Sitting Behind the GM Screen

LS sitting sinisterly behind his GM screen
I’ve helped a lot of new players take their first shaky steps into role playing. In fact, nearly every group I’ve GM’d has been composed entirely (or nearly so) of new players. As sessions pass, it’s always exciting to see how those new players develop. Last weekend, during his third game, one of my players absolutely delighted me by fully jumping into the role of the goblin Poog. Other players in that group aren’t quite there yet, but I saw them all become a little more comfortable with experimenting once there was somebody besides me doing voices. I’ve seen similar things occur with most groups. Some surprise me with their ingenuity, coming up with quirky uses for their spells; others develop a go-to tactic, like performing a bluff check, which they build their character’s personality around; and still others start asking me questions about what they’d need to know to be a GM.

Nearly every group of new players produces a future GM. Most of them start out with some truly terrible ideas. Their brains are caught up in the planning of things: the heroes, the villains, how events will play out, and how good will eventually conquer evil. That’s completely fine, but if you prefer the planning part of things, then write a story. I love stories! I read them, I write them, but I don’t run them as games. Games give the players choices, and when the player has real choices (or “Player Agency,”) no plan will ever remain on track for long. Being a game master is 30% planning, 70% execution.

Below I’ve detailed several important elements which help me in the execution phase of running a game. They are divided into three groups: Note Design, Table Setup, and Adjudicating the Game. I would like to stress that there are many schools of thought, and different methods work for different groups. This is just how I do things. It’s my hope that this can serve as a resource for new GMs who are still trying to find what works for them. But I would certainly welcome any comments from veteran GMs who have suggestions for me, or who would simply like to compare styles.

Note Design may sound like the planning part of the game, and it is. Having some manner of plan beforehand is helpful for most GMs. The important thing is that the plan be fluid and easy to adjust on-the-spot when the players do something unexpected. But that’s not what I want to discuss here.

What I mean by note design is the way your notes are arranged before you. Whether you keep your notes in some kind of special software, or in a word document, or in a ratty old binder like I do, it’s important that those notes can be referenced as quickly as possible. Many GMs, including myself if I’m feeling absent minded, write notes as a sort of stream-of-consciousness exercise. When your notes consist of a series of paragraphs which mix player information, GM information, and game mechanics information, things are going to go poorly. If you don’t accidentally tell your players about the secret door they haven’t found yet, then it’s probably because you’re holding the game up with your incessant note reading.

Organizational tools are your friends. If you have any adventure modules around, take note of how they arrange their information. There are clearly marked sections for things which should be read aloud to the players, all the NPC stat blocks are normally in the back of the book, and miscellaneous information is kept in sidebars. With a glance, a prepared GM can filter out what is needed and what isn’t without stopping to read. Even if you’ve never seen an adventure module, it’s not too hard to use color, font size, boxes, and bold/italic text to separate information into types. As an example, you can always put monster stats in boxes, room descriptions in red, potential NPC dialogue in blue, and dice checks in bold.

Page number references are also important. Nothing slows a game down more than flipping through a rule book. If you need to use a mechanic or spell which you’re not intimately familiar with, put a page number in the notes. That way, if you have an ogre who likes to throw people into a nearby spike pit, you have a quick note reminding you what page number the grapple rules are on. I’ve even got a rule at my table that if a player can’t give me the page number for their spell, then the spell fails.

As a final note, if you’re making a map for your game, use nonspecific notations for it, or create a duplicate with nonspecific notation. Players may want to see the map, and you may want to show it to them. Only too late will you realize that there’s a big X marked “Villains hideout” which all the players have now seen.

Table Setup is how you set the table. Just like when you were a kid, except instead of plates and forks, it’s pencils and dice.

What LS' Gaming Table Looks Like

This is my gaming table right now. It’s not the prettiest thing in the world, but it’s functional. I’d like to make note of a number of things.

