I don't think any game master wants to be bad. In fact I think most of us who choose to game master want to be good. In fact, we don't want to just be good we want to feel the thunder of creation flow through our bodies. We want the flame of inspiration to course through us while we scribble notes on pages, draw maps, and tell our stories. A bit dramatic? maybe, but in my experience it is exactly what most game masters are after.
While I have no doubt most game masters want to be the best possible game master they can be, I also know that this desire is not always the reality. Being a game master is no easy task. Not only do you have to appease a diverse group of players, you have to live with that little voice in your head whispering nothing you do will be good enough. Sometimes this can be too much and there are a lot of people who have given up on game mastering because of it. The thing is, it doesn't have to be as tough as people make it seem like it is.
I have been a game master for over thirty years. In this time I have learned a lot about what works and what doesn't work. Do I know everything there is to know? No, but I have learned enough and I want to share what I have learned with other game masters. I want to share what I have learned because there are not enough quality game masters out there and I am hoping to do my part in creating more.
This list of ten steps is a starting point. It won't give you some great secret and it won't do the work for you. However, if you put an honest effort into bettering yourself as a game master you will be rewarded. I guess this is enough prattling for now, let's get on with the list.
10: Commit to the Job
I won't lie, being a game master means taking on a pretty big responsibility. You are the one who has to create the entire world, create the people in the world, and finally run the adventures in that world. This is a lot of work both in the game and outside of the game. If you want to be a good game master you need to be willing to put the work in. Don't get me wrong you don't have to treat it like a full time job, but you do need to be willing to put a few hours a week in at a minimum.
9: Don't Burn Yourself Out
Game masters (specially the good ones) are in high demand. Once people know you are willing to run a game you will be deluged with requests to run even more games. If you try to make everyone happy you will soon be running more games than you can manage. Pace yourself and learn your limits. There is nothing wrong with running a single game a week or even one game a month. By keeping the number of games you run manageable you will have higher quality games.
8: Use Other People's Work
A lot of game masters (myself included) tend to want to build everything from the ground up. When you consider all the maps, encounters, story lines and other aspects of game design, doing everything yourself is a lot of work. You only have so much time in a day so using what someone else has done is a good idea.
7: Create the right Atmosphere
Take some time to think about your game and then think about things you can do to set the mood. If your running and epic fantasy game find some music that matches the theme such as the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. If your running a horror game, dim the lights, light some candles and play the musical score from a John Carpenter movie. Sure, it might seem kind of cheesy, but it will help set the mood and I have never had a bad game when I have done these kind of things.
6: Leave it All on the Field
Yes I am borrowing a football term but it still rings true at the game table. If you put everything you got into the few hours you run a game your game will be better. Don't be afraid to act out your non player characters. Don't worry about how silly the prop you found for an item the characters find looks. Let out a growl when you roll bad and laugh maniacally when you roll well. It's your game, and this is your chance to shine so don't limit yourself by worrying about being weird. After all your playing let's pretend with rules, you kind of passed weird a while ago.
5: Know Your Players
Every player has a different reason for gaming. Some like the stats and the dice rolling, others like to practice acting and improve at the table. Other players are there simply because their buddies are at the table. When you take a bit of time to understand what your player's like you can craft a game that meets those demands. If you are having a hard time figuring out what they want, ask them because they are generally more than happy to tell you.
4: Learn to Accept Criticism
If you are serious about being a good game master you will have to learn to accept criticism. I know first hand how painful being told your not as good as you want to be is. However, if you let that stop you from growing, or worse, from game mastering, your not doing yourself or anyone else a favor. No one likes to be criticized (specially by people who won't run their own game), but if you learn to listen and use this to improve your game you will be a better game master.
3: Learn to be Flexible
There are going to be times when the rules are going to get in the way of the game. When you run into a situation where the rules are ambiguous err on the side of fun. When you run into a situation that doesn't have rules, make something up. Flexibility is an important aspect of being a game master. However, be careful here, if your too flexible you might have players running you over.
2: Know the Rules
This might seem like a no-brainer but there are a lot of game masters who really don't know the rules to a game (such as myself) and that can cause some problems. You don't have to know every single rule ever printed for the game your playing but you should know the basics fairly well. Take some time to understand combat, how magic works, and non combat actions. If you are not sure how something works don't be afraid to ask someone else. The rules are there to help a game master run a game and you should know how to use them.
1: Preparation, Preparation, Preparation!
Preparation is one of the most important aspects of game mastering. I have seen countless game masters (myself included) show up to a game without a single thing prepared for the night. While you can get away with this (and I have several times) it will often show up in later sessions. For instance when the players are asking you about the guy who told them about finding the big bad guy in the sewers under the town and you respond with "huh?". Taking the time to jot down basic information such as the names of non player characters, some notes about the location the party will be in, and other similar things will save you headaches. If you have enough time go online and find a map (or draw one) and populate it with critters strange and wonderful. In the end the more preparation you put into the game, the smoother things will go.
While preparation is important, be careful not to over prepare. I have spent months planning a campaign only to have the players go way off script by session three. When this happens it can be incredibly frustrating. For this reason I would suggest you only plan a couple weeks in advance that way if the party goes in a direction you were not expecting you haven't lost to much work.
When everything is said and done these ten steps will help you be a better game master, but you shouldn't stop there. Learning to be a good game master is a never ending experience and one I encourage everyone to have. While at times being a game master is a lot of work, if you work to be good at it you will never have trouble finding players for your table. I hope some of this helped and if not, well, I will do better next time. Feel free to tell me what you think makes a good game master because I am always willing to listen even if at times I might pout about being told I am wrong.