Maybe you’re a veteran player who’s never been behind the screen before. Maybe you’ve played once or twice, getting a small taste, and are hungry for more. Maybe you’re new and want to jump right into the deep end of the pool instead of wading your way in slowly. Any which way you’ve come, any amount of experience you’ve attained in the role playing hobby, simply by choosing to try your hand at running your own role playing game you have placed yourself on a long road to a very special place. To this place I welcome you.
I write this not as an exhaustive missive explaining anything and everything. Instead I want to approach it as a very basic map. Well, half of a map. The other half is lost and you’ll have to find it along the way. Anyway, my goal here is to try and communicate exactly what Game Mastering means, as well as providing anecdotal advice to keep your feet along the path.
Know first that your job is the hardest one. The players come, and the players go, but for them the game lasts for only those few hours you all sit down at the table. Not so for you. Also, not only is your job to provide a story for the players to trounce around in, it is also up to you to mediate and referee your players.
Also know that despite it being harder, it is also boundlessly more fun. Don’t let them know that, however.
Why is it more fun? Because you’re making worlds. You’re penning drama and drawing maps and bringing countless characters and places to life. Each Game Master develops his own style, just like an author or artist. Some write huge tomes of history for their game. Others approach it like bards of old, spinning tales on the fly. Still others make it their entire goal to punish the players every step of the way, to make that near impossible victory all the more sweeter for them. While your characters are Beowulf and King Arthur, you’re Odin and Jupiter. The story might be about them, but you’re the one writing it.
It can seem to be a momentous task, but the reward is indescribable. To have a game unfold and to see your players immersed in a world you made is a pleasure few get to experience. It is even more pleasurable is to see all of your carefully laid plans thrown aside by clever players, who’ve found a loophole through your story and force you to try and land on your feet.
What You Should Know First
The first thing you should know are your duties as Game Master. Different games might have different nuances, but there are some constants across games. One is that you are the moderator in all things. This doesn’t mean you’re a dictator who can change rules at a whim (well you can, but it isn’t nice). It means that when the rules get fuzzy, you’re the one who’ll decide. You should of course let everyone have a say and use this to help you make a decision, but in the end you need to make a quick ruling in order to keep the game going.
This is the second thing you need to know, you are the one that keeps the game going. Be prepared to cut corners to keep the game running smoothly! Remember that the rules serve the game, not the other way around, so circumvent them in a heartbeat if it means the game isn’t going to get stalled. Having a strong grasp on the rules and mechanics of the game will ensure that this isn’t commonly necessary.
Lastly, have fun. The whole point of this hobby is fun. The creating, the writing, the role playing, all of this is meant to end in a positive experience for you and the players. If the net gain of your game isn’t fun for everyone at the table, you need to adjust how you’re running the game.
Basics of Play
This article assumes you know basically how role playing games work, and you should of course refer to the game book for the actual rules of the game. What I will show you is how people use these rules to run their game.
Playing a role playing game generally involves running a session that is a smaller part of a larger campaign. You can kind of visualize these as lengths of time. A session is one “day” of play, a few hours or so around the table. It usually is set up like a story, with rising action and a climax, and ends when the players reach their immediate goal or goals. This ties into, however, a larger story arc known as the campaign. A campaign can be seen as a TV series or season, and a session as a single episode. Alternatively, sessions can be seen as chapters or sections within a larger “campaign” book.
The campaign should also have a structure, though more complex than a single session. It should have a climax as well, a grand finale where players reach a lofty hard to reach goal that they’ve been working on for many sessions. Imagine that in a single session, the players must bring down a dragon terrorizing a town. For the campaign, their goal may be to banish a dark god who has been summoning dragons across the land, and a totem from the dragon’s hoard is a piece to doing that.
The Game Master spends time preparing his sessions ahead of time, as well as the campaign as a whole. Many people write a lot of different session ideas so they can run a session on whatever they want on the fly, others design each session right beforehand so that they can evolve the campaign based on what players are doing.
Now, sometimes people just want a single session that isn’t part of a campaign. These one offs can be fun as well. Experiment!
