Do you sometimes watch the superstar dungeon masters and wish you could be more like them? Do you often ponder how your games could become even better. Here are 10 tips to become a better game master.
I’m on a constant lookout for blogs and posts about game mastering. Even after 25 years of gaming I still feel I’m learning and watching game masters like Matthew Mercer, Chris Perkins or Kim Hidalgo makes me want to get even better.
So, here are a few things that I have picked up through the years and have helped me seeing what I was doing wrong, what I could be doing better and what I was doing well. Just remember, what might help me doesn’t have to suit you and I’ve found that when reading through lists like these, I pick and choose what I feel could help me.
Of course, as usual, as long as you keep the Golden rule to heart you can’t go wrong. In my experience, knowing all the rules or always being the sole arbitrator of everything isn’t necessary to keep your players happy or to have them engaged in your game. It’s more about how they experience the session and the narrative as a whole. So, here are my 10 tips to become a better game master.
One of the best way to find ideas for campaigns and modules is to read novels or listen to audiobooks. No matter what kind of novels you read or listen to, you can always get good and solid content for NPCs, plot hooks, places and events.
Also, and I can’t stress this enough, read roleplaying sourcebooks and modules. Even when I’m running homebrew content I reskin and rewrite material I’ve read all the time, even from other games. Once I ran Starfall (an old Star Wars WEG module) as a fantasy pirate themed module, where the PCs were held captive aboard a sinking ship.
Reading or listening to books also helps you finding the right words to describe actions, events and places. Having access to a rich vocabulary can greatly enhance how your players envision your narrative. Just the slight difference between using a big man and an enormous man can seriously alter the way your players respond to that NPC. Descriptive language goes a long way.
However, if you’re anything like me and love to write, I constantly have to remind myself that much as I like writing and reading, the stories I design and create for my group are not my Magnum Opus, but a joint venture for me and my players. They need to be able, through their characters’ actions, to write the story along with me.
Watch TV programmes
This might sound a bit like more of the same, but as reading or listening to novels might give you ideas watching TV programmes might add to that. There is however more to be learnt from this kind of content, because, as my fellow Yawning Portal author, Helgi, has often pointed out to me, a good programme is divided into chapters or sessions.
TV programmes are built and planned in a similar way you’d build a campaign. Each episode represents a session or two and each episode adds something to the overarching narrative. The narrative includes an introduction, a plot that builds towards a point of climax and finally an epilogue.
It’s good to keep in mind that unlike a TV programme a roleplaying narrative can, due to character actions (or inaction) take a completely different turn than you had planned, because you don’t get to decide how the characters will react to the events or the NPCs you present. The characters are pivotal to the plot and you need to be able to adjust to their decisions on the fly.
Plotting can be so much fun. Creating plots, adding subplots and character specific mini-plots, is one of the great perks of being a game master. But you also get to plan your setting, all the NPCs and locations and it’s your solemn duty to make sure that your players are know enough of the narrative and the setting to make enlightened decisions for their characters.
But you also need to plan for the unexpected. Having a set of mini-encounters or NPCs that you can use whenever the players blindside you can be a real lifesaver.
As much as plans are necessary and helpful to keep focus, it’s important to be fluid and remember that your plan is not etched in stone, but are at most words on paper and you can change those. Don’t be afraid to change and alter your plans and plots.
Having a session 0 where you and the players go through the setting and decide together on what kind of a narrative you’d like to play. Hjalti has written about the importance of session 0 and I encourage you to read though it, for it contains many awesome points.
Cheat sheets are a great tool to keep information at hand. Whether you prefer using sticky notes on your computer, excel sheets or just good old pen and paper, using all sorts of cheat sheets help you run the game.
You can note down information about NPCs, places, mini-encounters or even the PCs. Hjalti, a fellow Yawning Portal author, keeps information about the skills and saves of the characters in his games. I note down information on NPCs on memos and keep them at hand when I’m game mastering. I have information on the personalities, relationships to the PCs and other NPCs and even info on how to portray and voice-act the NPC in question.
Many sourcebooks and modules even come with these kind of cheat sheets and it can really help having these at hand. These sheets contain information like random encounter tables or notes on monsters and adversaries. It can also help bookmarking pages where you can find this information, for you never know when the players take you by surprise and then it can be really good having access to information to use on the fly.
Run your ideas by other game masters
Often, when I’m speaking with young game masters, it seems to come as a surprise to them when I propose to them running their ideas by other game masters before bringing them before their players. This is however something that I really believe can make anyone a better game master, because we learn through interaction, through speaking about our ideas and getting our ideas challenged.
Almost all ideas I’ve ever had for modules, campaigns or just encounters are not that original. All the problems I’ve had at the table, dealing with problematic players or whatever trouble I’ve seen, someone else, someone more experienced than I, has seen and tackled before. Having access to other game masters and running your ideas or problems by them can be so helpful.
