Advice for a New GM

The boy s had an idea while we were away. It was a scenario for a one-shot game of Dungeons and Dragons, and he wanted to run it by me. His worry was that it would sound silly and no one would want to play – and my first piece of advice to him was that even if it was silly, that didn’t mean it wouldn’t be fun. My second was that overthinking it would get in the way. My third was to not to worry about creating a whole logical world, especially for something designed to be quick. Design only what you need for the moment, and the rest can be filled out if needed as you go along.

The scenario he’s come up with is lovely – and I think has the potential to be a much bigger and ongoing game – and I can’t wait to play alongside everyone else as he steps into the GM’s chair. We’ve started creating characters, but for the time being we’re playing while he works it all out.

There’s a huge learning curve to stepping into this new role, but at the same time there are a lot of tools and guidance in how to use them. The biggest advantage he’ll have is that he knows us all in the group and while that can also be daunting, it does tend to mean he’ll have the benefit of the doubt. Nearly everyone in the group started off with very little experience of playing roleplay games, let alone Dungeons and Dragons – and over the last two and a half years or so everyone has grown in confidence.

Things like maps and resources take time to create, but my advice is to never lose sight of the fact that people will never see the failed or abandoned maps and encounters. They will only see the things you bring in the moment to the table and won’t care about what doesn’t turn up. The other bit of advice is that their minds will fill in the blanks, and a few background descriptions will be woven into people’s recollection with far more efficiency that some complex or highly detailed encounter map.

Pretty maps help, but only so much. Most of the heavy lifting is in people’s heads – and your words and intent shape that creative process. In turn that feeds back in how they react, and how they describe what they’re doing. Don’t be afraid of taking that and feeding it right back in and making things up in the moment that you hadn’t even contemplated when you started the session.

The mechanics of the websites and tools we use to create and run the games can seem daunting – but you’re never on your own. Whether that’s asking for help, or rooting through forums, there are often simple routes and free resources available – and you don’t need to use the whole toolkit at once. Pick only what you need for the time being. If the thought of setting up dynamic lighting and special effects is scary, don’t use them! There’s whole swathes of available tools in Roll20 I don’t use, or only started using recently as an experiment and still fudge on a regular basis. You’ll find what works for you, and that’s what is most important because as you become more comfortable with those basics you’ll be able to focus on the story and the experience again.

I make a lot of maps, but rarely with a specific scenario in mind. In the same spirit I create collections of encounters at differing levels of difficulty – and rarely have a cast-iron plan of what order they’ll be used in, or on what map, or in what context of the story they’ll appear. Keep that fluidity when you are making up elements and you’ll find it far less onerous to string together challenges and beats to the story. This is especially true when (not if) the players decide to go wandering off in a different direction or split up.

The temptation can be to try and lasso them all back up, or to get cross under your breath that the obvious cues and clues have been missed, overlooked, or misinterpreted. Sometimes it makes for better stories – and don’t forget that things don’t have to be cast in amber until the group encounters them. Maybe their tinkering in a corner means that the raiders successfully overrun that town that would have supplied them? Maybe the end of the world begins to happen, and everything becomes a scramble and exercise in ingenuity and panic. Maybe they fail – and then what happens? What a plot twist if they themselves continue in some new world as mysterious survivors and then start seeing the same signs of apocalypse gathering?

Or perhaps the story turns into one where the skies turn to ice as they play with a baby kobold they won in a casino while very drunk – but what a fun time that play becomes as a comedy of errors. The point is that roleplay games are about having fun – and its not all about you. If you can let go of how the story “should” go and embrace the “well, that just happened” it unfolds a whole new appreciation of storytelling and having fun with friends and loved ones.


Give it a go.

What’s the worst that could happen?

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