GM Thoughts: Learning To GM

I’ve not been a gamemaster for long. In fact I think its roughly 4/5 years now.  Probably closer to 4. In all that time, I’ve learned a lot. My original foray into gming came about as a desire to play more of Warhammer, having only experienced it as a player, and was left wanting when the campaign ended early. Finding Warhammer groups was hard, so hard that I found none in my searches. So I decided to ask some people, and get a group going. That’s not this ‘group’, but another group that I gm’ed with for upwards of a year.

I like to call that group my ‘beta’ group, for it served as a beta and a stepping stone as to the do’s and donts of gming. That isn’t a disservice to the original group, cause without that beginning I’d certainly be making the same mistakes I made back then now.

After that original campaign ended, I looked at taking what I learned and applying it to a new campaign, with a new group (although 3 players who were in the original are now in this group).

And I’m still learning, cause I know gm’s who have 10-20 years on me and are still learning as they go. One thing I know for certain is that there isn’t a fast rule to becoming a good gm. You could be absolutely terrible, as most gm’s are starting out, and only way to improve yourself is to just gm more sessions, while getting honest feedback from your players. I find starting out as a gm for the first time is best done with people you know, and as you grow more confident, branching out to bring in outsiders.

But how do you become a good gm?

Well for starters, there is no set of rules for it. I know gm’s who are very good at voices for their npcs, giving them character, making them sound distinct. But that alone doesn’t make you a good gm. I know gms who know how to craft a good story; again, it doesn’t make you a good gm.

Being a good gm means listening to your players, and creating room for them to breath in your story. Don’t worry if you can’t do voices or are not very good at crafting a story (that’s what campaign books are for), as long as you’re not a tyrant at the table, virtual or physical, and you and your players are having fun, that’s all that matters.

I think, within time, anyone can become a ‘good’ gm because the requirements are not set in stone. People say Chris Perkins is the best thing since slice bread when it comes to gming, or dming for dnd fans. Well, he is the main man when it comes to dnd, he knows his stuff, and he is a good gm. I’d not call him the best, but he’s definitely on a higher level of quality, simply for the fact he’s been at it for so long. And anyone who has been gming/dming for as long as he has, can reach that level of experience.

Everyone will have their strengths and weaknesses, and knowing them is fairly important to improving your ability to gm.

I consider my main strength when it comes to gming to be crafting a story, plot structure and creative freedom. While I’ve not been a gm for long, I’ve been an amateur creative writer for far longer. My greatest weakness is perhaps accents. My range of accents is very limited, having a fairly thick irish brogue accent that’s hard to shake. But I’ve been gming long enough to know that pulling off accents is the least important aspect of being a gamesmaster.

There are many pitfalls when it comes to gming. One that I find is quite easy to fall into, is plot derailment. Some gms (and I know a few already who have) will, excuse the pun, lose the plot when their story gets derailed by unexpected player actions. How you handle that is very important. When I first started gming, I remember my first derailment. I wasn’t happy. I was probably angry in fact. And that was my first pitfall. I’ve learned now to take the punches, and to not fall into that pit, and have turned plot derailment into an opportunity for creative freedom, both for myself and for the player/players.

After learning that lesson, I came to a realization; I absolutely hate and despise railroading. As a player, I hated it. As a gm, its something I try to avoid constantly. The temptation is always there, to nudge a player back onto the train and have them sent on their merry way to the plot.

I’ve heard the many defenses for railroading… Yes, some gm’s will and do advocate railroading. And, I get it. You spend hours creating a plot framework only for it to be wiped away. I once personally wiped away 8 pages of notes (hello Corey, if your reading! :P) as a player character cause I did something that the gm never expected me to do. But Corey, who I shall name and shame (:P) took it in his stride. Instead of getting angry, or trying to force my PC back onto the chu-chu train, he went along with it.

I know gms who will ‘rewind’ that. Literally. I’ve experienced it as a player. There is no defense for doing that. Soon as you say “No, that’s not happening, rewind!” to a players actions, you take them out of the immersion that they’re playing a character in a fantasy setting.  I don’t like to say no to any player, except always try and say “Well, no, but you could do this…” as an alternative, if possible. It won’t always be possible. But putting up invisible walls is definitely a no-no.

I’ve had situations in my game where I’ve had to deal with split parties, and those two groups being split again, into smaller groups! I’ve had to deal with characters going right, while others went left, far far left, all the way to bloody Marienburg! Some gms will say, no, that’s not happening. That’s a bad gm. A smart gm will say, “Sure, but your character is out of the game,” which of course is completely fair. After all, this is a party game, and not a game about one individual. In my case, I did it differently. I said, “Sure, but your character is out of the game… but, we will come back to that character.” And Liliana’s mini-adventures was born. I only did it cause I had time, patience and wanted to explore my creative side by crafting a custom campaign set around Marienburg. I was very happy with the results of that. If I had simply disallowed that from happening, I’d have missed out on all of that learning experience.

So yes – if your going to railroad your players, I sympathize, cause I do get it… the pain of all those plot notes being washed away. Do try however to minimize it if you can, cause nobody likes to board the chu-chu express.

Nobody.

So, if your learning to gm or looking to get into gming, have no fear; if a complete knob like myself can do it, anyone can.

Yes, even you, Cortez… 😛

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