fiction tv series and reflavored them into a medieval fantasy theme to add them to my D&D game, creating a fantastic story out of it to tell.
When you are getting started as a GM, doing those things is surely going to give you the needed inspiration. Additionally, there are thousands of recorded live plays of other people playing the game you are intending to run. Watching the stories created by other GMs, or identifying how the GM controls the flow of the game might not only encourage you to try it out but also teach you how to run the game in a successful way. Don’t feel pressured if they are fantastic at what they do, you are going to do just as well!
You already entered this article and read all I said… The fact that you are this dedicated to looking out ways to GM in a good way says a lot about you. You are going to do amazing! And even if you feel you didn’t, as long as you and your players had fun, that’s what really matters. I hope you keep GMing, as you’ll notice that each time you will do increasingly better! Welcome to this side of the hobby.