I can still remember my very first time playing an RPG. I was about 10 years old, and my buddy and I had gotten our hands on an old 1st edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons rulebook. We paged through it, loving the pictures as much as the mysterious text that talked about rolling dice with twenty sides and battling goblins and ogres. Of course, I'd played RPGs before, but I didn't know enough to call them that - Starflight, Bard's Tale, and my personal favorite, Wasteland.
Playing an RPG on the tabletop was a totally different experience from immersing myself in a computer RPG. A few years after, I saved my allowance and bought a basic Dungeons and Dragons set that was geared towards a younger, beginning audience - and I took my first steps towards GMing a game. My friend and I sat down with a large, plastic map that TSR thoughtfully provided, and moved little cardboard miniatures around. Each of us played three or four different characters, and I acted as the GM - my first time as a storyteller. The story was basic - escaping from an evil wizard's tower - but the ideas I learned stuck with me.
Fast-forward about four years. Now, I'm in high school. I've tried to organize roleplaying games in the past - Mechwarrior/Battletech, ADnD, and Rolemaster - but this was the first time I could find players willing to commit to at least 1 day a week. I was set: my first real chance to be a storyteller and Dungeon Master.
Now, after that campaign completed, and I've played and GMed a variety of games, I've learned a heck of a lot about GMing successfully. There's a lot that can work well for a GM and a group of players, but a lot that can work against it, too. Since this essay is designed to help the novice through the first GM jitters, and maybe provide the experienced GM with some suggestions, it's not going to be overly involved or preachy. I'm not into strict gaming, and I'm not into strict GMing either. What works for one GM and one group may not work for another, but there are some basics that, I feel, have applied to every group I've ever gamed with, on both sides of the table. That's what I hope to tell you, dear reader - what I've seen, experienced, and felt as I'm gaming.
Before the game even begins, the GM - or potential GM - needs to do a few things, first. This is probably the most important aspect of gaming: like a pyramid, a good game is built from the ground up. Of course, the GM needs a game. In this case, we'll just assume the game is going to be Fallout, but it applies to any game. Second, the GM needs to start thinking about a plot for the campaign (or, if it's going to be a one or two-session game, an adventure.) If the GM has downloaded or bought some modules, now would be a good time to start looking them over. I'll talk a little more about preparing adventures before the game later on.
Third, you'll need some basic supplies. The most basic are the dice, but a notepad full of scratch paper and a pencil for everyone is always a good idea. One set of dice is the absolute minimum; it would be best if every player had a set, and some extras are available, but one set will work. In addition, for Fallout, a hex-sheet for combat is almost imperative, and something - tokens, miniatures, or cutouts – to indicate positions of characters and critters.
Once you have the supplies, the second-most important aspect of gaming is players. Now, number of manageable players varies from GM to GM. Four is usually minimum, simply for variety's sake within an adventure. Six is a nice, round number and I usually limit parties to six, give or take if someone can't make it or if someone's brother is visiting that night. Any more than seven and you're looking at a painful experience, especially in combat and trying to manage what everyone is doing during the game. I ran one game with nine players, and I'll never do it again.
The next step, and probably the hardest, is trying to get everyone together. If you've ever tried to set up a meeting with a few people, you know what a nightmare coordinating schedules can be. Usually, it works best to set aside one night a week when everyone can make it, and designate that night "role-playing night." That way, everyone can make it a part of their schedule, and you run much less risk of having players sit out because of "other engagements." It is also fairly important to stick to this schedule, since the best groups are the most stable ones.
After everyone can agree on a time, you need to find a place. Setting isn't terribly important for the game, but comfort, availability of food and a bathroom, and a flat surface for a hex-sheet and dice-rolling are all important factors. My Ravenloft campaign was run entirely on my buddy's apartment's floor. The Fallout campaign I ran, and the current game I'm running, are all around a tabletop at a large dining room table. There is a marked difference in the playstyles, too: playing around a table offers a slight degree of formality. Ultimately, it may come down to whom can offer a place. Outdoors is generally not a good idea, because you can't always count on the weather and winds tend to carry important pieces of paper away. Besides, buildings are for all seasons.
