Best Game Master Advice you've Found
By - HalracEllis
“There are many ways to run games. Apocalypse World calls for one in particular.”
While AW is full of great GM rules that work well for many games. The best thing it does is remind you that different games require different things from their GM, and while many good techniques can be used across several games, you should never go into a new game just assuming that because you can run other games well, you can run that specific game well.
This is also a great advice to players as well.
The way you play or think on how to overcoming challenges in DnD is not going to work in other game systems like ZWEIHÄNDER, or VtM.
That’s also true of dnd itself. How you play in one dnd game may not be the same as any other, especially with different groups.
That's every game.
> “There are many ways to run games. Apocalypse World calls for one in particular.”
Wait. So I shouldn't just try to force everything into dnd5e?!?!
From a recent reddit post: ask your players how their characters feel about a certain situation / event
Thats a great one, helps gets the players quite immersed! A video I saw talked about smell and using senses when describing things or places which I find really propped up my game.
I love this advice regarding prep time from Stars Without Number (Kevin Crawford):
"Every GM has a limited supply of time, energy,
and creative inspiration. If you try to fabricate an entire complete sector in one go, with interesting planets and meaningful interstellar intrigue and easy adventure hooks all over the place, you’re likely to exhaust yourself before you even get to play.
Instead, you should follow a simple guiding principle whenever building anything for your campaign, whether a stellar sector or an adventure outline.
*Am I having fun?* If you’re enjoying yourself, then you can keep building. We follow this hobby because it’s fun, and if you’re enjoying the process then you should let yourself have your indulgence.
*Am I going to need this for the next session?* If what you’re creating is something you know you’re going to need for the next game session, then you should finish it. Don’t let this feeling of obligation extend to every detail, however; it can be easy to imagine situations where you’ll need to elaborate some NPC or organization or location, but if you respond to every such possibility you’ll never get away from the drawing board.
If you’re not having fun and you don’t need it for
your next game session, stop it."
The only potential pitfall is when you fall down a rabbit hole and prep a lot of stuff that won't be useful in the short term... and then burn yourself out so that prepping the stuff you'll actually use is a burden.
Have fun with your prep, but also think about how much utility you're likely to get out of it and when. Sometimes it's better to put the reigns on some of the more long-term stuff. Especially since you can sometimes end up boxing yourself in or having to throw it away.
That is indeed great advice.
I like the first half of this but "am I going to need this for the next session?" can easily lead to a horrible mountain of overprep, because frankly, it's really hard to predict what you're going to "need" for next session, even in the broadest strokes. =/
I guess you can define it as "Do I KNOW that I am 100% going to absolutely need this next session?" but that feels like not what was written.
The best advice I ever recieved is `set expectations`. This actually came from my job delivering work for clients but is super relevant. Its also not something you just do at the beginning, it is a constant process.
So some examples.
Current game players were told up front it wasn't a save the world deal and that I needed them to help build their own motivations for continuing the story. Good expectations set, characters built with that in mind.
Then we also used talespire (a great vtt) and I explained that combats would be fun in this. Through using it my payers realised that in combat they had to more tactical than theatre of the mind. I also straight up said this to them, and ended up with characters who while not all combat focused knew how their powers and skills work.
Finally I set the tone for the story, tone is super important to me. I don't enjoy it when some players are super invested in the world and try to react faithfully to threats while others basically focus on just doing whatever seems most fun even if it's horribly out of character or doesn't match the tone of the rest of the game.
To achieve this, first I ruled 'you have to be an adventurer' (great advice from Matt Colville) then I just explained what I wanted from the story. But the most important thing was I spoke with everyone and asked what they wanted. We talked about what they wanted from character arcs to just what they enjoyed about dnd.
With that knowledge we built a great game. One of the best I've ever run in 17 years of dming.
This is advice I've been using for years but it's only recently that Ive got it right. Because expectation setting is something you need to constantly maintain. Did one of your players begin the story as one type of character but slowly become another that is no longer gelling with the party? Talk to them find what their expectation is. Is a crucial plot point coming up with a character, who's hunting their lost love? Talk to them, understand if they expect to save that person soon or keep having them dangled for many stories more.
Setting expectations can to some feel like we're taking the 'surprise' out of games. I will tell you after playing many different games for the better part of two decades, 1 you can still surprise players even if they feel they've told you exactly what they want. 2 players always prefer a game where the world is built on the foundations of what they expect.
The end result is that my players
And your final piece of advice is leave 'em on a cliffhanger!
best tip ive found: "Plan the world, not the story"
the story is something that is created through play, by how the players interact with the world around them.
so instead of planning how the story will unfold as the players experience it, plan how the world is built, like NPC motivations, plans for what happens if the players does not involve themselves, and expect things to change drastically once they actually do.
Agreed. Plan the problem, not the solution.
This is absolutely critical to writing mysteries. If you plan a vital clue hidden behind a successful investigation check at 1 location and they dont go there or fail the check, you end up dead in the water. What I recently started doing was planning information and maintaining a vague idea of who may know it, so the same information can be learned whether they go to the butcher or the city watch.
Check out the Alexandrian article on the [Three clue rule](https://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/1118/roleplaying-games/three-clue-rule)
Check out The Alexandrian's "Don't Prep Plots" (prep situations) for a helpful blog post breaking down the concept, which I agree, is fundamental for me.
More or less, yes, although I prefer to see it more as a "don't assume" when it comes to thinking about what the players would do.
Or in other words, you can plan a good deal of story (not every campaign needs to be a sandbox after all), but then you should be fluid about how you connect the fragments and situations you have planned, so the players' choices matter, and the consequences feel reactive to them.
I agree. I usually just plan what the main villain/antagonist wants and what they have for resources & let the players mess that up to find out what happens from there.
I'm not good at DMing but it helped a lot to know that it's a lot more fun if the players have their freedom and I improvise instead of trying to railroad cause I'm scared it'll be horrible if I don't know what they are going to do. Also you need to find the way(s) you want to set your settings. I tried to do serious, dark medieval times but I sucked at it. When it was clear we will stop that setting I went full fuck it and made every NPC hilarious and the situations absurdly. We had a lot more fun with that. So I know my campaigns will be more fun if I make the scene more fun, lighthearted and weird cause I'm not good at setting it sad or dark (but you can surely learn it when you want special settings).
