What they don’t tell you about becoming a GM

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Over the past couple of months, I’ve had several of my current players reach across the screen and start running games themselves. While I definitely prefer running a game over playing in one, it’s been nice to occasionally be invited to games run by other people and dick around. Furthermore, I’ve considered setting up a “How 2 GM” workshop for a TTRPG club I’m in. There’s a lot to consider when you want to get started running games, and every blogger, YouTuber and their mothers have a post on how to run a game. Unfortunately, a lot of advice for new GMs is either incomplete or misleading. I’m here to set the record straight.

See, something that’s been true about the hobby since its inception is that the number of players vastly outnumbers the number of GMs. Playing in person this is manageable, and our TTRPG club hasn’t had to decline any players yet, but look at online spaces and you’ll see that the vast majority of GMs get responses far exceeding the number of players they have room for at their table. Here’s a little insight from a local LFG discord I’m in:

  • D&D5e One-shot – 9 interested
  • D&D5e Campaign – 11 interested
  • D&D5e One-shot – 8 interested
  • D&D5e Campaign – 14 interested

Let’s not talk about the fact that every single one of those is a D&D 5th Edition game. That’s a topic for another time. Those are genuinely the last 4 LFG posts I could find, no cherry-picking.

And don’t even start to consider an international community like Reddit’s /r/LFG. Though I’ve no personal experience with the place, yet it’s not uncommon to hear stories of D&D5e games with 20-30 interested players.

Even when a player drops out for whatever reason – a GM can easily find one or nine replacements. There is a chronic shortage of GMs who want to run games. And don’t even get me started on halfway decent GMs. Safe to say then, as GMs we try to paint a rather rose-coloured picture of GMing. “It’s not that hard”, I hear them say. “It isn’t all that much work”. “Anyone can do it”. Well, reader, I’m here to tell you that this is utter bollocks.

Before we tackle any actual advice, let me preface it with the following. Running a game, designing a game, and writing adventures are all skills. Skills are learned — acquired. While there is something to be said for people with a natural intuition for narratives, experience in fiction writing, or an eye for game balance, GMing is a skill that you must learn. Like any skill, you’ll probably be pretty terrible at it at first. Which leads me nicely to the first point:

Your First Game Sucks

Your first game is going to be terrible. Awful. So is your first adventure. And your first campaign. Your first year of running games. Hell, I still find myself thinking “Man, that campaign I ran a year ago was pretty terrible”. This is normal. Natural. Anyone who has ever gotten good at something was probably pretty bad at it at first.

Sucking at something is the first step to becoming kind of good at something

~ Jake the Dog

If you’ve ever gotten any good at any skill, you should recognize this. Think back to your first playthrough of *Dark Souls*, or when you first learned to play the clarinet. When you start, you don’t know what you’re doing and you’re bad at it. Even someone with natural aptitude is quickly overshadowed by someone who has been practising for a while.

Now, there are going to be some naysayers out there. “My first session went fine!”, they say. If you just had your first session, you probably think it went pretty alright. Maybe you’d even say it went well. If that’s the case, well done. Running a game is not easy. But you probably made some mistakes. And there’s loads of things you did that you didn’t even know were wrong.

Make no mistake. At some point, you’re going to look back on your first session and recognize that it was bad. At least, you should. There’s really no kind way to put this: If you still think your first session was good, you haven’t improved since. Not much, at least. Just like you once struggled against the Taurus Demon, just like you once couldn’t play a scale to save your life, your first session sucks. And that’s okay, everyone starts at the bottom.

Running Games is Thankless

Running a game is a damned lot of work. You have to show up to actually run the game every week. Without you, there is no game. That’s already a heavy responsibility. Players can miss a session here or there. If you miss too many, the game’s dead. Usually, scheduling is also up to you, because by virtue of being a GM you’re the only invested enough to actually give a crap about the game. That also involves finding a place to play if your kitchen table isn’t big enough. Then, you have to prepare your game for the night. If you’re running a pre-published adventure, it might suffice to give it a read-through once and call it good. If you’re not running a D&D5e campaign that is at least — Lord knows deciphering those $50 hardcovers is more work than writing the bloody thing yourself.

Then at game night, your players take all of your lovingly crafted work and shit all over it, completely ruining your plans and your encounters. In time, you will learn to work around this. You will learn which bits of the game you can leave open-ended and/or improvise, and which you need to work out. For experienced GMs, the answers are most likely respectively “All of it” and “Nothing”. But you’re not there yet. You don’t know your Mind Flayers from your Flavour Text. Remember, your first game sucks. And part of that suckage is not knowing what is superfluous and what is required. I’ve seen new GMs write pages and pages of notes for a single session. Last week, I showed up to a game with 59 words worth of notes.