  • The central part of the table, where the battle mat is, is clear. Things may be placed on it during gameplay, but it’s important to try and keep this area free of clutter. Otherwise transitioning into a battle will require you to clean off the mat first, which will kill some excitement.
  • I use a mark-able battlemat which I got for less than $20. It has paid for itself a dozen times over already. It’s a great way to create environment detail quickly for the players.
  • Everybody has space. I’ve got these nice little folding tables which I constantly find uses for. Here, each player has their own personal table for papers, snacks, drinks, books, or anything else they’ll want close at hand.
  • Comfortable upright chairs. The idea is to keep everyone comfortable enough that they don’t feel compelled to leave, but not to allow them to get so comfortable that they don’t pay attention to the game.
  • Everybody has paper and pencils. These are not just helpful, they are essential tools which are too often neglected. Players will need them to keep track of their HP, make note of temporary inventory items, or help them remember what the tavern keeper’s clue was. I always make sure to keep a couple extra pencils behind the GM screen to avoid anybody needing to take time to sharpen the pencils.
  • Notes on the PCs for the GM’s use. Aside from all the normal things a GM needs (game notes, dice, monster manual) it’s good to have a few basic notes on what the character’s abilities are, to facilitate secret rolls and speed the game along. For example, I take note of my player’s AC. That way I don’t have to ask the player if they were hit, I can simply tell them that they have been hit, thereby keeping things moving at a faster pace. It’s particularly useful to know what your player’s perception skills are. Otherwise you need to ask for a perception check from your players, and even if they fail, they now know something is up.
  • A GM screen to keep my notes and rolls private. The GM needs to handle a lot of material which would spoil the game if players knew about it, so the screen helps with that. It also, handily, contains a bunch of quick reference charts for rules.
  • Monster markers. I keep these in the little wooden box which I got them in. I actually picked these up at a garage sale a few months back, and they’ve become an indispensable part of my games. Nothing beats the look on my player’s faces as they enter the goblin village and watch me put token after token onto the battlefield.

Adjudicating the Game is the main event. You’re sitting behind the screen, the players are in front of you. To be honest, I’m always speechless for a moment when this happens. I shuffle my notes and wonder how in the world I’m going to keep these people entertained for the next few hours. You would think I’d be used to it by now, but for some reason I lose all my confidence every time I stand on the cusp of starting a new game. I tentatively read the opening lines of the adventure, often something as simple as “You were at location X performing task Y, then event Z happened and now you’re in situation S.” Then there’s a brief pause as the players wait to see if I’ll continue, and in that second I’m positive that I’ve failed. Then somebody speaks, and I respond, and I suddenly remember: I’m good at this.

There’s no trick that makes you a good game master. There are lots of tricks which help to make you a great game master, but being a good game master is more a matter of philosophy than it is of method. A good game master recognizes that he or she is there to facilitate a fun game for the players. Such a GM realizes that their own fun is contingent on whether or not the players are enjoying themselves; and that the player’s fun is likewise contingent on the GM putting the player’s enjoyment before his or her own. This means letting the players drive the game with their actions. The GM should never have an ‘agenda,’ should never want a certain event to happen so badly that they manipulate the game towards that end.

Improvisational skills are extremely important in this regard. It is a universal law that players are unpredictable. The only way to combat their unconventional thinking is to think just as unconventionally as they do. And since you’re the GM, you’ve got to do it a great deal faster than they do. If they miss your clue about the evil cult hiding in The Gilded Goblet, and instead head to the local brothel to look for clues there, then by the time they arrive you should already know which of the women within is secretly a succubus who kidnaps her clients to serve as sacrifices for the cult.

I could go on for pages about other skills which have improved my GMing at the table, but most of those skills deserve their own post, and will get it someday. For now, I’ll end with the three cardinal rules of being a good GM which I’ve learned.

  1. Frequently look around the table to make sure everyone is having fun. If a few people aren’t, try to engage them in the game. If nobody is, change your approach completely.
  2. If something is holding your game back, identify it, and figure out how to overcome it. Always be critical of yourself in a positive way.
  3. Never, ever, stop looking for ways to improve the way you manage your gaming table. Blogs (such as this one) are a great resource in that quest.
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