GM Advice: 6 Tips For First Time GMs

Since I started writing "Ed The Bard", I have received a flood of messages and comments from folks who had never Game Mastered before, but really wanted to give it a shot. My So You Want To Be A GM series really seemed to help new and budding GMs gather up the courage to sit behind that screen and tell their story. I've kept in contact with a good number of these new GMs to see how their campaigns have gone and to answer any questions they had about running, which I am more than glad (and excited) to do.

There are a lot of things Game Masters should know, and the books (in their infinite, beautiful wisdom) can only convey so much. Sometimes the information therein is a little on the dry side (let's face facts folks, we read textbooks for fun), and it is a lot easier when it is conveyed in a fashion that doesn't sound like history or algebra homework.

Enter... The Bard, boiling information down to its base elements and throwing a few low-brow jokes in there with a few curses for good measure.

"Wrong curses, but I like where you're going here."

That being said, I am no internet guru or some egotistical GM that thinks he knows better than anyone else. My experience in gaming does not span three decades (more like half that) and I will be the first to admit I don't have all the answers. Hell, many of my games have crashed and burned so miserably that if there was an old timey camera rolling, it may look like something akin to the Hindenburg. All I have going really is my own meandering experience and the knowledge that every failure I have under my belt has been a learning experience I can draw from.

 "Goin' my way?"

In short, I am a lot like most Game Masters. Ideally, I want to help pass on what I have learned so that future GMs don't need to make some of the same mistakes I did, or can improve on things I already do right. In this vein, there are a few tips that new Game Masters should know. Stuff that doesn't often make it into books but is good advice none the less. Take it or leave it.

 I will dispense that advice... now.

1. Let The Story Be Your Guide. The Rest Will Fall In Line
When you start Game Mastering, there is a lot of focus put on the mechanics end of things. How much hp does this thing have? What is the damage from this trap? What should I set the DC for this skill check? All that is important, yes, but it all takes a back seat to the story. The story is paramount. Your players are not likely to remember what their bonus to reflex or dexterity saving throws was at level 3, but you better believe that they will remember saving those kids from the rampaging ogre that was tearing through the village at level 3.

 "I keep telling you damn kids to stay off my lawn!"

The story you have to tell is the game, and as such, the mechanical end of things will fall in line with that. When you are just starting out, go with your gut, just as long as it helps propel the story forward. Here are a few rules of thumb I employ when running my games that helps me a lot.

  • Skill check DCs don't need to be a set thing all the time. If your players are tracking down goblins in the woods, and you want them to find the trail, then make the checks low and give them a reason for it. In this case, it could be that one of the goblins is carrying something that keeps spilling on the ground, or has an injury and keeps bleeding everywhere. Adapt the reason to the situation, just as long as you justify it. It can even add more to the story.

  • When determining a creature's hit points, I usually have a copy of its stats right in front of me. Sometimes I even look at them. Mostly, though, I have a personal way I determine the hit points of various creatures. I have broken monsters down into 4 categories; cleave-candy, minions, tough guys, and bosses. Most of these categories have no real pre-set amount of hit points, but rather hits dealt.
    Cleave-candy consists of monsters with low hit points. Low enough where your martial characters can kill them en mass with a single hit, or your mage can just murder them all at once. These are ego-building monsters I use to help the players feel invincible. They're usually just annoying enough to be a slight pain in the butt. They're hindrances more than anything else. Living obstacles.
    Minions are usually at the command of a tougher foe. These guys often deal out respectable damage, but their shortcoming is that they only have two good hits in them. That is after they are hit twice with decent damage, they crumble. The way I accomplish this is by paying attention to how much damage was dealt to the first creature that drops after two hits. That damage is now the sum of the rest of the creatures' hp. Ridiculous amounts of damage, like critical hits and max damage on spells, should be disregarded when determining this number. Large novas in damage should be rewarded by instakills of lesser enemies.
    Tough guys are, well, tough. They take a good deal more punishment or have resistances or reduction that reduce the amount of damage they take. This is when I start leaning more into the actual creature's stats. However, depending on the ease of fight, I may expand the creature's hit points. Typically the hit points given to you in the Monster Manual and Bestiary are the average amount of hit points for that creature. Meaning that your everyday, run-of-the-mill monster of that type will always have that amount of hp. But some monsters are tougher than others. So, as the fight goes on, and if I feel that the party is having no trouble putting this creature down, I will take a gander at its hit dice (not hit points). In those situations, I may be inclined to use my mighty math powers to give the creature maximum hit points. After all, it is a tough guy. It should be tough.
    Bosses make your tough guy look like a walk in the park. They usually have some way to mitigate damage, be it through spells, natural resistances, or healing. No matter the case, these guys should have maximum hit points at all times. But sometimes that isn't enough. Sometimes your heroes are just too damned good at their jobs. You don't want to disappoint them do you? I know I don't. That's why sometimes I double, or even triple the bosses hp. Now, before you do this, look at the bosses hp before the encounter. If it seems on the low side, or if you feel like your players can deal that in two rounds without breaking a sweat, factor in a fight with a creature of the same CR. That is to say, when you determine how hard the encounter is, use the bosses CR and then multiply that by the number of times you want it to get back up and raise some more hell. I have some pointers on how this all works right here

