Essential GM Advice

If you had to give just one piece of advice for new GMs, what would it? Something you learned along the way that you discovered right away or wished you knew earlier. This came from a convo we had last night around a specific point that @RichRogers told me that changed my GMing for the better.

Always address questions to specific players. Don’t drop open-ended questions on the table. It’s true f2f, but especially online. You cut out dead air and keep the scene’s momentum. This works, even if you’re asking something like “What does the group want to do next?”. Ask that, but address it to a specific player “What do you want to do next, let’s start with Sherri’s thoughts” and so on.

Obviously there’s exceptions to this, but as a general principle, I think it holds up. Learning this, deep into my GMing career, made me better at it.

Some what’s the one piece of advice you would give?

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Create problems, not solutions.

This is really a distillation of a lot of advice about Yes, And-ing and not having one way to solve a problem. When you prep obstacles and problems, don’t worry about how the players will try to solve them. It will save you from trying to guide the fiction and make you more open to player’s solutions as well as reducing your prep.

This bit of advice was from the Happy Jacks RPG podcast and really changed the way I thought about game prep.

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Trust your players. They’re more of them then you. They are just as smart as you. They will rise to meet the challenges you provide, and deal with the consequences when they fail to.

This means there’s no need to fudge dice, force narrative direction or otherwise engage in illusionism. Trust the players instead.

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Source the table to flesh out scenes.

Example - The characters come a rocky outcrop in the woods…

Ask Player 1- Why did your parents bring you here as a child?
Ask Player 2- What happened in the dream you had about this place?
As Player 3- Who died here?

Weave the answers in to the story.
If they answer anything silly, say some examples may be… and give two examples.

This will give variety to scenes and involve the players more, because the story is shared not just received.

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This is not a generally applicable advice, but only what eased my own GMing anxiety. I personally found that transparency and setting the “right amount of” expectation really helped my StoryGame play, or at least gave me the confidence to run storygames without being perfect at it (rules, facilitation, improv) first. This probably won’t work for traditional tactical games.

Transparency: I tell everyone almost everything about my thoughts and plans as appropriate, I say things like “I don’t yet have a solid idea of where things are going (I don’t mean have a story/ending in mind), but we’ll ease into it and I’ll hopefully connect the dots soon.” Downside is it does hurt players’ enjoyment somewhat if they liked that tension of not knowing but expect to be pleasantly surprised…

Setting Expectation: From Same Page Tool, CATS and Safety Tool discussions overall, I learned to really examine what I want from a game and then try to express that in the pitch (or through answering questions), so that more players can make informed decisions before agreeing to play. And if everyone know they can veto ideas during a game (reasonably), the story can venture into territories otherwise untouchable. I still don’t do this well enough with people I have more familiarity with (such that I know their preferences ahead of time), but we talk more often outside of the games that I can check in more often.

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I really like the advice in Trollbabe from pages 15-22 on creating adventure scenarios, and it made a big difference for me when I read it. It’s pretty simple and probably has been stated in other ways, but it really helped me see the potential drama in different scenarios.

It basically boils down to picking a person, place, or thing which is the “stakes”. And then you add to that two or more people or groups who disagree about what should happen in regards to the stakes.

So for instance imagine a human village and a troll village which are situated close to one another. The trolls have a strict “no eating humans” rule, but a troll named Blorg eats one anyway. Now Blorg is the “stakes” of the adventure, since the humans and some trolls want her killed while some of the other trolls want to protect her. And Blorg herself very much wants to stay alive (and who knows maybe there were extenuating circumstances). What will happen, will our heroes get involved? What do they think should happen?

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Keep track of how much time each of your players have spent in game. Make sure everyone has an equal opportunity to contribute. If someone is falling to the wayside, offer them a chance at the spotlight.

You can ask “What’s your character doing right now?”

Or you can have an situation crop up that their specific character is perfect for.

However, if the player is fine with having less screen time, then don’t force the issue. The key is asking and responding, not forcing.

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I think this duty is particularly interesting and important. I have a friend who GMs and is constantly looking for a system that will manage this for him so that he doesn’t have to track screen time and make more room for people.

I don’t know of many systems that help with this (anyone have thoughts?). But I do think it’s one of the most impactful thing a GM or facilitator can do to make sure everyone enjoys themselves. (It can also be challenging)

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Prepare elements, not plots. (Elements = characters, items, locations)
Give non-player characters, at minimum, a drive or intention.
Ask players what aspect of their character they’d like to explore, at session start.

These came from watching other people run powered by the Apocalypse games.

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Hard frame to get to the good stuff fast, then give your players plenty of space to try solutions you wouldn’t have thought of.

When a player asks about an in-universe logistical detail (“How far away is the dinosaur? How well-known is my mentor in this part of the world?”) ask right back “Why do you ask?” Usually, the question beneath the question is "Do I have permission to try something cool?"Answer the logistical question such that you can say “Yes” to the meta-question.

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Talk to your players and try to build trust with them; It can be SUPER helpful just to have someone who feels like they can speak up and say “My goal is to X, but I don’t feel like I can pursue X because Y” because it can clear up misunderstandings or allow you to introduce additional elements to help with that issue. Being able to talk things through with your players as equals is incredibly valuable.

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Read and play a lot of different games, and you will soon find one that fits your preferred play style. You don’t know it yet, but you will find it along the way. Better that, than trying to fit another play style into a game you don’t want to play.

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I thought this post from last year might be relevant: Face-to-Face vs. Online GM-ing

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… and this one: Face-to-Face vs. Online GM-ing

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Know motives.

Why is this useful? For the same reason that it is useful in any other undertaking. If gaming is not matching up with one’s “why?” then it is time to reassess.

For example, most gamers that this writer encounters think that RPGs are storytelling games when they are not. If one is gaming to “tell a story,” it is like that itch never quite scratched.

One can “do a story” with RPGs, at least in theory; this writer is not contending otherwise. However, being unaware of what each thing is, thinking that one thing is another thing when it is not by default is a recipe for disillusionment and walkaways.

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This is pretty interesting, I definitely feel like different people get different kinds of satisfaction from RPGs and it gets difficult to describe how they differ sometimes.

I heard someone once describe their preferred style of play as “escape room play”, because they liked to focus on moment to moment decision making and problem solving. The phrase was evocative enough that I felt like I knew what they were talking about.

How do you describe you style of play to potential players who want to “tell a story” so that they know what they are getting into and don’t end up feeling disillusioned?

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I recommend developing one’s instincts for when people are finished talking. Longer pauses than we would have in natural conversation are perfectly fine in RPGs. Giving people the opportunity to really think about what they want to contribute before moving on can really help everyone feel involved in things. If another player interrupts always come back to the first player and see if they have more to add.

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Is “collaborative storytelling” too simple? I agree that there are definitely different style of DMing, and a lot of the immediate descriptors I think of aren’t mutually exclusive axes.You could describe your style as “reactive vs.proactive”, “antagonistic vs. cooperative”, “structured vs. sandbox”, “rules heavy vs. rules light”, and/or “narrative vs. crunchy” and any combination of those factors could be a valid style.

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Assuming they’d already talked to you and got the ‘never ask the group’ advice, I’d lay down the general AW principle of ‘address the characters, not the players’. It’s the easiest trick to maintaining a foothold in the narrative and equally applicable no matter what system you’re using.

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Your Players Don’t Know What you Planned To Run.

If you missed a part of the adventure, if you added a wrong modifier, if you gave a clue at the wrong encounter - your players don’t know. For them there is only the adventure at the table. They are not concerned with some Ideal Version of this adventure that you supposedly ruined. They only know what happened at the table.

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