A Game Master By Any Other Name.

Neat, huh? No matter what we’re called, we’re still at the head of the table, screen in front of us, running the game. Most of us manage a notebook or a loose pile of disheveled papers in front of us.


Is still running the game! Bwah ha ha!

Most TTRPGs refer to us as “Game Master.” D&D refers to us as “Dungeon Master.” Storyteller (aka World of Darkness) games call us “Storyteller.” Call of Cthulhu and Monster of the Week refer to us as “Keeper.” Dungeon Crawl Classics and Marvel Superheroes refer to our title as “Judge.”

Neat, huh? No matter what we’re called, we’re still at the head of the table, screen in front of us, running the game. Most of us manage a notebook or a loose pile of disheveled papers in front of us. We write down or even type out mounds of NPCs, location notes, tidbits about characters, and hastily scrawled monster stats. I usually have a pad of crossed out hp amounts and a coffee coaster behind my screen beside my dice tray along with heaps of dice, too.

I realized today I haven’t been giving out much GM advice here in my blog.

You can never be too prepared.

I’ve learned a lot in my many years in whatever role you want to call me. I’m usually that guy in the group with a pile of dice, a rulebook and a plan. Most days, that’s really all it takes. Plenty of GMs make it all up as they go. Some of us take copious amounts of notes. Others are literally doodling behind the screen making it look important. Maybe at least write down some NPC names to help keep track of who’s who.

My style is to be overly prepared. I like to have my NPCs drawn up. I like to have my maps already made. I usually have a specific outline or timeline of events built up well in advance. I have my miniatures sorted and ready to go well in advance of needing them. I make random d12 tables for when I have to improvise. I spend hours listening to classical music and prepping convention games ahead of time. (I miss conventions. *sniff.*)

One oddball piece of advice I give to almost all of my creative friends- keep a notebook or something handy to write down ideas when inspiration strikes. I have literally written out NPCs and plot outlines on restaurant napkins. Even if you scrawl out a few hasty lines in your phone’s memo pad, it’s better than forgetting it.

NPCs are key.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Sometimes I generate a ton of characters just to get used to the system. It’s nice to be able to help your players or just hand someone a character in a pinch and say, “play this character. If you like it, keep playing it next week.”

Otherwise, some of my character heap become NPCs. Sometimes one of the BBEG’s lieutenants comes out of the character pile. Other times, the group’s loyal retainer over their entire adventuring careers started out as one of my characters.

I like to have a name for every character I think the group is going to interact with along with a few personality quirks to make them memorable. I try to come up with a voice and a pattern of speech for the ones I know the group will see more than once. I especially love it when the group adopts an NPC for multiple sessions.

Having detailed NPCs is part of the success of GMing. Even if the campaign flops. Even if we only run a few sessions before it all goes to pieces, I’d like to think some of the NPCs will stick with my players long after it ends. That, and it’s one of my favorite components of any game.

Photo by Ishara Kasthuriarachchi on Pexels.com
It's not all about combat statistics. Most games involving NPCs rarely make use of those characters' combat talents at all. Sometimes I don't even spend time detailing them. If I do, I usually hand that character off to one of the players. It's one less thing for me to worry about and the character still contributes. 

For me, having 3-6 personality traits, quirks and ticks written down for an NPC is far more important that the attacks, damage, spells, etc. Sometimes key NPCs are pacifists, outright cowards, or designated non-combatants anyway. Not every NPC is going to fight, especially not to the death. 

So many elements to consider.

From Catacomb of the Wolf Lord.

More on NPCs in another article. We have a wide variety of other game elements to consider. Over the many years I have slowly started to get better about campaign/world mapping. Sometimes it’s a piece of typing paper with town/village names and arrows pointing toward other features with “2 days” written above the arrow indicating travel time on horseback.

Mapping larger land masses is kind of my weak point. Dungeon mapping is still one of my absolute favorite tasks. I lay all of my maps out on the table with dungeon tiles and pre printed blocks. Pretty much all of my maps are hand drawn otherwise.
I still use crudely drawn figures and old school D&D mapping annotations for the most part. It’s what I learned. It’s what I do best when it comes to maps.

I’m getting better about not railroading the players and creating more of an open, sandbox style environment for my players to adventure in. I still want to be prepared for when they stumble into a dungeon or town in the midst of whatever they’re doing. There are plenty of ways to do that.

One of the best pieces of advice I can ever give- Do what works best for you!

Listen to me or any other GM advice. Or don’t. It’s okay. As is often said in Law of Attraction circles, “You can’t get it wrong.”

Some GMs prefer various Virtual Tabletop formats and online map generators. Great! If you find a specific way of doing thing fits well with you and your players, awesome. Player feedback is a helpful tool as well. They want their game to be as much fun as you do. This tidbit applies to mapping, narrative styles, characters and the larger spectrum of the game as a whole.

Knowing all the rules and statistics is great, but

Making it up as I go.

If a rule is bogging you down, make the call and look it up after the game. You can always retcon the correct answer later. The important thing is to keep the game rolling forward.

Likewise, if a rule isn’t working for you, the GM, and your group? Toss it out. Make a house rule that does work for you. Welcome to creative freedom! Make the game yours!

Try to cut down on metagaming at the table as much as reasonably possible. Sometimes I wish certain players didn’t have access to a Monster Manual. This is why I try to find third party monster books or just create my own creatures.

Player: I do 18 damage. It’s dead.
GM: Nope. Still standing. Looks annoyed now.
Player: According to the MM on Page 37, they only have 18 hp max.
GM: Hmm. Here in my notes it says 24. Maybe this particular creature is a bit more buff than the ones you’re used to. OR it’s not one of those at all.
Player: Gulp. Who’s next on the initiative order? This looks grim.

Be kind.

Photo by Anna Tarazevich on Pexels.com

Players make mistakes. People make mistakes, for that matter. It’s going to happen. Someone calls out a spell they’ve already cast for the day. Someone rolls the wrong damage dice and has been for three rounds. A player forgets to write down their character’s health between sessions.

Please, above all else, be nice. Try to come up with a fair and equitable solution. Try to run the game you would want to be a player in. If it’s not a ruling you’d want to hear as a player, you might want to evaluate the call and try something else. Empathy goes a long way as a GM.

However, that does not mean you need to be a pushover. Just as a judge in the real world has to rule, please try to be fair and understanding, but resolute in your judgments. You ARE the GM, after all. With great responsibility comes awesome power.

One last tidbit for today.

There are a lot of things still to cover about narratives, campaigns, stats, and genres that we can go into later. The one last thought I’d like to leave before I sign off today- As a GM, you’re always going to have to deal with something not covered anywhere else. Scheduling, paying for pizza, printing extra character sheets, lending dice, and a lot of freaky, weird things (player fraternization is one of my favorites. LOL!) come up between games and out of the scope of the game. Just do the best you can with what you’ve got.

It’s never going to be perfect. Being in charge of the game is often more about human relations than characters and rules. Always try to listen and say what’s on your mind. Do what you think is best. Oh, and know when to step back. Remember, you’re in charge of the game, not the players themselves.

People. Am I right?

Thanks for stopping by. More to come. I appreciate you being here.

You folx are the best. Thank You!

Author: Jeff Craigmile

I'm a tabletop role-playing game writer and designer from Des Moines, Iowa always looking for more work. I'm the father of four boys and human to three cats.

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