Maybe you’ve played tabletop roleplaying games before, but never run one; maybe you’re completely new to tabletop gaming, and have no idea what this dragon-y, dungeon-y business is all about. Either way, running a tabletop RPG for the first time can be scary — but worry not! Even all-powerful entities need help sometimes, and LockHouse is here to lend a hand with our tips for first-time GMs.

What does a GM do?

Before you plunge boldly into GMing, it’s probably sensible to have an idea of what you’re letting yourself in for. Essentially, in tabletop RPGs, the players will come up with their characters, backstories, ideals, and so on. It’s your job as the GM to come up with… everything else. The world that the players interact with, the challenges they face, the NPCs (non-player characters) — you’re responsible for it all. Everything the players experience, from the sights and smells to the occasional agonising pain, comes through you. You’re the entire universe. But no pressure.

Why GM?

It can seem daunting (there’s a reason more people prefer to play than GM) but it’s also rewarding! GMing a game gives you a bunch of creative scope. It’s fun seeing how the players interact with the story-world you’re building them, and when situations or narrative threads you’ve been introducing kick in, the sense of evil overarching power is unrivalled. Plus, if you’re willing to GM, you’re pretty much guaranteed to always be able to find a group to play with! 

Tips for GMs 

Nobody’s expecting your first time GMing to be perfect — there are bound to be screwups, clunkiness, or things that don’t quite work. The most important thing to remember is that, overall, the end goal of everyone involved is to have a good time! (Unless you’re playing with a party who want to have a bad time, in which case reading this article probably won’t help you.) Here are five tips for first-time GMs to help speed you on your way to being a master… games… master. No, we couldn’t have phrased that better.

1. Plan… flexibly

an illustration of a fantasy castle with many turrets with blue roofs in front of a swirly ink-like blue background

The thing that you’ll probably spend the most time on as a GM is planning. (Plotting and scheming are also up there.) Filling out your world with places, story hooks, and NPCs before throwing your players into it will make for a more immersive game, and it’ll impress your players if you’re able to present them with a world that feels like it can stand up to investigation. The trouble here is that it can feel like you’ve got to have infinite things prepped — which can make GMing stressful, or feel unrewarding, as the players will inevitably barely brush the surface of the amount of stuff you’ve poured your lifeblood into. So how do you deal with the problems of planning your campaign?

You’re (probably) not a mind-reader, so you’ll never be able to plan for every potential thing the players might do. No matter how long you spend creating an entire city of intrigue that you think will be fun and interesting to unravel, your players might just want to go off and build an army of mice to destroy your beautifully crafted city of mystery. It can be tempting to steer your players in the direction of the things you’ve prepared, but at a certain point, it can be more fun to accept the new direction that the players are taking things and rework your worldbuilding to fit it. Ultimately, playing a tabletop RPG is a collaborative creative process, and allowing your players to explore the bits of the world they’re interested in will lead to a better game than continually trying to fight against the tide of their mouse army, like a desperate game of whack-a-mole.

Player unpredictability doesn’t have to derail your entire campaign idea, though. This is where flexible planning comes in. Occasionally you might have to abandon segments of plot and worldbuilding if it looks like they’re never going to come up — but a large part of the time, you can repurpose things, moving them around to fit whatever the circumstances are. You were expecting your players to meet a crucial NPC in the tavern, but instead of following the obvious plot hook, they’re spending half an hour in an alley talking to a gnome who didn’t even have a name in your notes? The crucial NPC is now passing through the alleyway on their way home. Hidden some vital clues and genius puzzles in the castle, only to have your players burn it all down without a second glance? Your puzzle-trapped doors are now blocking their way out of the dungeon they’ve been chucked in awaiting trial for arson. So long as you can move things around, you won’t actually have to plan as much as you feared — and it’ll look to your players as though you’ve got something up your sleeve for every eventuality. 

Finally, accept that you don’t have to have everything planned. There are going to be things you’re not prepared for. Improvisation is part of the fun of the game. Coming up with character or setting details on the fly can be hilarious, or lend itself organically to some great worldbuilding development. If your players imprint themselves like sword-wielding ducklings onto the throwaway NPC you came up with on the spur of the moment, it’s always more fun to roll with it. (Pun intended.)

2. Know the rules — and when to break them

art of an old looking fantasy book in front of a stack of more booksNobody’s expecting you to know every single detail of the rules of Dungeons & Dragons. That’s demented. Even tabletop roleplayers, aka ‘the kind of people who read rulebooks for fun’, generally accept that a lot of popular RPG systems have a really ridiculous amount of very specific game rules. That said, if you’re GMing, you should have a general level of familiarity with the rules of the game. Make sure you know the basic rules, as well as having an idea of what your players’ abilities are and how they work. Beyond that, it’s down to your discretion — but in general, unless you’re playing with a group comprised entirely of rules pedants who don’t mind pausing every action to look something up, if you get stuck on a rules question, the most important thing is to keep the game moving. 

