Game Mastering for beginners, part 5

This blog post series is about Game Mastering for TTRPGs – I’ve run some talks at various events about this topic, but thought it’d be nice to share my thoughts here on my blog. This fifth part will be about running your first session.

So, you’ve planned your first session, and the day has come when you’re about to run it! It might be a bit nerve-wrecking to think about it, but hopefully you…

  • Have a great group to play with
  • You all have your role playing expectations set
  • You’ve planned out the adventure you’ll use for your first session

So things should be in control πŸ˜‰ Some other things I’d recommend you to have ready before your first session is:

  • Have you planned for how long you will play? I’d say a good start is 2-3 hours. My sessions are usually 4 hours long, but I think for the first sessions I usually had material for 2-3 hours.
  • If you have music/sound, how do you play it?
  • If you have maps and tokens, how do you display them? Are they ready for display?
  • Do you have easy access to the game’s rules?
  • Do you have easy access to the adventure’s plot?
  • Do you have easy access to the NPCs and enemies?
  • Do you have a notebook or piece of paper where you can write down things like initiative order, your NPCs health, things your players do that you should remember?
  • Do you have some snacks or treats for your players? Or will they bring the snacks? Or will you order pizza mid-game? You will probably need some pauses here and there and it’s good to have one where you fill up on energy.

I’d say with this checklist, you’re more or less ready to play! Just have fun with it and remember:

  • It’s your first time being a Game Master, don’t be too hard on yourself.
  • It’s okay to not knowing all the rules and to look them up mid-game
  • Even though you admire other Game Masters that you’ve seen/listened to on podcasts etc, don’t compare yourself to them. They have their own style and you’ll develop yours.
  • Be prepared to improvise – your players sometimes stray way too far from your initial idea – if that happens, go with the flow and adapt.
  • Check in with your players – are they enjoyiong themselves or are they uncomfortable with what’s happening? Remember the consent in gaming material.
  • If players need breaks (bathroom or whatnot), allow them – make your players comfortable.
  • Anyhow, remember to take breaks, it will keep you more energized!
  • If you have forgotten something – don’t worry, take a note for the future.

And that’s it! Hopefully you’ll have a great time Game Mastering your first session! After I’m done with the session, there are usually three things left to do:

  • Hand out experience points
  • Decide a date for the next session – this is very important to keep the momentum! It’s better to have a date to look forward to immediately than not.
  • Write a summary – I didn’t do it for the first months as a Game Master and I regret it a lot now. If you’d have a long break (we had a 3 month break and I was so happy I had a summary from the previous session at hand when that happened), the summary is great for you to remember what happened and plan accordingly for the events in the next session.

And that’s pretty much it for the first session! Next time, I’ll conclude this blog series (for now) with some general tips and tricks, stay tuned!

Game Mastering for beginners, part 4

This blog post series is about Game Mastering for TTRPGs – I’ve run some talks at various events about this topic, but thought it’d be nice to share my thoughts here on my blog. This fourth part will be about Planning your first session.

So, you have your players, you’ve chosen a game to play and you’ve had your first session zero. By this time you should know what kind of characters your players will play and what expectations they have. This is a prime time to start planning out your first session.

For me, it’s always easier to start planning if I have a deadline. So I’d recommend you and your players to decide on a date when you’ll play your first session. Otherwise you might end up in planning limbo and overplan and never feel ready for that first session.

The first session should be about exploring the characters, the rules and get a taste for the world and setting. Give your players some opportunities to both play their characters and roll some dice to test their skills, either by fights or other means – maybe your players want to just sneak past all enemies or talk their way to success. It doesn’t have to be perfect – it’s your first session, but rather a way to explore how it is to play and Game Master.

