Guide to Becoming a Successful Game Master Part 1: Choosing the System/Rules/Settings

Next Article in the Series

Excited about the prospect of sitting behind the screen? Ready to face the challenge of wrangling players and story alike into a cohesive adventure? Dreaming about the hordes of enemies that are dancing in your head preparing to charge at the “Heroes”? Then this series of articles is for you!

This article series is aimed at the brand-new GM and all the challenges and rewards one who takes on the title will run across in his/her career. I’m using the more ubiquitous GM (or Game Master) moniker here because this series of articles will be on a broader topic of running TTRPG. We’re not  focusing exclusively on DnD, but advice that’s applicable to a broader spectrum of games and player groups.

Buying Books to become a Dungeon MasterHow to Start as a Game Master

The very first piece of advice I can give to any new GM is pick the game system that you want to play. Right now, there is a plethora of TTRPG s available and many different ways to engage in roleplaying. If you are excited about the prospect of running a roleplaying game, then make sure that it is a game that you would like to play before getting the game off the ground.

What type of genres do you find interesting? What kind of game are you looking for? Is it horror, fantasy, or comedy that interests you? How realistic do you want the game play to be? I would take some time to think on these questions. Do some research on roleplaying games that fit your interests before investing in the game system itself. There is a lot of social media available for TTRPGs now that can give you a baseline for what you would be getting into before you even run a game.

Next Steps

After you know what you want to play you have to ask yourself “Would my friends like playing this with me?” Most players like to play roleplaying games. For the most part I have found that people like variety. As a result,  I have not had difficulty convincing my friends to try different roleplaying systems in the past, even if it wasn’t the most popular system available at the time.

The next question to ask is “How easy would this game be to teach others?” As the GM who is picking the game, you may be the only player that owns a copy of the core books. It’s a part of the GM title to teach the players the rules and how to interact with the system.

Choosing a Suitable System

The very first game I was excited to run was a brand new TTRPG that had just hit the shelf. None of my friends were playing this game, so I thought it would be perfect for me to run. I had just been paid and had no bills, so I bought every book available at the game store. I told all my friends that we could play as soon as I finished reading the core books.

A short time later that I had to admit that I would not be able to run this game. While enjoying the stories and backgrounds, the game system itself was too complex for me at the time. I wanted something simpler to play, run, and something simpler for me to teach to new players.

Back to the drawing board, I picked up another new gaming system. This time I only purchased the core rulebook before going all in. That system, Legend of the Five Rings, fit me better as a Game Master than the other. As a result, LotFR became the first TTRPG I ever ran for my friends.

Dice Bag for the Game MasterGetting Familiar with The Rules

As a Game Master you take on the role of rules arbiter. You are expected to know the majority of the core rules and to know how to implement the rules to make an expedient ruling when the time comes. In addition, you are expected to be the main resource on the world and setting that you are playing in. This can be a daunting task and is frequently an obstacle to surmount when first getting into GMing.

Whenever I get a new TTRPG I read the book cover to cover. When reading the book the first time thru I am absorbing as much of that game system as I can from the flavor of the system to the basics of the dice rolling mechanic to the types of themes the book is trying to portray. I will often break it into chunks, reading a chapter or two per day. Break are necessary so that it isn’t too much information overload.

After my first read thru, I go back and visit specific sections of the book. The first thing I want to review is the basic dice rolling mechanic. This is what the rest of the system hangs on. Therefore, if I don’t understand how it works then it is going to be difficult to run that system.

Some systems are easier to grasp then other systems. A majority that I have played use a Trait plus Skill system to determine things. This includes what die to roll, how many dice, and what type of modifiers to add to the roll. These systems include Vampire: The Masquerade and DnD. Other systems are a little more abstract or use custom dice. Some even use playing cards to determine the outcome of any given action.

Unique Applications & Improv

Really understanding this basic piece of the game system will go a long way in running the game. You can be confident when your players inevitably ask you to do something that isn’t specifically addressed in the rules, like persuading the ocean not to drown you, or leaping off a cliff onto the back of a dragon, or teleporting a small pistol into someone’s stomach to hide the murder weapon.

Your players are going to come up with crazy, off the cuff ideas. Getting familiar with how to resolve those ideas is key. I will often try a few practice rolls within the system to make sure that I understand how it plays out on the table.

Running an encounter as a Game MasterGame Master Practice

The second section I will review is character creation. As a GM, you should be intimately familiar with how to build a character for the game system. Many game systems now have a chart or a walkthrough before delving deep into the character creation. If you can print this out or have it readily available this will greatly help you in helping your players.

I often print out a few character sheets and build a few characters from scratch. If there are multiple types of similar characters (like fighters and spellcasters) I build one of each. This gets me a grounded understanding of how the character building section in the system works. In addition, it prepares me for any zany player ideas, like playing a T-rex in downtown Los Angeles, or a super powerful warrior that has amnesia and doesn’t remember how super or powerful they are.

Once I am familiar with those elements of the Game System, I’ll rope in some friends and let the Game Begin!

Join me next time as I continue this series of articles and delve into Character Building!

Disclaimer: Pictures are from unsplash. Library Pic: Janko Ferlič | Dice Bag: Alperen Yazgı | Monsters: Clint Bustrillos

1 thought on “Guide to Becoming a Successful Game Master Part 1: Choosing the System/Rules/Settings”

  1. Pingback: Becoming a Successful Game Master p2 | Blog by Total Party Guild

Leave a Comment