I find that it’s helpful to build up your own personal “orthodoxy” when GMing – principles or patterns you follow, so that players feel that both your running and your world are consistent.
Rather than prescribing some high-level perspective, I prefer offering a means to practice. Exercise GMing in an environment without time pressure, and you will be better prepared for when you have to do it off-the-cuff or on short notice.
Here are 6 beginner GM exercises:
- Your players arrive in an abandoned city – the first thing they do is enter a home, asking what’s left of the pantry. What do you say to them?
- Your players want to talk to a city magistrate about an unpopular idea of theirs. In order to catch the magistrate off-guard, they approach early in the morning. What state do they find the magistrate in?
- During character creation, a player mentions that they want a naturally blue-haired character. Not for any particular reason, you were envisioning your campaign setting without this possibility. How do you respond?
- Read the following entry for a “point of interest”, and then refine how you would present it in a game in some way. You might change how you would describe it out loud, edit it in writing, add typographical emphasis (bold, italics, underlining) for a play-by-post game, etc.
Hidden within a secluded forest glade is a ruined shrine of ancient granite, vines of ivy peeking through the cracked stone pillars. The shrine was built by ash dwarves, and like most such shrines, it is guarded by a salamander. Within the shrine is a pool of simmering water. Characters who drink here receive the benefits of the fire shield spell for the rest of the day.
5. Your players enter a dungeon you have prepared, and leave after being spooked by the monsters within. In truth, they are more than powerful enough to overcome the threats of the dungeon, and well-equipped to do so. One of the players asks you, “Do you think we’re ready for this dungeon?” How do you answer?
6. One of your players has a spell, speak with insects. They use it to speak with a spider, at which point another player points out that it shouldn’t work. The first player is obviously disappointed, and looks to you hopefully for you to overrule the other player. You don’t remember the actual details of how the spell works, but your rulebook is handy if you need to look it up. What do you do?
Take a break from exercises and look back over your answers. Are there patterns that emerge about how you think? Do you have any tendencies which surprise you? Do you have any tendencies you want to break yourself of?
Reflection is important in fashioning your own sense of who you are as a GM – it’s a way of both checking up on ourselves as GMs (because GMing is tough and taking care of ourselves is important) and of fine-tuning our technique. And if it seems a bit pompous to do this, remember that this is also how chess players get better at chess – by reviewing their own games, even games where they end up concluding they wouldn’t do anything different.
The next 6 exercises are all reflective exercises. Each numbered item is a response to a prompt above, and are more effective exercises if you have already done the first 6 without peeking ahead. Your job is to see if you agree or disagree with the responses, and try to articulate why you agree or disagree. Compare and contrast with your own, original answers, if helpful, or don’t, if not.
Remember, this isn’t about moral judgment. You’re not trying to say if the response is right or wrong. Rather, you’re trying to figure out what sort of GM you want to be, where you want to pave your own path, and why you’re doing so.
7. (response to 1) “There’s nothing in the pantry.”
8. (response to 2) “The magistrate – only a petty official who has temporarily taken over this post, by the way – isn’t even tired – he’s an early morning sort of gentleman. Despite the early hour, the dawn’s rays still barely tickling over the hills, he looks well put-together. Not a hair is out of place on his head, and his sharply kept mustache suggests a morning ritual of wax-infused grooming. The man is already making steady headway into a stack of tidy paperwork as you arrive. You’re in luck, however – he seems to be in a good mood, which may make him more amenable to your suggestion than normal.”
9. (response to 3) “Sure you can have blue hair! I hope you don’t mind if nobody else does though – I didn’t really originally picture that sort of hair, and I’ve got so much else to juggle that I probably won’t add a whole lot of world responsiveness to blue hair. It’ll just be an aesthetic thing to help you better picture your character, not much beyond that.”
10. (response to 4) “The point of interest should be more direct, short and to the point. I don’t want to mention other shrines, since they’ll come up when they come up, and players can make the connection about salamanders being normal if they want to. Since it’s for a game, the phrases don’t have to be grammatically correct or complete sentences – they just need to convey information. For a play-by-post game, I also want the keywords to stand out, so I will bold them:”
An ash dwarf shrine. 1 salamander stands guard outside. Simmering pool of fire shield (1 day duration) inside.
11. (response to 5) “Who knows? Haha.”
12. (response to 6) “I would look it up in the book, and if it’s a regular question, I would add a sticky-note to that page so I could find it faster, to show my players what the rules say. Knowing the rules and when to look them up is important, and I want to lead by example.”
13. Imagine, briefly, that the responses in 7 through 12 all came from the same GM, within the same campaign. Are there patterns that emerge about how this GM runs? Would you want the GM to be more consistent and predictable about anything?
Does examining this hypothetical GM change how you thought about your own tendencies, and your own patterns? Would you want to learn anything from this hypothetical GM, or not? Why?