The Game Edit
Once you've got the essentials, the time comes to actually plan the game. The players don't usually need to worry about much other than what their characters are going to do or say; essentially, how to role-play their characters. The GM, on the other hand, has a lot more to worry about. The GM isn't just the judge, he or she is responsible for telling the story in a convincing enough way that the characters can get lost in it for a while. This means that the GM needs to be intimately acquainted with an adventure. It is always obvious when the GM is confronted with something they didn't know or didn't think about. This is a perfectly acceptable situation, but you can take some steps to minimize it.
Read the entire adventure through three or four times. Spend some time imagining what you, as a player, would do if faced with the situations. Get to know the backgrounds of the main NPCs that the characters will begin to interact with. The more prepared you are, the better off you'll be.
Creating the right mood for an adventure is important, too. The GM should take a lot of things into consideration, and not all of them physical. You could do some simple things to spruce up the room; if your adventure is going to be in a high-tech building, for instance, a blacklight would be a cool addition. Music is always a plus, but not a requirement. A good techno song might be great to play when the party walks into the abandoned robot factory, or a country-western song when the characters meet a real cowboy. The main thing to keep in mind is that these, and any other effects a GM might want to use, shouldn't be used so that they become commonplace and fade into the background. On the other side of the coin, though, they shouldn't be a distraction either. Effects are like mood enhancers: they can't carry the mood itself, but neither should they be wasted.
When the game is actually running, the GM should know enough about the plot so that he or she can fudge things that aren't explained in the book. Players are notorious for dodging around stories, thinking of things the writers and the GMs never would have dreamed of thinking of, and foiling the best-laid plans of any GM. Rather than telling a player, "no, you can't do that!" tell them, "OK, here's what happens when you do this." If I know a player is about to do something inordinately stupid, I usually allow them to make a roll against intelligence to determine if their character "senses danger." Or, if they get themselves killed through utter stupidity, I usually allow them to take the action back, depending on the situation. If it was something they should have seen coming, then I'm not so forgiving.
But, of all the things in this essay, I can't stress that last point enough: try not to restrict the players. You can put walls in front of them to try to herd them in the right direction, or introduce an NPC that will point the party back to the path of the adventure, but try to be as flexible as possible. The players won't want to play if they feel like they are rats in a maze, with someone controlling their actions. They are imagining what another person would do in a certain situation, so try to keep that in mind - what their character might do isn't necessarily what's going to be best for the plot of the adventure at any given moment!
In addition, the GM has to maintain the decorum of the game. That means a lot of things: usually, it means that he or she should try to maintain the illusion of the storytelling experience. Having to look up numbers and rules every minute doesn't help; if it helps the flow of the game, use your better judgment. So, too, should you keep discussion of dice rolls to a minimum. I've found that nothing kills a story mood than breaking everything down into formulas and numbers. The real world doesn't operate on dice rolls, and although the game-world does, it is usually best to keep those numbers operating "behind the scenes," like the Wizard in the Wizard of Oz. Your players don't need to be forced to look behind the curtain. Sometimes, the GM has to become a bit of an actor. Remember that the GM is responsible for playing the role of every NPC in the game. That can get pretty difficult, especially when dealing with lots of NPCs. I find it's amusing and feasible to affect accents and acting when playing the roles of NPCs. A shopkeeper who is hiding something might have a nervous tic. A hardened desert-dweller might talk like John Wayne. A street-smart thug could talk like Andrew Dice Clay. Stereotypes work wonders here, and - like an actor - adding a bit of flavor to a character will make the players buy it immediately. When playing Dungeons and Dragons, I tend to do every Dwarf NPC in a Scottish accent. Not only does it fit the character of the Dwarves - strong, resourceful, hard to keep down - but it is a recognizable stereotype thanks to recent movies like Braveheart and Rob Roy. People know enough to associate those qualities with the Dwarf - and I don't have to violate game decorum by announcing that the Dwarf is strong, resourceful, and tough. The players can sense those qualities from the voice alone.
The other thing the GM will want to watch for is tempo of the game. The GM's other main responsibility, other than telling the story, is to make sure everyone is having a good time. Of course, you can't force someone to have fun, but chances are everyone is there because they want to be there and have a great time. Tempo of gameplay is probably the easiest way to ensure that everyone is having a great time.