During a session you will present to your players the setting and situations for them to react to. Though you are the one making up everything, keep in mind that they are the main characters and thus drive the plot most of the time. Railroading is term many use in the RPG community, and it means forcing players to do things in order to keep your game running how you want to. Avoid this at all costs, unless it simply how your group likes to play. Mostly it should be you providing your players with pieces of plot, and working off of how they react to it. Motivating players to decide to do certain things isn’t railroading at all. That’s just good Game Mastering.
Designing Your Adventure
Keep in mind this during your reading of this article: everything here is my experience and my preference. Every game master has their own style and way of doing things. I know quite a few people who do things completely differently than I do. So what I show you here isn’t the RIGHT way, nor is it the best way for you. What I want to do is present to you how I design my adventures as a way to learn the basics. You might end up having more fun doing other things, and this is great.
Remember in College, when they suggested one or two hours of study time per hour you spend in class? That’s an excellent time table for the amount of time you should spend on making your campaign. Now, this doesn’t mean writing for an hour per hour of play time. Some people will write down next to nothing, while others will fill up pages of story and plot. It depends on your style. But having the game at least in your mind for long periods of time will help prepare you for the inevitable improv you’ll need to commit at the table.
If you can write stuff down, I suggest trying it before you decide to be one of the on the fly GMs. Having everything you want to happen in front of you helps your game run smoothly. Designing maps of your encounters is even better! It’s also one of the more rewarding aspects of the Game Master job.
Here is a bullet list of things that I suggest you do while making your adventures. Think about all of them, either in this order or not:
Theme and atmosphere- Think about how you want your game to feel in general.
Background – Figure out the history of the people, places, and things your players will encounter.
Plot – Decide what is happening or can happen during your adventure. Figure out the hooks that will incentivize your players into action and forward mobility.
Mapping – Map out your locations and encounters, use as much detail as you can. Provide yourself with text to read out loud to the players at certain scenes.
Climax and Reward – Figure out how the game might end. Think about the different ways the players might reach “the end” of this story, and what rewards or consequences await them.
Ask yourself what kind of theme or atmosphere you want for the game. Even beyond whatever story you’re going to tell, you need to decide the passive “feeling” that permeates your game. Perhaps a dark fearful tone, while your adventurers are forced to find their way out of an ancient barrow or mausoleum. Or a violent tone, as the heroes find themselves on the field of battle, slaughtering foes and trying not to be cut down like wheat before a scythe. Mysterious, comical, mystical, swashbuckling, anything will do. The thing is to keep the theme in mind, because it provides you with a bedrock to build your story off of. You can of course mix themes or have multiple themes come up as the game progresses. Starting broad and working your way into the details has proven useful for me, but explore and find whatever method works best for you
One of the things I like to do after deciding on my theme is to write a background. I will write down a broad paragraph explaining the history or background of the setting and situation to provide a flavor for the active story. This I will usually recite to my players at the beginning of a session. For example:
Castle Beollaoch has been empty for centuries. It once was the seat of Sir Abeogol, the most trusted of High King Donnal’s captains. Before Donnal’s kingdom fell away into the mists of time Abeogol is said to have betrayed his king, and great friend, by taking a bribe from the Wolfang barbarian tribe, who envied the green lands of the High Kingdom.
Upon his betrayal he was cursed by his wife Messelle, the daughter of the king. She was said to have been a great Enchantress. She laid the curse by committing suicide; she threw herself from the highest tower of Castle Beollaoch. No one knows what the curse was exactly, but it is said that Sir Abeogol and all of his knights went insane and fell into fits of slaughter. All of his servants and villagers fled, and no one heard from the castle again. The castle has remained untouched since then, beyond the fall of the High Kingdom and into the current day, though some adventurous sorts have begun talk of reclaiming the old fortress, and any valuables it might contain.
Doing this sort of background helps ground what happens around the table into a more believable world, and helps immerse your players in the game. Just plopping them in a castle and not explaining why it’s there or what happened there in the past may make your game seem bland. Flavor your game with history and background! Also remember that in many games, player characters will have knowledge or lore skills. You can have them use these skills to try and gain more information, so it might be a good idea to have more background information in reserve, particularly information that could benefit them in some way during the adventure.