Should you write your own first adventure by yourself or use one that (hopefully) is included with your game? If you’re a bit stressed out by Game Mastering (because you already need to keep track of a lot of stuff), I’d say go for the pre-made adventure. When I started out Game Mastering Mutant:Year Zero, I looked at the pre-made adventure that came with the starter box and used that. If some things from the adventure really doesn’t work with your team, it’s totally fine to re-write it a little to fit your game a bit better (ie change location or some of the NPCs (Non-Playable Characters)). If the adventure is well written, you should have a lot of details about the setting(s), the characters the player will meet, the main plot and alternatives if the players stray off a bit. Read the adventure a couple of times, take some notes if you want to make changes and make it yours. Some games, like Mutant: Year Zero – Genlab Alpha is a whole campaign itself, so I pretty much just used that and made a few changes and additions to the game to fit my players’ characters a bit better.

By starting out using the pre-made adventures, I gained confidence to freestyle a little bit and make my own adventures for the players to enjoy. For the current game I’m running (Dragon Age), it’s pretty much my own material that I adapt depending on my players’ decisions. Thanks to the Dragon Age setting having a huge fanbase, it’s pretty easy to find material and lore connected to that world to use however I like.

After deciding on an adventure, it’s time to do some practical preparations. How do you keep track of the adventure and your NPCs? When I already have a pre-made adventure, it can feel pretty convenient to just look in the book (I mean, it’s allready written there), but depending on the book’s layout, I sometimes feel it’s easier to just collect it somewhere else. When I GM, I usually have an Ipad with Google Drive and Notion installed. I’ve tried Notion to keep track of my current game’s ideas for adventures, my player’s plots and so on, but using a Google Doc (or similar) is just as effective. I’m also using Google Sheets for my NPCs. It might not sound super hot, but I like that I can categorize my NPCs into tabs and have all the relevant NPCs in one place.

The google sheet is something I mainly use when I play IRL. If you rather play remotely, this could work as well, but then there are some remote TTRPG tools where it’s probably more convenient to add your NPCs (as that usually allows you to roll for them as well). To mention a few are roll20, Foundry and DnDBeyond.

How you decide to keep track of your plots and NPCs is up to you, but I encourage you to have a system for it so you can easily access it whenever you need to. Maybe you prefer to have it on paper, or written down in a notebook, then make it so πŸ™‚

Other things you might want to prepare before your first game are maps or visual aid for your players. You probably don’t need it for every scene, but if you’re planning on including a fight, an overview of where everyone is usually helps a little. It doesn’t have to super fancy, I usually just draw by hand and use meeples. If you want something more fancy (but still not minis and modeled landscapes), Dungeonfog is a tool where you can make maps and export them.

If you want to prepare even a bit further, you can plan out songs, or even playlists for your game! I created one for “normal play” and one for fights for my first game. If you play online, make sure you have a good way of playing the music. Roll20 and Foundry allows you to import and play some music (Roll20 already has some music and ambience pre-imported), and when you’re playing IRL, you can use any music service you like to play it. I’m using Spotify and cast it to an external speaker for my IRL games.

Hopefully, you now have some ideas of how to plan for your first session. Next time we’ll have a look at actually running your first session, see you then!

Game Mastering for beginners, part 3

This blog post series is about Game Mastering for TTRPGs – I’ve run some talks at various events about this topic, but thought it’d be nice to share my thoughts here on my blog. This third part will be about conducting a session zero.

Session Zero?

Last time, we talked about finding friends to play with, decide on a game and go through some tools for making the game a safter space for everyone at the table (IRL or virtual). There are still some things to do before y’all can start to play, and a Session Zero can help you get through these things, plus help your player get hyped before the actual game starts. Some examples to include in a session zero are:

  • Character creation & general rules
  • Describe the setting and its rules
  • Help your players with forming their group of adventurers
  • Set expectations

Let’s go into more depth about these 4 topics πŸ™‚

Character creation & general rules

This is basically what I usually use my session zeros for. I’ve been Game Mastering systems that maybe aren’t the most common ones, some of my players are new to Table Top RPGs and it’s nice for the whole group to come together and help each other with the character creation part. Usually, my players have an idea and have done most of the character creation part, but doesn’t understand a rule, have forgot to add some part or have some questions in general. I’ve done most of these sessions online, but it can also be cozy to come together and brainstorm your characters. Remember, you don’t have to be an encyclopedia – you and your players can help each other to find the right page in the book that describes the rules you’re looking for.

