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A GMing Article I Wrote in 1997

I originally wrote in article for the old Happy Jacks RPG Resources. You can find it mixed in with homebrewing stuff on Archive.org if you want to find it. This article is almost 20 years old, but much of what I wrote here still rings true — to me at least.

In the fall of 1978, as a seventh grader in junior high school, I was introduced to the world of Fantasy Role Playing when a friend bought the DnD Beginners Set. It came with a basic rule book and some cardboard chits in place of dice. We played through the sample adventure, and I was hooked. Within a week or two I was creating my own dungeons, and running players through them. From there I went on to Traveller, and finally in my first year in college, I discovered GURPS. Now at Thirty, I look back at nearly 20 years of GM-ing, and I think, “Wow, I’m some geek!” But I also remember how many people were entertained by my games.

I would like to enumerate some basic points to GM-ing I have come up with over the years for those who care to read them.

A disclaimer: The following hints are from my own experiences. The ideas I present have worked for me, but they may not work for you.

  1. Always Be Prepared.  Before your GURPS session begins. Have your adventure ready. Always know what’s going to happen after you have all sat down and finished with the small talk. If the players have things they want to do from the beginning, let them, but keep YOUR game moving. Very often I have been caught by surprise when there’s a knock on the door: “We’re playing today?” I say. Oops. Well if you have a couple of adventure seeds in reserve, that’s the time to bring them out. When I have a creative itch, it tends to last for a while, so I write a few adventure seeds — just a couple of paragraphs to jog my memory and get things started. If the players solve an adventure sooner than I expect, I have another adventure to begin right away. An unprepared GM is death to a gaming session. Always be ready.
  2. Have the Right Attitude.  For the players, the measure of a successful gaming session is easy to identify: Did I have fun? Did we accomplish the tasks we set out to do? Great, a success! GMs, on the other hand, have to have a different attitude. The GM is god, divine rule maker, grand antagonist. But more importantly, the GM is the entertainer. You are there to provide the players with a good, challenging, and fun gaming session. Always remember this! Yes, you are the chief antagonist, but don’t lose sight of what your truly are, a partner in fun. If you find yourself resenting the players for beating your unbeatable foe, solving your unsolvable riddle, you need to step back and take a real reality check. Your purpose as a GM is not to “beat” the players at the game your playing. That’s way too easy. You make the rules. Instead, strive to confound the players, challenge their problem-solving skills, stretch their role-playing skills by putting their characters in new unfamiliar situations. Make the players want to solve your adventure. And if they going to succeed, let them! After all, they deserve it. Only in role-playing games can you explore the possibilities of worlds and people that will only exist in your mind. It is a wonderful, nearly mystic endeavor. Let your players enjoy the richness of the worlds and situations you have created.
  3. When Designing Problems or Puzzles, don’t determine the solution. When I create GURPS adventures, I come up with situations and problems, but I usually give little or no thought to solutions to those problems. I do this for two reasons. Firstly, I don’t want a preconceived notion as to how the game must go. If I have a solution in mind, I may subconsciously lead the players toward that conclusion. I want my players to have free reign in my worlds, I don’t want them to feel like they are being lead. Secondly, if I don’t have any solutions in my mind, whatever they come up with will probably be a surprise. I love it when my players surprise me. In fact, I encourage them to keep their plans secret until the time of execution. Such an arrangement keeps me on my toes and makes me a better GM.
  4. Keep Notes! As the players move through my game visiting shops, meeting people, they often ask for the name of the person, place, business. As you make these up, jot down the name and a brief description. That way if they end up in the same area, things will remain consistent.
  5. Don’t Let Combat Bog You Down. Well, I should say, “Don’t let combat bog you down, unless you want it to.” My games are always heavy on role-playing and character-interaction, not combat. If you dig combat, have at it. But if you are looking for a more cerebral game — a game that doesn’t emphasize combat, don’t let the combat slow you down. If you don’t know a particular rule, don’t look it up, guess, make something up, keep the game moving. The only caveat is that you should make sure your players know you’re going to run this type of game. Some players are rules-lawyers, and they spend time studying rules, and take pride in their knowledge of them. These sorts of players may be taken aback by a GM who makes up rules on the fly.
  6. Don’t Give Hints! If you’ve presented the players with a problem, and they are genuinely stumped, GREAT! That’s your job. Watch them flounder. Enjoy the puzzled looks. Just keep the game moving. If they can’t figure out what to do, let them move on to something else. Whatever you do, don’t just hand them the answer. Make them earn it.

Written by

Stu Venable is the producer of Happy Jacks RPG Podcast and writer and editor of DoucheyDM.com. He is founder and director of the Poxy Boggards and a member of Celtic Squall. He holds a degree in Journalism and Public Relations from California State University, Long Beach. He is a husband and a father. He hates puppies.

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One Response to "A GMing Article I Wrote in 1997"

  1. d47No Gravatar says:

    If only you had posted this sooner, I could have avoided hundreds of hours of brain damage from listening to the Happy Jacks podcast.

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