So you have a theme and background, now it’s time to write the scenario itself. You should figure out the “plot” of your game. I put this in quotes because one thing you must must must remember is that your players are your main characters, and it is their job to make decisions. They are essentially what drives the plot. If you make an adventure that throws away their ability to decide things (by you deciding beforehand what they will do), then they will not have fun. So approach plot in terms of “If, then” statements, giving your players plenty of leeway in approaching the adventure how they’d like to.
An “if, then” statement is like, “If the players decide to go to the castle, then (blah) happens”, or “if the players approach the castle at night, then (blah) happens.” This will give yourself flexibility.
Think about hooks for your players. If you want them to investigate the haunted castle above, offer them motivation to do so rather than simply telling them that they’re going to. For example, something like this might be what you say during the start of the game to your players:
You are approached by a merchant, a fat and obviously wealthy individual with a genial attitude. He is offering a reward, he says, to adventurers who can go to Castle Beollaoch and map the place, as well as claim any valuables they can find. He is offering a substantial sum of money, as well as a portion of the profits from the found treasure.
Another idea could be to have one of the players discover an old map to the castle, with an enigmatic message on it about fortune and glory.
This is the sort of thing you should think about and write down beforehand for a successful adventure. I generally write down the background, and then bullet list the general points of interest and encounters that I can expect to happen. From there I try to let my players approach it in a sandbox style. I’ll provide incentives, but never force their hand. This might make the game go off course, but improvisation can be fun!
Plotting the game is the biggest task for you. Figuring out the different ways a player might go through your story can be daunting, but fear not. Many times you can easily get them back on track with skillful maneuvering. You don’t need to write down every single little thing that might go wrong, but you should be mindful of being too narrow in focus and too linear in how you write out your game.
Here is an example bullet list of what I might use to run a game with. This I keep to myself, and extrapolate on with the players in the form of back and forth storytelling:
If the players accept the merchant’s quest, provide them with horses and allow them to buy supplies from town before telling them about the journey there.
On the journey to the castle, through a large dark forest, have them get attacked by bandits.
They reach the castle as sun sets.
As you can see, what I’ve written is very simple, but to the players I will detail it and provide flavor to get them into the game. Also with the bullet list, I might write down small passages of text to read to the players. Like I might write down how the castle looks as they approach it as the sun sets. I might write down a small passage about the spooky forest they’ve traveled to, and the sounds they hear as they pass. This stuff is great for getting in the mood and setting the adventure up.
Now you need to get down into the nuts and bolts of the adventure itself. In the case of our haunted castle, I would suggest mapping out the castle, or at least the parts where the players will have access too. Map it out, write down what is in each room and area, including treasure and creatures or even NPCs (non player characters). This map will help you in many ways, and will be the main thing you refer to when running your game. Now, when I say map, I don’t exactly mean a graphical map. It could just be a list of the rooms and such. What is important is that you know where everything is, what it’s doing there, and how they’ll react to what the players are doing. Make sure to include encounters throughout the adventure.
A good thing to do is to consider each “encounter” as the smallest unit of measurement in your game. A session is part of a campaign and is made up of encounters. An encounter can be any situation in which the characters must act. This could be a battle, a conversation with someone important, a perilous climb across a crumbling parapet, what have you. It’s good to think of them as scenes in a chapter, perhaps, with their own mini climaxes.
I like drawing maps out on graph paper, and then when I need to get the players to visualize the area they are in during an encounter, I will draw out the portion they are in on a large dry erase grid I have on the table. This is really great, especially when your players have to fight something.
I’ll provide an example for an encounter I would write if I were doing the haunted castle:
The Throne Room
(Read this to players)
This room is spacious and dusty. Torches along the almost cathedral like walls are alight with green flame, flickering ghostlight across debris on the floor. Broken benches and tables align the walls, and spider webs choke up the cracks in the masonry.
