How did you learn to be a GM? If you are like me you either learned from someone else or stumbled your way through it because you wanted to play a game and were the only one who had the books. You honed your craft by trial and error and observation. You copied and stole everything from books to movies. Most “GM books” were mechanically focused, not really focusing on the art of gamemastery.
You may not know this, there are a ton of great resources out there for GMs. We are in a golden age of meta-reflection on the art of GMing. People have been running games for decades and are sharing their wisdom and techniques. If you want to hone your craft, you have the resources. And in this article, I want to highlight some of them. (Note: These are all J-M’s recommendations from experience. None of these recommendations are sponsored).
There are two of these books (Here Here). Play Dirty, written by John Wick of L5R & 7th Sea fame, are perhaps the two most influential books on GMing for me. He walks through how to be a dirty GM, not a killer one. Basically, a dirty GM uses every trick in the game and outside it to ramp up the intensity of the game for the players. Your players will crawl over broken glass barefoot to win, but when they do, the payoff is sweet. If you want nastier options that are narrative and not mechanically based, check these out.
Running the Game
Matt Coville has been taking the RPG sphere by storm. With two great novels, two great F20 supplements, and the Chain actual play, Matt has a lot of content. His ‘Running the Game’ series on YouTube is a fantastic way to learn more about the craft of GMing. His initial goal for the channel was to get people running D&D RIGHT NOW. I think those early videos are a great introduction to how to GM, and the series continues to evolve and grow deeper. If you are just starting out, and video is your medium of choice, check him out.
Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastery
This is an oldie but a goodie. Found here, this small book looks at why players play RPGs. It defines several categories of players and what their motivations are for playing. As the GM your job is to hit those motivations, and Robin gives you some great advice on how to do so. It is only about 30 pages and well worth the cost.
Engine Publishing (found here) has a great series of books on being a GM. Their books spun out of the Gnome Stew blog (also a great resource). Their books cover topics like: running sessions, improvisation, and campaign prep. Each of these books cover one topic from a variety of angles and include articles by industry veterans. I have all of them and they are fantastic. If you want to learn new techniques and ways to hone specific aspects of your games, these are a great route.
The Kobold’s guides are dense. Found Here, the topics are deep. They are a series of articles by big name industry professionals. I have the Gamemastering, the Plots and Campaigns, and the Combat one. They also cover worldbuilding, game design, and magic. These are dense–I mentioned that earlier–they delve deep into their topics and often attempt to explain the abstract components of gaming in concrete terms. But, if you want a course in a class on GMing, these books would be on the syllabus.
Arbiter of Worlds
Arbiter of Worlds is a gamemastery guide for a specific type of game. Found Here, it gives advice on world building, adjudicating rules, and using abductive reasoning. (Yes, it is a real thing!) It does focus less on the narrative aspect of GMing and more of the creation of a world where narratives can form and develop. It may seem like a strange distinction, but it is essentially the difference between a story focused GM and a sandbox GM.
So there they are, my list of GMing resources. If you have used any of these resources or have any I missed, please let us know!
Written by JM