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How to be a game master

Photo by Jonathan D. Lopez
Photo by Jonathan D. Lopez
Photo by Jonathan D. Lopez

By Jesse Lawrence – Collegiate Staff

When most people hear the words tabletop role-playing games (TRPGs) they think of middle-aged men, dressed in cloaks, playing Dungeons and Dragons in a basement.

While this image is accurate for some tabletop gamers it couldn’t be further from the truth for most.

Tabletop role-playing is a genre of games in which a group of players assume the role of an adventurer they create and one person runs the game as the Game Master (GM).

Being the GM is no easy task; I found that out the hard way.

Within my group of friends we play an assortment of tabletop games, however we started this group by playing the TRPG Eclipse Phase, which is a science-fiction horror game.

In this game the most experienced tabletop gamer among us, Grand Rapids Community College student Justin Whitaker, was elected to be the GM.

Whitaker was a great GM when I played through the story he made up for us. There was one time in particular that his story had us cornered by what were essentially space cowboys and my character, who was for all intensive purposes a robot samurai, got fed up with the cowboys betrayal.

So I decided to attack the leader of the space cowboys, I got an incredibly lucky attack roll and Whitaker told me that since the roll was so good I “lopped the guys head clean off.” It was epic.

It was Whitaker’s GMing that inspired me to attempt to GM my own game.

Before doing so I did pick up some useful advice from Whitaker for a first time GM.

Now that I’ve been a GM, here is a simple tutorial to get started.

How do you start?

It’s easy, pick a TRPG you like and grab a group of friends who are interested in playing. The game I chose was a science fiction fantasy game called Numenera.

The reason I chose this particular game is because the rules were easy, the players only needed to roll a 20-sided polyhedral die (d20) for most of the game. Most TRPGs like Dungeons and Dragons require a set of polyhedral dice (a d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20 and a percentile die). The process of character creation was very simple as well.

Most importantly the theme of the game was right up my alley. Numenera is set 1 billion years in the future and a lot has changed on earth.

To make a long story short, time has regressed to what the dark ages were like. People fight with swords and the world has forgotten how to use technology and since no one knows how it works they call it magic, some people can use technology and they’re basically called mages and wizards by people who don’t understand how their technology, or “magic,” works.

Preparation: Rules and Characters

Once you pick a game, familiarize yourself with the rules. They don’t have to be committed to memory and making a reference sheet is always helpful. Numenera has very simple rules, but I copied the more important ones down on flash cards.

Once you know the rules help the players with any questions they have while they’re creating their characters. This step isn’t necessary, but is helpful.

Preparation: Building a Story

The GM’s most vital is step creating a story that the players will play through. Most TRPGs have pre-made stories that you can simply read like an interactive storybook. This is useful for beginners, but the true fun of being a GM is inventing your own stories. It can also be the most challenging.

Think of yourself as a writer. You need an exposition to set the scene to make the players feel like they’re in your world.

Next and most importantly, you need an inciting incident, a reason or incentive for the players to want to go on your adventure. Maybe an evil overlord threatens the land with his undead army, or perhaps there’s a large treasure buried deep within the catacombs of an ancient ruin.

The possibilities are endless.

Running the Game

With everything set up there isn’t much left to do but start the game. However, there are a few golden rules you should follow to make sure everything runs smoothly.

First, let the players make mistakes. Just because it’s your story doesn’t mean they have to follow your plot to a T. If a player decides to mug a villager for their money, let them try because it probably won’t end well for them.

Second, don’t railroad. This means don’t tell a player they cannot do something just because you don’t want them to. If they want to turn left in a maze don’t say that the maze closes itself off so that you can only turn right.

Lastly, make sure everyone is having fun. You’re all playing a game, don’t forget that. The whole point of a role-playing game is to escape reality for a few hours and have fun.

Being a GM can be an extremely fun and satisfying experience. You get to play a game with friends while flexing your creative muscles. However, being a GM is more than just playing a fun game with friends, its about leadership, creative writing and storytelling.


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