25 August 2018

Advice for a First-Time GM

Recently, one of the players in my Fate group asked me for advice on how to GM. She had some friends who wanted to play, but there wasn't room in my group for new members (I have a hard limit of six players plus the GM on any games I run). So instead, she decided to run a game for them herself.

I wrote her a fairly lengthy email full of advice, and it later occurred to me that it might be the sort of thing that could be useful to others. So I will adapt the information I wrote in that email into an entry, and share it with you.

I will point out that as we get further into the PinkFae archives, there will be a series of articles entitled 'Analysis of GMing,' which will have a lot of advice that will be useful to the first-time GMs. But that series isn't targeted specifically at new GMs, and it's still a couple months out (the first entry is going to be Archive #22, and we just had #17 last week, so it's going to be about four months from now).  So we'll start here, and as more information comes out, it will be additional advice to add onto what you're about to read!

First Piece of Advice

The first piece of advice I have for you is to purchase Robin's Laws of Good Gamemastering. It is full of information that has been essential to my success as a GM. It contains a lot of things I had never considered.

The first and most important thing that I gained from that book: not everyone games for the same reason. It seems so obvious, yet for the first thirteen or so years that I was a gamer, it had never occurred to me that other people didn't get the same thing from gaming as I did. Every time one of the other gamers created a min-maxed combat monster that had no narrative appeal whatsoever, I grew increasingly frustrated that they weren't 'gaming right.'

After I read Robin's Laws, and I got to the section on gamer types (Power Gamers vs Butt Kickers vs Tacticians vs Specialists vs Storytellers vs Method Actors vs Casual Gamers) I realised why I was always so frustrated. I was a Storyteller with tendencies towards Method Actor trying to game with Power Gamers and Butt Kickers. No wonder I was always frustrated!

Which is why I'm now much more careful about the people with whom I play. I try to surround myself with other storytellers and method actors as much as I can so I can do the kind of gaming that I enjoy.

That's also why I love games like Fate and Changeling; those systems cater to storyteller and method actor types. Also why I avoid D&D and Pathfinder; the D20 system can be used for story-based games, but it's always done in spite of the system instead of because of it.

So, read that book. It's a good start.

Second Piece of Advice

Know yourself. Just as important as knowing what kind of players you're GMing for, you need to know what kind of player YOU are. If you're a Butt Kicker, you're going to run different games than you would if you were a Specialist. Make sure you know that, so you can communicate it to your players. I often point out at the beginning of games that I run that my games that I'm going to be telling an epic story, along the lines of The Odyssey or Gilgamesh. It's going to be fairly combat-light, focusing on character and plot development. If a player in my group is looking for heroic battles and brave heroes, he's probably not going to be satisfied, because those are the sorts of things that don't really happen in games I run.

And then I reiterate it occasionally throughout the game. I'll sometimes say, 'Here's an article I found that describes what sort of game I'm looking for, maybe it will help you get a handle on how to approach the stories I'm telling.'

It's important to know what you're going to be giving to your players.

Third Piece of Advice

It's also important to know how new the players are. Are they first time gamers who've never played before? You're going to be busy walking them through things for a while until they get their bearings. But if they're experienced gamers (even if they're still fairly new to the hobby), then what you absolutely must do, probably at the very first session, is say the following:

I am a first time GM. This is my first time doing this. I'm going to make mistakes. Please bear with me, and help me out when you can.

Then trust them. Let them help you. You will find that one of two things happens:
  1. They are supportive and helpful, and everyone has a great time.
  2. They are jerks who take advantage of your inexperience.
If #1 happens, awesome! Everything is groovy!

If #2 happens, then you do NOT need to be playing with those players. Tell them to find a new group.

In Closing

So, that's my initial advice. But you may have noticed something very important: I haven't said a single word about designing campaigns.

Obviously, it will depend on what sort of campaign you're going to be running. Is it going to be hack-and-slash? Or are you hoping to tell a story that will be retold by bards for centuries to come? Because the approach to both of these is very different.

But those are details to be covered at a different time. Because the most important things are what I said before. Read Robin's Laws. Know yourself. Know your players.

But really, perhaps even more important than those three things: relax. Trust your players. Let your players trust you. Make sure everyone (including you) is having fun. As long as everyone (yourself included) is having fun...


Enjoy the ride!

So that's my advice for first-time GMs. I trust it was useful for you. If you're not a GM, or you've been GMing for a while, perhaps you know a new GM who could use the advice I described above. Or, if you're an experienced GM, maybe you can offer some suggestions in the comments below. What would you tell a first-time GM? Do you disagree with the advice I have given here?

Whatever you think of this advice, don't forget the advice I give every week:

Game on!

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