The genius thing that made it click for me - and I really wish I could remember where I read it, because it's not mine - was that *it's just a magic trick.* The audience wants to believe, and they'll do half the work for you if you let them. Let them.
Took me a while to realise this, but indeed: the players \*want\* to suspend their disbelief and go along with the story. You just need to provide the right cues and setting for them.
It sounds similar to something Penn and Teller once said, maybe it's them? Or maybe they were influenced by the same person as you.
No, this was definitely about running DnD specifically. In fact the deepest revelation was that I could apply other lessons from people like Penn and Teller to this whole other hobby! But yeah Penn has often talked about trusting the audience, he seems like a very cool dude.
Have you ever seen the movie Matinee? I don't know what it is, but something about how you've said this reminds me of the scene where [John Goodman is talking about the 'first monster movie.'](https://youtu.be/MzBb1J_P1HM)
I haven't, but I love some John Goodman so I will now, cheers!
And you can be explicit about this. I was running a different themed side mission because I had some people out that week, so I just told the players "look, I'm going to run this mission like this. It takes a little extra buy in, are you all in?"
This is really the right mindset for GMing a TTRPG. It is a combination of poker, magic show, story telling, and improv.
For the magic show part it goes way beyond that the audience wants to believe. It really is all about what you show the players.
You use misdirection all the time, putting their attention on the things you need to build the story and away from you quickly building the next scene just outside their line of sight.
The whole sleight of hand concept applies to events. No one needs to know where you originally intended to place that cave with the bear. If the players don't see it or know about it you can move the pieces around as much as you want. The bear they are hunting can end up just where you need it to be. You palm and dump a scene you no longer needs only to steal and reveal it later when it might be useful.
It does help to think of TTRPGs like you own imaginary magic show or theatre production you are putting on.
Perfect. And you probably even have a screen behind which the sleight of hand happens.
This is such a great framework, because it also helps you as GM decide when to "break the fourth wall," and be honest. Like, if you keep saying "I'm so sorry y'all, I really didn't prepare enough," you are undercutting your audience- better to fake it, they will appreciate it! On the other hand, taking a pause and asking how they liked the last scene, or asking for ideas about how an NPC might react in a particular moment, that's more like the magician telling you a little bit about the technique but still maintaining mystery.
That different systems create different ways of playing, and that many issues people have with playing are due to how the game system works.
Yes, not every player/group is a good fit for a specific system. A lot of GMs want to introduce their 'favorite' system to their group and find it doesn't work because the GM didn't take into account that the system wasn't a good fit for the group, even if it was a good fit for them.
My top two:
*Don't be afraid to tell players what you expect out of them, and what you expect out of the game.* I've met (and have been!) GMs who want something specific out of a game -- like a certain type of roleplay or a certain game tone -- and then get disappointed when it doesn't happen. Once I started telling prospective players, "Look, for me to have fun you guys need to be willing to throw yourself into the roleplay, and interact with the game world" my games and groups got a lot better. I also think this works well in the opposite direction: Ask players what they want out of the game, and see if it gels.
*Get everyone on the same page before the game starts*. I see a LOT of games, especially roll20 games, fall apart just because people come in with different expectations. A player who likes adherence to rules gets frustrated when the GM plays fast-and-loose. The heavy RPer gets disappointed when the game has a focus on action. The PvP Addict gets hated at the table becausse nobody else was expecting to get PK'd. All of which could be prevented from a solid Game Flyer or session 0.
When I started GMing I used to write material in advance for the next 4-5 sessions, which led me to kinda railroad my players because I didn't want to lose all my work. As a result things tended to drag for too long and I was too worried about playing all the stuff I wrote.
It's pretty simple advice, but not over preparing is essential, or you'll want to stick to the script too much. Now I found a better balance of prep and improvisation.
That is unless you are confident in your ability to throw away big chunks of prepared material
I prefer to think of it is recycling. I steal everything anyway, may as well steal from myself.
I count that as one of my main strengths as a DM: I know when to let go. Plans, NPCs, villains, storylines, maps, don't try to force stuff on the players they clearly have no interest in. Let it go, then reskin & recycle.
Absolutely. Recycling material is an essential skill, imho. It's really useful to have a backlog of storylines, encounters, NPCs, etc. that you can put to use in a responsive manner.
Well, my advice is "Even if the players don't see what you prepped, nothing you wrote is wasted. You never know when an encounter you wrote a month ago that the party missed might suddenly become useful."
Eh, if you didn't use it when you planned to you can just repurpose it later.
But you rarely ever throw it away.
Prep work is the refrigerator. Stuff doesn't start to spoil until you show it to your players, taking it out of the fridge. If you realize your players don't want hamburger today, you quickly toss the meat in the freezer when they aren't looking and use it another day.
Until the players set eyes on it, it isn't spoiled. It might just take some minor prep work to defrost it and get it ready for the fridge again.
As the saying goes, "Kill your darlings." Planning is awesome, especially when you're willing to drop the majority of it into the ol' idea recycler.
"Don't be too hard on yourself". You'll never run a perfect game, there'll be parts you stumble on, forget or panic over. It doesn't matter how many systems you have mastery on our how long you've been doing it for, it will still happen. The good part? Your players won't know. They won't know what was supposed to happen, what abilities the monsters had, what they didn't find. If they had a good time, that's all they really care about and none of the stuff on your side of the screen is visible to them.
Don't wall things off behind rolls that you want the players to find. Change how they get the info/plot item if they roll poorly or make them screw up how they find it, but don't hide it. Having a secret door they need to open be entirely miss-able is dumb.
There's a section in one of the Chronicles of Darkness or maybe the Vampire the Requiem books where it mentions having them fail the search roll to find the key, so they brush against it on top of a shelf and hear it clatter down into the vent into the basement. Even a failed roll moves the plot forward.
This one is painful but "sometimes your friends just want to hang out".
In a recent session the first hour was people talking about home owner issues and when we started the game one apologized and I'm like "nah, we do this to spend time together, the game is just a means to that end".
This one can hurt. I have a very close knit friend group. Two are huge dnd players. Two like it, but really want to spend time with everyone. I learned that lesson from this group the hard way.
I learn that when something is happening for the whole group (ex: if someone is seasick, all player roll consti) say what is going to happen before instead of after.