Equal time should be given to all players; this will help tempo a lot, especially during combat. Certain players will emerge as natural leaders over the course of gameplay, and of course this isn't something you want to meddle with, but at times if it seems a player hasn't said anything for a while, you might want to ask that player what his or her character is up to. You also want to minimize looking through rulebooks or adventure books; every time you have to stop the game like that, it tugs back a little bit of that curtain you're trying to maintain.
As with anything, you're going to run into some problems. That's what makes being a GM interesting, right? The most common problems, if you've done your homework and are well-prepared, and a fairly decent actor, come from players themselves. Most of the time, players are fine. Every now and then, you'll get a few problem players, though. Usually, they are visitors, but sometimes you'll get one in your campaign group, too.
Problem players are fairly easy to identify and easy to deal with. The most common problem player is the guy (or girl) who is solely interested in himself (or herself) having fun, at the expense of others in the group. I played a game once with this guy, a visitor, who was playing a swashbuckling pirate. Everything he did, he had to try some acrobatic maneuver, and he had to let everyone else in the group know what kind of a badass he was. It got annoying in about 60 seconds. It may have been really fun for him, but it was stealing from everyone else's fun.
You can try subtle hints, or you can call a player aside and gently but firmly remind him or her that everyone is there to have fun, and could he or she please try to let the others have a turn? Short of that, you can begin to devise things that intentionally cripple the problem character, but that should only be used as a last resort. And lastly, don't invite the player back.
There are two other main kinds of problem players. The first - and this is probably the most dangerous - is the avatar-player. This is the person whose entire fantasy being is wrapped up in the character, and sometimes the lines between fantasy and reality begin to become blurred. This can be really scary when it happens. Without getting too personal, let's just say that I've seen players flip out at other players before for something that happened in the game. When that happens, the GM needs to step in right away, especially if violence was involved (in my case, it was). The problem player needs to go and cool off, and the GM needs to talk to him or her about what happened - and make it damn clear that it won't happen again, or else that player is out. Putting other players at risk not only violates the prime fun directive, but it is physically dangerous. Avatar-players are the kinds of people who give role-playing a bad name, because they are no longer separating fantasy from reality. They not only need to leave the group for their sake and yours, but they need to seek professional help.
The last kind of problem player is the power-player. This person has spent hours researching the best way to make his character as good as humanly possible, and is usually strong enough to tear through the toughest enemies you can throw at them or sneak through any defenses you can make. Sure, you can start throwing harder and harder critters at the character, but at some point, it no longer becomes fun for the rest of the party. The player also knows, in game terms, that his or her character can pound the snot out of other characters, and will sometimes threaten other characters with violence in the game world. This borders on unacceptable, but primarily, it turns the game into a one-person show, where other party members and their hard-chosen skills take a back burner to one character. This is totally acceptable when only one character can perform a certain task - not everyone can pick a lock - but when it happens all the time, it becomes a problem because the other players are no longer having fun - they are simply watching one character and the GM interact. The best way to deal with these players is to meet them on their own level - in game terms, give them a condition that means they cannot always be the biggest, loudest, and the best. You have to be careful, though, because sometimes the power-player and the avatar-player are very similar.
All this isn't to try to scare off a new GM, but they are issues every GM should be aware of. I read a book on this subject before I started my first Ravenloft game, a campaign which went very well. It wasn't until later when I experienced some of these things firsthand. They can catch the GM off-guard at first, but if the GM remembers that the primary goal of the game is for all the players (and himself or herself!) to have fun, he or she should be set.
GMing is a fun experience. I often have a difficult time sitting on the other side of the table nowadays, simply because I enjoy telling the story so much, especially if I’m the one who made the story up. It isn’t for everyone, though. If you feel like you bit off more than you could chew, that’s not a problem – don’t worry about it. It really isn’t that difficult, and if it seems hard, or if you aren’t having fun, persevere. Usually, things sort themselves out on their own. If not, talk with your players about possibly shifting positions. Things will look a little different from the other side of table, I promise.
Oh yeah, one more thing: ENJOY YOURSELF!