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Getting Started

Source GameMastery Guide pg. 6
Chapter 1

Duties of a GM

Source GameMastery Guide pg. 8
While everyone at the table plays the game, the Game Master creates the world, breathing life into it in front of a small audience enraptured by his story. The Game Master works the hardest of everyone, spending night upon night before each game session carefully weaving the strands of fate and plotting the course of the adventurers’ lives, working in twists, building encounters and monsters, and pouring blood, sweat, and tears into his creation. To use a common analogy, roleplaying games are like movies where the actors get to improvise and alter the script as they go, working off prompts from the Game Master. Extending this comparison, if the players are the actors, then the Game Master is the director—and often the screenwriter, even when basing the story on a published adventure. While this is a generic comparison, it illustrates some of the multiple roles the Game Master fills. The position can also be broken down into a number of other duties and responsibilities as follows.

Storyteller: Weaving plots involving the player characters and any number of nonplayer characters, leading dialogue, and unfurling a vast tapestry of ideas, stories, and adventure, the Game Master is a storyteller first and foremost. While the game is a collaborative narrative told from all sides of the table, the Game Master paves and maintains the road along which the adventurers walk.

Entertainer: Despite the best-laid plans and most intricate plots, if the game isn’t fun and engaging, it isn’t worth the effort. It’s the Game Master’s job to do whatever’s necessary to keep the players’ energy and interest up, immersing the group in the story through the use of strange voices, animated gestures, and generally making a fool of himself in the most classic sense. In order to fulfill the role of every individual the player characters encounter, the Game Master needs to be impressionist, comedian, and thespian all in one. In the role of the entertainer, the Game Master is the steward of every player’s experience, keeping everyone at the table involved and the story moving along at the proper pace.

Moderator: While important in any game, the role of moderator becomes even more important in games with new players unfamiliar with the rules, or situations where the Game Master might be running a game for strangers, such as “organized play” sessions at gaming stores and conventions. Many players enjoy the tactical aspects of the game and make the most of the rules in and outside of combat. The Game Master should know what each character is capable of, as well as the abilities of the nonplayer characters and monsters, and should be prepared to pass judgment on any contradictory or disputed interpretations of the rules. And while it’s important for the Game Master to be fair and hear out players’ opinions and arguments, a good Game Master has the confidence and resolve to hold firm once he’s made a decision.

Creator: Not only does the Game Master bring stories to the table, but many times he is also the creator of entire worlds. More often than not, he spends more time preparing for the session than the session actually takes to play. When not using a published setting or adventure, the Game Master must take the time outside of the game to create the plot, build enemies, construct encounters, develop magic items and spells, design monsters, and flesh out the world of adventure the players will soon inhabit.

Instructor: Not everyone is going to show up to the table with an equal—or even sufficient—understanding of the rules. Some of these players will be young, the new generation of gamers eager to enter into the ranks, and others will be friends you’ve encouraged to learn the joys of roleplaying games; some may even be fresh recruits at conventions or game stores. Everyone has a different aptitude for the admittedly complex rules of roleplaying games, and many people are intimidated by them. Part of a Game Master’s role is to guide players in learning the game—after all, the majority of Game Masters playing today learned from another Game Master who was patient with them.

Player: Despite a pervasive myth, roleplaying games are not about pitting the Game Master against the players. They are not competitions, and the Game Master does not lose when the players succeed—rather, if the players leave the table feeling tested but triumphant, then the Game Master has achieved the best possible result. Though one person guides the game, everyone is a player in some sense. Game Masters must be as convincing with the nonplayer characters they control as the players are with their own characters, if not more so.

In addition to these roles, the Game Master might also fill a handful of others. Many groups maintain a set of house rules for their games, and the Game Master has the final say on particular interpretations and arbitrations of rules (though everyone in the group should be aware of any house rules beforehand). The Game Master may also act as host for the game. At the least, the host provides an ample place to play. While some extraordinary Game Masters might provide all materials, including books, character sheets, pencils, dice, miniatures, and a battlemat, groups should decide upon those details themselves. As the host for a game, it is important to provide a surface large enough to play upon, a place for everyone to sit, reasonable facilities, and the desire to get a good game going. Whether played at a Victorian dining table lit with candelabras, on the floor of a spartan apartment, in the library during recess, or in the back of a van on the way to a family camping trip, roleplaying games can be tailored to most any situation, as long as there’s excitement and a desire to play.

Tone and Maturity

Source GameMastery Guide pg. 10
Players come to games to feel larger than life, and each brings a character that has aspirations, desires, abilities, and unique ways of looking at the world. The Game Master’s job is to help guide the story and involve each character in a way that makes her actions feel meaningful. This means listening to the players while simultaneously keeping your own preferences in mind. No two gaming groups are the same, so groups that discuss their preferences for styles of play, tone, and group dynamics are more likely to enjoy long-running, trouble-free games.

The GM as Host

Source GameMastery Guide pg. 12
The GM’s primary job is to run the game, but there’s more to that task than just rolling dice and orchestrating ingame challenges. As the group member most responsible for the game’s success, the GM is also the de facto host for each session, in charge of handling or delegating the logistics behind the fun.

The social side of a session is at least as important as the quality of the game itself. Adult gamers might rarely get time to socialize, given the pressures of jobs, families, and homes, so game night becomes a welcome chance to spend time with friends, no different than a night of board games, movies, or poker. And like any party, there’s work to be done both before and after.

Some of the following issues can be delegated to a willing player, but ultimately, all of them are the GM’s responsibility.

Rules of the House

Source GameMastery Guide pg. 14
Once you have a place to play and a date for your first session, it’s time to decide what “house rules” are needed for your campaign. While the term normally refers to modifications to the mechanics of the game, house rules can also be the literal rules of the house, covering the basic courtesies and dynamics of the game table. Some typical house rules are discussed below, but this list is by no means exhaustive. Discuss the issues and the options for handling them with your players before play begins, and make sure everyone agrees to abide by the final decision. If you see a need for a new house rule as play proceeds, talk to your players outside of the game, then implement the new rule at the next session, reminding the group about it before play begins.

Preparing to Run a Game

Source GameMastery Guide pg. 16
Great Game Masters make running a game look easy, weaving memorable characters, breathless action, and vivid descriptions into unforgettable tapestries of fantasy. Players in a well-run game have a sense of danger (and a sense of accomplishment in overcoming it), plus a general feeling of spontaneity as events unfold and the characters rise to meet new challenges.

Such magical experiences require plenty of preparation, even a sense of spontaneity—it’s tough to seem spontaneous when you’re shuffling though notes.

Creating a Campaign Guide

Source GameMastery Guide pg. 20
In television series and similar ongoing media, there is the concept of the “story bible,” a document setting forth the essential information about the characters, story, and setting of the series so that later writers can produce scripts with some amount of consistency. In a similar vein, Game Masters can create a campaign guide to help keep track of their creation and to supply players with an overview of an ongoing campaign. This way, the players have some idea what to expect and can create and play their characters to best fit into the overall setting. The most important function of a campaign guide is to make your players excited to delve into the setting and play the game! Consider the following when preparing a campaign guide.