Home » Before I Run Tabletop RPG As a GM, I Had To Move Past These 5 Things

Before I Run Tabletop RPG As a GM, I Had To Move Past These 5 Things

runing tabletop RPG as a GM can seem like a long and hard hike to a remote summit
Running a role-playing game as a GM seemed always a very distant goal, requiring too much time and experience.
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The Remote Summit of GMing an RPG

I always wanted to run tabletop RPG as a GM rather than participate as a regular player. Telling engaging stories, inciting the imagination of others and sharing creative inspiration gave me great satisfaction and drive since I can remember. Yet, up to a day not so long ago, I never actually run a single session as a GM – even though I knew it for years. The more I thought about GMing, the more I felt like it was something I wanted to do. So, why it took me so long to finally run an RPG as a GM for the first time?

1. Running the RPG as GM is a work of imagination

Certainly. But staying solely in the realm of imagination keeps you, well… just there. At times, ideas, impressions and concepts were running wild through my mind. They were so exciting and compelling to me that they were exactly what held me back for a long, long time. I can now hear you saying: “Wait, what? You’re telling me that imagining what I’d like to run as a GM is actually bad for my game?” Paradoxically as it may sound – that’s what I think.

While exploring works of imagination as an RPG game master, keep in mind that they are to be played out, not verily recreated.

Being a GM in tabletop RPG requires a lot of creativity. For some, published material may be just enough to run a game. But, since you’re reading this, you’re probably not one of those. Perhaps you want to add your personal twist to the scenario or even create one or more on your own. Or maybe you’d just like to picture the plot more completely. Either way, you probably enjoy inventing things and being creative. And even if you’re using off-the-shelf adventure as it is, you surely will need to prepare for running it as a game master. But thinking too much about how it may play out or picturing the scenes that seem most inspiring to you may be very attractive and enjoyable. But it may keep you from actually running the game at the same time.

Imagining scenario can be a maze for GM and held you back from running a game.
Imagining a scenario can be a maze for GM and held you back from running a game.
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The trap of your imagination

To avoid being trapped in our own mind and move to actually run an RPG as a GM we need to change perspective a bit. At the time, I was so involved in the creative process that I was unable to go on to the next steps. And there’s a bit to do on the GM’s part before the game session itself. To deal with it, and finally run my first tabletop RPG, I needed to focus more on the main goal – which is me and my gaming group having fun at the table. I’ll be referring to this goal in the next paragraphs, too, but it’s most important at the very beginning.

While exploring works of imagination (yours or someone else’s), keep in mind that they are to be used as a guideline for the actual game. Take note of what is important to convey to the players for them to have a picture corresponding to the one in your mind. Try to separate details and background from the key information. Think what’s your main focus in each scene or in the whole scenario or module you’re going to run as a GM: Is it a tone, an atmosphere or is it some key event that the plot revolves around or maybe the scene should provide some information? Depending on the answer, you’ll narrow down the number of things to pay attention to while preparing the session and running.

2. Preparing an RPG by The Perfect GM

So, when I finally moved from the perilous realm of my imagination and to the more substantial work, I tried to scale another unpassable mountain. I fell under the spell of perfectionism. Having trouble separating what’s important to the story and what’s not, I got lost in the sheer amount of information I thought was needed to prepare and convey to the players. Every scene and location – I assumed – had to have a map, information on weather, time of day and other details, every NPC needed a backstory. Only then, I felt, I’d be sure I and my players will be on the same page. And by “being on the same page” I meant “imagining things exactly as I did”. The bar was placed high and so I was doomed to fail to clear it.

The painful tumble from The Ridge of Perfection

Full of my idealised visions, I managed to gather my friends for everyone’s first D&D session ever. We all were very excited to finally try, the books we had bought with our monthly pocket money were on the table. Then, I rushed towards the peak of my imagined GMing skills, not knowing that I didn’t have half the equipment I needed. Actually, it’s a story for a separate post, but briefly: it was a disaster. I had everything prepared except for an idea of how to engage the player characters and how to provide them with any information that was essential for them to move anywhere from the starting scene.

I didn’t realize that it was just the beginning. It was only my first try to run a tabletop RPG as a GM. But I felt like a total loser. Compared to what I had imagined, it was best to forget about this session. And so I did. Not only I didn’t run the next part of the adventure but I didn’t run a single RPG session as a game master for the next 10 years. Yup, ten long years – I took my failure very personally.

