Take the Plunge


The following post is a little argumentative. What can I say? I feel strongly about this topic, and I’m feeling particularly stroppy today.

You have been warned.

I run a number of demo games, both at Imagine Games and at various conventions. I work the booth for Pagan Publishing at GenCon every summer. I talk to a lot of gamers all over the place.

And I hear one story more than any other:

“Yeah, me and my friends used to play roleplaying games, but then our GM moved away*, so we don’t game anymore.”

And while I nod sympathetically, inside I’m asking myself:

“So what? If you lose your GM, why doesn’t someone else take over? Was your GM the only person in the group who can read?*

Now, I admit my gaming group is something of an aberration, based on what I see elsewhere. We’ve got a core group of about a dozen, spread through different games, and in that mix we have three folks who run games regularly, one who does so occasionally, and another who wants to start. That’s a pretty high GM-to-player ratio in a group*. In fact, our gaming schedule is so packed that we have to take turns offering new games to the group, so that all the GMs have the opportunity to run if they want to.

But still. Is it such a leap that, if you like to play, maybe you should try to GM?

I hear a lot of reasons that people don’t do it. I’m going to take some time to discuss some of the big ones.

“It’s too much work.”

I’m tackling this one first because it’s the toughest one. Running a game is more work than playing. You generally have to do more preparation, you have to keep track of more stuff, you have to juggle more things on the fly. It’s a fair cop.

But is it really too much work? I mean, at the height of running D&D 3.5 for a high-level campaign, I was putting in about two hours of prep work for every hour of play. Our sessions usually ran for about four hours once a month, so that means I was putting in another eight hours a month. That’s only two more hours a week, and D&D 3.5 is one of the most complex systems to prep for I’ve ever played* – D&D 4E, for example, has me doing maybe half an hour of prep per hour of play because of the great online tools, and games like Dresden Files and Trail of Cthulhu take very little prep time because the systems are simpler and easier to work with for GMs.

Now, really, if you don’t have the time to put in the prep time, you don’t have the time. Real life should always come first. But most people can probably shake free an hour or two a week – certainly, everyone who comes to the D&D Encounters sessions have already done so to make it to the sessions.

As for the work at the table, when you’re running it, well, all I can say about that is that it doesn’t need to be. If you start small and simple, you’ll gain the skills you need at a surprisingly quick rate, and can move on to bigger, more complex things as you’re ready for them.

“I’m no good at it.”

Here’s a secret: neither was any other GM, the first time they ran a game. Honest.

Running a game is a skill like any other. When you start, you’re not very good, but practice makes you better. You know what doesn’t make you better? Not running a game.

Tied to this idea is the thought that your friends are going to judge you harshly. Well, I don’t know your friends, but if they’re your friends, they’ll likely take it easy on you. If they’re not your friends, why are you playing with them? And if you’re worried about your GM judging you harshly, don’t. The second most common story I hear from gamers is, “I always run the game, so I never get a chance to play.” Offer to run a game, and your usual GM is probably going to be so stoked at the chance to sit on the other side of the screen that he or she will do whatever is necessary to help you and make sure you enjoy the experience. Because then he or she will get to play more often.

“It’s too expensive to buy all the books.”

I have two responses to this.

  1. What the hell? You mean you’re okay with freeloading off the one guy in the group who buys the books? Do you seriously not see the issue with counting on one of your friends to spend his or her money to entertain you? I hope you at least pay for the GM’s snacks. Then maybe he or she will let you borrow the books to run a game.
  2. It’s not that expensive. Suck it up.

Now, when I say that it’s not that expensive, what I’m really saying is that there are games out there for every price point, including a wealth of free RPGs available online. You can pick up complete new games, complete in a single book, for under $20 from small publishers. Electronic files of the games are available from many online retailers at a significant discount over the cost of physical books. And used game books can be found both online and in many game shops and used book shops. You’d be surprised how cheaply you can put together a solid collection.

“I have to learn the rules.”

Well – yeah, you do, but you learned the rules in order to play, right? There’s not much more in the way of rules to learn in order to GM in most systems. And you don’t have to learn them all at once. This isn’t an exam; open book GMing is fine. And if you take a little more time than you like flipping through the book to find the rule you need, well, see what I said above about running games being a skill. It’ll come. Just give it a chance.

“I’m too lazy.”

Nothing I can say to this one but, “You suck.”

Okay. There’s all your excuses shot to hell. But why should you run a game? Here’s a list. I’m not explaining them in detail because, quite frankly, if I need to do detailed explanations of the reasons, you’re just not going to understand them, anyway.

  1. Because it’s fun. There’s a reason I’m running four games currently. It’s loads of fun.
  2. Because it’s another creative avenue of expression. Sure, you get to do a lot of neat acting as a player, but you get to do more as a GM. And you also get to shape the entire world the way you want it. Which leads to…
  3. Because of the power. Even if you’re not using the GM chair as a throne to oppress your players, GMs have more control over most games than anyone else at the table.
  4. Because you owe it to your GM. C’mon. Give the poor guy (or gal) a chance to play for a change!
  5. Because it grows the hobby and the industry. More GMs = more players = more sales = more good games. The math is irrefutable.
  6. Because it’s fun!* Honest!

So, take the plunge. Decide to run a game. Pick out a game you like, and read it. Talk to your friends about it, and get them on your side. Start small, but start. Go slow, but go.


