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Basic GMing


Dialectical Hermeticist
I know the fashion of the time is to play in the RP you’ve created. Consider, however, the merits of more classic style GMing (Game Mastering) when you want to create and run a roleplay - rather than playing one or two characters, it makes you responsible for a whole slew of non-player characters, the way the world works, and any antagonists. It allows you to hide details and surprise players, to tell a story you have in mind, and while you and your players are collaborating, it makes you ‘director’ of the narrative experience.

I bet that sounds challenging - and it is - but it’s also fun and rewarding. I’m going to talk about some of the basics here; most GMs have to learn this stuff by doing, or with the example of experienced friends and acquaintances. I’m aware not everyone gets that opportunity.

Now, you’ll probably want to check out my Creating An RP Tutorial and So You Want To Write… series before really getting into this, but here we go.

An important note - I’m presenting this in a very rule-like fashion. There’s a good reason for that, for those of you no doubt about to point out I don’t often do what I say here; once you understand how the rules work, you can break them in interesting ways. Walk before you run, friends and neighbours.

Connection, Cohesion, and Spotlight

You know your plot… most of it. You know your world… largely. Surely you have a relatively clear picture of your player characters, right? It’s very, very important to communicate with your players at the start of the RP about your intentions for tone, theme, and focus. One way to do that is by being very clear about what kind of characters you need to fulfill the plot and create interesting scenes. Give your players a direction to work in, which brings us to Connection; connection to the plot. If you want organic, believable roleplaying, you need to ensure your player characters are invested in the plot so that they’ll naturally follow plot points you place in front of them. They need to care about people, places, or organizations affected by the plot.

Cohesion is about linking your player characters together. In most RPs, they’ll be working together in some fashion - ensuring that they don’t hate each other or, if they do, that there’s an interesting and compelling reason for them to be working together is important. Without connection and cohesion, you run the risk of the players ignoring each other, and the plot, then getting bored and dropping out, or grinding the RP to a halt.

Spotlight is about giving each player an opportunity to shine - an obstacle only their character can overcome, a subplot they can resolve, a chance for an impassioned speech. When the characters are being created, try to think of roles and scenes that would benefit from certain kinds of character. A good example is the classic fantasy party of fighter, rogue, cleric, and wizard. The fighter slays an ogre, the rogue picks the lock on the treasure vault, the cleric heals everyone from the deadly trap the rogue missed, and the wizard solves the arcane puzzle guarding the loot. Everyone has a moment in the spotlight, and victory might have been impossible with, say, four fighters.

