Believe it or not, I’ve had people ask me for advice on running a pen and paper RPG before. I assume it’s more because people experienced in Game Mastering are so rare than it is because of any particular skill on my part- I am certainly not a naturally talented GM. I have, however, played pen and paper games for more than a decade, and been the one in charge of them for a good six years. You can’t do this for as long as I have without learning something. A lot of what I’ve learned is just internalization of rules- I can tell you how to calculate your Base Attack Bonus or how to resolve a grappling contest off the top of my head. But anyone can memorize equations. The useful part is the grander lessons I’ve learned, which I will share with you now.
Oh, and just a note: the eagle-eyed will observe that both of my examples are from Dungeons and Dragons. I have played other RPGs, but my experience is overwhelmingly in DnD. Most of these ideas are so broad that they should translate just fine, however.
The first lesson is that a good GM is a liar. If you’re totally honest, you’re making a mistake. Obviously, you want your players to trust you, but part of that is having them trust your judgment. If a player sets off a trap that would kill his character, and he just barely falls short of escaping its effects… who’s to know if you just give it to him? Part of using dice, as most pen and paper games do, is that sometimes people get screwed. Sometimes the enemies roll all twenties, and the party rolls all ones. That’s not fun for anybody. A little white lie to keep things flowing is not just acceptable, but expected.
Trust is a two-way street, though: just as the players trust you, you need to trust them. Sometimes, they are gonna cheat. They’re gonna fudge a roll, they’re gonna say they had something prepared when you’re pretty sure they forgot, and no doubt they will accidentally miscalculate their health. These are times when you need to tread lightly. Obviously, you don’t want your players to make a habit of this… systems exist for a reason, and cheaters never prosper. But again, if it makes things smoother, having this happen every once in a while is fine. What’s more, sometimes it really is a mistake, and there’s nothing more shitty than making a fuss when they meant no harm.
There is a line, though. Your players don’t get to argue with you. That’s not how this goes. If a player disagrees with a call you’ve made, you should welcome them to offer new information for your consideration… but if all they have is saying that you’re wrong, zero tolerance. This is not a democracy, and their opinion is not objective. They want what is best for their character. You, as the GM, want what is best for the story. Story trumps character every day of the week.
Some people won’t take the hint. They’ll push the issue, they’ll make a fuss, every other player will be uncomfortable and it will be terrible. In situations like these… well, some folk need killin’, and that’s all there is to it. This is a decision that should never, never be made lightly, but if it’s obvious that a player is causing more unpleasantness than they’re worth, kill off their character and send them packing. If there’s any question in your mind if you should do it, you shouldn’t. But if there’s no question… then go ahead. Everyone will be better off.
My final piece of advice is a little more general- relax! There are GMs who draw tons of maps, who prepare pages of notes, who have dioramas and models and all manner of homework they busy themselves with before a session. If this makes it easier for you, if you find it easier to work with a lot of stuff ready to use, then absolutely go nuts. But don’t feel like you have to have these things because it’s expected of you. They say “no plan survives contact with the enemy,” and while the players aren’t your enemies, you cannot possibly be prepared for the things that they will think of. I have had players intentionally derail a speeding train that they were riding on. Their minds are bizarre and glorious, and you cannot predict where they will go.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t have ideas, or maybe even some notes, and that they won’t be useful… but you’re gonna need to invent some stuff on the fly. It’s inevitable. Don’t be scared by that! It’s intimidating at first, but it’s secretly the most rewarding part of GMing. Spinning worlds in an instant, and watching your players stare on in wonder- this is what it’s all about.
Hopefully these tips were either helpful, or at least interesting. I doubt most of you readers will ever Game Master (though you should), but knowing how a good GM thinks helps you spot one, and is useful for understanding how to act as a player. Too few geeks these days have known the sweet sight of a natural twenty, or felt the bitter sting of a critical failure. I’m not saying you need to play, but at the very least, talk to someone who has. I assure you, they have some incredible stories.