After much deliberation you’ve decided the sort of game you’d like to run. You’ve prepared all the materials you’ll need and made sure you had all the necessary tools at your disposal. Sitting down with your players and discussing your ideas, you allowed your party to speak openly about their wants or dislikes. Taking feedback from the table, you believe you’ve created the perfect game! Congratulations on completing part one of the transition from Player to GM. As promised, this week will cover some of the skills and traits that a GM will want to have in order to excel in their new role. And don’t sweat it, you’re probably more ready to tackle this than you think!
A Good GM is Resourceful
One measure of a quality GM is in their resourcefulness. They have answers to the various questions that players have during their play sessions, and rarely skip a beat of the action to refer to the various lists and tables scattered throughout the various game manuals. You might think a good GM has this information committed to memory. In most cases, this cannot be further from the truth. We may be able to remember how some spells or abilities work, or roughly how many health points a troll has (or its weakness to fire and acid), but more often than not we simply follow a couple habits of good housekeeping.
Firstly, it is less important to know a rule or stat, than it is to know how to quickly find it. You can accomplish this by having a rough knowledge of the manuals specific to your TTRPG (or use tabs), and you can go an extra mile by creating quick reference notes, charts or material for commonly needed information. In this way, you can transform a twenty minute scan through a Player’s Handbook into a thirty second skim and a precise answer. You should also know that unless a rule, or piece of information is critical to the moment, it is acceptable and encouraged to simply create a temporary ruling in the moment to use. Be sure to let the players know it is temporary, and you will look up the rule as written at a later time. You may even find you prefer your ruling, and use it in its place indefinitely!
A Good GM is Flexible
Another sign of a good GM is their flexibility. (If you’re imagining your current GM twisting themselves into a pretzel shape, you’re welcome.) A flexible GM designs encounters, sessions and entire adventure campaigns in such a way that they can be altered or adjusted to fit the parties needs. That is to say if a player finds there is content in your adventure that is triggering or upsetting that they missed mentioning during the Session 0, the GM is able to remove said content and carry on with the adventure. Ideally this would happen with little downtime, but that cannot always be the case.
In addition, a good GM is able to scale an encounter’s difficulty as the session and it’s players dictate. If your party is delivering a fierce smackdown on what was intended to be a difficulty and challenging beastie, there’s no reason a pack of rival creatures couldn’t charge into the encounter, hoping to fight off the players and finish off the main target! Or perhaps the swarm of kobolds you planned for the party is proving to be more difficult than intended. Maybe they’d angered their patron Dragon, who has offered the party safe passage if they assist in eliminating said kobolds from the lair?
Having those reference sheets and notes listed in the previous section will help with flexibility, but it is also important to remember that a core tenet of being a GM is to create an engaging, rewarding experience for all involved. Sometimes material must be altered or scrapped to maintain the level of fun or engagement needed.
A Good GM is an Active Listener
A lot of the skills mentioned above can be learned on the job. But arguably the most important aspect of being a good GM has little to do with the game or its preparedness. What separates a great GM from the rest of the pack is their active listening skills. Active Listening is the ability not just to hear someone’s words, but to truly listen to the complete message being conveyed. It can be the difference between hearing a player’s character head to their room at the inn for the night and skipping the evening card game, and understanding that the previous encounter with the enchantress seems to have affected the player negatively, and they are looking for a way to take a break.
Active listening typically means that we listen far more than we speak. You may think this is difficult to accomplish as the GM. Consider however, that there are typically several players to each GM. We can and should take the appropriate time to describe scenes in detail and to set the stage for the player’s actions. From here, we should take a step back and let the players interact with the world we’ve built. We should use appropriate cues to show we’re listening, but avoid filling the moments of quiet unless it is fitting to the scene. We can summarize or ask to clarify declared player actions, and can even step in with our cast of NPCs and creatures to respond to said actions. We can take notes of how enthusiastically they engage, or what they reveal about their players (or themselves), and can use this to tailor our future content. We can learn what works (and what to avoid) to make future games more enjoyable.
All of this allows the players to drive the adventure, and provides us all we need to ensure the game continues smoothly moving forward.
Preparing and utilizing your resources, designing flexible game content, and engaging in active listening are all things you can do to level up your GM game. These are of course just a small selection of the GM toolkit, but by themselves can take us far. Being a GM can be a lot of work at times. We are the narrator, scorekeeper, rulemaster and the supporting cast to our table’s favorite stories. But it is the raw emotion experienced through the medium of roleplay that keeps us coming back. Having a direct hand in that joy is what keeps us GMs going.