When I started DMing, I often said : okay can you all roll constitution \*everyone roll\* okay everyone who have 12 and less are seasick. You just break the momentum and anticipation of the roll.
I know it's simple but I used to do it so much before, just changing this practice helped a lot creating tension and often laughs
This one is underrated. I hear a lot of requests for rolls, and I'm guilty of asking for them, that are not explained.
The thinking behind rolling first is either that it will be more dramatic and scary if they don't know what they're saving for, because it's a surprise, or that the belief is that you can't narrate it until you know who saved and who failed, but it can be a complete let down if most or all of the players pass the pop save.
Narrate first, roll second.
This does mean however that you might have to begin some of the effects on everyone that the players are trying to save against. For instance: if a creature is performing a psychic attack on everyone present, you might be reluctant to describe it's effects without knowing who has failed the roll, but you shouldn't feel this way, instead you just begin to describe them, and then after laying the groundwork of the description, you ask for the roll, then finish the narration after people have succeeded or failed.
"Your minds begin to fog over, your senses become more dull, as your heart beats slow to heavy thuds in your chests, the sounds of the battle retreat all around you and you feel your thoughts begin to crumple inwards on themselves... Roll a wisdom save..." Check the results, then continue "Rodrigo, Aya, Sven, your thoughts complete thier seeming inevitable collapse, while Arwen and Sulico are able to push back and reestablish the firm barriers of their minds, just in time to see the rest of the party collapsing and writhing on the floor."
That bit of description gives everyone this strong narrative reason to fear failure, that there will be genuine groans and sighs of relief when the dice stop rolling, instead of a bunch of players asking "so what was that for?"
'Relax, and enjoy the game', said by a friend far too long ago. Like many others, I sometimes have the problem that I go away from a game I ran and feel I did badly, while the players were quite happy with the session. Allow yourself to have fun, and never, ever, tell players that what is coming will be bad, or that you are badly prepared, or something. Few things kill atmosphere and fun faster than a GM who keeps lamenting how bad the game is, and that they are so sorry for it.
Allow yourself to enjoy the game, and admit to yourself when you ran a good game.
I agree with this a lot. GMs should relax and enjoy. I think it also is relevent in regard to preparaiton: If you spend hours preparing every time and it feels like work then you're noit doing it right, preparation should be quick and fun.
Yes, and I see far too often that GMs come back from sessions exhausted and convinced the game was bad when it was not. I'm not even claiming I am that different, though I try my best.
Yes! And this means that gns should feel free to occasionally add self indulgent npcs and areas that are just fun for the gm without worrying if the players are happy every second, because the players love to be surprised by whatwver.
When you're making adventures don't write stories, set scenarios. What is the situation the players are walking into? What are the NPCs goals? If you know that then you can react properly to whatever nonsense the players come up with. Don't try to anticipate what they'll do too much. Prep is better spent on being able to handle whatever encounters the players get themselves into.
"Don't save your good ideas."
I think it can be tempting to want to save big set pieces and cool fights for climactic, far off points in the story, but the fact is you're going to be constantly having cool ideas of what to put in your world.
Using the ideas you think are cool now will make you a more excited, engaging DM, and you have to trust that you'll come up with another cool idea when you get to your big plot point. You will.
The Dark of Hotsprings Islands changed how I plan NPCs, which boils things down to "what does this person want" what does this person not want" and it helps gives direction when interacting with players.
"Improvise and prepare the less as possible" and "you don't know how to open the door, but you know what's behind"
I know this could be tough, but this became the cornerstone of my way of DM'ing. This is, for me, the most important skill, even if you re using a pre-written adventure, a set up already prepared, anything can go wrong.
A game is fluid, and your player are the one that are choosing the way of the river, not the DM.
A DM duty is to keep it alive, to know what is waiting at the end, talking with players, let em play.
"Dnd is not the only game"
This sounds dramatic but, i learned how to be a GM reading Numenera, Dungeon world and Not The End.
Dnd only teached me a wrong way.
My players would always talk about what they considered the best game session I ever GM'd for them. They talked about it for years in fact. I finally fessed up that I pulled the entire session out of my ass. I did have a plan to start with. I had made charts, maps ,had rules for a made up game they would have to play, and complete character sheets for NPC's.
I never once considered the possibility that they would decide to completely ignore that plot hook and try to solve the problem in a completely "WTF 'The Italian Job' meets 'Scooby Doo' kinda plan is this" fashion.
Tell you my best session:
- 2 am, bored
- guys, let's play 7th seas.
- do you have something in mind? "No"
I basically made up a story about and ancient power that drain pirates to this island and make them battle royal, the one who win have a grated wish.
- 2 russian bears fighting on a Volcano with lava around
- a pg reach the end, won "so, what's your desire?"
"I want to be a real pirate"
And I gave him a map and an hat.
Best session ever.
The best feedback I get is with stuff I end up making up on the spot. Probably because it's in response to what the players are doing so feels more interactive than following breadcrumbs.
Easily my single best piece of advice is only to plan what is needed and be ready to throw it away or make up stuff as the players go a difference direction.
Also, never show your hand. If you are improvising even a little bit, never tell your players. This applies to everything from fudged dice rolls to combat encounters. Telling them only takes away from their experience.
Also find a fellow DM who is outside of your group to talk shop with. It helps when you want to brag about how little you prepared and how awesome the experience was.
Oh, yeah, never tell the players you’re improvising, agreed.
I’m weird in the way that I can only improvise if I’m over prepared. If I truly know the nuts and bolts of the situation, I can rearrange them or change them according to PC actions. If I’m unsure, I can’t improvise and my mind goes blank. Low prep isn’t for me, I can’t pull it off, I don’t enjoy it.
As I said, it's tough. But what you do is perfect! For example: I feel more comfortable improving of things that I know, of course!
Balance is Bullshit.
The most interesting thing that ever happened to the characters is what they experience in game.
Story is what happens at the table, not what you think the plot is.
Let the dice fall as they may, roll in the open, always.
These 4 have led to much less stress for me as a GM and more fun for the players. Though I tend to play games that fit with these preferences.
I think this is possibly what makes RPGs essentially different from wargames? A hopelessly imbalanced (or unlucky) fight can yield an amazing story, but would be rather pointless in a game that's about tactical combat choices.
I totally can agree with that.
As an avid wargamer, I disagree.