Basic GM Techniques

  • Framing The Scene: When a scene begins, you need to contextualize it. Tell the players where they are, the time of year and day, and why they are there. Rather than do so baldly, however, embellish the scene. Be creative - engage their senses by describing the location, the nearby NPCs, the sounds and smells. Give them a sense of the atmosphere and purpose of the scene. Make sure to highlight relevant details - an unusually well-dressed person in a peasant tavern, a smooth-worn stone in a pitted old wall, the glimmer of gold in the roots of a tree. This will help get the players involved, giving them something to look into and leading them onto the plot.
  • Placing Rails: Think of a rail as a route forward the players can take, a method to change or advance a scene. Telling a player there is a door to the left, and another to the right, is placing two rails. Either one advances the scene, and the player has a choice.
  • Placing Obstacles: Obstacles are means to add challenge and make the resolution of a rail interesting. A locked door, an armed guard, a tight-lipped informant. Something the players can overcome to advance, by cleverness or force.
  • What Do You Do?: You’ll ask this question a lot. This is the signal that you are finished describing the scene, and the players can now act. In forum roleplaying, this is assumed by the end of your post.
  • Conflict: This is the other item that’ll take up a lot of your time. When the players trigger an interaction with the setting where the resolution is uncertain, this is where you call for dice-rolls or use of other resolution mechanics your RP might use, such as a list of skills or power. For pure freeform, this is the product of negotiation with your players and an idea of how the plot is going to proceed - try to keep such conflicts relevant to the narrative. It’s not necessary to make them roll for everything, however - if the characters have time to do something which could with time be done, you can just allow it. If the characters are capable of doing something, they simply do it. If, however, success and failure are both valid and interesting options, you can call for rolls. If the price of failure is just having to roll again, you probably needn’t bother. If it means trying again while the ogre gets closer, that can be interesting. If failure to interpret a cipher leads to a character going to investigate the Magus’ lair, only to realize after doing so that they’ve already infiltrated the town, that’s interesting.
  • If/Then: The player wants to do something, but there will be consequences. This is useful in two ways - it makes the player aware their actions will have consequences worth considering, and allows you to set stakes. ‘Yes, you can insult the King to his face, but he will not be happy about it.’ Is it worth it to the character?
  • Foreshadowing: Among the many literary techniques useful for GMing, hinting at things to come with lines of dialogue, background items, NPCs briefly glimpsed or spoken to, pieces of world-building for the purpose of later reincorporation.
  • Reincorporation: Bringing back characters, items, locations, or events from earlier scenes. Whether in reference or in full, this helps build depth and a sense of continuity. Fallout is a form of reincorporation where the consequences of previous scenes or actions come back to affect the players indirectly. For example, the players killed a corrupt official early in their adventure. A month later, his replacement has instituted even more draconian laws and has thugs patrolling the streets.
  • Throw A Veil: If themes of violence, horror, or otherwise discomforting behaviour are an element of your RP, you’ll probably need to throw a veil.. If players would be uncomfortable with the content of a scene, avoid detail. Do what you can by implication or short, bald statements, then advance the scene. For example, the players know a noble lady is abusing her husband, but are not in a position to stop her during a scene where they must endure her tormenting him. If the players indicate that this is uncomfortable for them, throw a veil. If discomfort is your intention, that’s fine, but don’t force them to keep suffering the details of a scene once the important elements have been covered.
  • Unsticking: Players sometimes fixate on a challenge. This is, most often, the questioning of an NPC. When it stops being fun or useful, help them disengage by reminding them they may have learned something useful for later, for another situation, or have discerned why this challenge hasn’t been overcome by someone else.
  • Investing Authority: A player is shy, and you want to try and get them more involved. You can do this by giving them some small measure of control - ask them about their character’s hometown, the organization they work with, or about the city they’re in. You can build off this and help get the player invested.
  • Address the Characters: If you roleplay at your players, they’ll have to roleplay back. This is more relevant to tabletop or voice-chat RPs.
  • Crossed Fingers: A typical way to tell the difference between in-character and out-of-character speech. If a player or GM holds up crossed fingers, this indicates what they are saying or asking is definitely not in-character. This is another tabletop technique.
  • Yes, but….: A player wants to do something, but there’s a complication. This is useful when a scene is wrapping up, but it feels too soon. Or you have a great idea.
  • No, but…: A concession. You can’t, for whatever reason, allow the player to do something they asked, but don’t want to close off all hope in that general direction.
  • Parallel Scenes: The party has split up. You need to frame the scenes for each of them, and then find a comfortable rhythm to switch between the two groups. Normally it’s effective to ask them what they want to do, and when a dice roll comes up, switch to the other group while the first is rolling. You can also use cliffhangers here, especially if the group will reunite when one comes to meet the other mid-task. Once they are finished, you use a focus scene to bring them back together, narrating the results of their scenes and framing a new scene where they are reunited. This is much easier in forum roleplaying, if everyone is patient.
  • The Colour of Magic: When a character uses magic - especially, for example, Demonic powers - it’s good to describe what it feels like, or give the player an opportunity to be creative in describing the sensation of harnessing such power. They can build on that by exploring their character’s reaction to the sensation.

Linear vs. Emergent Plot, and the use of Sandboxes

A linear plot is your traditional one-or-two track, three act structure. Don’t hesitate to look at film or even The Journey of the Hero for guidance and ideas. This is key to shorter, more plot-focused RPs. You want to keep the pace brisk, keep everything moving forward, and have character development or sideplots be supporting elements of the main plot in some way.