At this point, players might not have that many game-specific rules yet, but if they’re curious about how a fight or ability check works, you can look into that. If a player decides to play a mage or similar, there’s usually a lot of questions around spells and how they work (being a mage is usually a bit more complex as they have to keep track of spells), so be prepared for that. Again, you don’t have to be an expert on how magic works in your game system, but it can be good to know where the section about spells and magic is located in the handbook πŸ˜‰

I’d also recommend you as a GM to create your own character before a session zero. By doing so, you’re aware what needs to be done, and what might be more complex in this system’s character creation part.

If players have a hard time building their characters’ backstories, I can wholeheartedly recommend a book called “The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide” by James D’Amato – it’s full of nice exercises to help your players think about their character’s backstory and personality. I used parts of these exercises with my current group when they made their characters for the game I’m GM:ing now, and the feedback I got from my players who used it was that it was very handy.

Describe the setting and its rules

Odds are at least some of your players aren’t familiar with the world you’re about to play in. I would recommend to describe the area where your player will start their adventure in.

As an example, for my latest campaign, the players started in a small city called Highever. It’s a coastal city at the northern part of a country called Ferelden. The city itself has a few shops, bars, inns and a church. The church is all about controlling mages and putting them in secluded towers. Lately, there has been a big mage uprising in a city north of Highever, so the chuch and its templars are very scared that the same will happen in Highever.

This information, with some maps of Highever, the country of Ferelden, and the big world called Thedas, gave my players information to help them create their characters and decide if they’re from Highever, from Ferelden, or from another country. They also understood that by chosing to be a mage, they’d be in trouble with the church.

Some of my players chose to be dwarves, and there I could give them more information about what it’s like to be a dwarf in this world. If you know what type of character your players want to play, it’s easier to give them the information necessary to build their backstories. But sometimes, the players might not know what type of character they want to play and then it might be easier to give them some general information about the world and what they might expect if they play a certain character.

Usually, the player’s handbook for your game should have all the information about the world that your players need to know, and you can point them to the right pages, but sometimes you might have to improvise, build some things by yourself or look on the internet for more information. If you need to add stuff to the existing lore, this is a golden opportunity for you and your players to collaborate on how that piece of lore should work (for example, a player’s family run a shop in the starting city, or one of the players is a runaway nobility). The more the player feels involved and can be part of the world, the better.

Help your players with forming their group of adventurers

How will your group of players meet? Maybe you’ll role play it on the first session, but in some cases it’s better that they already know each other and have adventured together for a while. Session zero is a great time to decide how your group came together! Maybe they’ve met at a bar brawl, they got hired by the same employer a few years ago, or they all got scammed by the same person and lured out on an impossible adventure. It can also be good to understand why some of these characters travel together – if a mage and someone who hates mages travel together, there must be a reason to why they do it – maybe it’s peer preassure, maybe they’ve decided to tolerate each other, maybe one saved the other or something else?

Set expectations

This is also an important prt of your Session Zero. Make sure the players have the opportunity to voice their expectations of the game, and also tell them what your goal is. Maybe you’re a Game Master that loves building intricate dungeons and let your players fight monsters all day long, while some of your players hope that there will be more role playing elements where their backstory is involved. It’s great to set the expectations as early as possible, but at latest at session zero. Because if your players expect one thing and you do the complete opposite, none of you will have a good time, players might drop from your game and you don’t understand why. I don’t mean that you should only do what your players want (if that’s not exactly what you want to do as well), but it can be good to compromise. And besides, it can be good to not only do one thing – let the players have a pause from the dungeons now and then to engage with some impro role playing πŸ˜‰

It can also be good to check in with your players every now and then and see how they like your game, if they’d like to see more or less of something.

And one more thing, if you’re new to Table Top RPGs and your only reference is Critical Role, don’t expect it to be like that. Matt Mercer has been a Game master for several years AND is a voice actor, so fo you (or your players) to expect running a game like him is way too high expectations! You don’t have to give super lush desciptions or do different voices to be a great Game Master. But more on that on a later part.

That concludes part 3, hope you enjoyed it πŸ™‚ Now when you’ve had your session zero and set the expectations with your players, it’s time to plan the first session!