Balance is just as rare in wargames as it is in RPGs, and if you need to have a balanced game to have fun, you're going to have a bad time.
I'm not a Wargamer, so I'm going to assume you're right and I'm just picking your brain here.
Doesn't it depend on what you consider 'balanced'? Do you have any chance of winning or are you doomed the moment you enter the dungeon? In an rpg like Alien, for example, you can have lots of fun playing a no-win scenario. Like, not 'slim odds' but certain death.
Whereas in a wargame, you would try to avoid that. Improbable odds, hidden flaws or advantages you need to find and exploit, sure, but certain loss? Is that ever played out?
Wargames don't have to be about competition and tactical combat choices. A lot of them are more about telling stories.
So, wargaming is actually pretty diverse, but yeah, there is definitely some that specifically plays out a 100% guaranteed loss from the start. Usually this is done to see what that battle would look like. It's more common to see in historical wargames, but it's not unheard of in fantasy wargaming. I'd actually say it's more common in wargaming than it is in RPGs.
Something you see more often in wargaming, is to find out one side has lost and to keep playing anyway. Especially if you lose really quickly, like in the first round or two. I would say the only times you wouldn't do this is if you have some specific reason for ending it sooner.
Also, a lot of times you can tell it's a pretty sure loss before you start, and even though you might technically have some theoretical chance of winning, that's not usually what you are playing for. You play anyway because it's fun to play.
Obviously there's a lot of people who play to win, and who aren't interested in playing a game where they don't have a chance to win, but there's people who wouldn't have fun in an RPG like that either.
Wargaming is very much about seeing a story unfold. It's usually a story about battle, but interestingly, it's not even always about that. I have a few wargames where you can have scenarios that don't involve fighting at all. You move your units, overcome obstacles, and accomplish objectives, all without violence (there's usually violence though).
Very insightful, thanks!
>Balance is Bullshit.
I was reading an article about Wild talents, by its creator, and this line made me chuckle a bit:
"Because there’s a point economy to make things interesting (and to maintain the polite fiction of “game balance”)\[...\]"
And generally, I agree. You'll never get a perfectly balanced system, your encounters won't be perfectly fair. As long as things are not completely one-sided and you're not completely invalidating character options, you're doing a good enough job.
Exactly. The amount of time we'll know GMs spend on encounter building rules for 5e is maddening. As if you could ever balance an encounter with that many variation in class composition, equipment, spells and player skill. Not going to happen, might as well eyeball it and go to town. Balance between classes is a different matter too.
> Balance is Bullshit.
Balance is pretty important, it is just people lack understanding of the different styles of balance and how much flexibility they have. A dragon dropping on the party and one shoting them all with a breath weapon is still bad.
This is where the RPG community's frankly abysmal understanding of balance and game design become a problem.
Three things tend to drive good games:
* Interesting skill tests (the player's skill)
* Interesting choices
* Interesting narrative
A highly balanced encounter can test player skill, but an imbalance encounter can give you choices and narrative.
All encounters can give choices, narrative, and test skill.
The typical problem with "imbalanced" encounters (which, IMO, is a dumb trend to begin with) is when DMs don't give players either enough information and/or tell them what their PCs really should know.
After the players have enough information to make a decision, everyone needs to accept the consequences.
> The typical problem with "imbalanced" encounters (which, IMO, is a dumb trend to begin with) is when DMs don't give players either enough information and/or tell them what their PCs really should know.
That's mostly a D&D problem. I people who play other games have much more practice with this and have developed the telegraphing skills necessary.
The rule of thumb is three warnings, with the description of the monster itself typically being the last warning.
Use as many of the 5 senses as possible when describing situations or environments.
I think I used to be bad at this, then I had a blind-player. Knowing they needed more info, dimensions, directions, smells, feels etc got me in the habit of thinking in a more detailed way. Now I describe every room for every table as if I'm describing it to that player. They made me improve.
Yeah, smell especially is all too often neglected in descriptions, yet can be so powerful. I read a while ago that smell is heavily tied to memory and emotion, so it's a great tool to evoke a certain atmosphere.
Yarp! This is why I just gave out a cloak of acid resistance that smells like dark soil when dry and rotting flesh when it’s wet. #flavor
It isn't one piece of advice, but the Angry GM's general framework for describing what a TTRPG fundamentally *is* was a light-bulb moment for me.
The core activity of an RPG is this:
1. The GM describes a situation that requires a decision
2. The players make that decision
3. The GM describes what happens next.
Rinse and repeat.
That's it, that's the beating heart of it. You can take away the dice, and the character sheets, and the minis and maps, but as long as you have a cycle of a GM describing situations and players making decisions, you have a roleplaying game.
Because characters making decisions is the core of any RPG, the most important GM skills relate to empowering and encouraging interesting player decisions. You have to learn *description*, so that your players have enough information to make decisions. You have to learn *pacing*, to move efficiently but not overly fast from one decision point to the next. You have to learn *improvisation*, for when your players make a decision you didn't expect. And you have to establish and maintain a consistent set of *rules*, so that players feel confident in predicting how their actions might play out.
But it's also worth remembering that, for all their power, the GM is just one person at the table. The GM can set players up with interesting and meaningful decisions to make, but the ultimate responsibility for making those decisions lies with the players.
I've written a bit about this, too.
I wasn't aware of the Angry GM writing something similar. I will have to look for it!
> The core activity of an RPG is this:
> The GM describes a situation that requires a decision
> The players make that decision
> The GM describes what happens next.
Looking at it like this is also a good way to figure out what stuff should be skipped quickly. If for example the players are traveling somewhere far but there's no meaningful choices to make during the trip, make it very short. Nobody wants to listen to the GM describe landscapes for half an hour. Same applies to stuff like GM acting a long conversation between multiple NPCs during which the players just listen to it, and many other things.
Whenever players have no meaningful agency during some events, they should be condensed as much as possible.
Exactly. The unit of time measurement in RPGs is not the minute, it's the decision. This is why combat, which involves a huge series of decisions back-to-back, eats up so much time, while you can sail across an ocean in the space of one sentence.
The only exception to condensing things when there is no decision, is when you're giving useful information that may become relevant in the future. Suppose, for example, that the party rogue has successfully infiltrated a secret meeting; the rogue is just going to sit there and listen to the conversation, but as long as that meeting is giving useful intel the GM shouldn't skip it.
