Some thoughts on GMing

So for a bit under a year now (I can’t remember exactly when I started but about a year ago I was gearing up to start) I’ve been GMing a game of 4th Edition D&D.  It’s my first time “on the other side of the screen” for any game and I must say I’m enjoying it quite a bit.  It’s been a learning experience but I’m feeling a little more comfortable with it every session we do.  4th Edition has been great for a beginning GM, it makes a lot of things fairly easy for the GM, I’m not sure I’d have been able to jump in the way I did if we were still playing an earlier edition of D&D.
Anyway, I thought I’d write here about a few things I’ve learned and a few things I need to work on.  Fellow GM’s and players out there please comment or give feedback if you want to!
A few things I’ve learned so far:
  • If there’s a question about a rule and it can’t be looked up in less than a few minutes, then it’s usually best to make a ruling to keep the action moving and look it up later for the future.
  • Always remember the first rule of improvisation: say “Yes, and…” Try your best not to shoot down your players ideas!
  • Be sure to read/think through all your monsters and room features carefully.
  • Related to the above, try to run a few scenarios for a scene through in your head before sitting down at the table to anticipate questions or situations that might come up.  Highlight things if you need to!
  • Make notes while playing, notes about things the players seemed to enjoy or didn’t, names of NPC’s places etc.
  • Pre-rolling initiative for your monsters can really speed things up.
  • Generally try to keep things moving, though don’t rush the players.
There are also a number of things I need to work on and improve (including those things above):
  • If I make a ruling and plan to look up a rule for later, I really need to be sure to stop and make a note of it so you can actually do that.
  • There are a few rules and things that I really need to look up and read over and over till they sink in to speed things up at the table.
  • I need to work on not talking so much about the meta-aspects of the game. It’s ok to occasionally note that the players did something unexpected, but it’s probably best not to discuss the things they could have done or what might have happened as much as I have.  It destroys some of the magic of the story, and I need to just let things happen as they do and work with it.  On a related note…
  • I need to work on making the story a bit more organic and based more on the players actions.  I’ve gotten better about this, but I still sometimes feel like I’m railroading things a little bit here and there just because I’m not quite sure how to deal with things the players are doing.
  • I need to work on not rushing things.  There have been times when the players have a little bit of downtime and while I of course want to keep things moving; in retrospect there have been a few times I’ve probably rushed through things more than I should have.
  • I need to work on how I run skill challenges, so they feel a little more organic and less mechanical.  I also need to work on really trying to include everyone in them.
  • I’d like to work on encouraging the players to really describe what they’re doing in combat and in skill situations rather than just saying “I use x power.“  They’ve actually been pretty good about this sort of thing, but I’d love to see more of it.  The first step in this is of course leading by example, so this is something for me to really remember to do.  At the same time I also need to remember that everyone enjoys different aspects of the game, so if some players really just don’t want to do that sort of thing, that’s ok too, as long as everyone is having fun!
  • I’d also like to work on my improvisation/acting skills to really bring some of the NPC’s to life.  I’ve had a few times where I’ve felt pretty good about this (the old man with a Main accent for one), but on the whole I feel like my characterization of the NPC’s has been pretty flat and I’ve fallen back on the same phrases an quirks a bit too much.  Really taking some time to think about who these people are and what they’re interested in should help with this.
And finally, there are a few things I’d like to try and/or am looking forward to experimenting with more:
  • Music!  I’ve only just started to really think about using music to set the mood, and have tried playing a little bit of music while the game is going on but I’d really like to do more of this.  I’ve got some interesting ideas for using music, but I’m still trying to work out some technical aspects of both playing and controlling the music.
  • Player generated world and story elements.  This is largely inspired by a section of the 4th Edition DMG 2 in which an example of a “shared world” is given with the DM letting players come up with a lot more of the details of the world than I think is normal.  I’m trying to leave a lot of details open so that when/if we have to deal with them I can leave a lot of the details up to the players.  I don’t feel like I’ve done this enough so far but I’m working on it (and got some great ideas from the character backgrounds the players recently wrote) and I think the next sections of the adventure we’re running should have some more opportunities for this.  For example, two of the characters are from the city we’re in now, so I plan to let those players come up with a lot of the details of what the city is like and how it works.  From city government to some of the factions within the city to even some of the layout, I want this to be “their” city.  Some of it I’ll of course also be coming up with on my own, but I want this to feel like a place they’re familiar with and really want to get an idea of what they’re interested in and how I can work their ideas into mine.
I’m sure there are a lot of things here I’m not thinking of, so there may be a follow up post or two on this but these are my thoughts right now.  What do you think?  What lessons have you learned?  Have you used music in your games? How much player input have you taken as a GM?  Do you have any ideas or tips for how to increase this sort of interaction? 🎲

Stephen B @DrOct