At the far end of the room, flanked by two stairwells that lead upward into the second story of the castle, lay a large ornate throne. It seems almost untouched by the decay around you, and is lit by a green flame from a brazier in front of it. In the chair of the throne, sitting almost lazily, is a corpse. It is wearing armor, bright shining steel that reflects the green light, and across it’s knees is a large greatsword. Inside the eye sockets of the skull come a hazy orange glow.
It seems to be watching you.
(This skeleton is the corpse of the knight Abeogol. It is aware of the players, but won’t move or attack them if they ignore him. If they try to speak with him, he will answer, and say…)
I will have encounters like this throughout the castle, though depending on how long you plan on running your game you might want to keep it to a few per session. These sorts of encounters should string together, in theory, to form your story. In this example, if the players somehow have to fight the skeleton knight, I would draw out the room on my dry erase grid and use markers or figurines for the different characters in the scene, using the rules of the game I was playing to figure out how it works.
Every story has it’s end, and so should yours. You need to figure out what your players are doing there, and from there you have your ending: When they players accomplish their goal. Now, their goal might change, and this is fine. You should consider your climax the point where they reach their main current goal however, and what it means to the game in the long run. In this haunted castle, for example, their goal was to get valuables. Perhaps after talking with the ghost knight, however, their goal could change. He could ask them to help his wife, who he loved dearly despite the curse she put on him, find peace beyond death.
Now, I’ve tried to keep all of this is general as possible. Each role playing game is going to have a different way to play, for instance, and you should take that into account. For instance, in 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons an encounter takes a lot longer than it would in Pathfinder or the current Dungeons and Dragons Next beta. In Vampire: The Masquerade, the way you write your adventure will be completely different than your DnD adventure. Certainly remember to read the rules of the game you are playing. You should in fact study them much more deeply than players need to!
Things to Keep in Mind
This isn’t an exhaustive resource that teaches you how to game master. These are just my tips. The main thing you should draw from is the game you are playing. Read their materials and let them help you design and run your game.
One thing to remember is to engage your players. Engaged players make for a better story! Make sure you include things in your adventure that highlight every character, and make sure you never give too much of the limelight to one person. If you’ve got a sneaky character, provide sneaky scenarios. If you’ve got a loremaster, include reserves of knowledge and logic puzzles. And of course, if you’ve got warriors provide things to smash! The game in the end is for your players.
There are a few traps that some GMs fall into. One of these is the use of what is sometimes called a GMPC, or Game Master Player Character. This is simply one of your NPCs that gets too much of the limelight. It may be because they’re powerful, or solve problems that should be solved by the PCs. This is extremely unengaging for your players: if they’re stuck on a problem instead try to give them advice or have them circumvent it with their characters in some way instead of bringing in someone to help.
Another trap we discussed earlier is railroading. If players feel railroaded, it can seriously affect their fun. A player is there is roleplay, after all, not roll dice at certain points during a story you’re telling. Remember that you’re not exactly an author here; you and your players are creating the story together. You’re the setting, the side characters, and the background of the game. They are the main characters. Keeping this in mind will help your game ascend into the realm of ultimate funness.
A good idea for game masters is to constantly seek inspiration. You’re (probably) not going to publish your adventure, so it gives you a bit more leeway to plagiarize gleefully from your favorite media. Comics, books, video games, movies, any of these can hold elements you might want to use. Studying the structure of these is also a big help as well! Seeing how scenes build into acts which make up the whole of a show, for example, can help you get into the habit of creating adventures that have a nice flow to them.
I hope I’ve provided good advice for budding game masters with this article. I can’t call myself a master of the trade, but I’ve been involved with role playing games for most of my life. I also hope that if you take anything away from this it is the golden rule of role playing: it is meant to be fun. If anything gets in the way of the fun, you are doing it wrong. Everything else is free game.
“There is no winning or losing, but rather the value is in the experience of imagining yourself as a character in whatever genre you’re involved in, whether it’s a fantasy game, the Wild West, secret agents or whatever else. You get to sort of vicariously experience those things.”
“When you master role playing, you become immersed in an activity that is peerless among leisure time pursuits.”
-Gary Gygax, creator of Dungeons and Dragons