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Running a Role Playing Game

I have always loved storytelling. So it made sense to me when I fell in love with role playing games when I first joined a group with a couple of friends playing Pathfinder (by Paizo). For those who aren’t familiar, role playing games are games where you tell a collective story with other players in a world that’s created by a game master (commonly referred to as GM and also used as a verb) who tells you all that you encounter.

The setting for my first game was ambiguously medieval and we wandered around attacking or talking our way out of encounters as many campaigns do. I played a pyromaniac elf wizard, which was problematic when we were in a very large field or near something flammable (which we almost always were).

I didn’t know much about role playing games at the time so I died a lot, but I learned a lot about playing in role playing games. After about a year and many exciting encounters, our campaign ended and I started thinking about GM-ing. I was nervous but excited and it turned out to be one of the most positive experiences in my life.

If anyone is interested in GM-ing, I heartily recommend playing a character in a game first to get used to the system if you are able to find a group. It really helped me to be a better GM by figuring out what I liked and disliked as a player.

There are many guides to GM-ing. Most manuals have them. In fact Pathfinder has a GM guide and pre-set campaigns which is perfect for beginner GMs. But here are a couple of my suggestions for anyone looking to run a game.

Choosing a System

You don’t have to choose Pathfinder. There are many game systems out there like Dungeons & Dragons, Fate, and Shadow Run. Pathfinder is my favorite system due to its streamlined rules, but many people like different systems.

The first thing you should do is take some time to get to know your players. There are many different styles of play, but there are two ends of the spectrum, rules heavy or rules light systems. Rules heavy would be a system like Pathfinder or D&D whose rulebooks are pretty in depth and they have a roll for most things that you would do in games. Rules light games would be something like Fate, which has less rules and more focus on storytelling and character development.

Now choosing one over the other doesn’t mean you can’t have a diplomatic encounter in a D&D or Pathfinder game. I’ve certainly played in Pathfinder games where we spent most of the time talking about what we were going to do before we did it. Similarly you can have many combat encounters in Fate if that’s what you want to do. However Pathfinder has more rules about combat so you get more structure in that aspect of a game. Fate is better at focusing on traits and background for your character. Fate has aspects that both the player and game master can invoke to move the story forward.

So sit down with your players before you start and see what kind of setting and system they might like to play before you start playing.

What’s your Backstory?

Before you start the game, be sure to go over your players’ character sheets. Do it to make sure they didn’t overpower their character or make any mistakes to their sheets, but also do it to highlight aspects about their characters during game.

As a player it’s fun when you get to use that specific ability you spent all of your skill points to get. And as a GM, the more fun your players are having, the more fun you will have as well. Find ways to make your players’ characters shine. If you have a rogue, put in some traps for them to find or make a particularly difficult diplomacy-based situation for your bard.

Saying Yes to your Players

In my games, I tried as much as possible to be a permissive but fair GM. My particular style is to take the rules as guidelines and focus more on storytelling. While adhering to the rules is good and fair, the GM also is the arbiter of what is good and fair.

For example, say your player wants to jump over a gap in a canyon that you state is about 40 feet across. According to pathfinder, the player would need to roll a difficulty check (a 20 sided dice roll) that meets 20 plus 5 for every five feet after that. The total difficulty check would be 40, which is generally higher than many players can roll.

Instead make them roll a perception check to see how large the canyon is or if there are handholds on the way down. By being accommodating you can help your players have fun and solve conflicts in game.

Plan for Alternate Eventualities

Being GM is difficult at times. You have to be flexible, but ready for anything. It can be pretty scary to spend a lot of time planning out a session only to have your players go off track and do something unexpected. But it can also be a rewarding experience when you can roll with what your players are doing and create a story out of it.

There are also some ways you can corral your players to stay on task. For example, say your players want to go away from the village with someone who they need to talk to. So suddenly they run into someone telling them the roads are flooded for a couple of days and they need to stay at the inn for a couple of days. Or perhaps they run into that character on the road. Role playing games really help you practice thinking quick on your feet and improvise when something goes off the expected course.

In my first campaign, we accidentally awakened an Elder God such as the ones from HP Lovecraft’s stories. There was no way we were going to win against an elder god so we decided to flee. There’s no shame in finding a new story when needed.

Feedback

I got to be a better GM because I asked my players for feedback after every session. As a player, I know it can be frustrating to play in a game where you’re not having as much fun as you could be having. Having a time for feedback is particularly helpful in this matter and gives players a chance to voice what they are excited about and what they would like to be doing.

GM-ing is fun, but it also takes a lot of time to prepare and set up. I want to thank everyone who has run a role playing game and I want to give a big shout out to anyone who has GM’d for me and played in one of my games. Storytelling games can be a lot of fun for everyone involved.