It can be intimidating GMing, particularly if you feel like you’re running a game for people who know the rules better than you do. It’s worth establishing with your players how you want to handle rules lawyering. If you don’t mind interrupting your session to go on a rules digression, then looking things up as you run into them is an option — but if you’d rather keep play moving, then you can establish a rules policy beforehand. Set a time limit on looking things up, or refuse to open a rulebook during play, and tell your players that any rules clarifications can be looked up afterwards but that during the game, your word as GM is law. 

Remember — rules are made to be broken! If there are rules that you and your group agree are inconvenient or no fun to play with, feel free to just cut them. (Carry capacity and encumbrance? Never heard of them!) Likewise, being a GM is great because it gives you the option to cheat. Don’t get carried away and bend the rules too often, or it’ll lose impact and devalue the stakes of the entire game. But every now and then, if something would be super narratively interesting, it’s your prerogative as GM to implement the rule of cool. The dice, and the rulebook, can take second place to the amazingness of the story you’re building with your players.

3. Work with your players

To some players, the GM is an enemy that must be overcome at any cost. Likewise, to some GMs, the players are punching bags with backstories, designed to be fed to your gauntlet of monsters and traps. If that’s the style of play you and your players are interested in, then it’s perfectly possible to run a fun game like that. In general, though, we find that the best games tend to be ones where the GM and the player are working together rather than against each other. Unless your players are fully resigned to their own fleeting mortality, your goal as a GM shouldn’t be to wipe out your entire party. 

Of course, players are a varied bunch. Some parties are looking for complex narratives and intrigue, while some really want to fight as many monsters as possible, and some are just along for a laugh. The point is, you decide what kind of GM you want to be. If you want to challenge your players and put the fear of god into them, go for it. If you want to give them the ‘deck of many things’ approach, and then watch as they reduce your world to dust because you want them to have a good laugh, you can! There’s no right or wrong way to be a GM — so long as you’re on the same page as your party is.

Not every group is interested in the roleplay part of tabletop roleplaying, but if the idea of playing as your character is something your group are interested in, then encouraging roleplay is one way to make your GMing more engaging. Stock up on character voices, and don’t be afraid to make your NPCs over-the-top or eccentric — it’ll make them memorable and give the players something to bounce off of and respond to. Ask your players to decide how they know each other — they don’t all have to be acquainted beforehand, but preexisting relationships can give them something to work with. As well as their relationships with each other, find out how the players’ characters fit into the world you’ve created. You don’t have to turn your world into a backstory-dispensing machine, but throwing in a few anchors for players to interact with will give them a stake in the world and help to flesh them out quickly. Is one of your players a criminal, raised in the slums and used to navigating the streets? Introduce some underworld connections or places they’re familiar with. Let your runaway princess in disguise recognise members of the nobility as they’re trying to sneak around a banquet. Asking your players to describe places and people they know about lets them help contribute to the story, and gets them engaged with the world.

4. Use resources

You don’t have to do everything yourself! There are a bunch of tabletop RPG resources out there for GMs. A GM screen is an essential tool — it’s like your own personal wall to keep the players out of your top secret GM business, giving you somewhere to roll your fateful dice in secret. Plus, you can use it as a cheat sheet for rules. There are plenty of examples out there, or you can customise your own, putting the most important bits of rule information and key stats up for easy reference. 

If the amount of prep involved in coming up with your own game still seems daunting, you can kick off your GMing career with a prewritten game module. There are a bunch of options out there, giving you all the plot, worldbuilding, encounter stats, and everything you need to run a session (or several). Prewritten modules can be a good way to get a handle on the flow of GMing without having to worry about things like coming up with enough NPC names, or generating maps, or whether you’ve calculated your encounters correctly/if you’re going to accidentally kill your party. And there are a whole bunch of options out there for D&D 5e alone, so you’re sure to be able to find something that sounds fun to run! 

5. Remember you’re playing too!

Finally, don’t forget that you are also playing a game, as well as your players. GMing is supposed to be fun, and you deserve to have just as much fun as everyone else at the table. It’s very easy to get caught up in your players’ wants and needs, but don’t undermine your own enjoyment. Ultimately, GMing is a skill that comes with practise, so don’t stress too much about trying to make your first game perfect: it won’t be, and that’s okay! What’s important is that you’re having fun — and your second time GMing will be even better than your first.

Whether you’re interested in being a GM or a player, LockHouse’s weekly tabletop RPG nights are the perfect environment for anyone in the Cambridge area looking to get into tabletop roleplaying games. Join the Facebook group to find out more! 

Need a break from being trapped in fiendish puzzle dungeons? Come and get trapped in a fiendish puzzle… room… in one of our three escape rooms! Or you can bring the escape room experience to your own tabletop with an escape room board game.