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Guidance For New Game Masters (GM)


New to running roleplay game sessions? Want to avoid the common mistakes made? Well, here is some guidance on typical issues and what you can do to avoid them. In most cases, as a Gamesmaster (GM), you will want to create an absorbing scenario or campaign. One that promotes social engagement, cultivates character immersion, and rewards all with the success that comes through hard work, overcoming challenges and testing yourself. Of course, that is an ideal, but it’s a good one even if you can’t always maintain it.

Promoting immersion

Whether you dress up for the occasion or adopt a different voice, there are many ways to assist a player in immersing themselves into a player character (PC). For the GM, playing multiple characters this can be especially useful and important to bring to life distinct non-player characters (NPCs) that engage with the players. It can be a lot of fun too.

What works? Voices usually do, and yes you may feel a bit too embarrassed about this but any change in your voice could help you focus. But equally it’s ok if you don’t feel about to. You don’t need to be a great voice actor to bring a character to life.

There are other ways to add ‘character.’ Having specific mannerisms or quirks can help too. Some RPG systems even build this in to character generation to help you create something that stands out as unique to you. These behaviours can be minor quirks or eccentricities like quoting poets or having a catch phrase. It’s up to you and go with whatever works. As a GM, you can encourage this during a session zero. I’ve discussed what a Session Zero is elsewhere and emphasised how important this is.

In essence, the Session Zero is that session or more where you discuss the campaign and character generation before the campaign goes live. As a GM, your job is in part to help players become immersed, so discussing how a character behaves is very much part of this process.

I have found that the things that are most likely to impact on immersion include inappropriate interrupting by one player when another player or even the GM is mid-speech or explanation as this can kill a train of thought and if repeated can damage the enthusiasm to even bother trying to roleplay effectively. The interruption can include pointless jokes just for the laughs and whilst we all tend to like the odd quote or meme, I would advise against it in more serious situations and have respect for other players getting involved. You can probably think of other things that can impact on your session like players chatting to each other or on the phone or not paying attention and so interact poorly because they don’t know what’s going on.

Social contract

It’s not just about what to do, but equally think about what not to do. Keep ‘real-life’ out of the session as much as you can. As part of the preparation work, utilising the Session Zero, you can confirm if needed, the expectations that players and GM alike will enter into a social contract.

This is an agreement that everyone involved will play in the best spirit of the game, they will respect each other, their opinions, beliefs etc – which ideally will be kept out of the session and treat everyone with respect and dignity. It should go without saying and usually I find you don’t need to dwell on this too much, but it is worth remembering and certainly if you are starting a new group, I think the social contract is essential. It is easier to set out expectations from the start and then use the agreement as the platform for a discussion should a player behave inappropriately or otherwise threaten to damage the group enjoyment.

Anyone can have a bad day at the office and come back feeling low or frustrated, but the important thing here is for the GM to consider ‘What could go wrong?’ and ‘How might I respond?’

Going live and being prepared

No matter how much work you do to prepare, players will inevitably go off course. The social contract should ensure this isn’t deliberate, but equally as a GM you should expect things to go a little haywire. This could be good for the campaign if players embrace immersion and create scenes unplanned which subsequently add new dimensions to play and ultimately if everyone is enjoying the game does it matter?

Having said that, I do recommend being prepared, but how you prepare and react is important. I don’t create NPCs in much detail for the most part as an example. Instead, key NPCs, e.g. boss types, key minions, ordinary townsfolk if I feel the PCs will interact with a lot or thematic characters added to bring a scene or setting to life will get added layers. There may even be backstories by the PCs that help me as a GM create content and usually this goes down well with players.

What can go wrong often revolves around either a lack of planning or simply something unexpected and important. Don’t let it faze you though. If you need to check or work something out, it’s better to be honest and take the time to do it. Usually in my regular groups, as part of being friends we help each other work out key details and offer suggestions. A key suggestion is here, if you need to make a decision in session, then make a decision going with any quick suggestions and then reflect on this afterwards. In some cases, it is ok to stop the clock and determine the ruling e.g. for a spell effect or athletic manoeuvre where the result may not be clear. As a GM, try and keep a clear head and make a decision or work it out. Players should feel ok about making suggestions but ultimately, it’s the GMs call. Usually in our groups there is someone willing to do a little research to work out the answer or offer a good suggestion.

Don’t hide progress behind a dice wall!

I have seen even experienced GMs do this. It is an easy thing to do. One thing that ensures immersion is ruined and even progress too is asking for too many dice rolls. So, what are the dice for?

In most roleplay games, dice are used to determine whether an action is successful or not. But when should you as the GM call for a roll? Well essentially it is for one of two reasons: namely, either to determine a contest of skill or a skill check.

A contest of skill is essentially a situation where you will likely be successful were it not for someone or something to oppose you e.g. you try to pull open a door, but someone on the other side is pulling too.

A skill check is where you might succeed, but success is not guaranteed. Take the door scenario, if the door is heavy and locked, no amount of pulling will help you succeed, unless you are incredibly strong perhaps. Equally, if the same door is light and unlocked, anyone pretty much should succeed without a roll being necessary. It’s only if there is a chance of success and failure should you call for a roll. So, the door is heavy and jammed, but unlocked so with a good heave you might be able to yank it open!

The key thing is not to insist on dice rolls when either success is irrelevant or not crucial to the scenario or more importantly where failure may prevent the characters progressing. There can be no true character development and progress if the challenges are so easy the dice rolls are pointless, but a game can quickly become frustrating and tiring if even mundane tasks come with a chance of failure, because we know the dice gods are fickle and they will exact their price.

So, how to handle this situation? Well, what are the consequences of success and failure? There should be a chance of failure in order for players to appreciate their success if and when it comes. The gravity of the situation should help decide this. Going up against the final boss should be a challenge and a combination of teamwork, good decision making and favourable dice should help win the day and it should not be a foregone conclusion either way. Otherwise, does every attempt to interact with the market stall seller need a dice roll or every attempt to drive a car?

This is where a character who is trained in a particular skill, in a non-stressful, non-combat situation where the consequences of failure could be disastrous and success not material to the plot, should arguably be allowed to just succeed. As a GM there is merit to keeping the flow of the game and the immersion going by narrating (or allowing the players to narrate) how they succeed.


There are many articles and other sources of advice for new GMs and players. I would advise to discus with your friends, what type of game do you want to play? What are the parameters? What to do when things go wrong? There are many things you can discuss and I recommend taking some time to think how you can better run a roleplay game. Hopefully, I’ve given you some good starting points.