  • Trap damage can be a tough one. How much is too much? How much is not enough? Well, there are two ways to determine this. The first would be to reference the handy as hell trap damage chart from the D&D 5E Dungeon Master's Guide. This goes for you Pathfinder folks too. The damage dealt scales by level, allowing you, the Game Master, to create traps on the fly while still giving you a suitable range for damage based on the amount of hit points your player characters will be running around with. However, sometimes the damage is enough to kill them, and despite my reputation, I do not always want the PCs to die. I have a story to tell, and that is hard to do without the main characters. So, what I will do is keep a GM cheat sheet with the current hp of all of the characters. This way I know how much damage they've taken, and how much they can take. If I am feeling less than murderous I will often do just enough damage to leave the poor player character(s) with 1 hp after a trap has been sprung.
    I'm not entirely evil.

2. Make a GM Cheat Sheet
This thing is invaluable. The cheat sheet is a quick reference tool to let you know certain important stats, saves, and skills of your players' characters. With this information, you need not ask them countless times what their AC is. Instead, you can just let them know you hit them and crushed them into a fine. Make one of these for each one the players' characters. My personal GM Cheat sheet consists of...

  • The character's AC, so that I know what I need to hit (be sure to include the number with and without things like shields, armor, or spells)
  • Their hit points. A running tally of this can allow you to flub rolls in their favor while still making them think you're punishing them. I am the Lord of Illusions!
  • Saves. Know what your PC's saves are so that you can play into them as much as you use them against the party. This is good for traps on the fly or choosing an enemy spellcaster's spells. Know what they can do. Know what they can't. Have fun!
  • Passive perception. This is all manner of things that would love to sneak up on your players' characters and do all manner of unspeakable things to them. But unless they are a paranoid lot (and so many are), they probably aren't making perception checks (or spot and listen for you oldtimers) all the time. You certainly don't want to tell them to make a check unless you want every person at the table to start rolling dice like you somehow inadvertently started "the wave" at a sporting event. Becuase for some reason, if one person doesn't notice anything, everyone else somehow notices that they didn't notice and want to notice anything that might be worth noticing despite not noticing anything in the first place. Instead, it is so much easier to just use passive perception as a target number for your creatures to hit. A passive perception is just the player's full perception bonus plus 10. Simple, easy, and still plays to those with sharp senses, making them look (and feel) badass without even trying. Also, pay close attention to the type of vision they have. Darkvision, low light vision, and regular people vision works differently around a campfire.

You can toss this info on a piece of scrap paper, file it away in a notebook (or evernote if you've gone digital), or do like I do and place it on an initiative place card.

What's an initiative place card?

This super easy little thing (created by a genius, no doubt) is simply a piece of paper, note card, or cardstock folded in half with the characters' names on the front and back. You then toss these bad boys up atop your GM screen along with any monsters, and you have nice, simple visual cue for how the initiative order will go. This actually gets your players thinking about what they are going to do on their turn because they can literally see how long they have before they act.

"Keep an eye on that Vyle McBadnasty. He might be bad news."

"Here they are in all their blank glory. If anyone knows who made them, please let me know so props can be given in kind."

