Top 5 Tips for a successful Games Master

13 Oct

There is a lot of advice online there on how to GM successfully. Some great examples include this, this and this. Of course, like anyone who’s spent a bit of time thinking about the hobby, I have my own take, my 5 key tips to being a good GM…

sistine chapel and a d20 1. “I like it!” – immediate reward and player complicity

Giving positive feedback to the player’s plans, actions and characterisation establishes you as a complicit GM.  As enlightened as we all may be these days, there is always the specter of an adversarial GM with a god-complex hanging over each session (see this great piece by Sam Lipsyte if you don’t know what I mean.) Using immediate reward for good ideas and agreeing with the players puts you on their side, sending a very clear message that you’re one of them, celebrating in their victories. After all, you’re all working towards the same outcomes, right? Even if your gaming group already has a 100% collaborative culture, providing encouragement for innovative thinking and great ideas can still improve the atmosphere of a session.

2. Be a facilitator – fairness, asserting a position and good humour

I see the GM’s role as that of a facilitator. Certainly, you put the lion’s share of the effort into getting the session together and have invested more time in it than the players, but your main role should be to get the best out of everyone. Getting the balance right can be one of the hardest parts of the job. Constantly pandering to the player’s whims isn’t going to earn their respect, but being fair, asserting yourself when necessary and maintaining good humour in the face of your carefully planned session falling down around you will.

3. Side boarding when conflict arises (with follow up)

Not getting bogged down rules interpretation and resolving player conflict is critical to maintaining the momentum of a session. Saying, “you may have a point, can we side board that for after the session?” is a useful way to avoid conflict and sends a clear message about your facilitator role. If you do this, it is critical that you follow up on the issue. After the session, talk about the issue (often rules interpretations) and seek input from everyone (see step 4).

4. Player participation in rules interpretation

Aside from having the best introduction to a combat chapter I’ve ever read, John Tynes and Greg Stolze’s  Unknown Armies (2nd ed) changed my perception on rules interpretation. Most RPGs put across that the GM is the final arbiter when it comes to rules. This is true for in-session rules interpretation, you don’t want to break the suspension of disbelief with a 2-hour debate about the fairness of the grappling system. That said, after the game, all players (GM included) should discuss the rules and try to come to a consensus. If the players agree that there’s a better way to handling things, then why not implement it? There’s no need to stick religiously to the rules as written and improving everyone’s game experience is always the better outcome.

5. Admitting when you’re wrong

The hardest part of being a GM. The god-complex that hangs over GM’s position in the game can be a hard one to shake. Having to say, ‘I was wrong’ is not always easy, especially if things got heated. But trust me, if you do, especially during the session review, you’ll gain the player’s respect. It’s important, however, though not to be in the position of having to constantly apologize, or else you’ll lose their trust. Make sure you do your prep, know the rules system and are fair and consistent in interpreting outcomes..

Conclusion? It’s about confidence in the GM.

Essentially, all these tips are aimed at building the player’s confidence in your role as the Game Master. If they trust your decisions and have a good time gaming with you you’ll find your games have far less conflict and are a more collaborative experience for everyone.

Well that’s my take on things. No doubt others out there will have other strategies. Why not share them by making a comment?


2 Responses to “Top 5 Tips for a successful Games Master”

  1. Jason Badower October 29, 2010 at 11:34 am #

    Great article!

    A useful tip I find is that when the characters propose something that’s unfeasible, is to suggest a couple of similar alternatives. It’s generally a failure on my part to describe the scene accurately, or to stress certain parts that they looked over. Having a couple of suggestions gives them flexibility and a better idea of the situation without saying, “you can’t do that.”

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