Game Mastering for beginners, part 2

This blog post series is about Game Mastering for TTRPGs – I’ve run some talks at various events about this topic, but thought it’d be nice to share my thoughts here on my blog. This second part will be about gathering your party and set a foundation for a safe environment to Game Master and play in.

Gather your party

Usually, to find players that want to play is much easier than finding a Game Master. If you say you’re a Game Master looking for players, players will sign up for sure. However, being a Game Master for a gang of total strangers might be intimidating if you’re Game Mastering for the first time (I know it’d be for me), so I’d recommend to start small and locally. What do I mean by that? Well, with small, I mean a small group – my first group consisted of me and 3 players, which is just enough to get an adventure going. Any number of players between 3-5 would be nice for your first campaign, I’d say. And by locally, I mean people you know well. In my case, my first group consisted of my partner, his younger brother and my partner’s best friend (which I have known for as long as I have known my partner). I knew all three very well and they knew me. We could joke around and respect each other. I could count on them to join the sessions we scheduled and to come prepared. Thanks to starting with this small and local group of players, I felt that I gained enough confidence to ask people outside that group to join my next campaign. These new players were still people I knew very well though, and I’m happy that I have people within my friend circles that’d like to play Role Playing Games so I don’t need to look for plyers outside that group yet.

I have also run games at work with my team. This happened a few years after I started Game Mastering though, so I had gathered some experience and confidence. What made me confident in Game Mastering this group was that they all were very interested in trying TTRPGs, I had worked with them for several years so I knew their personalities, and I had a good feeling that everyone wanted to have a good and wholesome time (and I was right).

I have noticed that I probably enjoy being a Game Master for groups of people that I know somewhat – may it be friends or people at work. I think this preference is very individual though, you might get energized by playing with strangers at conventions! For me though, I like having the control of knowing who I might play with (but this might change later in my life).

What shall we play?

When people talk about Role Playing Games, most associate them with Dungeons & Dragons, but there are a lot of other games out there to play. First off, I’d recommend you to decide with your group what genre you want to explore. Again, fantasy is most commonly heard of due to Dungeons & Dragons, but you can also play in a post-apocalypic world in the Mutant:Year Zero Games, explore sci-fi via Coriolis or Star Trek, try some horror with Call of Cthulhu, play women at war in Night Witches…the list goes on! Nowadays, there are role playing games for almost everything! Drivethru RPG is a page that sells digital edition of Role Playing Games, and you can browse the games by genre, system etc to find your next game to play.

If you think a whole campaign and setting is a bit too much to start with, there’s also a thing called One-Page TTRPGs that is exactly what the name suggest – the rules are described on one page. One of the more well known is Lasers & Feelings, but you can find more examples on the internet.

Some house rules and safe space

Great, you now have a group and a game to play. Time to establish some rules to make everyone feel safe. What I’d recommend as a minimum is to ask your players what they DON’T want to see in a game. You can ask them individually as that might give you more honest answers, but if you already have a group with people you feel safe around, everyone should be able to voice their opinion. But make sure they can contact you directly with their wishes.

As an example, I don’t want to see homophobia, fatphobia, racism and sexism in a game I’m playing. I think it’s plain decency to not include that.

For some inspiration on how you can make your own game a safe guide, check out this free booklet called Consent in Gaming that also has a great checklist that you can use.

Schedule your session zero

Great, you’re ready to schedule your session zero where you get everyone in the mood for the setting and help each other create characters. As I find it hard to do something spontaneously, it’s always good to schedule some time (2-3 hours) for this. Set a date and time when everyone is available and you’re all set. If you have a hard time finding a time when you can see each other IRL, doing it virtually is fine too, as long as you can share screen or show things on your webcam (or send examples via a chat). As long as y’all can get together and help each other.

That concludes this part of my blog series. Hopefully you’ve got some tips on how to gather your first group of players, what game you should play and how you can make your game a safe space for everyone. Next time, I’ll talk more about that session zero I briefly mentioned, see you then!