If you’re about to run your first session as a GM, be prepared for learning rather than

A slow progression is better than a lightning-fast fall

So, if you’re about to run your first session as a GM, be prepared. You’ll likely receive more schooling than admiration. But that doesn’t mean that you fail in your role. In fact, you and your group meet to have fun together, not to compete against any standards. Maybe it’s better to think of some light-weighted scenario as a starter for all of you then? Then, you may play what you actually want to run, but having some first-hand experience already. And, if you’re all taking your first steps in the given game, you’ll have your chance to test the rules in action before creating a scenario or the characters.

3. Getting things done

This one’s pretty simple but no less important. When you have your first scenario or module prepared, you’ll need to make the session actually take place. While it may be worth writing a separate post on the (sometimes pretty challenging) topic of organizing tabletop RPG sessions, you’ll need to start somewhere.

First of all, I’d advise you to find a group of people who already would like to play. If you’re only one excited to try tabletop RPGs, you may find it hard to pass this excitement to others. Next, try to find a time that fits everyone. If you’re all people with some serious commitments (family, work etc.), this may turn out to be the biggest problem. Try showing the others it’s like any other meeting of your group. Just like meeting to play tennis doubles won’t work if regularly one or the other player cancels last-minute, the same is true for an RPG. And one last piece of advice for planning the time for your first game: it will probably take more than you think it would. You’ll find out by yourself how long a given adventure may take to complete but as a first-time GM, you’re safe to assume it’ll be 1.5 times longer than it seems when you look at the scenario as written.

4. Comfort behind, the tabletop ahead

I remember sitting at the one end of the table, with my scenario printed out. (It was after this 10-years break.) I had my intro carefully composed, all essential stats were right there, I memorised the names, had a flowchart of the key scenes. Yet, I was delaying the moment I was to actually start running the game. All of this despite being, quite frankly, comfortable with public speaking.

When you decide to run an RPG as a GM, all eyes are on you.
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Almost all of us pay quite a lot of attention to how others perceive us. We have it deeply imprinted in our minds. And starting to run a tabletop RPG session as a GM is not an exception to that. Opening yourself up with what’s probably an effect of your long and careful preparation is not a little thing. We all would love to have others enjoy what we’ve just planned for them. We’d love to see them share our enthusiasm. That’s perfectly natural and understandable. And that’s a lot at stake, too.

This is your stage

While practising various presentation skill may be important, I think attitude also plays a key role in starting an RGP session as a GM. First of all, you are the one who is running the show. Others may be as keen as you to have the game started but they will look up to you for the sign that it’s on. I’m not saying that you’re the only one that should show your involvement but certainly, the first step is yours. Others probably assume that you’ll know when it’s a good moment to start the session so they’ll be casually hanging out, waiting for you to begin.

You are all here to play

Similarly to the above, you may find it a bit uncomfortable (or even rude) to disrupt a nice friendly chatter around your table. Most of you have a lot in common and at least some of you probably haven’t met in a few days. Thus, there’s a lot to talk about, you all want to spend time in the company of others. And that’s great! It would be a bit odd if you only meet strictly for gaming, not having anything besides to talk about. So let it flow! But keep in mind that you all have also agreed to meet specifically to play a role-playing game. That means you all want to play, you all think it’s fun. And you, as a game master, are the one to remind the others of that. If you don’t, the time may run out and you won’t have enough of it to actually play. So don’t be afraid of their reaction. They’ll probably take it more eagerly than you might suspect.

5. Fear of failing to meet your expectations

While I’ve already described what was most important for starting to run a tabletop RPG as a game master, there’s one more thing. After your first session as a GM, you’d probably have mixed feelings about it. You surely will find a lot of fun in the game itself as well as moving past various limitations. But on the other hand, you may also see that some things went not quite as you’d like them to.

If you do, it may be a harsh experience – it surely was for me. In that, heeding one more experienced GM’s advice helped me a lot. It was asking your players for feedback. Although it may seem like exposing yourself to yet another unpleasant disillusionment, it will probably go much better than you think. Remember that you’re the one that has some idealised notion of how the session should play out – the others lack it. And due to that, you may experience a lot of stress through the evening. Thus, it will alter your reception of the game itself. Your players may surprise you with what they enjoyed. Also, they will provide you with more objective information about what’s to improve. Then, you won’t need to worry about it and invent it yourself. In time, such a routine may help you excel in your GMing skills.