The internet is an awesome place for this. There are, for an example, numerous game master groups on Facebook, we even have one for Icelandic game masters. These groups are good for finding advice and meeting other game masters who are even facing similar problems. Reach out.
Also, by listening to other game masters’ problems you learn a lot. You can even weigh in and share your experience. Any discussion you take part in can help you get better.
Empower the characters, involve the players
The characters are in the lead role of your narrative, never forget that. Make sure that the characters always feel empowered, even when they are not. There are few things as discouraging as having an adversary who is way cooler than your character, untouchable and obviously a favorite game master character.
William Faulkner once wrote: Kill your darlings. That advice, though aimed at writers, is just as relevant for game masters. Never forget that, despite that you spent hours upon hours creating that dungeon, that if the characters decide to hire a band of mercenaries to explore it, so that they can spend more time in the town you created by rolling three times on just as many tables, respect that choice and let them have their way. Save the dungeon for later.
Much as you empower the characters, you need to involve the players as well. In a weekly game I play in the players take turns in writing the game log. In a game I run I have one player keeping notes on all loot, another player has the role of drawing maps and the third one keeps tracks of NPCs. I even sometimes assign one player a look-it-up duty, if we ever run across a rule that needs better clarification, I have that player look it up while the other players keep on gaming. By making the players also responsible for the game, I find them more invested and immersed.
Never let the game stall
Perhaps this one is self-explanatory to most game masters, but simply being there and focused on the game will make you a better game master. Put down your smartphones, shut down the browser of your computer if you use a computer when gaming and ask your players to do the same.
When you are there, always ready to act and react, the flow of the game rarely stalls. Keep the narrative going, even in downtime, and make sure that your players always have something to think about and act upon. If you stay engaged the whole time, your players will too. Don’t waste time browsing through books, looking for rules (if you need a clarification have one of the players look it up, as mentioned above). Be the arbitrator and judge that is expected of you.
Finally, always present your players with options, even if those are illusory options. When your players don’t see any options something has gone wrong and they will spend either too much time arguing about what to do or simply sit idle and do nothing. As long as they have options, your game will keep moving and the characters will feel empowered and in control of their own destiny.
Note down as much as possible. Whether you do it in session or after the session, make sure you keep track of what the characters are doing, have done, their relationship with NPCs and their impact on the setting and the narrative. I cannot stress this enough, because this is the secret behind making the player characters be in the lead role, especially when you are running a sandbox module.
Treat your notes with almost holy venerance, since they hold not only all aforementioned information, but also invaluable information on your players. They help you getting to know your players and their playing style, to keep track of what they like and how they react to different situations.
Finally, your notes can also spark ideas for subplots or even changes to your main plot, since your players might come up with ideas that are better than your own. Even if you don’t use all these ideas for this or that module or campaign, you can always go back to your notes and use them as a groundwork for a new module or campaign.
Be always mindful of your own games and be your own most ruthless and merciless critic. It’s hard to be completely honest with yourself, but it can really pay off. If you are not sure on why things don’t progress as you had hoped for time and time again, try recording your session. I have done it a couple of times and it really helped me seeing what I could be doing better (see here).
Watch other game masters at work, especially those who are celebrated by gamers worldwide and learn from them. But always, be analytical and critical, because what might work for them could prove disastrous at your table. You know your players and you know what they like and how you can create an environment where everyone at the table is having fun.
Finally, don’t be afraid of asking your players how they like your game and if they’d do things differently. I end every session by asking the players if everyone had a good time and that simple question often leads into a deeper conversation about the game, the narrative and some issues about rulings. I feel that this discussion often gives me a better perspective and understanding of the expectations my players have towards the game.
Last but not least…
Keep an open mind and try new things. I think perhaps the biggest mistake I made when I was starting to game master was to think I could predetermine how my players would react to this or that idea. I was proven wrong time and time again. Today, if something new regarding plot, setup or whatever roleplaying related comes to my mind I write it down and try to find a way to try it out. Be it a trap, a riddle, an NPC or even whole plot, I try it out.
Once I bought a set of glow-in-the-dark dice, so I designed a small dungeon covered in magical darkness. I turned down the lights, brought out the dice and said that if the players used spells like light I would light one candle. We had a lot of fun, but, as you can imagine, it was impractical, since the players spent more time trying to figure out the numbers of their sheets than actually playing. But it was worth the shot and now I know that this isn’t suited for that group of players.
Sometimes it is better to try and fail. As a green old wise alien once said in a galaxy far, far away: the greatest teacher, failure is. So, don’t take failure personally, it’s an opportunity to grow and progress.