So you want to be a GM?

I’m sitting here at my desk, with a very specific playlist going, and somewhere in the realm of fifteen browser tabs open. The contents of which include, source material, research, numbers, stats and of course, story. I’m working on a little something. I’m building it up and fortifying it the best I can, against the inevitable attack it faces once finished. I know that so little of my defenses will remain once things are set in motion, so I have to be prepared. The boy scouts have nothing on my plot notes.

You see, I’m writing a tabletop game. About a week ago the concept hit me while driving up the DVP and now here I am, laser focused on the task of making an idea reality. At the same time I’m putting on the GM (Gamemaster) hat for my regular Shadowrun group for a while. Although, this isn’t my first rodeo (or Shadowrun, or Dungeon Crawl). If I’ve learned anything about running a game, it’s that it can be downright impossible to predict where it’ll go – no matter how much time spent planning. There are, however, a few things you can keep in mind to make things run a little smoother.

Header image and image above provided by Wizards of the Coast

Header image and image above provided by Wizards of the Coast

The first, and by far the hardest, lesson one must learn before they don the GM hat, is that, no matter how long you spent writing it, and no matter how attached you are to an NPC, scene or ending, everything (really, I mean everything) could end up scrapped. The art of running a game is an exercise in finding your zen. Make like Elsa, and “Let It Go.” Nothing is immortal, or immovable. Once you accept that lesson, and really let it sink in, you’ll realise how much your games improve. Listen, trust me on this, the players are going to come up with things you never expected. If you’re always ready, and willing to move things around behind the scenes, you can make it look like you knew what they were going to do all along. However, if you try to push them in a direction to keep your plot the way you planned, they will know. So, most of the time it’s just better to just go with the flow.

That said, no time spent planning is time wasted. I know, I know, if everything is scrapable why bother planning it? I you want to take a step back right now and picture that your story is like a building. It has walls, a roof, maybe some cool furniture or a quaint little fireplace. Your story also has a strong foundation, the stronger and more substantial the better. Afterall, it’s only a matter of time before your players show up with bulldozers and sledgehammers. You’re going to have to sit there, and hope the stones you piled up were strong enough, that something of your story-building remains once they’re done with it. While the Dwarven warrior is busy bashing your building's walls in, you can cross your fingers, and hope the foundation is enough to keep the fireplace up. To you, the end of a campaign will probably look like a pile of shredded paper and rubble, but your players are going to be looking at a masterpiece. You just need to be okay with stepping back and letting them get their hands all over it.

Image provided by Catalyst Game Labs

Image provided by Catalyst Game Labs

Which leads to my next point: the more you know about your players, the more you can fortify yourself against them. Maybe you have a grand epic story building inside your head, but you know your play group is more of the shoot-first-talk-later type. Consider how your players are going to approach what you’ve prepared for them, before you write a word. Some parties don’t like serious roleplay, some are low combat, and every once in awhile you get a perfect balance of smashing and talking. I’m lucky that I know the group I’m currently writing for very well, we play together twice a week and we’re all close friends. I know how to interest them and what threads to pull in order to get their attention, without railroading the game in one inflexible direction. Learn your players, learn their interests and fears, and use your knowledge against them – I mean, use it to provide hours of quality entertainment!

So where does that leave us now? What more advice can I pass along to a wee little fledgling GM itching to get their story out into the world? I have a few more things I want you to know. Just a short little list you should keep in mind, before you start your dice rolling. Manage your expectations: it’s possible the players miss the point completely, so be ready to improvise so you keep the game moving. Know your world: it’s easy to get overwhelmed in new settings – reference your books, look around for pre-made NPC’s (Non-Player Characters). Keep things simple: really trust me when I tell you that the plot device you think is SUPER obvious, could still go over your player’s heads. Just take the credit: sometimes your players will burst out a suspicion about where things are going – if it’s better than what you came up with, pretend it was yours all along.

Image provided by Wizards of the Coast

Image provided by Wizards of the Coast

Finally, the last and arguably most important, point I have to make is that, if you’re picking up the GM’s post to get revenge on your friends, and kill all their characters – DON’T! Put down the book, put down the hat, and step away. It’s so easy to look at the dynamic of a tabletop game, and think the GM is in charge. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. If you want to win, if you want to kill the bad guys, and save the day, then you should be playing –  not running. The players get to be the hero’s. It’s their table, not yours, and at the end of the day, the best case scenario for any GM is to lose horribly in a way they never expected. We set the stage and let them loose on it – to do with our stories whatever they will. More often than not it’ll not go the way you expected, and that’s truly the greatest joy of being a GM.