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During the past year I have settled into the role as my group's Dungeon Master, or as I prefer, "Game Master" (well, we’re not ALWAYS in dungeons, are we?).
During that time, I have come across a lot that I feel is important to know as a game master for a game such as Dungeons and Dragons. It feels as though a lot of what needs to be said sometimes doesn’t get told. So here it is: my top list of GM tips!
1. Be fair.
It is important to ensure you don’t play any favoritism. This comes into play in multiple ways. If one of the players is your best friend, you might want to help them out: access to some loot, giving them an advantage on rolls, saving them from a brutal attack…
The best way to stop this from happening is to disregard the people around the table as players and regard them now only as characters. Get into the mindset of calling each of them by their character's names and invest yourself in their character personalities. Ensure you are planning various rewards that would suit each of the individuals so they all know that something good is coming their way. (I do this with magic items. I make them expensive to buy in a shop but each of my players know that specific magic items are being planned for them throughout the campaign which makes it fair as approaching the more dangerous encounters, each will have something to help them along).
Being fair also applies to the rules. Don’t force rules at them that don’t make sense in that situation and always use the "Rule of Cool." If it seems cool and fun, throw them a bone and maybe let them get away with something once in a while.
2. Remember the handbooks are guidelines.
Rules are a huge argument starter, especially if some of your players have memorized a whole bunch of them and like to share that knowledge at any moment they can. You will inevitably be faced with a moment where a player corrects you and tells you a specific rule, or perhaps there is a time a player is trying to do something contrary to what it states in the handbook.
In situations like these, again apply the "rule of cool." Just because there is a rule about something doesn’t mean it has to apply to that situation. The writers can’t account for everything and sometimes it can make the game more boring and stagnant. Use the rules when you are stuck with a decision as a game master and need something to help guide your judgement of a situation; always remember, the rules are flexible around you and your campaign.
3. Don’t railroad. (Players should have choices.)
I can’t even begin to tell you all the fun and awesome plot points I have planned throughout my campaign and the players do something to totally collapse everything I have planned for it or even outright ignored it. It happens a lot so get used to it! If you force your players to do a specific thing, then it no longer becomes an immersive game of adventure and instead you are becoming a narrator. Your world will feel much more alive to your players if they can control their own fate.
If you really want them to do something, you can trick your players into what you want to do but don’t force it. Once you offer them something, if they really seem against it, then just move on.
A great trick to use is to offer them the same quest in an alternate way.
For example you might introduce an NPC at first who initiates the quest by telling the group that there is trouble in a small village and they need the help of the party. The party, however, wants to go to a city to achieve something else. At this point, simply nod and give them some options.
Explain to the party that they can earn some money on the way there by escorting a caravan through a village on the way to that city. Now they have two reasons why they can go to the village and double up on some rewards.
You might instead take them toward the city but an ambush approaches. After beating the ambush, one of the bandits explains that they hid their last loot outside of the village and if they spare his life he will show them.
There are many ways to guide your players to places you want them to go. Just remember, however, it is their choice and you are here to create the adventure they want to play and not the adventure you want to dictate to them.
3. Keep the game moving.
Sometimes players can get caught up in chatter, arguing about a rule or just brawling in the local fight ring. It is important that you always ensure the game keeps moving to avoid the session going stagnant and making sure everyone at the table is able to do something fun.
If they are arguing, then explain that we can read a rule after the game and for now we will do X thing.
If they are chatting more than focusing on the game, ask them what they think they want to do next.
If they are unsure of what to do next, perhaps recap parts of the plot and offer up some loose ends they have not yet tied up.
If your players are sitting in one place too long or it is not enjoyable for everyone there, introduce an NPC or something that will grab their attention to move them on.
If you are really struggling with a couple of players chatting or doing something, continue the game with the other players and when the chatty players ask what's going on, explain to them that they will have to catch up as you go as their characters were distracted while the rest of the party were doing something important. If players miss something after you’ve tried to re-engage them, then that is their own fault.
The Game Master’s word is final.
Remember that as the Game Master you have the final ruling. Regardless of when a player may get bitter about you letting someone make an extra attack with their offhand because the end result would be cool or funny, explain to them that this isn’t a game about following a rule book and we’re all here to have fun.
Don’t abuse this however. Take on what your players may think about something and if the majority don’t agree with your ruling, consider changing it. Remember that it is all about having fun and one rule in one session won’t spoil the entire campaign. You’ll all have forgotten about it 10 minutes later anyway!
4. Get rid of negativity.
There are some cases where a player brings a lot of negativity to a game. Perhaps they waste a lot of time reciting rules or every action they take requires several minutes of planning, which takes away from everyone else's enjoyment. Sometimes no matter how many times you might advise a player that they are disrupting the game or making it less enjoyable for everyone else, they just don’t seem to care or even try to change what they are doing.
In these cases, you may need to consider removing someone from your group and that is not always a bad thing.
Personally I had a group of nine players. Of those nine, we have removed two players. One changed their character every two sessions or so in a heavy story driven campaign to the point where none of the other player characters would bond with that player's characters as it just seemed pointless. The second player did pretty much everything else described above.
While it seems harsh to kick players, we now have a group of seven players who come and enjoy every session and don’t have anything bad to say about the other people around the table. You, as the GM, need to make some hard choices sometimes and it will be hard to act on them, but having the courage to do what's in the best interest of your group and keep things fun for everyone is why you are there. If you can’t do that, perhaps you should consider having someone else take the lead.
5. Remember, it’s about having fun!
You should never forget that D&D is a game about collaboration and working together. Don’t lose sight of what it is all about. You, as the GM, are there to ensure your players have content and your players are there to enjoy the world you are building for them. While they might not always want to do the things you have planned, you can still have fun and engage them by going with the flow and simply enjoying it with them.