3. Prep The World, Not The Game
This might seem like a counterintuitive statement but bear with me on this one. If you have an excellent setting, with its own towns and landmarks, geography, pitfalls, monsters, and history, then the story comes easily, and with a story comes a game. But it originated from your game world. It doesn't even have to be your own homebrewed setting. It could be an already established and richly detailed worlds such as the Forgotten Realms or Golarion. But whatever you chose to use, make sure it has enough going on in it to excite the players.

If everyone is starting in the coastal town of Sandpoint, there is a lot going on. There is a haunted house up on the hill, goblins in a nearby fort, a local legend about a horse-like monster called the Sandpoint devil, and there is a dungeon right under the town that once belonged to one of the seven evil mages that ruled the world once upon a time.

 "You would never know that she was the Runelord of Wrath."

Did you think of any adventures while reading that? The world has tons to offer in the way of a game. Once you have the options out there and the players at the table, the damned thing almost writes itself. All you need to do is throw in monsters and lovable NPCs.

However, don't fall into the trap that so many GMs do. We can be a bit of an obsessive bunch, and we kind of get carried away building and building and building until we have a massive, fully realized and functioning world. A living, magical world that the players will only ever see 1% of. Now you've done a ton of work for stuff no one will ever see. This kind of prep is great if you are a novelist. But as a GM, you are just wasting time.

I used to fall into this trap often. That is why I started implementing the Two Day Rule.

The Two Day Rule: If you intend on running an adventure, only flesh out the area they are beginning in and anything within a two-day ride. Why a two-day ride? Becuase it limits how far the characters can go in any direction, both in-game and out. Let's say you start everyone in the town of Oakendale. You can flesh the town out, add a few NPCs, and  make some interesting features in the area like a waterfall rumored to have a cave behind it where bandits are said to hold up. There could be an abandoned keep a day away on the side of a mountain with reports of the long dead soldiers walking up and down the ramparts. There might even be a haunted forest nearby full of harpies and deceitful dyrads. You have plenty for your characters to do, but what if they want to know what is on the other side of that mountain, or they want to visit the nearest city?

 "Every friggin time!"

Now, you could despair that your players won't be engaging in an area, you have spent hours creating, and become absolutely terrified that you don't have a fully fleshed out city or a thing on the other side of the mountain awaiting them, but you don't need to be. You've got two days. The two days acts as a buffer between you and your players and their characters.

A two-day ride is a long journey, and all sorts of things can happen along the way. Inclimate weather, wandering monsters, bandits, NPCs, and all sorts of interesting things can happen along the way. Also, look at that word ride. That means on horseback, and unless the characters have saved and bought themselves horses, they will be walking considerably longer. Besides that, horses don't run for two days straight. They need rest and food. That means finding a place to camp and somewhere for the horses to drink.

 "I don't think I am MARE-ied to the idea of horse ownership."

Camping means more chances for things to happen. necessarily monsters attacking in the night, but perhaps things to draw them back into the threads you have set out before them. The moans from the walking dead in the keep upon the mountainside might make for a haunting chorus that echoes across the land, beckoning the brave to explore the old fortress and put its soldiers to rest. A thief turned bandit might want to steal a few items from the characters as a way to prove herself to the bandit leader without having to resort to violence like the rest of her ilk, which could be an in for the bandit storyline

What this all means for the GM is time, more specifically game time. Every part of the journey takes game time, from the combat, to the exploration, to just camping. Eventually, the time will run out, preferably before they make it to the destination they were heading to. This allows you a week (or however long you have between sessions) to create that location they were so eager to get to. Sure, it is a stall for time, but you can still make the stall exciting, and every new thing you put in front of the player characters just adds life and depth to the setting.

Half of Game Mastering is improv, which brings me to my next point...

4. Learn To Adapt
 Adaptation is the greatest tool in the GM's toolbox. It can turn an easy encounter into a hard one, a hard one into an easier one, and it can save you butt if you have clever players. As I have said countless times before, characters are little chaos generators. They are extremely good at throwing monkey wrenches into plans. If you have a charismatic member of the local thieves' guild that is key to the plot, you best believe they are going to die at the hands of your players before that plot ever gets resolved.

