My Phases of GMing

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0865


I’m down to 159 emails in my Inbox. I’m trying to do a few a day in until I’m all caught up. If you have anything urgent awaiting reply, please resend it. Awesome Patrons, I’m answering your emails first.

Here’s an email from RPT Game Master Sam:

Hi Johnn!

Glad I stumbled upon your stuff over the weekend. I am a gamer from Melbourne, Australia. I’ve been playing RPGs for about 12 years and I’ve been interested in GMing for about 5 years now.

My biggest problem is this: I find creating stories with compelling hooks and logical arcs very difficult. I’ve had a few campaigns fizzle out because I couldn’t keep the players (or myself!) sufficiently engaged in the story.

Thanks for the question, Sam.

Since I started GMing in 1980 I have gone through several phases of approaching the game. Maybe readers will recognize some of these phases:

What the Hell Am I Doing?

My friend Eric got the Red Box for Christmas and gave it to me to figure out. A couple days later I was GMing his new PCs through B1: In Search Of The Unknown.

I had no idea what I was doing as a GM. We figured stuff out as we went. I made a ton of mistakes, many PCs died, and we both had a blast.

I didn’t think of myself as a game master at this point. I was a player with a screen.

Crazy Ass Munchkins

In high school, my friend Chris and I would play AD&D at lunch. Then sometimes after school. Then on the weekends. And on holidays. Sometimes others joined us.

I GM’d but also had GM PCs. We looted every module. We looted the Monster Manual. We gamed hard to collect all the artefacts from the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide. I made a ton of mistakes, many PCs died, and we had a blast.

I self-identified as a game master, but did not consider it a craft. By ploughing through every monster, treasure, and adventure we could get our hands on, I had every rule, stat, and word memorized from the core rule books.

Who Are These PCs?

In university I discovered PCs could have personalities. And backgrounds. And motivations. I realized plot was important. Players wanted a narrative and for adventures to be relevant to their characters.

So I started experimenting with various storytelling techniques. I also tried to orchestrate gameplay as player dynamics. Secrets, PVP, weird character arcs. I made a ton of mistakes, PCs died, we had a blast.

I realized how much I didn’t know as a game master, and the deeper skill levels I could explore to become a better plotter, storyteller, and referee.

The World is My Platform

Got a day job, found a new group of awesome people, started playing other game systems. And I discovered I loved world-building. I made several settings over the years.

I realized good setting offered function to the game. If I could literally swap one game world for another mid-campaign, and all that would change were maps and names, then that game world was a failure. Worlds should impact play in unique ways.

We played for years until I moved to a new city for a new job. We played almost weekly. I made a ton of mistakes, PCs died, we had a blast.

I saw myself as a lifelong game master seeking mastery. I started the Roleplaying Tips newsletter to network with other GMs around the world to trade tips.

Story is King

With the 5 Room Dungeon concept, I saw how important story was to the game, and how the sinews of storylines were the connective tissues between players, characters, worlds, campaigns, and adventures.

NPCs captured my imagination more than rewards and treasure. They were my story catalysts — and often still are. People, Places, and Plots was my mantra.

Story arcs, the three-act structure, the nine-part structure, mythology, the Hollywood Blockbuster Formula and other Adventure Structures.

I worked hard on side-plots, character arcs, layered story arcs, world-stories.

This phase straddled my GMing in Vancouver and Edmonton. Gaming slowed down due to real life, though. I made a ton of mistakes. PCs died. We had a ton of fun.

However, my hubris started to grow. I fancied myself a puppetmaster, the owner of the game experience. I served my players, yes, but the responsibility of fun was on my shoulders.

Play Nice in the Sandbox

My next phase dove into player-driven, unstructured gameplay. I set up the milieu and players did what they want. Several campaigns fizzled because we all got lost figuring out what to do. Then we played in probably my best campaign ever, simply called Riddleport.

It was liberating freeing myself from structured narrative. Sandboxes are awesome. However, I learned some structure is good, else players can lose interest. I also lose interest. Certain people need a carrot to chase. A raison d’être. A clarity of purpose and agreement where the levers of fun are.

And busy people sometimes just want to roll the dice, beat the crap out of monsters, and blow off steam. Having too many choices feel like work. And too much group debate feels like a waste of time.

At this point, I got beat up by failed campaigns. I realized season-oriented play was awesome. I saw the value of plot arcs but also how important player involvement and ownership of gameplay was. I also learned how important a good setting is to gameplay and saving prep time.

I made a ton of mistakes in this phase. PCs died. I got burnt out.

The Beauty of Adventure Design

Here we are today. My imagination and passion for the game has been ignited again by exploring design.

I see how tentacles of world building, player agency, and adventure design strongly grasp my current notions of fun.

I aim to set the table and let the players eat from the buffet. In the background, I have my Loopy Plans and plots brewing to give me structure. Five Room Dungeons and milieu creation fuel prep.

The beauty of adventure design to me is not imposing a pre-set story arc. Instead, it’s to build the Lego pieces of people, places, and plots and let them collide with the PCs. It’s creating a platform with theme, premises, and What Ifs, and then setting integrated PCs loose.

I aim to master dynamic adventure building so adventure exists wherever the players choose to explore without the straightjacket. I will make a ton of mistakes. PCs will die. It will be a ton of fun.

What’s This Got to Do With Sam’s Question?

I will continue to offer my thoughts in future Musings on how we can be ever-better game masters and have more fun at every game.

The purpose in rambling on about my GMing phases is to say it’s ok to feel frustrated. Keep experimenting. Keep learning. And keep growing.

My phases are by no means a recipe for evolution. Your path will be different based on your tastes, interests, and sources of fun.

For example, Sam is having challenges with story arcs. My current philosophy is RPGs are their own medium. We can borrow from TV, movies, and books, but we should explore the unique dynamics of GMing because it’s a much different thing than scripting or authoring.

Perhaps give up the notion of imposed story arcs. Look instead at dynamic adventure building and milieu creation. Let the players co-create to the point of your comfort level and a bit beyond. Create a milieu that supports adventure. And set the characters loose into your imaginations.

Make a ton of mistakes. Challenge the PCs. And have more fun.