How to GM without going insane

I’ve been running RPGs for a long time. Without sounding too pompous, over time you begin to appreciate that there’s a certain way to running games and preparing for them. So here’s my thoughts on running a campaign or even just a one-shot game. Although this is a sort of “How to GM” article, there’s no hard and fast rules really!

I’ll use the phrase GM for Games Master, but it also means Judge, Referee, Keeper, or DM (Dungeon Master). Players are the real world group of people that you’ll game with. PC, or Player Character, refers to their character in-game. NPCs, or Non-Player Characters (the beings and people that PCs interact with) are the province of the GM.

Preparing a game

Okay, so you’re pretty certain that you can run a few games and somehow fit it into your schedule. Here’s some suggestions for how to GM successfully:

Leave yourself some time to relax! Whilst RPGs are fun they can be hard work, and can be pretty taxing mentally – make sure that you are not living and breathing your game. It shouldn’t run your life, and you should definitely make time for friends and family (even if they don’t game). Also, a break will probably help you gain a clear perspective too.

Don’t overload yourself. This means both physically and mentally! RPGs are notorious for large heavy rulebooks: make sure that you’re not carrying more than you can comfortably carry. Remember that some players will likely bring their own books too, so you may not need to load up. No game should require you to have a encyclopaedic knowledge of every single rulebook; and nor should the players!

Advertise your game. There’s a number of ways to do this: at its simplest, put an ad in your local game shop asking for players. However the power of the internet may be your best bet. Nowadays most gaming clubs/communities have their own websites (such as ORC and GEAS in Edinburgh) so they’re the best places to visit, either online or personally. Alternatively, large scale global forums such as can assist in the search for new players. If it is a new system, run a one-off game, and see what interest you get. Make sure you’ve got enough players before you begin running. If you’re new to GMing, 1-4 players is a good start if you are all unfamiliar with the system. 7 or more is only for very experienced GMs, likely with player rules help! 4-6 is usually comfortable enough for most GMs, space-wise and organisation-wise.

Create stock NPCs. You don’t need to create stats for every Innkeeper and grunt, but a stock set of stats can be very handy, like when the PCs start a bar fight or do something involving a large group of people! Having generic stats on hand, maybe in your Campaign Book (see below), can be useful. It also helps if you suddenly find yourself “Winging it” – you can throw in aย  random encounter. Also keep a list of names that might be handy if you need to come up with a name quickly! For a fantasy RPG, I’d suggest: watchman, tavern brawler, magic user, bodyguard, cultist/cleric, assassin, thief, and adventurer of all classes (similar to PC party of same level or lower). Also, give your NPCs accents or mannerisms that PCs remember – e.g the tavern brawler oftens runs a hand over his broken nose when he speaks.

Pace yourself. If you are a player AND a GM, then you may quickly find yourself short of time. This can be for a number of reasons. Many campaigns fizzle out after a few months – the GM has lost interest, players can’t make it, or the GM has run out of ideas. Give everyone time for players to do other things – either run weekly on a particular night (midweek is good), or stagger your game to run every fortnight. However, a GM will likely spend at least one night a week planning their game. Don’t try and run several campaigns at once – it can be done, but it is very hard work as I know only too well!

Manage your time. As mentioned above, you’re going to need to spend at least a few hours preparation before you run a a game. It’s not much fun trying to come up with an idea 30 minutes before the players arrive. Also avoid GMing when you’re ill or hungover: you won’t enjoy it, and you’ll suffer more! In regards to alcohol, GMing when everyone is a little squiffy is all right, but you don’t want to run anything too serious! At the end of the day, do you have time to run a campaign? Ideally most games should run 3-6 hours, at which point a GM’s voice will likely give out and their brain will go pop :).

Expect the unexpected. Players always throw GMs a bit of curve – they do something that the GM didn’t plan for during an adventure or miss the Significant Clue(s). It’s usually more common in published adventures, where the writer doesn’t know the group that the GM runs for, but still can happen in a self-created game. There’s a few options that you can take, and it depends on the game: you can go with it (see Winging It below), or use an NPC or event to bring them back on track. Winging it is usually more fun for everyone, GM included, and can often help pad out a fairly linear adventure. However, rail-roading the PCs can be useful if you need to get them to a specific place – but be subtle. Forcing the PCs into a course of action can be a fine art!