> Suppose, for example, that the party rogue has successfully infiltrated a secret meeting; the rogue is just going to sit there and listen to the conversation, but as long as that meeting is giving useful intel the GM shouldn't skip it.
Yup, but instead of GM acting a long conversation between multiple NPCs, a better way to handle it might be to just explain briefly what the conversation's about and the key points of it. But if the conversation's not long anyway, acting it may be totally fine.
"Run more games."
It was in an article from Angry GM I've read 4 years ago. I wasn't GMing much anymore at the time, but I was reading a lot of GMing advice. This one stuck with me.
It made me realize how easy it is to actually run games. My main problem was the lack of available players: I didn't have enough players available to run games regularly. Turns out when I decided to run games and actively recruit players, I found as many as I needed. From there, literally overnight, I went from no game to a weekly game, and even two weekly games for a while.
It's been nearly three years and a half, now. Tomorrow will be my 150th session since I came back to GMing. And every single one of those games made me grow. So I guess the best advice I got is the one that brought me here.
Do you mean to looking for more people online?
I never had to. Before the pandemic, I always ran games in person, and I want to get back to it as soon as possible. With the lock-down, I had to go online, but this in fact only expanded my active player base. Since there was no geographical constraint anymore, I could play regularly with people I knew living in other cities. The last months of lock-down were in fact the easiest time I ever had finding players, so much I've been running two campaigns for the last five months.
In my case, another obstacle for online games is language. I'm a French speaking Canadian, which means most players online who share my language are in Europe, with 5-6 hours jet lag. It's more effective to get involved in my own local RPG scene and meet players trough conventions.
The more players laugh the better the game :)
Don't plan out what the players "will" do, or try to force them into a single "correct" course of action.
Once upon a time, Shadowrun was released, and I saw it on the new games shelf at my FLGS, and bought it, and ran a campaign. In the early days of that campaign, I wrote carefully-designed scenarios for my players, carefully nailing shut every door so that, at any given point, there was one and only one way for them to progress, with it being *absolutely impossible* for them do do anything else.
Of course, since I had nailed every door shut, they invariably found a window to climb out, and it always made so much in-game and real-world sense that it would have been unreasonable for me to say "no". So all my careful planning to ensure they went the "right" way was for naught and then I had to deal with their deviation from my plan.
And then, one day, I said "screw it" and stopped planning out what they "should" do, because the chance of them actually *doing* that were approximately zero. Instead, just figure out what the situation is, who's involved, what they want, and what precautions they've taken, then respond accordingly to whatever the players come up with.
I’m curious why you think you might have started off with this tendency to make a linear path. What were your influences at the time? I’ve been playing Shadowrun since I got 2e at Waldenbooks, and I’ve always planned runs as a hook and then a series of puzzles for players to overcome. Like, the facility is sealed and there are some guards, but if it made sense for them to crawl in through the air ducts, that was cool as long as they watched out for sensors and cameras. Or just the players could just fight the guards.
I think my main influence was playing a lot of computer games where I could only do what was programmed, and seeing RPGs as a way to free-form really awesome scenes and situations. I did not make overarching plots or big story points, because that wasn’t what I was interested in at the time.
That's actually a very good question. Unfortunately, that was 30 years ago and I don't really remember.
Prior to Shadowrun, I played mostly D&D and tended towards very free-form dungeon and wilderness crawls, so it's not like I was used to railroads from prior TTRPG experience - on the contrary, when I tried playing the Dragonlance modules, I basically said "this is dumb" and dropped them as soon as I realized how railroady they were.
I suppose my best guess is that, like you said, I was planning them as a series of puzzles, but I then assumed that a "good" puzzle should have one and only one solution, thus my attempts to pre-emptively counter every possible course of action except the "right" one. But, like I said, that's just a guess, based on what I remember of how I did things and reverse-engineering reasons why I might have done is that way. The only thing I truly remember clearly is the moment when I realized "they never use the solution I planned on, so I may as well stop planning solutions."
From Matthew J. Finch's "Tome of Adventure Design"
> ...seek to maximize the number of meaningful, potentially-informed
decisions the players can make during the course of the adventure.
In this entire section, he's partly addressing how to tell the story you want, but to not make players feel like it's "on rails." That's often viewed as a bad thing, but really it's the lack of meaningful decisions that really bore and frustrate players. If you've ever played a GUMSHOE game, you know that the story is fairly set in stone and that it's largely about guiding players through to informed crossroads.
The other part he's addressing is the pitfall of letting the players make all the decisions and guide the story, and you as GM are simply adjudicating. You need to have some semblance of what's going on so you can telegraph danger, hint at leads, etc.
Learn to enjoy making other people have fun. The GM is the party host, not a guest.
Figure out what each player's "fun" is, and spend a bit of time integrating that.
Finally, reward completion of objectives. If the party "defeats" the occupational guard by faking a pentapox plague, they should be rewarded to the same degree as they would have if they defeated the occupational guard in battle.
>Learn to enjoy making other people have fun.
I'd add a crucial corollary to this: *But make sure you have fun, too.*
That's why you need to learn how.
If them having fun isn't, in and of itself, fun for you, then maybe someone else should GM. Because being the GM isn't really worth the burden, otherwise.
Don’t prep plots. And ask the players questions, then use those answers.
I started with 5E’s starter set and D&D’s modules at the time demanded a very railroady experience.
But after running Blades in the Dark my eyes were opened to a new style - I can never go back to the railroad.
Being surprised at the table is my favourite feeling as a GM and working collaboratively with world building ensures I’ve always got plenty of material while avoiding burnout.
The best one is still for me: you are not writing a story, you are a designing a game. A story is enjoyed without user interaction. A game is meant to be interacted with. Design the level, not the outcome.
Best advice of any I've gained, was using and implementing The Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master book in every campaign and one shot I run. Totally changed everything for me and made the hobby accessible for my brain and energy.
I think these are the most important ones. Pretty basic, but still:
**Fail forward.** I still have to remind myself to do this regularly, but it's such invaluable advice. When players try something and fail their roll, their action should still have consequences. Say they are trying to break a lock, but fail the roll. Instead of the lock just remaining shut, it could mean they manage to open the lock, but accidentally make a lot of noise and attract a guard, or (in a modern setting) a super loud siren starts going off. I've found this really effective, as it turns games into less of a series of binary fail/success rolls and more into a dynamically developing story. It requires some creativity, but that's part of the fun imho. You can also use this to deal with situations where players \*have\* to pass a certain point, but fail their roll.