If you feel like running an RPG as a GM – run!
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So, if you’ve made it through until now, you probably have a very good idea of how to prepare to run your first session of tabletop RPG as a GM. As you might have found out, I advise against overthinking and for starting head-on. For someone enjoying works of your own imagination (which is the case with probably most of the GMs), you may see this kind of advice as a bit pushy. You may feel unprepared and inexperienced to realise what you picture in your mind. But I believe that you also can’t wait to actually see it happen.

If so, go on and try your hand at GMing. And while no blog article could possibly substitute first-hand experience, I’ll try to provide you here with some more tips, guidelines, tools or even exercises that may help you out on your way. I will also love to hear how this text sound for you. Leave a comment or drop me an e-mail, so I’ll know what you may need or look for. Last but not least, try to run your first RPG session as a GM and let me know how it went. I always enjoy hearing from people beginning this fascinating adventure!

4 thoughts on “Before I Run Tabletop RPG As a GM, I Had To Move Past These 5 Things”

  1. This was a good read. You covered a lot of what most of us LM’s, or GM’s have gone through in our journey. I personally took two sessions to get the bugs out before running what I considered to be a smooth session. As a Tolkien scholar, I already had a vast knowledge of Middle Earth, and her inhabitants. What I found was that creating a story within that would captivate my players was the hurdle I had to clear. My first session was with my wife, and two sons. We all have a inner geek that shines pretty bright around our house. Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings can be seen in just about every corner of the house. LITERALLY everywhere you look you can see a movie prop, collectors pieces, and books covering these three stories. After completely failing the first session I took a different approach the second time, and it seemed to run smoother. After that I was able to see the holes in my layout as a LM, and decided to create a format for the RPG GM or LM. And from that format I have formed a very successful class so to speak that I have used to teach a lot of people over the years. I wasn’t surprised to read about some of your struggles. In fact the vast majority of people who try their hand a being a GM experience most if not all of the same anxiety’s that you have written about. So for me it was good to read that much has not changed in the human response to this realm. I have said for many years that where a RPG table can be seen…. A group of mega geeks with very vivid imaginations can be found. That can be very intimidating for all first time GM’s. They want to have the perfect session right out of the gate which almost NEVER happens. It is a disaster that will move them from GM to PC every time. Well unless you are as hard headed as me. I treat failure as a teacher, and I go back in for more. This was the main driving factor in my creating The One Ring Lore Masters Guild. A place where all players, artists, and would be LM’s could have a meeting place to discuss, and debate rules, sessions, idea’s, art, and homebrew material as well as created content that helps, and or improves TOR. I have spent a lot of time with the creators, and publishers over the years getting to know them, and their views of the RPG. I have spent many days over the years at many cons across the country, and I have been asked to speak many times covering Tolkien, as well as guest spotting as a LM for TOR. Being a perfect LM/GM is a mountain that we all climb, and almost never summit. BUT what we gain in our personal journey is experience, and hopefully a table filled with a group that cannot wait to come back for the next session. You have given the reader a lot to relate to, and you have also given them what to expect. That is a great starting point for every GM/LM. My advice to anyone gearing up to tackle this experience is this. Expect to fail. Expect to forget things. Expect the first few sessions to be choppy. Expect to not relay your imagination to the table. And never stop trying. Each session will get smoother. And most importantly study, prepare, and keep meticulous notes.

    1. It’s great to read that you enjoyed my writing. And more so that you find it helpful.
      Thanks for sharing your experience, too. I feel that this struggle for starting to run sessions as a GM is really something to be more aware of. It just costs you less worrying of you expect it.
      Last but not least, the Loremasters’ Guild is a place I strongly recommend anyone thinking about sitting on the GM side of the table in Middle-earth RPG.

  2. I can relate to your experience too. It has been some years (14) since I have finished campaign in D&D 3.0. In the meantime I always took a role of PC but was thinking of running a session as GM. Now I am just before running first session with lot of expectations. After reading your text, I think I will be better prepared for what will come. And I will certainly ask players for feedback after a play 🙂

    1. I’m happy that my post really is helpful for you while you start (albeit for a second time) running an RPG session as a GM.
      I’d be curious to hear about your experience after the first session. 😉

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