Enjoy being a gamemaster

Featured image: A remix of this image by Diacritica – CC BY-SA 3.0

[This is an excerpt from my upcoming game Different Suns. I’ll post excerpts here on the blog as previews or sketches. Feel free to comment here, or reach out on Mastodon.]

There are lots of resources out there about how to be a good gamemaster, but the most important thing is to start out and have fun with it. Just do it! Don’t worry about remembering or following all the rules correctly. In fact, no one hardly ever does. If you forget a relevant modification on a ranged attack, it’s not the end of the world. After the session you can of course reflect on what went well and what could be done differently. You could also use the “Stars and wishes” tool at the end of a session: simply ask the players what they especially liked in the session, and what they would like to see more of in the future. Hopefully you get an itch to try it again, maybe adjusting your approach a little.

Remember that thousands of people just like you have at one time wondered what it would be like, and then took the leap. It will go just fine. Lower your shoulders, and trust in yourself. Being a decent and mindful human being is the most important criteria for being a good game master!

Below are some notes about what I see as helpful in the three phases of gamemastering: Prepping, At the game table and Post-game activities.


If you want to live long and prosper as a gamemaster, finding a level of preparation that works for you is key. I think many gamemasters get “the nerves” just before starting a game, regardless of how much preparation they have put into it. Some prepare so much it can start feeling like a part-time job. If you like that, go for it. For others, prep is a hassle. Yet it pays off to have thought a little beforehand about possible settings, situations, NPCs, foes, and their motivations. Then, even if the nerves come, you have something to fall back on.

You could of course go for a strictly low-prep “rolling on random encounter tables during the game” approach. My own preference is to prepare a few situations and NPCs and then improvise on top of that. As your experience grows, you will also gain greater confidence in your own ability to improvise consequences and new situations for the players. Improvisation is a skill that can be trained. However, It’s easier to make stuff up if you have a quite clear picture of the environment and the main NPCs. But don’t let that stop you from experimenting and going off on tangents. You can always say: “Actually, no, let’s start again”, if you end up somewhere you really don’t want to be.

In Different Suns we like to call a role playing scenario or module an “adventure”. Adventures should always be engaging, and often results in a mix between tense and fun situations. See below for some detailed tips on how to prep an adventure. And whether you spend 15 hours or 15 minutes on prep, let it be something you enjoy.

Entering the role of gamemaster also means that whatever you read, see and hear can spark an idea for an adventure or encounter. Every film, book, game, song lyric, article or TV show can be a potential seed for an exciting situation. Keep a notebook (physical or digital) handy, so you can jot down ideas when you get them. In the words of Austin Kleon: “Steal like an artist”. If you’re planning on running a certain genre or exploring a certain milieu, it can also help to specifically research relevant media. How deep you want to go is up to you.

At the game table

This is where it “gets real”, whether you’re at a physical table or in a digital environment. Try and find a way to do it without tiring yourself out. Remember, the game is a shared responsibility. The players also need to contribute constructively if everyone is to enjoy themselves.

Be friendly, and act with integrity

You might encounter new players that haven’t played before at all: make sure they feel welcome, like any good host. Answer any questions they might have, and provide information freely that help people understand what’s going on. Let everyone relax into the situation. Be a fan of every character, even when you present challenges in-game. Different Suns is about co-creating an exciting story that everyone at the table enjoys. So don’t be an idiot. Be a decent human being, and respect other people’s boundaries. 

Be aware of the social, fictional and mechanical aspects during play

It can sometimes be useful to assess the roleplaying experience from three different angles:

  • The social aspect: Do the players trust and respect each other in “real life”? Are people comfortable with each other’s sense of humour, level of distraction, etc.? Are the players expecting freeform sandbox play, while you actually prepared for a very structured experience?
  • The fictional aspect: What makes sense in the game world? Is it socially acceptable to wear full body armour in the city? Do you need a license for the gun? Do you need a translator device to speak to the three-legged creature?
  • The mechanical aspect: How is damage from explosions calculated? How many dice should you roll for a certain skill check? How many experience points are needed to learn a new talent?

If you sense tension in the group, try to find out what aspect it is originating from. Tensions or problems that stem from the social aspect are simply not fixed by focusing on clarifying the fiction or mechanics. You might need to step back and get the bigger picture. Clarify expectations, take a little one-on-one talk with someone, or take the initiative to start the next session with a discussion about how to deal with an issue, for instance the use of smartphones during play. 

Every experience and learning you’ve had with group management (from group assignments at school, facilitating meetings or workshops at work, teaching a class, etc.) is relevant when gamemastering. What works for you and your group? Be sure to check out safety tools like the X-card, Veils and lines, and Stars and wishes to establish some common ground rules from the beginning.

