Saturday, 10 January 2015

Citizen_W's Beginners Guide to GMing

GMing is a skill like any other and though as in any field of expertise there are some people for which it comes naturally there are others that have had to work to develop the necessary skills. Citizen_W is what I would call a 'natural' GM in that he has a flair for the dramatic, is good at voices and has just the right amount of megalomania to push you in the direction he wants with enough improvisation skills to be able to deal with the kind of players that get obsessed over a throwaway NPC or kill the person they were meant to be meeting and chat for an hour with the person they're there to kill....

I therefore asked the aforementioned Citizen_W (Tom to his friends and a few of his victims...) to write a brief guide to GMing and was pleasantly surprised when he said yes, lol.

So over to Tom...

There are many skills in the hobby world that you don’t find in every gamer.

We all know that guy who can absorb rules like a sponge, or that one girl who never touched a paint brush then won Golden Demon, but for me one of the truly hard to master skills in being a games master.

Call them what you like GM, DM, “storyteller”, “fate-master” or “that dick that just made me fall down a hole”, they’re that individual giving up their time to craft your fun. Few appreciate the time many GM’s go to, world building, mission writing and pulling out their own hair because you players did it wrong. 

Editors Note - We are a particularly difficult group of gamers to GM for as given a choice of two directions we invariably end up finding a third and insist on exploring it for no clearly defined reason...

When GMort asked me to explain my style of GMing I jumped at the chance, first though a little tedious back-story. My GMing experience began early (before I’d actually role-played) stumbling through D+D 3.5 with some friends in my early teens. This taught me many valuable lessons, as whole Saturdays disappeared trying to navigate uneven hallways (a hard enough challenge for a level 1 character) filled with traps we couldn't even dream of disarming, as we didn't understand level scaling challenges.

Through my elder teens and into university I role-played a lot picking up tips and hints from other GM’s before I tried my hand again. It was D&D 3.5 again but this attempt was much more successful, and is where I really began to build my style of GMing. Since then I've run many of the fantasy flight systems, Serenity, Vampire Masquerade and a number of smaller systems as one shots, and most recently “Through the Breach”, but my style remains unchanged. So with the preamble over lets delve further.

I hate rules. 

Trudging through 3.5 edition was made more painful by the sheer weight of rules available in D&D. I say available as I think of them very much as a suggestion, you can if you wish role a dexterity test to make sure you keep your footing on every uneven flagstone, but it's going to get tiring quick.

The greatest example of this I can call to mind was when I visited my girlfriend at university, to be greeted by her house-mates who were confused as to why they kept dying in their campaign. After watching them play for 20 minutes it became clear, they were using EVERY rule across 2 different D&D editions which turned even a lowly goblin into a party killing nightmare. Needless to say the problem was an easy one to fix.

As far as I'm concerned role-play is storytelling, all be it collectively, and should be treated s such.

So does any-one have any good ideas?

I’m a big believer in bending or even breaking rules if it fit the character, scenario or even if it's just cool (I've run whole combats where no dice were touched and people just spared weaving the story between them as they cleared a room). Not only this but any session should be engaging like a story. My personal aim for a game session is for it to be enjoyable for a non player observing as it is too the players and for everyone to leave with an anecdote to tell down the pub later.

Editors Note - My better half often just sits and listens to our RPG sessions and actually enjoys them as an observer...I should probably get around to marrying her now I think about it... 

It's not just your story...

One thing I learnt early in GMing, you can plan as much as you can, guide your players as much as possible and have contingency plans but your players can and will “go off road”. Being flexible and ad libbing sections makes a story feel more organic and allows players to feel as though they really are impacting your world.

Flexibility is also useful for when real life gets in the way, I've turned up to sessions with nothing but a note book a vague storyline for the session in my head and a few enemy stats, I guarantee most of the players involved in those sessions had no idea.

Editors Note - This session was apparently mostly improvised...and as surmised above...we had no idea...

Flexibility can only take you so far however some things can fully derail a session, player absence is a big one but I have  way round this:

GM’s character.
I usually create my own character when GMing, 

I usually make them a bit of an all rounder who could step up in most situations if needed. They level at the average rate of the party and rarely get any special treatment but can be invaluable.

Editors Note - With the exception of Deathwatch (Space Marines all being male) Toms's 'own' character is generally an attractive female...this may say more about him than the technique itself, lol.

A lot is said in a role-play session, thoughts, actions, ideas… they all blend into one.

I try to keep comprehensive notes on players actions. Fire your gun? I know how many bullets you have left. Forget to share information? too bad. This takes a bit of effort but when the player is greeted by the click of an empty gun or a missed piece of information comes back to haunt the players everything feels a little more real.

Editors Note - Knowing that the eight round burst from your Storm Bolter is more than sufficient to take out your opponent becomes slightly more traumatic when it clicks empty after three rounds...yes, this happened...

Overall my biggest tip is to keep things flowing, keep combat light and fast to move the story on. An area proving more troublesome than thought or a problem taking to long to solve drop the players a hint in character, There’s nothing worse than a player rage quitting on you or getting bored because they’re character is being ignored...

Hopefully this will be the first of many articles from Citizen_W and I'm sure he'd appreciate your feedback.

Thoughts and comments are (as usual) most welcome. 


  1. Very glad you start by focusing on the golden rule - that rules are meant to be broken. I much prefer an ST who focuses on the narrative. I've always been open to players brainstorming things that either I or the game writers haven't thought of, in which case, the person running the game has to think on their feet. I dislike dealing with players who attempt to power game by saying, "It's in the rule book, therefor I should have access to it," or worse, demand that something/spell you've used for narrative's sake should be available to their spell book. "Old lost magic."

    I was never a fan of the ST character, but that was mainly because when there was one, it was usually for STs that were simply power tripping. I recall some particularly brutal games of Werewolf where 15 people just followed 2 ST characters around with their hands in their pockets. Anyone who dared get involved ended up smoked by the ridiculous power level antagonists.

  2. One of the best bits of GMing advice I ever read was succinctly put by Robin Laws: try to say 'yes'. Especially if it's minor, let the player's have/try something.

    Personally I feel that players who have GMd before make for better players. Once you've been on the other side of the screen, you can understand better what the GM is going through/trying to do.

    Rules are definitely secondary for me. The better the GM/more I trust them (and the other players) to help build a good story, the less I care about the system.

  3. @Dave Garbe - I have found some other GMs characters to be OP but it's an easier way of cramming in a muguffin or too without breaking immersion. For instance this weeks session my character was all but silent except for opening a sage the PC's couldn't have handled.

    @Sonoftaurus - couldn't agree more about RPing with those who have GMd it just flows smoother and I often find they are more willing to let rules slide.

  4. This was a great read for me, I'm about to start running Iron Kingdoms and I will be taking a lot of this too the game with me. Thanks!


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