Tense negotiations that determine the fate of the realm. Desperate charges into overwhelming numbers of armor-clad antagonists. High-speed chases through bustling city streets. There are few more exhilarating feelings than being part of an exceptionally run Tabletop Role Playing Game (TTRPG) session. For some of us, that fun is magnified when we have played a hand in designing and narrating these hair raising scenes to a room full of our captivated comrades. We are Game Masters. Part referee, part narrator, and part improvisational actor, we help shape the story that each of the players experience. If this is something that interests you, you may be ready to take the leap from Game Player to Game Master.
For Part One of this new series, I will be focusing on the questions you should be asking yourself (and your players) to prepare the style of game you want to play. I will also touch upon Session 0, which is one of the strongest tools in a fledgling (and veteran) GMs arsenal. I hope you find this advice helpful, as it has served me well in the many games I have run.
What Type of Game do I want to Run?
The first decision you will want to make as a prospective new Game Master is the type of game you plan to run for your table. You may think this to be obvious (I want to run TTRPGs!), but there is a lot more to ponder than you might realize. Will you be running an open table where a large number of players are able to participate in one session while missing another, or will your game have a smaller list of regular attendees? Do you intend to be the sole GM for your table and game, or will you be allowing other GMs (including some of your players) to have a turn behind the screen? What do you want the focus of your game to be? Are you looking to run a game where the players need to traverse dangerous climates and hostile wilderness, or would you rather they navigate delicate social structures as diplomatic emissaries? Answering these questions help you decide what sort of material you will need to either find or create, and in turn how much work it may be to get your game off the ground.
How Much Preparation is Needed To Run the Game?
While there is no hard rule to the amount of prep needed to run a quality TTRPG game session, there are some additional questions that can help give us an idea of how much may be required. Firstly, will you be running a packaged adventure module? These curated books can contain pre-designed adventures, or even entire story campaigns and can be run fresh off the shelf if desired. While you will find you have less freedom as compared to a world of your own design, the amount of time a module can potentially save cannot be dismissed easily. If not a module, will you be running a Monster or Dungeon of the Week style adventure, or a continuous open-world or story driven narrative? The former can save some time, especially with many pre-designed encounters, dungeons and adventures available for purchase or free online and in friendly local game shops (FLGS).
However, with the popularity of professional TTRPG Adventure Streams (Critical Role, Adventure Zone, Transplanar, Fast Times) there is a large draw to narrative focused, homespun (or homebrewed) narratives. There is nothing like designing your own world and story from scratch, but with such freedom comes additional planning, drafting and designing of a setting along with all of its denizens and features within.
While the amount of preparation each GM needs for their games varies, there is one aspect of getting ready for your upcoming adventures that should not be optional.
Each new adventure brought to a table should begin with a Session 0. This is an opportunity for players and GM alike to meet and discuss the expectations and details of the adventures that await. Before the start of Session 0, take time to outline the decisions that you’ve made to the previous questions presented in this article. The outline will serve as a teaser of sorts to your new players, exciting and inspiring them when it comes time to create their characters and stories that will tie into the world you’ve presented. In addition, this is a chance to ask the players what they hope to see, achieve, or role play during your game sessions. This in turn allows you to make some minor adjustments to your game and tailor it in a way that will better engross the party.
Lastly, (but most importantly) a Session 0 should be used to decide what is going to be off-limits for the game. Allow the players to speak freely, and be sure to take note of what sorts of content they do not wish to engage with. We as Game Masters aim to create a safe and enjoyable game for our players, and this is our best chance to avoid trauma at the table. If you aren’t sure how best to ask these questions, consider reviewing the RPG Safety Toolkit. It has been designed with player safety (and session 0) in mind and is chock full of good conversation starters and activities.
As stated at the beginning of the article, these are just some of the considerations to be made when moving from player to GM. It may seem like a lot at a glance, but you will find that answering one of these questions will start a chain reaction, and many of these questions will answer themselves as a result. In all of this planning, don’t forget to have fun with it! A game built through passion and excitement will shine through to its players, leading to a more fulfilling experience all around.
Be sure to check in next week, where I will be tackling some of the qualities and skills that define a successful GM.