Three Game Master Tips for the GM in You

I love tabletop roleplaying games in many flavors; Star Wars Saga Edition, D&D 2nd Edition all the way to 4th, Anima, The Authority, Paranoia, Shadowrun…. I love the concept of a truly free open world, one that computers cannot (yet) mimic. One only limited by the imagination. Dialogue options are whatever you can come up with and there’s certainly more than one way to solve any problem, much to the GM’s chagrin.

I’ve been playing D&D since I was 13 (which was longer ago than I care to admit), and I’m still in contact with my original group, even though we’re separated by oceans.

Although I love playing in campaigns, I find that the hard work of DMing is one that few people want to pick up, and fewer still are the ones I would want to play with, so like they say “If the story you want to read hasn’t been written yet, it is up to you to write it.”

I almost believe that the more I DM the more someone of my knowing might say “That looks fun! I want to do that, too!” or “I’m playing in this new game and should invite her!” and I’ll get to play a quality game again.

Good DMs are hard to find! There are qualities that make a good DM and qualities that make a fantastic DM. I don’t know if I’m quite a fantastic DM, but I’d like to think I’m at least good. Here below I want to share three tips and ideas and concepts I think can make any tabletop roleplaying dungeon master better! I hope you take something away from this, and make sure to invite me to your next game! I mention the 4E worlds here, but these tips could work with any system. It’s just the one I’m running now and therefore I have the most ready examples from it.

1. The “Always say Yes” rule: This is a good one that they even mention in the 4th Edition DM’s guide. When taken with a grain of salt, this should be the first thing a GM practices. The idea of this rule, which is really more of a suggestion, is that if a player asks “Hey, can I distract these vicious centipedes we’re fighting with the crispy bacon I mentioned I was picking up in town?” The answers should be, “Yes! I would let you role a bacon check which I just made up.”

It’s important to not just say yes, but say yes responsibly. The ‘yes’ rule can actually mess you up big-time if you’re not careful and just allow them to succeed, so my tip is:

  • “Yes, you can try” not “yes, you can succeed”

This means that you should almost always give them the option to try this stupid idea of theirs, and give them a fair chance at it, but don’t let them automatically succeed. Yeah, they want to try to talk down the dragon? Sure! The DC is a ‘really friggin’ hard’ +10 to the Hard DC for their level. And guess what? They did it through assists and they were hooting and hollering and having a blast. It was a whole new challenge they created along with me, the DM, and despite the challenge of it, they succeeded. So they might have easily not succeeded, but they wouldn’t have held it against you. They would have remembered trying. This allows players to have real impact on the game through creativity and thinking outside the box. It lets them feel like their character made a difference to the world/dungeon/party/event and allows them to fail and succeed on their own volition.

2. Titles: “Delilah Dawnbreaker, champion of Cormyr and the bane of the Eastern Horde” sounds pretty awesome, and imagine how much fun the player of this character had introducing herself! Titles. DMs don’t usually consider them, and it’s up to the players to embellish their own character, and most of them simply don’t think about it. So my tip to you is:

  • Hand out titles and new names sparingly, but meaningfully

Did the party successfully defend the palace walls? Did each party member do something even slightly unique in this climactic battle? Give them titles. “I dub thee Dusk Braveheart for the courage displayed in the defense of my noble city in its time of need.” How cool is that? They will collect these titles and names and nicknames and feel each of them like Gandalf and Aragorn combined, and that can’t be a bad thing. The title can come from a small, but meaningful event, like saving those slaves from death. The slaves return to their villages, and suddenly the party is recognized in some remote village as “Oh! It’s Zariel Chainbreaker!” The party will be surprised, but really they’ll feel all happy and proud.

3. Don’t always have all the answers: When you’re creating the next adventure, you don’t always have to have all the answers. The simple idea behind this is that you are only one brain, and your party tends to be made of several, if you’re lucky. 😉 Creating a single solution to a problem can be fun for a puzzles and riddles, where the party has to think about what the creator of the puzzle thought about, but if you want them to convince the local lord to help them or have them pass a physical obstacle or enter or leave a place, sometimes you can have your own ideas, but no clear one way to solve it. My tip is:

  • Create a problem and let the party find the solution

Creating interesting challenges can be tough enough, so let the party assume you know the right way through and listen to them discuss it. Some of their ideas will be awful  but most of the time they’ll come up with a fun solution you wouldn’t have necessarily thought of. You get more time to think of the rest of the adventure, and they get to work as a team to flex their creativity to pass the obstacle. For example, in our game last weekend I created a chasm. I put the dungeon tiles a bit father than I intended originally and created a 10 foot gap instead of the more easily jumped 5 foot I meant. The party immediately set to work on how to cross it, and they seemed so in to it I didn’t correct myself. It took a good 10 – 15 minutes of play time for the entire party to safely cross it, and there were some hilarious moments, as well as moments for quieter players to really shine. It wasn’t a game beat I planned, but by allowing the party to find their own solutions to a problem I thought so simple, we created a game moment together.

In conclusion:

  • “Yes, you can try” not “yes, you can succeed”
  • Hand out titles and new names sparingly, but meaningfully
  • Create a problem and let the party find the solution

I hope these three tips to add excitement and enjoyment to your game will be helpful. If this article is enjoyed, I might add new tips here and there. I love DMing, and I love playing with good DMs, so it’s in my best interest to teach DMs out there what I enjoy! You have any tips and hints for new and experienced DMs out there? Comment below!

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2 Responses to Three Game Master Tips for the GM in You

  1. nerdarchy101 says:

    Great article and I love the say “Yes rule” myself. It just makes for a better experience when you let the players at least try their hair brained schemes. Good advice on the open ended problem. It goes right along with my own personal design philosophy for Game Mastering. That is to never create work for myself when I don’t have to. Besides your players will always think of things you didn’t or totally ignore what you thought was obvious.

    • Anat says:

      Sorry; this comment ended flagged as spam– Thanks for commenting, though! I’m glad you agree. It’s hard work being a DM, and sometimes the little rules help make things easier. 😀

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