When Did I Get Old and Wise?

Weird thing happened to me a few minutes ago. I got some e-mail from a friend of mine, asking me if I thought he was ready to GM a D&D game for his friends, and asking me for any tips.

I remember when this kid was born. I remember his dad, who’s a friend of mine, bringing him into the bookstore where I was working at the time, a tiny little thing in a snuggly, his dad rocking back and forth in front of the Science Fiction section. I remember first being invited to game with his parents while he slept in a baby seat on the living room floor.

(Vampire: The Masquerade, if you care. Man, did that campaign ever not go where I thought it would.)

I gave him his first jean jacket, complete with Illuminati badges on it.

(Have I embarrassed you yet, Kieran?)

And now the guy’s fifteen years old, in my Dresden Files playtest, a regular at my boardgame nights (where he is nasty as a viper if you turn your back on him), and asking if I think he’s ready to GM.

His parents and I joke about making sure we get into the same retirement home so we can still game together. I’m thinking it’s getting to be less of a joke.

Anyway, seeing as I have now been cast in the role of elderly sage, I gave him what advice I had. I thought it was not too bad, so I’m reproducing it here, for those who are interested.

Yeah, you could do it. No problem. I was GMing regularly by the time I was your age.

But it takes practice to get good. Don’t be hard on yourself if the first few sessions don’t go as well as you would like.

As for tips, I’ve got a few:

  1. Prep. Get the adventure ready beforehand. Know how you want to describe things. Know what you’re going to need to know to run the encounters. For example, if you’re using a Purple Worm in an encounter, make sure you know how the improved grab and swallow whole rules work. If the adventure takes place in a volcano, read up on the rules for hot environments. Some people make notes, some put sticky notes on the pages of the rulebooks they need, some just need to refresh their memories before play. Do what you need to do so that you’re not fumbling around during play to figure something out.
  2. Start small. Don’t send everyone off on an epic quest to slay the gods and bring about Ragnarok. Make an adventure that can be finished in a session or two, and don’t get too fancy with it. Evil wizards or rampaging goblin hordes are fine. Rescue a princess or clean out a cave complex near a trade route. Simple objective. Once you get one or two of those under your belt, and you’ve got the confidence, then start stretching.
  3. Don’t let them push you around. Remember that you’re the GM, and that means you have the final say. Having said that, make sure you listen to them. If you’re wrong about something and they’re right, admit it, fix it, and move on. If they start arguing with you, say something like, “Look, that’s the way it’s going to work this time. After the game, we can talk and see if there’s a better way.”
  4. Say yes or roll the dice. Remember, the players aren’t the enemy. The big secret of being a GM is that it’s only fun if the players have fun. You’re not trying to beat them; you’re trying to help them beat you. If they come up with a neat idea, let it work if it’s feasible. If there’s a good chance that it’ll flop, roll the dice. Pick something to roll against: a skill, a save, an attack, an attribute, whatever. When all else fails, get them to roll a straight roll against a difficulty of 10 – that’s just like a coin toss. But if you’re going to roll the dice, make sure you’ve got an interesting thing to happen if they fail. If failure would be boring, don’t make it a possibility. Just let them succeed.
  5. Always play fair. You’ve got the ability, as GM, to annihilate the characters whenever you want. There’s no challenge to it, and there’s no fun in it. Play fair. Set up the situation, then let the dice and the players decide the fate of the characters. If they beat the crap out of your boss monster in a single round, remember it, congratulate them, and move on. Remember their tactics for next time, though.
  6. Relax and have fun. Some people will tell you that the GM’s job is to make sure everyone else has fun, but his first job is to have fun himself. If you’re not having fun, the game won’t be any fun for the players. Just make sure you’re not having fun at their expense.
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3 Responses to When Did I Get Old and Wise?

  1. Sarelo says:

    Excellent advice, but you forgot to mention something you’ve always been good at: (1) Know your gamers and (2) speak slowly and remain patient when dealing with gamers of the ‘beer and pretzels’ variety.

    Thanks for some great moments in gaming Rick. It’s all your fault I got back into the hobby. 🙂


  2. Jonathan says:

    Here’s to hoping only roll if both options are interesting becomes as prevalent as those what is an RPG sections. Although style rolls from Weapon of the Gods are nice as well, roll to see how cool you look while succeeding. Sometimes it’s nice to shine even when it doesn’t matter.

  3. Rick Neal says:

    “Say yes or roll the dice,” is, of course, a direct steal from Dogs in the Vineyard, an amazing RPG by Vincent Baker. If you don’t know about this game, head on over to http://www.lumpley.com/dogs.html and read about it.

    Then go buy it. You owe it to yourself.

    Edit: Corrected the name of the author, so I don’t look like such an idiot. 😉

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