**Use your players' imagination.** I'm not against highly realistic battlemaps or exquisitely crafted terrain and miniatures per se, but I would personally be very hesitant to use them. In my experience, it's best to let players' imaginations do most of the work and only provide visual or other exact references to the setting sparingly. Less is more, basically, it's one of the factors that makes tabletop RPGs different from computer RPGs. Something that's super effective is to use a single physical object or artefact to evoke an entire atmosphere. The typical example is a wax-sealed envelope with a letter. But a rusty key, a piece of jewellery, a burnt piece of wood, a cassette tape, a vial with green fluorescent liquid, etc. can also fulfill this role. For maps and NPCs, I tend to stick to fairly simple black & white drawings or sketches, as these leave more room for the players to fill in the blanks, which draws them in to the story more.
“Say yes, or roll the dice.”
I believe this was in Burning Wheel. The idea is to err on the side of just saying yes. Give the players the info they seek. Let them do the mundane thing they are trying. If the outcome is unknown or would be dramatically interesting, only then call for a roll.
I believe that comes from Dogs in the Vineyard.
Ah that’s right, thanks!
Awesome link. TL;DR for others:
“1. Characters succeed at things within their ability unless something is at stake that matters for the focus of your game.
2. Drive play towards those conflicts about the things that are the focus of your game.
If your game is tightly designed, this is pretty easy because the mechanics and the advice in the game are already pushing you this way.
If your game is designed without a tight focus, or, worse, just badly designed, then you have to do a lot of work to figure out what the focus of the game you are going to run is going to be, and you’ll end up ignoring a lot of the skills/powers/mechanics, etc. that aren’t going to be used. You’ll need to tell the players about this so they don’t waste time creating characters with abilities that won’t get used, or spending time learning rules that won’t matter.”
Your fun matters too
The Shadow of the Demon Lord Corebook has a guide to how to structure adventures, which I really appreciated. Out of all the GMs I have ever played with, I would say the most common lacking quality is adventure design. Many GMs seem to be capable of designing a single encounter, or maybe even a series of encounters, but they struggle to string together events into a storyline that is going somewhere without railroading. The inclusion of adventure-design formatting is such a no-brainer that I can’t believe it isn’t included in other games.
I was able to visualize dungeons as connecting individual rooms together so creating them wasn’t a problem, but I used to stress about making travel interesting until the Dungeon Dudes said to treat it as Dungeon Zero, and it just clicked in my head.
I can't remember the exact wording anymore, but to paraphrase Matt Mercer: "The DM's job is to make sure the player characters are the heroes of the story."
This core concept has helped me design so much that lets each party member shine throughout the campaign I'm running. Tough moments, heroic moments, tragic moments, big decisions, etc. The spotlight should always be on the party and what they want to do.
The best advice I was given was:
**RPGs aren't like plays where the audience can check a script to see how faithful you were to the original. Your players won't notice when you change the plan on the fly.**
It helped me to be more flexible, to GM in a much more dynamic way as well as reduce the planning workload.
In my opinion you can create so much more engaging stories this way by not sticking rigidly to a script. Instead react to what the players are doing or feeling. If they're paranoid but there's nothing for them to be afraid of, move the ambush you planned for later up to now. If they come up with an interesting way to solve a puzzle that you never thought of, let it work. Change the monster's health to fit the pace or difficulty of a battle. Move plot reveals or set pieces around to come at the perfect moment.
They'll never know what changed.
Plan for what happens if your players fail at something, but not for what happens if they succeed.
Focus on the session, not the campaign.
Brennan Lee Mulligan taught me best - DON'T OVERPLAN!
Overplanning begets railroading. Make sure you DO plan, make sure you know what's going on, but don't go into a session thinking you've figure it all out and written a great elaborate story. Go in with the set pieces and the characters prepped and let the player's do what they want, which means you'll improvise a lot and that's fine!
1) Learn how to say "No".
2) Learn how to never say "No".
The first helps to prevent players from ruining their own fun. But requires learning to not just give everything to your friends.
The second helps prevent railroady GMing. But requires learning to yes-and a fun ruining idea into a fun building idea.
Run the game you want to run rather then running one you don't want to (or just don't connect with) to make your players happy.
I have learned a lot as a GM, but this was one of the most important things I learned. I run a way better game when I am running something I engage with and enjoy prepping. It is also an important part of "the GM should be having fun as well".
Also, explore new ideas and experiment. My entire group is veteran players (with myself playing the shortest time (10 years)), and part of the reason why they like playing at my table (and why I get away with a lot) is because I can give them a new experience rather then just the stereotypical TTRPG experience.
It has also contributed to some of my best session. They came out of exploring concepts and ideas and were amazing. (NGL, this has also contributed to some of my worst sessions since not all ideas are going to be winners, but the overall table experience is good)
I don't think I have a singular piece of advice, but I do have two pieces of advince.
1) Learn to IMROVISE!
No matter how much you plan, the players will always surprise you. Instead of trying to keep the party on the rails simply improvise. Everyone will have more fun that way.
2) Learn to say NO!
I get the want to let the players do cool things, by letting them do fun things and giving them cool toys. There is this initial response of wanting to say YES to everything because you don't want to be seen as a Bad GM. But some people will take a mile if you give them an inch, some people will not ask for reasonable things, some people will never stop asking for more. Some players will simply keep asking because they WANT to see HOW MUCH they can get.
"The game is yours, homebrew it as much as you need" and "No planned session survive player impact so save your time and energy and plan loosely"
Select your players carefully, OR be prepared to pretend you're fine with awful players
Massively this. Especially on the paid-dm circuit. Do not let a player ruin the table for any reason.
OR have a plan to get rid of the awful players.
Honestly playing Blades in the Dark in general. The whole system reframes the game, and that process improves GMing and playing so much for everyone involved.
"No matter how many times they get burnt, players will *never* investigate the character that is hiring them to do morally questionable tasks."
"If you have a god-tier NPC, players will do their best to mess with it. All seeing dragon king? Let's rob him! Head of multi billion dollar private army? We need to assassinate him!"
