Notes from the Newbie GM

You come here for the video game content, right?  Too bad.  This isn’t a video games blog.  This is an Aether blog.  Usually I talk about video games, because that’s what’s fun to me.  But really, I talk about whatever the hell I want.

And today, whatever the hell I want is a different type of gaming.  Dungeons and Dragons.  Recently, I picked up the role of ongoing GM for the first time.  Building up a campaign, not just a few one shots.  And it turns out, GM’ing is hard.  Most of the group of players I have here are the same group I learned to play with, and they’re all much more experienced than I am.  Most of them are even more experienced GMs than I am.  As it turns out, GM’ing is hard.  And I think GM’ing for this group is even harder that it would be with a group of complete newbies.  These guys, they freakin’ see right through everything I’m doing.

In any case, I’ve got a handful of sessions under my belt, now.  It’s been an odd experience getting this far.  Here’s a handful of thoughts I’ve had on the process the way up here.

All the Resources are Worthless

Everything geared towards the “New GMs.”  All of it.  Absolutely unhelpful.  Even the things that you think might be helpful.  You would think the Dungeon’s Masters Guide would be essential.  That’s what teaches you how to do the whole thing, right?  Nothing.  If it didn’t come with a list of magic items, it would not be worth anything.  Sure, it has a whole bunch of tables if you’re wanting to roll the dice and randomly generate your world, but just like how procedural generation leads to boring level designs in video games, would you ever expect that to lead to something engaging on the tabletop?  Anything else it has, if you’ve been a player, you already know.  You’ve seen it in action.  You’ve lived it.  And it’s easier to translate that experience than it is to try and pick something up from reading.

But that’s okay, we’ve got the whole wide interbutts at our fingertips, right?  Ehhhhhh…………..  No.  For whatever reason, I’ve yet to see a good newbie GM’s guide.  I’ve even yet to see some newbie GM tips that are helpful.  They’re all either floofy platitudes that don’t really give you anything, they’re concepts that are either over your head or too advanced to work in until you learn to manage your players, very specific things that would not work with the way that you or your players intend to have your fun, or they’re so obvious as to be pointless if you’ve ever been a player.  All of it.  Absolutely all of it.  Even the newbie guides I’ve seen from people who otherwise have intelligent things to say about D&D fit everything into one of those four categories.  And for Kord’s sake don’t go into any sort of online discussion on the subject.  For whatever reason, it seems that the only people heading to talk to others about it have absolutely no interest in actually listening to anyone else.  So many opinions going in all sorts of directions, and no way to figure out what’s good there.

So what do you do if you want to learn GM’ing?  Well, first, spend some time as a player.  You may have noticed that was a common theme of what I had above.  It will do a lot for you if you’re wanting to build worlds of your own to spend time in other’s.  It will teach you things.  From my experience, it’s the best way to get at what you need to know.  Beyond that, just look up regular tips for GM’ing.  Go for the ones for more experienced GMs.  For whatever reason, when they’re talking to the newbies it makes people’s brains go all weird, but you can see some solid material that still gets you what you need to know if you look at what they say to some peers.  Thinking your way through that stuff will teach you a lot more than the weird stuff they’re flinging at the fresh GMs.

Your Players Will Follow Your Lead.  Easily.

From what I’ve been seeing from other GMs, it’s a common struggle to get players to follow on your plot strings.  To actually heed the call, pick things up, and go where you’ve got your material.  Either that pesky free will comes into play, or they completely miss all your intricately laid breadcrumbs, and it’s hard to get them to do anything without railroading.

I have not faced that at all.  Possibly, my experience may be different, because although I’m new, my players are outright D&D fanatics.  They throw around terminology that I don’t even know what it means years after playing.  They seem to have thoroughly explored every new piece of official content before it’s ever even released.  And as I said before, they’ve been seeing right through me.  Oftentimes, they’ve been moving in the direction of the quest before I’ve even laid it out for them.

I just need to hint “hey, there’s a thing there” and they’ll be making preparations for it.  Unless I’m unknowingly being railroady, they’re all actively reading into my intentions and making sure they’re playing along with it.  I’ve gone in some rather off the map directions, and they still keep on top of it.  I had a part where I had the guys basically taking over a town, allocating workers, distributing resources, working out policies, things like that.  I was expecting to actually have to explain this, to more mechanically prompt them into doing it, but no.

I didn’t feel like I even had to suggest it, they picked it up right away. That was a good feeling.

And it makes sense. The game’s not about having the GM against the players. Well, I mean, it kind of is, given that the GM controls the enemies in combat. But it’s not really. They’re working together. And yeah, railroading is no fun. But if players go outside of where the GM made the game, well, there’s really no game. They’d have to sit there while the GM just hammers something out on the fly, and it won’t be as well-thought as the stuff they put prep into. And they know that. So they’re not going to go marching to the east if the adventure is in the west, because that’s not fun for anybody.

That said, you do still have to know their character motivations. Had one player recently who decided that a villain marching through their town wasn’t worth getting out of bed for. Was totally in-character for him, but not super helpful. So sometimes you do have to make the call something that connects with them. In this case, I set his house on fire to get him to do something.

Take that sentence out of context.

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