*Or got married, or had kids, or enlisted in the army, or died, or whatever. Back

*Yeah, that last question is a little spiteful. What can I say? I get that way sometimes. Back

*We’ve also got a pretty high female-to-male ratio, with roughly half the players in any of the current games being female. But that’s a different topic. Back

*To be fair, Amber was worse, mainly because of the bookkeeping I had to do behind the scenes, and Decipher’s Lord of the Rings RPG, though I loved it a lot, was a lot of work mainly because of the lack of good stats. Oh, and Serenity was a lot of work, but that was mainly my fault for setting the game up the way I did. My Hunter game is a long time between sessions, but that’s mainly because it takes me some time to come up with a cool idea for the next episode. Not the same thing at all. Back

*Yes, I listed that one twice on purpose. It’s an important reason. Back

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6 Responses to Take the Plunge

  1. Barry says:

    “[…] roughly half the players in any of the current games being female.”

    Really? Can I borrow some? ‘Cause my wife is continually trying to figure out how to become less-outnumbered. 🙂 🙂 🙂

  2. Barry says:

    Ok, and now the serious reply.

    I got suckered into setting up a D&D 4ed game by the D&D Penny Arcade podcasts. While I’d dabbled with DMing a few times across the years, I’ve never tried running a campaign for any length of time. That was last year. Next month will mark the parties one year anniversary with three of the four players that started it (the fourth had a personality conflict and was replaced) . We’re having fun, and dag nab it, if I can do it, so can you.

    Is it “work”? Maybe. I spend a non-trivial amount of time thinking about the next adventure, but I have the time to spend. My commute time is about 90 minutes a day, time perfectly spent deciding what to do next. I even have a longer range plan that I keep in a set of TXT files on a flashdrive. D&D isn’t something that I just pull out on game night. To help with the planning, I crib shamelessly from all sorts of sources. A month ago, I ran the Dead By Dawn adventure from Dungeon Magazine. My prep time was spent re-leveling the encounters and re-fluffing the shrine to be meaningful to the party, maybe an hours worth of work. Last week, it was a run through something that was the bastard child of the dwarven mines from the The Lost Mines of Karak module.
    Next time it’s something totally custom.

    In regards to cost, I personally do not help the point Rick is trying to make. I’ve chosen to spend a heroic amount of money on product to create the lowest barrier of entry for my players that I could. Between books, minis, paint, props and furniture I may never retire. WorldWorksGames products were an evil thing for me to get hooked on.

    Next point, learning the rules. I structured my entire first session around learning the rules. I made it clear to my players up front that the session was going to be light on role playing and heavy on combat. The first three rooms each had something a little different in them, but nothing overly crazy. The final room… well, it had some mistakes, which resulted in the death of a PC. Sure there were mistakes made about the rules, and times where I had to flip madly through a book to find something obscure. Despite all that, people had fun and keep coming back.

    The best reward is when the game gets, to steal a word from the video game industry, “emergent”. In our third game when confronted with a secret door the party knocked on it and then proceeded to BLUFF their way inside. It was crazy. It was inventive. It was the last thing I was expecting, and it’s those moments that make the memories.

  3. Lugh says:

    I will agree with this in general. However, for the sake of playing devil’s advocate (well, really, wife’s advocate, as she likes to play but hates to GM), there are a few legitimate reasons people don’t want to GM.

    My wife says that the big reason she doesn’t like the chair is that she hates the plot knowledge she has. On the one hand, she knows what’s coming next, who the real bad guy is, etc., which is like walking into a movie having read all the spoilers. On the other, when the players do go off-script and surprise her, she gets frustrated because she knows how the plot was “supposed” to go. So now, for her, it’s like that occasional TV episode with a new writer, where none of the characters act quite right, and the whole tone seems off from the rest of the series.

    She also doesn’t like challenge and confrontation. Despite the whole “just say yes” movement currently, a GM has to be able to say “no” and stick to it. A GM also has to be able to beat the crap out of the characters. Make them hurt, bleed, and weep. Because only then will their victory have meaning. She doesn’t like doing that. She’s a soft touch, and would go “Monty Haul” in a heartbeat.

    She doesn’t *like* the rules. She’s into role-playing for the roles, not the game. She’s honestly happier now that I dropped any semblance of rules from our 1-on-1 game, and just turned it into interactive fiction. While she would be okay with being a writer or director, she has no interest in being a judge or referee.

    She likes being very immersive with her character, and can’t flit from role to role as the situation demands.

    She needs to be the hero. She doesn’t like being the villains.

  4. Rel Fexive says:

    Often, many of those who would say one or more of “It’s too much work”, “I have to learn the rules” and “I’m too lazy” are also ‘lazy’ players who don’t bother to get overly involved or remember things from one session to the next. They are best sticking as players.

    My group needs more GMs too. We lost our most prolific GM recently to a job that entirely involves night shifts, most especially on Gaming Night. Bah.

  5. Trachalio says:

    Great post Rick.

    I’ll be GMing for the first time in my life soon. My gaming group has been on an RPG hiatus for a while now and I really miss it, so I decided to step up to the plate. Of course, being new to this, I had this HUGE adventure planned with a crazy plot. I even bought props!

    Then I came to my senses and put that one aside so I could start small. I was originally going to try a few delves from the Dungeon Delves book but after picking up Dragon Age I think i’ll start with that one instead. It’s a much simpler system and it scales well for our group.

  6. mrsleep says:

    Alright. While I agree that running a game is a lot of fun, even if it is a bit of work, I feel that I have to point out that there are some people that have absolutely no business being GMs. The way our game is set up is a bit unique. Essentially every one of the original players was tasked with a continent, populating and developing the culture. When an adventure took place on that continent, the “owner” was in charge of running the adventure. Unfortunately, one guy (who was a pretty decent player) made a terrible DM. Constantly on a power trip, and repeatedly had “50 well-armed dudes rush into the room” any time things didn’t go the way he planned. By that I mean when the players succeeded when he wanted them to be humbled or killed.

    Some people just don’t have a personality compatible with being in charge.

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