"The rule of cool always wins. Players want to feel special. Most of them want to be challenged, but *also win.* Get a great dice roll? Spend a minute goggling over how amazing it was and make up some over-the-top outcome. Everyone will remember the time that the sniper got the impossible shot and killed the baddie out of nowhere. Nobody is excited to get a huge hit with a bland outcome."
>The rule of cool always wins
People saying this sort of stuff really need to define what rule of cool means to them. Otherwise, you get people thinking every game should allow anything cool to be possible despite tone, verisimilitude, or balance.
...I literally went on to explain what it meant to me immediately after that sentence. It doesn't need to derail the story, but players should be rewarded for clever thinking or crazy dice rolls. Make the outcome more "epic" in those contexts - a graphic headshot, a bonus item when searching, a big clue or a new contact from a social roll, a "spark of genius" for research, etc.
A lethal sniper shot is lethal, but a lethal shot that the player ABSOLUTELY crushes in the die roll? Make it memorable.
Oh I think yours was fine. I've just seen it said so many places elsewhere with very little clarification.
It's a few:
1. Set expectations with players and regularly check in with them OOC
2. Don't prep plots, prep situations
3. GMing should be fun. If it feels like work, then stop whatever feels like work and just relax and have fun with it.
4. Gms do not need any rules, in fact you don't need any rules for an RPG ultimately, be free with it
5. Use and make random tables, constantly add to them and have fun with them
"be forward with your players" is excellent advice.
Here's a few I can think of:
**1) Things to Force as GM:**
*Party general alignment.* Keep it generally similar. Ask them to all be close on one axis (all lawful, or all good, or all neutral etc).
*Party unity.* Even if they're CE, they're friends/family.
*Party general power level.* Tone down the min-maxers, help the casuals.
**2) Things to not force:**
*Difficulty.* If they beat your bad-guys so be it. Make more bad guys.
*Direction.* Railroading runs people off.
*Survival.* If they tpk or the dice are against them, let it happen. If they want, they can make a new party with backstory reasons to continue the plot and search for their former characters sad ending.
"A GM's job is to say yes to everything that won't ruin immersion or make anyone uncomfortable."
To put it in terms of improvisation, saying 'no' kills the momentum, whereas saying 'yes, and then what?' encourages the players to keep going. 'No' should be deployed only to protect the integrity of the game world ('no, you can't hire a team of artificers to build Toril's first TIE fighter') or the happiness of the players ('no, you can't steal the barbarian's bra').
I don't know, I think I want to hear more about that TIE fighter plan...
Plot is a four-letter Word
- Clint Krause
If you roll dice, do what the dice say. Roll in the open and do not fudge.
D&D as an abstract concept can't be won if lost.
The game *you* run better be able to be.
Further, it's okay for the players to lose.
It's more fun to win than lose. But nobody cares about winning when you can't lose.
The Dungeon World section on running a game is probably the best description and advice I've ever read.
I've been DMing for... 36 years (god when did I get so old) and it just seemed to crystallize every coherent point about running a campaign and telling a story. Most PBtA books have something similar, but I'd say every DM is doing themselves a disservice if they don't read through one of them.
1. Realize it's a game meant to be fun for everyone—including you. Make decisions from a perspective of making the game more fun.
2. Always be a fan of the player characters. Design encounters as opportunities for them to shine.
3. If it has stats, the PCs can (and often will) try to kill it. Keep important entities out of reach.
4. Occasionally, you'll need to divert players from catastrophe without resorting to saying, "Folks, I'm telling you, everyone's going to die if you do this." While the party are traveling, have them encounter an enemy they have fought recently; something they know to be tough—make it an encounter with more of them than they've dealt with before. At the end of the round where they first mention dying/wiping, have npcs enter the fight from a known ally faction/race and clear the encounter by the end of the round. Make these npcs actually capable so that the players can see that this isn't deus ex machina, but actually tough allies. The party will be on their way and the npcs on theirs. A little while later, have the PCs hear the sounds of combat; when they look, they can see the npcs that saved them in combat with the forces of the entity you need them to steer clear of. Let them see the bad guys mop the floor with their former saviors. Players often can't be told things, but when they can see relative power levels in action, they get it.
"Be a fan of the player characters" is such a simple statement, but it says so much. Totally reshaped how I view conflicts and challenges as a GM.
Early DM/GM culture was essentially a copy of Gygax's advice which amounted to, "The only reason a DM rolls dice is for the noise they make." This is great advice if you're Gygax, a nice guy who believes in playing fair, but it led to a metric ton of selfish, manipulative, vengeful DMs/GMs in the early years.
It took a new generation of rpg hobbyists to re-frame the DM/GM role in a more consistently positive light. This is probably the most valuable GM advice I've ever read or heard.
A great point was made by Kevin Crawford in *Stars Without Number*. "The most important thing you can remember as a GM
... is that you are running it for a *specific group of people*." Going on to say that it doesn't matter if something might be abusable in the general case if you're pretty certain that your players won't abuse it.
For example, in my current *Legend of the Five Rings* campaign my girlfriend wanted to play a shapeshifting *kitsune*. Now not just looking at the obvious pitfall of "the GM is giving their romantic partner something special and unique" you have the question of why and how it would be used. Sure some players might abuse that, but I know her. She just thinks that getting to turn into a fox sometimes would be cool. It's something that she rarely uses in game and almost never to get any sort of ridiculous advantage.
The most important thing about game balance is that nobody at the table feels like someone else is cooler, more important, or getting special treatment. As long as they get to equally share in the spotlight and contribute in *the ways that they enjoy*, you're doing your job.
Make the players do the work.
For me is DW's "be a fan of the characters". You throw challenges at them because you \*are\* a fan of them. You want to know how they can get through it, and whether they actually get through it. You want to rejoice with them when they do, and cry together when they fail.
You want them to get to their objective, but also place hurdles between them, so that you can celebrate as a party when they get their achievement.
It's like being a parent: you encourage your baby to grow. You provide the support, you take care of them when they are hurt, but you're not gonna let them do it the easy way, so when they finally achieve what they want, it's \*their\* victory, not yours.
There's three books I always return for great GM advice. In no particular order they are Dungeon World, Numenera and Index Card RPG. I always recommend them for new GM's.
