Your gaming group needs YOU (to GM)

A lot of gaming groups have just the one person who does the GMing. And it’s legendarily difficult to get GMs to run games at conventions, even though there’s no shortage of people who want to play. So why is it that some people are happy to play but don’t GM?

Part of the story is that there’s a mystique about GMing. People seem to think that there’s a special set of skills required, and natural talents that most people just don’t have. They think that they would screw it up if they did it, or at least embarrass themselves with a mediocre game. And let’s face it, a lot of roleplayers enjoy bitching about games they didn’t enjoy, even to the extent of hating on the GM who ran them. And the roleplaying community encourages the view that GMing is so, so hard. We write endlessly about GMing techniques you need to use, about the detailed game backgrounds we write and the zillions of complex plots and incredibly, vividly realised NPCs in our campaigns. It all looks terribly daunting from the outside.

But the reality is this: anybody can GM. Everyone had their first time GMing once, and yeah, it probably wasn’t that great. But with practice comes, if not perfection, certainly improvement. And it’s a similar set of skills that you need to GM as what you need to play – imagination, quick wits, the ability to juggle long lists of complex stats (ok, maybe I’m just thinking of playing Exalted with that last one).

And it’s not only first-time GMs who feel daunted by GMing, either. I still get pre-game nerves from time to time, or end up fretting over whether I’ve done enough prep the night before the game. I have bad games, too – everyone does.

So what’s my point? Well, my point is that GMing is like cooking. Not everyone is brilliant at it. It can be hard work. Occasionally you may burn the food and leave everyone feeling a little annoyed. But unless somebody cooks, there’s no meal. And it isn’t fair to assume that someone else will cook every time. If you’ve enjoyed someone’s GMing session after session but never tried it yourself, there really is no excuse not to try your hand at it, and, frankly, to pull your weight.

And if you’re one of those GMs who runs all the games in your group, ask yourself whether there is more you could do to encourage others to step up and give it a try. Fact is, some GMs hog the hot seat, always having a new game ready to replace the one they’re about to finish so that nobody else gets a try. After all, GMing is good fun. There’s a lot of satisfaction to be gotten from it, and it has a certain status attached to it. Are you one of those GMs? Might you be discouraging others from trying it by bigging up how hard it is, so others will think more of you? Give this a try: next time your latest game is heading towards the finish line, why not say you’re thinking of taking a break for a few weeks, and does anyone else fancy running something? Maybe you could offer them help and advice if they haven’t tried before.

I’m not someone who thinks that GMing is more important than playing, but it’s definitely the case that GMs are harder to come by than players most of the time. So if you’re a GMing refusenik, consider giving it a try. And if you’re an experienced GM, think about what you can do to help bring more GMs into the fold.

Josh Fox

Rabalias grew up wanting to be a pirate. But a band of evil bureaucrats kidnapped him and forced him to work for The Man. Even so, Rabalias was patient and cunning. He escaped by gnawing his way through the walls of his prison and concealing the hole behind a picture of cthulhu. He fled to the coast, and stowed away on the Black Armada, where he worked his way up to the rank of Admiral.

10 thoughts to “Your gaming group needs YOU (to GM)”

  1. Hey Josh,

    Preach it brother.

    The barrier to entry for GMing has lowered in the last few years thanks to games that bake a lot of the structure right into the game’s procedures, taking a lot of the pressure off the nascent GM.

    Plenty of contemporary game designs don’t even need the GM to do a lot of the upfront “lonely play” of prep because the situation is generated organically through play.

    For folk that read your blog and have never GM’d, how about a follow-up post that suggests some games that are fried gold for the new GM?

    For example, Kagematsu bakes a compelling situation and a scene structure+progression right into the game, leaving the “GM” (Kagematsu) and the players free to bring the cool.


    1. Thanks for the comment, Pete. That’s a really good point about the built-in structure. (Though arguably something that has always existed in the form of modules, and of course in many trad games, the back-of-game-book scenario that came with the main rulebook.)

      Funnily enough, I don’t think I own many such games – Witch may be the only one, not counting Farmtopia and Disaster Strikes! both of which I wrote, so don’t really count. (And When the Dark is Gone, which Frax wrote.) Oh and Lady Blackbird. Ok, maybe I do own a few. I shall check out Kagematsu as well.

      Thanks for the article suggestion, too. I don’t feel qualified to write it, on account of aforementioned deficiencies, but I shall pop off to UK RPers and see if I can get some suggestions for games of this sort to try.

  2. I’m completely guilty of this – I appreciate the need for GMs and would quite like to do it myself, but the thought of it fills me with dread.

    Not sure what the solution is really – start with really simple scenarios where it’s all laid out for you, or do something more freeform?

    1. Thanks for the comment, Tom. I guess the way to start depends on what it is that’s filling you with dread. Are you intimidated by the amount of prep required, the need to get up and perform in front of your peers, the fear that you’ll mess up some important rule… or (gulp) all three? (Or indeed something else entirely.)

  3. Agree 100%. In fact, I remember saying this (drunkenly, and with more profanity) at the end of one of the RPGsoc annual dinners.

    Refereeing _is_ a “special skill” but it’s one that’s easy to pick up and gets stronger every time you do it. More to the point, it’s totally worth developing–it’s transferrable into public speaking, presenting, all kinds of social interaction (which also make me nervous).

    Good analogy with cooking. Actually, I don’t understand people who can’t cook–they must just hate eating. Anyone who loves food can develop cooking skills, and anyone who loves RPGs can GM, it’s that simple!

  4. Two things I’d suggest. First, the internet has made this a lot easier. There’s a ton of advice out there for anyone thinking of doing this for the first time (or indeed the umpteenth time).

    Second, the Amsterdam Meetup I game at holds a GMs round table after the games. A chance to chat with other GMs about what worked / didn’t / what could have gone better / different is great.

    I’ve also met a GM who does a semi formal “Give me one thing you liked, one thing you’d have improved” feedback round after his games. His games are good.

    1. Actually, reading these comments has reminded me of my big piece of advice for new GMs: run a one-off. It’s a quick and relatively easy way to get some GMing experience under your belt, in an environment where, if it all goes tits up, all anyone has really lost is a few hours of their time. I’d also advise to keep it simple and short, for similar reasons. In fact, Tom, the game you ran at (I think) Conned was a pretty good example – you should do more like that!

  5. FWIW, I don’t not-GM because I’m frightened of it or whatever – I don’t GM because I much prefer playing a single character (or a small number of them) rather than playing a lot of characters shallowly and the world-at-large as well, which is broadly what the GM traditionally does.

    Write me a game where “GMing” primarily means playing a character (or a few) in depth with real meaningful decisions, and not too much supporting cast / world-description faff, and I’ll GM it for you 🙂

    Re “Funnily enough, I don’t think I own many such games [with built-in structure and low prep] – Witch may be the only one”, would you not put Apocalypse World in this category?

    1. But you do GM, Nick!

      No, I wouldn’t put AW in that category; it’s low prep for sure, but there’s not much built-in structure. The MC moves provide guidance, but if you just followed them you’d be running a very reactive game, with very little structure. (Which is a legit way to play, just not the kind of thing I thought Pete was referring to.)

      I’m thinking I may write an article on how we structure games though, so that may help clarify my thoughts on this.

  6. > But you do GM, Nick!

    This is true, strictly speaking 🙂 but I don’t do it often and don’t often seek out new opportunities to do so (at least, not for reasons other than to test out a ruleset).

    > The MC moves provide guidance, but if you just followed them you’d be running a very reactive game

    FWIW I’m not sure I agree with this. But that’s a topic for offline (or a different post).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.