I swear, every convention I come home with a thousand more game ideas than I’d ever reasonably be able to run in a lifetime (without a phylactery involved, anyway). That always puts me in the mind to try and crowdsource gaming: handing off some of those ideas as inspiration to players looking to try their hand at GMing.
Thankfully, it’s remarkably easy to convince a curious newbie GM to run a game session (especially with the right resources at hand). It’s getting them to run two that’s often tricky.
Even seasoned GMs face-plant in the dirt sometimes (else this column wouldn’t exist), but the likelihood of a first-time GM not stutter-stepping their way through their first game is pretty universally low, and with no bearing to go by, most first-time GMs will assume the problem is them.
It takes a lot of courage to helm a game in the first place, but when your only previous effort at it was wobbly, it can leave you with a serious mouthful to try and choke down before you’re willing to get behind the screen again.
So I wanted to put together some core reassurances as a kind of pep talk to help get new GMs back on the twenty-sided horse after a suboptimal outing, because we’ve all been there at least once (and often more than once, which segues nicely into…)
The “Two Bites” Rule
My wife and fellow GM has often reminded me of a rule her parents had growing up when it came to trying out new food that her adolescent palate was skeptical about: “take two bites, if you still don’t like it, we’ll get something else.”
The two bites rule is important with a lot of new experiences, because it goes beyond the standard “try it, you’ll like it” encouragement and admits that the very first time you try something new might be so-so. What’s so key about it is that the second bite often doesn’t have the same amount of adjustment required as the first bite did.
Much of the dread of that first bite is gone, and while your tastebuds have probably started making up their mind, many of the worst fears have already been debunked. What often remains is a list of milkwater objections and justifications of your initial skepticism – and that’s something a second bite can chip away at significantly.
So if your first time behind the screen was awful, try it one more time. Just one more. Same system, same crowd, fresh start on story and characters. If you still feel like GMing is not and never will be for you after that second outing, then you can at least feel more confident that you didn’t give up on it without truly giving it a try first.
Find Your System Complexity Sweet Spot
A very common stumbling block for first-time GMs is trying to include every single aspect of the system they’re running. An even more common stumbling block is realizing how hard memorizing every aspect of a game is for your first session and fudging huge pieces of the system entirely, hoping no one notices the sound of you flying by the seat of your pants.
Both are bad tactics in general, but where you actually fall on the spectrum of GURPS to Fate in terms of system complexity is something very individual to each GM – and it may not be the same preference for when you’re a player.
Generally speaking, find the areas where you rely on the crunch – where the rules actually aid in understanding rather than slowing you down.
If someone says “I want to shoot that guy in the other vehicle racing away while I’m diving behind cover,” you may not need to reference the vehicle combat rules, the driving rules, and the cover rules all at once. But you may also not want to reduce it to a simple up/down die roll that doesn’t make the John Woo-ness of the situation seem standard. Using just the combat rules with perhaps some general penalties for the sheer degree of reckless abandon will get you where you need to be.
Finding the right level of system for you is often about trying to run with as little as possible and simply adding in the tables and rules that you rely on to accurately describe the scene at hand. Beyond that, include just the parts of the systems you and your players find fun to use, and you should find yourself with just the right amount of crunch, which will feel much more natural in play than trying to use all or none of the rules in the core system.
Prep Your Players
If you’ve ever played in a playtest or joined a video game still in its beta release, you know how important it can be to prepare your players for the reality of what they’re stepping into.
A player joining a beta test who believe it’s a complete game is almost certainly going to leave disappointed. A player joining a beta test who knows it’s a beta test is often happy just for the early access, and will have a much higher tolerance for hiccups here and there, keeping their focus (and feedback) at the high level rather than the minutia.
Let your players know this is only your second game, let them know what things you’re planning to “test out” system-wise and ask for their patience as you work on getting them through the story.
That mindset will often make players willing to say “don’t worry about it” if they ask about specific rules and you get mired in searching tables and indexes. They’ll become much more agreeable when you brush past or mishandle parts of the rules, or have to pause to look up names or regional information for the setting.
Start Small, Stay Local
In the same way you want to find your sweet spot for system complexity, don’t try to run a game that covers every inch of a new setting all at once. Even if you feel you know the setting very well, keep your game small and only introduce a handful of facets that showcase the tone or uniqueness of the setting without trying to stuff the whole thing down your players’ throats.
This is especially helpful if you yourself don’t feel super-confident you know every aspect of the setting. It lets you focus your research on the nitty-gritty, the local politics or NPCs, the specific locations that will often be much more useful in the game itself than the larger backdrop of the game world.
You can research the heck out of a single town and run a game that deals with it and the creepy forest outside, and that prep will be hugely helpful when your players no doubt wander off-script. If you try to cover a whole world, you’ll often wind up a mile wide and an inch deep, which isn’t very helpful when you’re running a game on the ground level.
It’s really easy to get caught up in all the prep, the adherence to rules, to the game you’re prepared or the module you’re running, and to lose sight of the fact that you should be having fun, too. A GM who’s getting swept up in what the players are doing and what’s happening in the game is infinitely more entertaining and enjoyable to your group that someone fretting over the rules.
Especially late in the game, let yourself stop worrying and just try to lay back and enjoy, laugh along, let the zany happy and let your players’ momentum carry you through to the end of the session.
And if do find you enjoy GMing after your second outing, I have this large folder of game ideas I’d be happy to pass along…