Have the opening scene of a campaign be the best idea you can come up with. Don't start a campaign until "that" idea pops In your head crystal clear . You will know when it happens because it will be like fireworks going off in your head.
It's not advice, but Indiana Jones has always been inspirational for fast paced, fun, out of the frying pan, into the fire adventure stories.
I think that the ICI (Information, Choice, Impact) doctrine that Chris McDowell presents in the essays at the back of Electric Bastionland really frames good facilitating.
You can't really go wrong with any of his writing in regards to writing, running, and playing games.
It's more a practice.
When you describe the scenes or the setup, show the clues. Then when the players have done the interpreting, be straightforward on the problematics.
As a consequence, I prefer the "open secrets" games, all is on the table. The rest depends how the players want to act on it, or reveal.
Don't say no. If your players want to do something, ask them how they do it, maybe let them know what sort of consequences can be expected if they cock it up, and then set it in motion. If you go this way, make sure you take notes 🤣
"*Don't say no"* is such good GM advice in general.
Not by itself. It desperately needs the added clarification of what's being referred to. You need to be able to say no if you want to maintain a consistent world. Some things just aren't possible. You should default to yes, and only say no if you have a reason to, however. "It's not possible" or "we're not playing that sort of game" is a perfectly fine reason, though.
Everything the Alexandrian has written. There are a lot of youtube GMs out there that offer GM advice. I find many of them are good entertainers, but don't offer great advice.
The Alexandrian provides real, actionable advice, explained in a clear manner that doesn't waste your time. He explores the building blocks and fundamentals of being a good GM and his articles will help you step up to a whole new tier of GMing.
I have yet to find anyone else giving advice on his level.
His work includes the following gems.
[The Three Clue Rule](https://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/1118/roleplaying-games/three-clue-rule)
[Don't Prep Plots - A whole Series](https://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/4147/roleplaying-games/dont-prep-plots)
[An in depth analysis of game structure](https://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/15126/roleplaying-games/game-structures)
[Node Based Design](https://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/7949/roleplaying-games/node-based-scenario-design-part-1-the-plotted-approach)
[A great Guide on drawing your players in](https://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/4106/roleplaying-games/random-gm-tips-getting-the-players-to-care-part)
Seriously, any GM who hasn't read his stuff should make it a point to [start reading all of it.](https://thealexandrian.net/gamemastery-101)
A bonus shout out to [Sly Flourish's Lazy DM guides.](https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/251431/Return-of-the-Lazy-Dungeon-Master?affiliate_id=70406&src=sfproductpage) 5E's Dungeon Master's Guide guide is well known for having little guide and straight up giving terrible advice. This is a good DM/GM guide that has concepts that apply to a multitude of games.
There's only one that matters now: **Put away your phones.**
Story > System > Players.
I'd go Players > Story > System
Sure, that's totally valid too.
Flow with the go
The one I personally believe in, but no one told me, is that you should be on the side of your players. You should want them to succeed. Might seem like a "Yeah, duh" but just this way of thinking can change a lot
Let me propose that the most important thing here is *agency* and *consequences*.
I think the point OP is trying to make is in opposition of the current trend of RPGs to attempt to balance encounters so that they are "challenging but not insurmountable". Elements like CR, enemy ratings, et cetera, provide imperfect attempts to allow a DM to create "balanced" encounters for the characters to meet.
Players, I've found, *enjoy* a world with dangerous that exist beyond the reach of their current characters. They enjoy the verisimilitude. What they don't enjoy is "A dragon dropping on the party and one shoting them all with a breath weapon. " (as /u/warskull puts it) And neither does any GM, really.
So what's the key? **Communication of important information.** Players should *know* how dangerous that *thing* is, especially if their *character* knows. Players should also know how dangerous the environment they are about to enter. Give them a chance to pick up rumors, legends, or whatever information they need to know to *understand the risks*.
Then? **Let them take the risk.** Let them fuck up. Let them run away. Let them die, if necessary. Let their actions have consequences, real consequences.
Listen, I get that this style isn’t perfect for every group. Even stories like Mercer’s Critical Role had something like 17 deaths. And I think some DMs would argue that Matt really does pull his punches (and offers a whole lot in terms of resurrection mechanics/pacts to return to life).
This leads to another important bit of advice **reward creativity**. If your players think of some creative or interesting solution to a problem that might make something that was previously insurmountable a challenge they can tackle? Enable them. Use reason, obviously, but try to help them come up with the plan. Work *with* your players against the obstacle!
But, when it plays right, you get a group of roleplayers who seek leads, gather information, fight tactically, make smart decisions, learn to *run* and (most importantly) **actually earn their wins**.
**Be a fan of the player characters** is probably the best single piece of advice I’ve seen. So many bad GM habits just go away if you follow it.
“Don’t lock a door your players must go through.” It’s rare that players will perform a task the way you imagine it. Do not write an encounter that carries your whole campaign and then get mad if they fail. Make sure they have an alternative or chances to revisit.
For me, the best advice I feel is to be flexible. Try new things. Run one shots and short campaigns in every system you can, in every genre you can. You learn so much from exploring and studying other games, and it's important to know what works and doesn't work about various systems.
Plus, you find cool stuff to steal for other games. I tend to work in all kinds of stuff from other games, like Fronts from PbtA, Fumble Points from Ryuutama, faction goals and relationships from Blades in the Dark, and my favorite, the character background creation from FATE.
Fun > Players > Story > World > Rules > Metaplot
We play to have fun, so if something will create more enjoyment for everyone it should be done regardless of anything.
Unless it wouldn't be fun, Player suggestion should be above everything else, this is also referred to as "never say no, say Yes, but".
The story you want to tell should have priority over anything written, if you want to tell a story about sun walking vampires fuck the rules that tell you that vampires burn in the sun.
The world where things happen is really important, the more well you define the world the better you'll be at improvising and having ideas about what the PCs actions will trigger.
Rules give players a sense of consistency, so you should have well defined rules, they might be different from the ones written in the book, but they need to be relatively well defined.
The Metaplot is there to give you ideas, don't take it too seriously, take what you need, throw away what you don't want, create what you wish.
PS: At the end of the day GMing is more about being good at improvising plot lines, your players are likely to derail whatever you have planned, if you're good thinking on your feet you'll probably end up with a better story where everyone has more fun than if you tried to force the premolded thing you thought about.