GTM #199 - Tricks of the Game Trade - Tip #6
by Jon Leitheusser

Last month, we covered a number of tips regarding how to get started running a new roleplaying game. Not the typical answers to “What is a roleplaying game?,” but practical answers for prospective gamemasters interested in how to actually get a game started. The topics we covered were:

#1: Now’s a great time to get started because of all the awesome games and adventures out there.

#2: Sit in on a game to see how it’s played, especially if you’re new to the hobby.

#3: Invite friends that you think might be interested in playing.

#4: Use email ahead of time to find out what people would like to play and to pitch your ideas to each other.

#5: Have a place to play, so you can all show up and get started without worrying about the logistics at the last minute.

#6: Test the tech ahead of time if you’re playing online instead of in-person, that way you don’t spend a bunch of time troubleshooting technical problems.

We continue this month with tips on what to have and do when you and your friends sit down to play. These tips cover a lot of ground on a number of different topics, but they should all help you get your game off to a successful start! We begin with tip #7:

#7: Have Books, Character Sheets, Pencils, and Dice Ready

When you sit down at the table, whether you’re the gamemaster or a player, have everything you need at the ready. At the least, have paper, pencils, and dice. If you can, also have a character sheet and a rulebook for the game you’re playing. Being prepared helps everyone at the table have more fun because no one has to accommodate your lack of preparedness and you can answer your own questions because you have a book in front of you. If you can’t afford a book of your own, be considerate when asking for help or to borrow a book from your friends.

#8: Set Expectations

This one’s for the gamemaster. When you get everyone together, make sure to have a solid idea of what you’re going to do and what you want the game to “feel” like—then, explain that to the players. If you’re running a gritty game, inform the players in advance while also providing details. For example, “In this game you’ll all be playing characters from the lower classes who have spent their time on the mean streets. You’ll be drawn into the adventure when you investigate some of your friends who have gone missing and hear rumors of slavers active in town.” That’s a short couple of sentences that gives the players a good idea of the sorts of characters they should play. As always, work with the players to help them create characters that will be both effective in the game and interesting to them.

Your description of what you’re going to run can also include something about the style of the game. ‘Style’ in this case means such things as: a sandbox game, in which you introduce the characters to a location and let them find adventures to pursue themselves; an adventure game, in which you have a specific adventure or series of adventures in mind which the players follow from one event to the next until they complete the story; or character driven game, in which the players decide what they want to do based on their characters’ backgrounds and personalities, creating all the conflict and drama themselves, with no need for traditional adventures or plot hooks.

By setting players expectations up front, you give them the information they need to come up with appropriate characters.

#9: Commit to Your Job as the Gamemaster

Being the gamemaster is work. It’s also fun. You get to tell stories with your friends and you all have a good time. Since you’ve decided to be the gamemaster, commit to it. Read the rules, be ready to help your players when questions arise, plan out or read through the adventure you’re running so you’re familiar enough with it to keep the story moving forward. As stated earlier, it’s work and you will have more fun at the table if you’re prepared ahead of time. If you can commit to running a game once a week, great, do that. If you feel you need more time to be prepared, then offer to run every couple of weeks or once a month, but make sure you’re ready when the time comes to run the best, most fun game you can.

When you’re the gamemaster, you hold a lot of power, but you also have a lot of responsibility. This is especially true when you’re at the table running a game. You have to play all the NPCs, describe the environment, know the rules, and run encounters, but you also need to be aware of what’s happening at the table. It’s your job to make sure you’re treating all the players fairly, that you’re giving everyone time to shine, reward players for thinking creatively, encourage players to add details to the world or their character, be consistent with how you apply rules, and admit your mistakes when you make them—and if it’s not too late, change what happened as a result of your mistake. Finally, pay attention to the clock. You don’t want to start a big fight when there’s only 15-minutes left before the end of the session.

#10: Commit to Your Job as a Player

Being the player is work. It’s also fun. (Hmm, this sounds familiar.) And yes, you need to commit to being a player. Or rather, you need to commit to being a good player. Show up on time, know the rules (to some extent), have your character sheet with you, pencils, dice, rulebooks ... everything you need to play the game. Once you’re playing, don’t be disruptive. Yes, you want to have fun and people will naturally tell jokes and get a little goofy, but know when to turn off the spigot. Everyone is there to play a game, so make that the focus of your attention. Stay off your phone, don’t play games on your laptop, instead listen to what the gamemaster and the other players are saying and contribute when appropriate. Just like the gamemaster, your role as a player is to make sure everyone has fun—it’s not to make sure you have fun. If you’re having fun and no one else at the table is, you’re ruining the game. Don’t do that.

#11: Get the Books You Need

Another big part of being the gamemaster is having resources available to help you run the game. At the minimum those include the base rulebooks for the game you’re running. You can do a lot with a small number of books, but if something looks interesting then read up on it online or go to your game store and check it out. Once you know you’ll get value out of the book, buy it! The best gaming books will inspire good ideas and provide you with rules or information you need.

For example, if you’re running a game that involves slavers (such as the one mentioned in tip #8, above), the new Villain Codex for the Pathfinder RPG would be a great option because it includes information on a group of slavers including its structure, plot hooks, premade encounters, and more.

Another example is Volo’s Guide to Monsters for D&D. It offers new monsters to keep your players off their guard and provides more information on other monsters that you can draw inspiration from for your games.

These books contain exactly the sort of information that gamemasters need. They will give you ideas to help flesh out your plots and provide monsters and encounters so you don’t have to come up with them on your own. That sort of thing saves a lot of time and makes for better stories.

Time to Play!

You’re at the table and prepared to run (or play) your game. You’ve read through the adventure and have all the books and dice you need to get the game going. Now is the time when you put all the tips offered here into action. You might be a bit nervous, but remember, everyone is there to have a good time, so relax and ease into things. Then join us next month for more tricks of the tabletop!

Jon Leitheusser is a writer, editor, and game developer. He published the Dork Tower comic book, was the HeroClix game designer for years, was a content designer for Champions Online and Neverwinter, has been the Mutants & Masterminds game developer for Green Ronin since 2008, and freelances for a number of different companies. He cut his gaming teeth on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and still games twice a week with his friends online or in person. He’s attended about 30 Gen Cons and he lives in Renton, Washington with his wife and a mean cat.