Winging it. If the players kill a major NPC, then have that NPC come back as undead, a vengeful family member, or clone. If they miss a clue, an NPC mentions it in passing. Improvisation (winging it) is a very useful skill for GMs to have. NPCs are often used to impart information but rather than read out a passage in a flat monotone, try reading it in an accent or declamatory fashion (or military speak for more modern games). Keep a few ideas for sub-adventures should the PCs choose something that jars with your current adventure. If the party splits up, spend equal time on each party (see Pick no favourites). It’s actually quite easy to wing it – especially if you have stock NPCs.

Keep a Campaign Book. This may not be a book as such, but ring binders are very handy for this, as are spiral-bound notebooks. Ring binders can also be used as a GM screen. It’s a good idea to have the following:

  • A copy of the Player Character Sheets, as players can forget theirs.
  • Maps that you have created, for both player and GM.
  • Notes on your campaign.
  • Stock NPCs.
  • Floorplans.
  • A plot summary.
  • Notable NPCs and their stats.
  • Monsters and creatures that you need for the adventure.
  • Scribble pad where you write down events that happen in the game and what could lead to further adventures.
  • A folder/ring binder that you can stash the above and use as a GM screen, if you don’t have a separate one.

Running the game

Righto. Your game is planned, your rulebooks and campaigns notes are all stashed in your rucksack, now you’reย  actually going to run the game.

Be on time. If you are running a game, try and be there early so you can answer any questions players might have You can also organise the playing area. Although this doesn’t sound like much it can save time: having the floorplans and maps laid out, the miniatures and handouts all ready means that when the players are all there you can started. If you are running late or can’t make it, let your players know as soon as possible.

Be a player. As stated above, it’s a good idea to step back from running a game. It’s very easy to “burn out” creatively, but having someone else run a game can be therapeutic. It also give you a much better opportunity to interact socially with your players.

Don’t panic when it goes wrong. Adapt. Even the most skilled GM will find themselves surprised by their players occasionally. See “Winging it”, above. If the game isn’t going well, take a break for a 15 minutes – clear your head, get some food and figure out what’s going wrong.

It’s not a competition. Despite what console games and computer RPGs encourage (as well as some RPGs), it’s not Players vs. DM (see Don’t abuse your power below). Remember that RPGs are a cooperative effort: if you act like it’s you vs. your players, then you should probably be playing a wargame and not an RPG.

Be fair and pick no favourites. Always tough this one: some players get overexcited and believe that the loudest voice is the one that carries the most weight. Others are easily distracted. However, the most important thing is that everyone enjoys the game. If you have a very quiet player, make sure that they are included in the discussions. If a player is new to the game, take some time-out to explain things to them (it can be about the setting or the game itself – another reason why you should Be on time). New RPGers do need some “hand-holding”, but one of the other players can often help with this (ask them first though). Either way, try and spend equal time on all the players.

Don’t abuse your power. One of the first mistakes that new GMs make is to get heady with power. Don’t kill PCs for no reason other than they messed up your plot. A lot of players invest considerable time in their characters, and it’s pretty bad to waste a PC just because you are having an off-day. Don’t hold grudges: as GM you’re supposed to above such things ๐Ÿ™‚ – and if a player has killed your PC in the game they run, then you shouldn’t invoke Kanly (vendetta from Herbert’s Dune), and kill off their PC.

Don’t get carried away: both yourself and your players. No matter how excited people get about their PC or game, there’s no excuse for invading people’s personal space. RPGs are a non-contact game and no one should feel uncomfortable while they play a game. No hitting, OK? Also, if you are gaming in a public place, remember that you need to keep in mind that other people are nearby. Keep the noise manageable and don’t be a nuisance.

Don’t lose your temper. Remember that it is just a game. Always be civil and considerate of your players as they should be with you. Don’t swear at your players unless it’s in-game as an NPC. Even so, remember that some people can take things personally so make it clear that’s not you as GM. Addressing them by their character’s name in an accent (see Create stock NPCs) usually helps. If the game is going badly, don’t throw a tantrum, scream at everyone then storm out after throwing all your books in a bag (this goes for players too).

So that’s it really. I may come back to add to this article in the future, but I hope it’s given folk some food for thought.

Published by Bill Heron

Wannabe game designer and would-be author. I've been playing RPGs for over 25 years and have recently started creating my own RPG called Mandragora: Ashes of Freedom. I also run a number of RPGs: Cthulhutech, Call of Cthulhu, WFRP, and D&D. I'm active in the Edinburgh RPG community at and regularly play RPGs.