Being a GM or DM is difficult work, and not everyone is cut out for it. Certainly anyone can do it, but not everyone can be good at it. Here are some of the things I have learnt as both GM, and player, which can make you a great Game Master. Not every GM will have every skill, but the more of these skills you can develop, the more tools you will have to better serve your players. For brevity I’m going to skip the skills for adventure and campaign writing as that would be worthy of another article of its own.
Know everything about everything
An impossible task to be sure, but the more you do know, the better equipped you will be to handle the endless potentials tabletop roleplay offers. How far can someone jump on a really good dice roll? Can you unlock a modern door with a credit card? Can men breastfeed babies? In short, have the knowledge to narrate past the concept of, “Because the dice say so.”
How can you improve your knowledge? A good GM reads, and I mean a LOT! Also, research your adventure content, both what you write yourself and what think you might need as you pre-read a published adventure. You have the internet, so there is no excuse for not indulging your curiosity. I’m pretty sure there’s a lengthy government file on me just based on the diversity of my search history, which includes everything from the lethal dose of belladonna through to the payloads of military aircraft. It all just comes with the job of GM. That isn’t to say you look things up during play, I prefer to keep the PC and mobile phone away from the gaming table.
Your biggest treasure is life experience, which tends to include a wonderful panoply of weird and obscure general knowledge. Don’t be afraid of listening to players if they have some knowledge, just know which you can trust and which you cannot. You don’t have to become too pedantic about the details, you only need enough detail to enrich the game experience for everyone.
Actually know the rules
I know, it sounds obvious but I know a lot of GMs who refuse to learn the rules. I even had one GM start us with d6 to play Vampire the Masquerade (Even that wasn’t as bad as my worst session ever)! Can you have a great game without the rules? Like everything on this list, of course you can. However, how can you balance encounters without knowing what the numbers mean? There is an answer to that question as well; you improvise every encounter that doesn’t suit your narrative. In this case you are constantly playing defence on your own field. It also means the hard work players put into their characters means little, because your narrative takes pride of place. In a word, it’s disrespectful.
You don’t need to know every rule and the page number it’s on. You should know the key rules you’ll need to constantly reference and mark the applicable pages. You should at least know what rules are available to look up in case you need them. Basic familiarity with the structure of your books is essential to not wasting time in game fumbling with an index that probably isn’t very comprehensive. Just take some time to throw some dice and learn the core functions of the rules. Not all rules do all things, so be aware of what gaps you’ll need to fill.
Learn to read people
As a GM, if you think the game is all about the characters then you’re going to get into difficulties. Ultimately, those characters are operated by very un-heroic ordinary people. I’m not talking about how running a game is like herding cats, I’m talking about understanding the nature of those cats. There are three main things you have to evaluate, nature, mood and skill.
When I say skill, I’m talking about skills as a role player. I like to include all players into any given story line by tying into backgrounds, connections etc, but you cannot take a new player with limited experience and suddenly thrust them into the limelight. Some players are not capable of being the centre of attention, so drawing them more into the story simply involves highlighting their input in a supporting roll. You cannot power a narrative with someone unable to hold it up.
Nature, is of course, the person’s natural nature and tendencies. A player best known for playing psychotic barbarians might be looking for a change of pace by playing a cautious, reserved, intelligent mage, but unless they are a skilled role player, they will just find a way to use the new character to return to their usual nature. A simple example would be that I tend to find that given the choice, most parties turn left (I think it’s a driving thing), so I put the more interesting encounters to the left.
Mood requires more skill. Sometimes people have a bad day, and it is your responsibility as a GM to know when those times are. If someone is having a bad bay, the last thing they need is for you to make it worse by over punishing a slip by the player. The best thing you can do is to lift the energy of the group and give that player a chance to lose themselves in the game and forget about their day/month/life. It also helps to read the general mood at the table, because ultimately you are responsible for the energy level at the table. If things ever get glum, just throw a handful of goblins at them :P.
Some of the more fun GMs I’ve played with have had nothing but this one skill. The games are tremendous fun, but I don’t know if my character sheet has any purpose, whether my dice rolls matter or if what actions I take even matter. This makes the narrative strong GM perfect for games like Paranoia and FATE (which I hate) but not so great for … well … anything with a more robust system or setting.
In the context I’m using it, narrative is the ability to weave a story on the fly. It is the art of creating gripping descriptions (required for Call of Cthulhu) and weaving a compelling story. It’s not about using big words or being overly verbose, it’s about using your own voice and words to mindfully paint a clear picture for players. People with poor narrative skills tend to forget that the players cannot see the images in the GM’s mind. Those images need to be given to the players in a way they can also understand.
Knowledge of personal strengths & weakness
A little feedback from players and a lot of self reflection can help you learn where you are stronger, and where you might need some work. You can usually shore up one or more areas by doubling down on your strengths, but only up to a point. If campaigns never run long or your groups tend to dissolve, then you must have some weak points elsewhere. Another sure indication you need to sharpen your skills is if the group starts advocating for a new GM. If you want to keep GMing, then talk to people and try to work out what you can work on. The only issue with feedback is that many people lie to prevent you from feeling bad, so learn whose word you can trust.
I’ve never had a group just dissolve away without sound reason (moving state, health etc), but I’m still ever striving to hone the craft of GMing. I have definitely played under a few GMs who I thought were better than I am, so I have tried to learn from their skills. Contrary to player feedback, I’d still be the first to admit my narrative skills need work, though I’m confident in my other aspects. Most of all I’m confident in my writing and design skills, but that is a subject for another article.