That’s actually a bit more of a challenge than you might think.

Emergent plot grows organically in-game - for example, if your main plot is to rob a bank and in the process of preparing for the robbery, one of your players decides their character is going to doublecross the arms dealer from whom they’re getting some supplies. Suddenly, there’s a new plot thread in the vengeful arms dealer coming after that character for their money. Even in a linear plot, players will cause some degree of emergent plot (or you will, by making a mistake because you’re posting at 3AM which you later need to justify), so it’s important to communicate with your players about what they want to do, and what you’re trying to achieve.

Sandbox RPs, as you might imagine, are rife with emergent plot. When you run a longer RP, emergent plots will crop up frequently. This is where the collaborative angle of working with your players comes in; players will certainly have plots they want to pursue with specific characters, or plots you can see those characters getting into. How sandbox-y your RP is can affect how much these relate to your central plot, with some being spin-offs for the sake of the character’s development, and some you can tie in as supporting arcs of your overall narrative.

It’s very, very important when running a Sandbox that the world is well-defined and detailed - it gives your players an easier time contextualizing their characters, giving them motives, connections, and potential antagonists. It also makes it easier for you to decide the consequences of player meddling. If you have well-rounded NPCs established in the setting already, you know how they’re going to react.

A Hundred Thousand Masks - NPCs

The non-player characters are a vital part of the process. Your player characters can talk to each other a lot, but sometimes they need to bargain, or talk, or even fall in love with NPCs - either as part of that character’s motives, growth, or merely to advance the plot. Faceless mooks don’t take much more than a description, but more important NPCs deserve more attention. Things you should pin down about an NPC, in order of importance, are motive, connections, personality, and appearance. Often it’s enough to give yourself bulletpoints - say three personality traits, a motive, and two connections to characters or societies.

Major NPCs you might want to write up as you would a player character, reflecting their complexity and importance to the plot.

In any location, I’d advise having all major plot NPCs prepared, any NPCs who are locally significant (the Lord of the town might not be relevant to the plot, but the players might decide he is), and then a few NPCs for flavour - a tavern owner, a shopkeeper, a town drunk, a wandering mercenary.

Keeping your NPCs clear in mind and having them interact is much easier on a forum - watching the GM argue with themselves is weird, trying to argue with yourself to an audience is weirder.

Raising The Stakes

Finally, let’s talk a bit more about plot arcs and stakes

To break it down into something easy, let’s say you have one long arc, three medium arcs, and 6 to 9 short arcs.

Those are discrete increments of plot; the long arc is the main plot you want to cover. Medium arcs support or set up that plot. Short arcs control pacing and support the plots above them.

Your short arcs will often alternate between plot-relevant, and unrelated, doing the main work of worldbuilding and some opportunities for character development, or to pursue personal plotlines. The first medium arc will do the bulk of setting up your plot, your antagonists, your supporting case, and your setting. The second medium arc will present the characters with a major challenge that leads towards the resolution of the plot and any significant reveals about the world, the way something works, or even character backstories.

The last medium arc resolves the long arc; the climax and resolution of your plot.

As the RP goes on, it’s a good idea for the stakes to rise. The early arcs will be something the players can do, something they can achieve, which is relevant on a smaller scale - saving a town, for example. By the second medium arc, it might be saving a country. Third arc might be saving the whole world.

This increases the tension, the scale of the challenges the party must face, and the feelings of achievement and power. If you’re running a power fantasy, which I assume you are.

This can also apply to less pleasant outcomes, but I’ll talk about those when I talk about Horror.


This is critical, honestly. Talk to your players. Talk to them about everything. Encourage them to talk. Drop hints. Leave breadcrumbs. Encourage questions. Always be asking questions.

Feel free to ask questions, chime in, and complain about quality or missing content. I'm too uninterested in formatting to make it pretty, so don't bother bringing that up.

Good questions will have their answers edited into the above.

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