I won’t yet teach you how to prepare. In fact, I couldn’t, even if I wanted to. Some GMs are great at pulling a good fight out of their arse. Some are great at improvising scene descriptions. Others still can portray an NPC from nothing. This is something you’re going to have to figure out on your own. Figuring these things out requires effort. Maybe that’s unfair. You already have an increased responsibility towards the game, and now you get a part-time job preparing a game as well. I’m not saying that’s how it should be, I’m saying that’s how it is. For now, expect to put in the effort to be able to run a game each week.

Don’t Focus On ‘Fun’

Of all the advice for new GMs, this is the one that bothers me the most. See, the previous two points where white lies. Little things that make you more confident before you discover the cold, hard truth. By that point, you’re hopefully hooked to not mind the effort and time required. This one’s more egregious. I hear it so often, and it will absolutely ruin your game if you take it the wrong way. “Make sure you have fun”, or alternatively, “If everyone’s having fun, you’re doing a good job”. Now, this isn’t terrible advice per sé. The problem is the implied advice that most GMs remember instead. “You’re only doing a good job if everyone is having fun”.

“Fun” is such a vague term. It’s nebulous, undefined. In some cases, it’s asinine. “Yes, you’re right. I simply forgot to sprinkle some Fun Dust on my adventure. Now it is great!”. You cannot make a game fun. You can only make a game and hope that fun comes out of one of its orifices at some point. But that’s not the worst part. Gaming, inherently, is about overcoming conflict. Overcoming conflict through your own actions. Agency is a central tenet of TTRPGs. Conflict is not fun.

As a GM, your job is to introduce conflict to the game. “Here are Goblins”, you say. “And they are going to murder and mutilate every last man, woman and child in this village unless you stop them”. On the surface, this is not fun. Murder and mutilation are not fun. Now, most GMs recognize that this is how the game works. It’s a rather obvious example, but it illustrates the point nonetheless.

There are many times as a GM when you have to make a choice about your game. “Do I let this action succeed or not? Do I include this encounter? How do I resolve this adventure?”. There are many ways to answer those questions, many aspects to consider, and how you answer those questions is what ultimately forms your *style*. However, if one of the aspects you’re considering is “Is this fun?”, you’re probably going to end up with an unsatisfying answer. Focusing on immediate fun is superficial and unrewarding. And your game will feel superficial and unrewarding.

To return to *Dark Souls* for another moment, fighting a boss can be frustrating. Banging your head against a wall with no sign of progress is not fun. It is not enjoyable. But ultimately, the games would not be what they are were it not for that experience. Though frustrating in the moment, it ultimately leads to a rewarding moment of success.

Ultimately, you will have to find your own balance. How much adversity you’re willing to throw at your players is part of your *style*. Every GM and every player has a different tolerance for this stuff. However, the more obstacles, the more conflict, the more challenges the players face, the greater the reward will feel. Defeating *Slave Knight Gael* is much more rewarding than defeating the *Asylum Demon*, because one of those is a far greater obstacle to overcome. The highs only have meaning because of the lows. Keep these aspects in mind when you’re designing your game, and do not just focus on ‘what is fun’.

None of This Matters Anyways

With your spirits now sufficiently shattered, I’m going to end this article on a more positive note. Yes, your first game will be terrible. Yes, you will screw up a lot. Luckily for you, players are dumb. Exceptionally so. Remember what I said in the beginning? Most of your players are more than happy they have a game in the first place. They don’t notice the broken bits of the game, the incorrect calls, the forgotten rules. Even I — when I’m a simple player — tend not to notice. Your players are here to roll dice and kill some Orcs. Your games do not need to be masterpieces of design or narrative. A decent game is good enough.

If you have a genuine interest in the hobby, with a desire to improve, you are already ahead of the curve. One day, I’ll do an article on how to improve as a GM. For now, run games. Run games for loads of different people. Run different systems. And soon you’ll find yourself with a crippling dice addiction and a bookcase full of games you’ve never ran. Or maybe that’s just me.

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  1. Vincentius

    Ahh, so when I’m make my players cry I’m actually doing a good job – got it!

    All jokes aside, great article! Finally someone that knows what they’re talking about. It’s a shame that the philosophy of “you shouldn’t be a hard ass, easy = fun” is so engrained into the TTRPGs community.