In honour of International GM’s Day, held each year on the anniversary of Gary Gygax’s passing, it seemed only right to post something about starting your GMing career.
If you’ve never game mastered before, it can seem like a pretty daunting task. And it isn’t for everyone; many gamers I know go their entire time in the hobby without running a single RPG session. There’s nothing wrong with that. As with most things we do for fun, there’s no point in doing it if it isn’t going to bring you enjoyment. But if you have ever thought you’d like to see what it’s like on the other side of the GM screen (and we’ll talk about those in a moment), then here are some tips to make that transition easier.
1) Gather Resources – There are plenty of resources out there to make a GM’s life easier, most of them available on-line and many for free or extremely cheap. If you haven’t quite decided what game you want to run, your first stop should be Drive-Thru RPG. Use “Free” as your search term, and then settle in for some serious scrolling and clicking. There are a metric buttload (yes, we use the metric buttload here in Canada. It’s about 2.67 of your Imperial Buttloads) of RPG material available for free on Drive-Thru. If you haven’t picked a game yet, you want to keep an eye out for anything marked as Quick Start rules. That will give you a bunch of options to choose from for your first game. Even if you’ve decided to run a standard Pathfinder or D&D game, there are pages and pages of free adventures to get you started, as well as PDFs of paper miniatures and map sheets. Yes, you’ll have to spend some time searching, but I did mention free, right?
If you have decided to run either Pathfinder or D&D, then I also recommend checking out the Paizo and Wizard’s of the Coast sites, respectively. Both have fantastic resources available, many of them free for download. At the time I write this, Paizo is running a Humble Bundle for charity. The value of the PDFs available is over $350, and you can get everything for about a $17 donation, an amazing deal by any standard. WotC will likely have similar deals available through Humble Bundle at some point, so it’s a site worth keeping on your radar.
2) Plan the First Session – Resources in hand, you can begin planning your first session. The details of how to plan are the subject of a separate article, so I won’t delve in to them here. But don’t bother planning any more sessions just yet. After all, your first may be your last, depending on how your players feel about the game, the setting, and a bunch of other details which have nothing to do with you. Probably the best way to plan the first session, and show off the game in its best light, is to treat it like this is the only chance you have to play it. That way you won’t be tempted to hold anything cool back for a future session. Why bother? Get all the cool stuff about the game in there right away. If the game is about exploring strange and dangerous old ruins, get them stuck into a weird old ruin right away. If the game is about mech warriors, get them in the pilot seat. Whatever is cool about that game should make an appearance as soon as possible, so your players can get excited. Then if you do go ahead with more sessions, your players are more willing to sit through quieter, slower bits because they know coolness is just around the corner.
Your first session is definitely one where you want to over-plan and under-deliver. Don’t worry that you won’t get to everything you came up with; you won’t. But you want more adventure than you think you’ll get to, just in case your players do something you didn’t expect. And as a new GM, that may happen a lot at first, so it pays to be ready. Don’t worry that you wasted that effort if the players don’t get to everything you’ve prepared for them. Just save it, make some changes, and use it for another session. All your players know about the game world is what you tell them, so they never need to know what they would have found if they went left instead of right. The left-hand encounter can show up later, with them none the wiser.
3) Gather the Players – Game chosen, an evening’s entertainment put together, it’s now time to gather your players. I’m assuming that you’ve come to GMing in the traditional fashion; a bunch of your friends were sitting around, lamenting they didn’t have a game, and you volunteered. But maybe you’re new to the hobby as well, and figured sitting in the GM’s chair was the best way to get your equally green friends to play. Whatever the case, the key to gathering your players is to pitch them on what’s exciting about the game. Easy enough to do, since you focused on that very thing during your preparation, right? Now is the time to really sell it to your potential victims…er, players.
Another part of successfully pitching the game is also knowing what your players like. If you’re pitching to veteran RPGers in search of a new game, you have a good idea of what they might like to play. But even if they are new to the hobby, you can usually find the not-so-subtle clues that point you to RPGs they might like. Did your group of friends flip over the Avengers movies? I see super-hero RPGs on your horizon. Are they action-movie crazy, or do they gather and discuss the latest fantasy epic? You might want to look at a cinematic action RPG like Feng Shui for the former, whereas the latter will be right at home in whatever fantasy RPG you land on. The point is, if you want them excited to play, pick a game based on something which already excites them. And remember, it’s just one session for now. If it doesn’t work, pick another game and repeat until something clicks. Hanging with friends and trying a bunch of different RPGs sounds pretty awesome in its own right anyway. And maybe you can convince everyone to take turns GMing for a session, so you get some play time as well.
Hope that helps convince you to take the GMing plunge. I’ll have plenty of GMing tips and tricks down the line (and you can search for past articles right now), so please come back for a visit any time. If you’ve got a specific question regarding GMing, or playing, or about RPGs in general, send your question to RenaissanceDork@gmail.com. I’ll answer when I can, and may save up questions for a Q&A post here.