GameMASTER. The title itself has a way of excluding about half the population, and that fact is reflected in every game shop and on every convention floor. The number of female gamers may be rising, but the number of female GMs is still pathetically low by comparison. This has to change if we are going to continue to grow as a demographic.
GMing is something that every gamer should do at least once. It’s an incredibly educational experience, and even if it doesn’t end up being something that you stick with, you will be a better gamer for giving it a try. I was terrified the first time I ran a game, and consequently over prepped my game. It was a 4e game, based in a fantasy ocean world that I created called Nenesto. I had such a blast coming up with the NPCs, the cultures, and the challenges! I completely fell in love with the creative process and the power… THE POWER!! MWAHAHA… ahem. To date, I have run more than twice as many convention games as I have played in. Once the GMing bug bites, it doesn’t let go, girls!
I have never run an adventure path or company published scenario for a group of players. I know that a lot of GMs start this way, and it can be very enjoyable. I’ve had a blast playing in many published campaigns, but I find that it is harder to run a game like that than just create my own world. No, I’m not crazy. Actually, I would argue that it would be easier for most people once they got over their fear of trying. Think back to when you were a kid. You had to study and practice the information that people gave you to learn, but you always could remember the smallest details about the stories, games, and worlds that you dreamed up yourself. It’s much the same with self-created gaming worlds. I created the details of the world, so it’s harder to forget them or mess them up… and if for some reason I do mess up, it’s really easy for me to change to world to accommodate my mistake.
But how does one start to attempt such a daunting task as creating a game from scratch? First, you need to find a group of (kind) players. I was lucky enough to already have a gaming group that encouraged me to try GMing, but if you aren’t so lucky, try recruiting friends and family members. Even if you end up running a game for two people who aren’t gamers, it will be great practice and break the ice for you. Actually, running your first game for non-gamers has it’s advantages. They are less likely to notice your mistakes, and you get a lot of practice explaining the system mechanics to them. I do not recommend running your first game for a group of strangers at a gaming store or convention, because you never know what type of players you will get.
After you have your players, pick your system. It should be a system that you are pretty familiar with, ideally one that you have played a lot. I recommend this because the more you know about the mechanics of a system, the easier it will be to tailor a good story around it and keep your game running smoothly. Have most of the basic combat and skill stuff memorized or on cheat sheets so you don’t waste your players’ game time looking stuff up. Cheat sheets are your friend! I’m convinced that’s why the GM screen was originally invented. Another great trick is to have more obscure combat rules other important information marked so you can easily find it. Your mind will go blank at some point and it’s great to be able to quickly find that info. My Wild Talents book is covered in multicolored sticky tabs for this very reason. Your players will appreciate your efficiency and be impressed that you are so prepared. Make no mistake, they will always do the one thing that you can’t remember the mechanic for… darn players!
Step three, create your world based on something you know and love. Most likely the system you picked has errata with details about races, monsters, kingdoms/cities, etc. Feel free to use it or lose it. Don’t feel that because you are running a DnD game that you HAVE to have dwarves, elves, and all the usual DnD suspects. Maybe your world only has humans, or maybe it takes place completely underground in the dwarven cities. It is YOUR world. Also, don’t be afraid to go in a completely different direction than the game designers intended. One of the most successful games I have ever run was a Wild Talents game (a superhero system) about the Salem Witch Trials. The poor puritans started developing powers and panicked because they assumed it was the devil’s work. What made it so great? I picked something I knew well and was passionate about. I’m a history teacher by day, and my love for the setting made the players equally passionate. You know your game is a success when they are standing up in the middle of a convention room yelling at each other completely in character, and completely oblivious to the other games around them. It’s those moments that I live for as a GM. Do you know everything about Tolkien’s elves? Are you a huge Firefly fan? Could you write encyclopedias about vampires in your sleep? Those will be your most successful games. (This also comes in handy when you have a really knowledgeable player! One of my players for the Salem game had recently taken a class on the Witch Trials, so it was a good thing I knew my stuff!)
After you have your system and your world imagined, start refining it into a (somewhat) linear plot. Just like writing stories, start with a basic outline and then slowly add in the details. For your first time, stick to a one-shot game that can be completed in four to six hours. Remember, the world that you created can be used again and again so all that prep isn’t a waste for one game. Your adventuring party might save a specific kingdom from a demon, but there are many more kingdoms for them (or other players) to explore! Don’t feel like you have to cram all of your creative material into one game. Keep it secret, keep it safe, then use it later.
I will be providing more helpful advice on GMing specific types of games in future posts, but the first step is always the hardest. Don’t be afraid to “borrow” ideas from your favorite source material and realize that you will make mistakes, and that is ok! Be secure in the knowledge that EVERY GM screws up sometimes, and jump in with both feet.
(This article was originally posted on CharismaBonus.com)