 "Players: Escalating situations since 1974."

Now what do you do? Your plans hinged on that thief. The simple answer is improv! You are given the scene: A dead thief with familial ties to a wealthy noble house. The thief was the player characters in to get close to the nobles in order to learn the location of the legendary egg McGuffin that is crucial to your endgame. Now they have no way of getting anywhere close to that info.

Or do they?

Listen to your players' suggestions first. They may be chaos generators, but sometimes they come up with better plans and plots than their GM. If one of their ideas sounds good, run with it. If one player suggests taking the body to the nobleman's manor and explaining things and manages to convince everyone else, then go with the flow.

The nobleman might even welcome them, explaining that the thief had brought the family so much shame in the past. This could smooth things over and it may make it easier to get the information from him that the characters are seeking. And how much work did you need to do?

Next to none.

"Game Mastering is such hard work."

You get the story back on track, the player that came up with the solution gets to feel like the MVP for a little while, and everyone else is happy because that was a little victory for them. All this because you could adapt to the situation quickly. If the players want to take a road you never intended them to take, let them. Set a difficulty for it, and see what comes of it, especially if it is something cool like jumping off a winding staircase to grab hold of a chandelier and ride it down on top of the enemies below.

However, it isn't all easy. Sometimes players throw out titanic monkey wrenches. Sometimes you even screw up, and that is okay. Becuase you are going to screw up.

5. Give Yourself Permission To Fail
You are going to make some mistakes. You are going to falter, and fail, and muck things up a bit. The important thing to remember is that it is totally fine to do those things. No one starts off as a Matt Mercer, or a Chris Perkins, or even a Gary Gygax (blessed be their names). You start in the same place as they did; at the bottom. When Chris Perkins started playing D&D, he didn't know even half the rules. Now he writes them. Matt Mercer wasn't always a celebrity DM. And how many TPKs do you think Mr. Gygax had to suffer through before he got his rhythm down?

You are only human. And humans are prone to mistakes. It says so right in their race description. The great thing about making mistakes though is learning from them. I have learned more from my failures than I have from my successes, and let me tell you, I have learned a lot.

 If you are serious about becoming a Game Master, then you are going to have to be persistent. If you fall, you need to pick yourself back up. If you screw up a rule, you now know what that rule is, and you will never screw it up again. Good GMs aren't born. They are forged through practice and determination.

 "Also fire."

If that is not enough encouragement, look at it this way. If you mess up, you just fix it and move on. If your players mess up, their character is dead.

6. Don't Go Crazy With Magic Items
If there is one thing I want to impart on new generations of Game Masters, it is this; take it easy on magic items. I know it is tempting to hand out magic rings and swords and cloaks that do all sorts of nifty things. And the way their faces light up when they get a new one can give you the warm fuzzies.

Ignore those fuzzies. Those are deceptive fuzzies.

 "I'm on to you, fuzzies!"

What you are doing is making every new magic item less magical and less personal, until finally you hand them a +3 sword of goblin slicing and they just shrug and toss it on the pile with the others.

I am going to tell you something right now that a lot of players aren't going to like. Something that they hang people for in some countries...

The players don't need magic items in every slot.


That's right. They think they need them, but really, they just really want them. Badly. The truth of the matter is that a lot of folks get dependent on magic items. They'll make arguments that certain magic items are crucial to their build, or that it gives them a chance to survive the game. First, if a build requires a magic item to be useful, it is a crappy build. If a class needs a certain magic item to be useful, either it is a crappy class, or the player isn't playing them to their fullest capability.

Unless you are running a high-magic game, magic items are best left as special rewards that come by sparingly. Anyone can have a +1 sword, but if a player character worked hard to get that sword, they earned it. It is their sword, and they will hang onto that sword for as long as they can.

That being said, I like to give each of my players an artifact before the game is all said and done. Artifacts are cool.

 "Orbs! Orbs for everyone!"

Likes I said, I am not telling you that this is the only way to run your games. They're your games. I just set the advice out there, and you are welcome to take it if it tickles your fancy.

Roll well, my friends,
+Ed The Bard 

And thanks to my Epic Adventurer-Level Patrons
Levi Davis

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