Present the world as clearly and engaging as you can

Keep describing, giving a level of detail that makes it easy for players to gauge the fictional situation and make meaningful choices. Chris McDowall talks about the ICI doctrine: Information, Choice, Impact. Players should be given information that allows them to make a meaningful choice, with clear consequences (impact). If describing a location, lead with observed movement or threats, and let the players deal with that before detailing the interior. Describe the guards in front of them first, describe the dusty terminal afterwards.

An especially interesting choice is the dilemma – a situation where players are presented with two equally undesirable or desirable outcomes. Players are then put in a situation where they either need to “pick or push”. Will they choose one alternative above the other – or will they make a risky manoeuvre, sacrifice something, or use their smarts in order to achieve more?

Be sure to ask the players clarifying questions about what their characters want to achieve. This helps to establish stakes and possible outcomes of the characters’ actions. Remember, players only roll for skill checks when failing the roll would create an interesting situation.

Use a situation die

Sometimes players ask you a question you don’t know the answer to. A fun and fast way to find out what happens and keep the story moving is to roll for a random result. A simple 50/50 “luck die” can be used to find the answers to yes/no-questions. Roll 1D6. 1-3 is “no”, 4-6 is “yes”. The player can make the roll.

Other questions are a little more complex. You are free to make up probability tables on the spot. You could for instance set an unlikely outcome to 1-2, a likely outcome to 3-5, and a surprise outcome to 6. Exactly what those are depends on the situation and your imagination. The player can ask: “How did my betting on the space station tennis tournament go?” You can mentally imagine that on the 1-2, they win, on 3-6 they lose. You could also decide that on the 1 they win, someone notices their big payout, and starts following them…

You can also use a simple roll like this to determine the degree of something. – “How noisy is our spaceship?” – “Roll a D6. On 1 it’s silent, and on 6 it’s like a jackhammer.” The player rolls a 5, sighing at the fact that a silent approach is not possible.

If appropriate, ask the players to contribute to the world-building

Some gamemasters love to build their world in detail before a game. For others, this is a daunting and time-consuming task. If you are in the latter category, share the burden of creation by asking the players to fill in details about the world or setting. Ask questions! What is the name of the receptionist? What is the deep forest outside the settlement known for? What is the one thing that your mysterious mentor always keeps mentioning? It is sometimes easier for players to imagine and describe things that their character would know (places, people, things, customs, history, conflicts, love affairs), but also find out if they also like to describe other aspects of the setting.

Be mindful that not all players enjoy being asked to “co-create” the environment their characters inhabit. Adapt your way of playing to the group that you are currently with.

Be aware of the group’s energy levels and keep the story moving 

This is related to the social aspect mentioned above. Consciously shift the spotlight among all the players to engage the whole group. Don’t let only one or two players dominate the conversation. If someone is withdrawn, ask them a direct question about what their character wants to do. That said, sometimes people are just tired, and are fine with a more quiet style of play. It doesn’t always have to do with group dynamics.

Indeed, sometimes the group just needs to take a break. Make a cup of tea, go to the bathroom, stretch out on the sofa. Just remember that an important aspect of your job as a gamemaster is to keep the story moving. That entails trying to frame scenes that engage the characters, and introduce interesting complications and consequences. If you can develop the ability to surprise and delight your players, that’s great. Just remember that the players also have an equal responsibility to create a fun game. It’s not all on you. If you’re stuck for ideas for how to develop a situation, take a chance and ask the players.

Make your own rulings

You will encounter situations that the rules don’t cover, or where you simply cannot find the one relevant rule you know you read somewhere. Don’t worry about it. Make a ruling there and then, based on the best of your knowledge. Call for a skill check, add or remove modifiers, or simply state what is or what isn’t possible. You can always adjust those rulings later. Nothing stops the flow of a game more than flipping through rulebooks. Prioritise the story.

After the game

At the end of the session, it can sometimes be a good idea to ask the players how the session went: What did they especially like? What would they like to see more of? Be sure to answer the questions yourself.

Even if you don’t do this exercise, it’s useful to reflect upon how you thought the session went. Were there parts that really sang? Did the flow grind to a halt? Could you have done anything differently? Remember that a roleplaying session isn’t a one-person performance. Sometimes the story, dice rolls and inputs from the players come together beautifully. At other times, the decisions and dice rolls make for a more mundane, or even unsatisfying outcome. That’s okay. Roleplaying games are shared, spontaneous creations dependent on the moods and abilities of the people present at that particular time. This is not a polished book, film or comic with a coherent storyline. Remember that you are always free to introduce something new next time, to take the game in another direction.

Be sure to follow up any obligations and promises you made during the game. It can help to take notes.

  • Any questions or requests you need to follow up?
  • Any rules that need clarifying?
  • Do you write or ask someone else to write a short recap of what happened in the session? This could be useful if playing a longer campaign or to keep those who weren’t present in the loop.

And then, the prepping for the next session begins.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.