Game Mastering for beginners, part 1

This blog post series is about Game Mastering for TTRPGs – I’ve run some talks at various events about this topic, but thought it’d be nice to share my thoughts here on my blog. This first part will mostly be about how I came to be a GM and what game I started with (and what I thought about it) – enjoy!

The Game Master volounteer

I’ve been a TTRPG (Table Top RPG) Game Master for 4 years now. It started a bit out of spite. I was tired of being part of gaming groups that the Game Master down-prioritized, tired of playing with Game Masters that punished you for any wrong you made (which was extremely exhausting as a newbie player), and Game Masters that didn’t tell you anything about the world so you couldn’t plan your character. Finally, I was really tired of making characters for games that never even had a first session. If I wanted to play, I had to gather my own group and Game Master like I wanted a Game Master to be.

Baby’s first game (it was not D&D)

I started my journey as a Game Master with the Mutant: Year Zero game, which in hindsight was both good and bad. It’s more of a sandbox game with some areas created by the publisher that you can use for adventuring (but the descriptions for what’ll happen there are limited, so you need to invent a lot by yourself). You are encouraged to add a lot of random encounters when your players are traveling the world. Sure, there is an “endgame” to the campaign, but how you get there is pretty much up to you as a GM. At the beginning, I had no idea what to do with the areas and the plot. I had so many options, but each option had very little info so I had to invent a lot by myself. I fondly remember one part of the adventure that said “The players might do X and then anything can happen!”…

However, I continued working with the Year Zero game, and me and my players played the campaign for almost three years. In parallell, I started up a game of Genlab Alpha (also in the Mutant:Year Zero universe) with another gang of players. That was a proper campaign with a bit more guidance on what happened – but there still was a lot of room to make it my own as a GM. I had to create two of the animal habitats since they weren’t explained in the book and I made a “halloween” adventure and a “beach episode” for my players to enjoy between the bigger story beats. That game lasted for about 1Β½ year and we reached the end of the campaign (with only one player’s character dead).

What I liked about these two games were that:

  • The setting made sense to us – it took place in a postapocalyptic Sweden (Northern Sweden for Genlab and Stockholm for Year Zero) and it was easier to make up stuff and play with easter eggs based on our location.
  • The rules were pretty simple and it was pretty easy to create a character.
  • I learned a lot about improvising and building on already existing settings.

What I didn’t like about them were:

  • As a newbie Game Master that would’ve liked more guidance, the sandbox setting of year Zero was a bit too much for me until I “got it”. In hindsight, I should’ve started with Genlab Alpha in order to get less stressed out.

I would still recommend a new Game Master to try out the Mutant:Year Zero games, and if you’re like me and would like a more stuctured campaign, I’d wholehartedly recommend Genlab Alpha (or Mechatron, if you enjoy playing robots instead of animals).

Parallell to my Game Mastering, the players in my group have started to Game master their own games as well. So now I’m not only a Game Master for a game our group play, I’m also a player in three others. By being the first brave soul to Game Master in our group, I influenced others to try their hand at it! I really enjoy being a player in a game since I basically just have to be there and play my ranger goblin (or whatever character I’m playing), but being a Game Master is still something I enjoy very very much.

Why being a Game Master is awesome

As you might know I’m a comic artist and one of my passions is to tell stories. But being a comic artist, especially an indie comic artist, can be quite lonely, and you might not get any feedback about your comic. I noticed that as a Game Master, I’m pretty much a storyteller as well – or maybe a story facilitator. I create some kind of setting and characters for my player to interact with. This setting and especially the characters have their own agenda, and the players of course have their agenda. To see how the players interact with my characters to reach their goal and greate great stories together is so much more rewarding that I could ever imagine. As long as I understand that my job is to make things fun and worthwhile for my players:

  • Give them plots they feel motivated to engage in
  • Give them NPCs (non-playable characters) they feel motivated to engage with
  • Adapt the story according to my player’s choices)

…and not to write a book that the players can’t deviate from. It’s a giving and taking from both parts, and when it works, it’s magnificent.

I don’t consider myself the leader type, and being the Game Master honestly scared me in the beginning. In my next blog post, I’ll talk a bit more about how to create an environment where you can thrive as a player and a Game Master and make things feel less intimidating.