Five Obvious (or not) Tips For GMs


We’ve dropped advice and other top lists over here occasionally, so why not another? Here’s Five Tips for your convention games – its nothing revolutionary or mind blowing, but a few things to keep in mind and that might give your players a more positive experience if you’re not doing them already. Maybe not, but hey, they’re offered for free after all…


As Lord Baden Powell used to say “Be Prepared”. Some people take game prep to mean “writing stat blocks”. While I’m not going to know anyone for doing that (and depending on the game, I may way well do some of that myself), or coming up with cool handouts and pretty characters sheets (which I spend far more time on than is healthy and could easily make it a full time job), preparation should really take the form or thinking about your game. Yeah, you heard me (or read me, whatever) – think about what’s going to happen, how you might handle things that come up, a couple of details for your set pieces, what players might likely do. No plan survives contact with the enemy and a lot of GMs actively revel in the unexpected, but it does pay to think about what might happen, how you’re going to dress things up , and in fact any other things that might happen during the game. This will mean the end result is a lot more fluid and feel more natural to the players on the day.


We’ve all used snazzy character sheets and maps are a common staple of the gaming table but think about what else you can add – even if its only for atmosphere. Instead of describing each NPC in detail you could mock up a Ration Card or ID for each of them and present to the group – having polaroids of NPCs in an investigative game that can be pinned to a cork board or the like not only add atmosphere, but give the players something tangible they can see and pass round. Most restaurants or bars have books of matches – if you want to give the players a lead have the contact’s phone number written on one of them and toss it on the table. Obviously fantasy or historical games take a little more thinking about – but rather than A4 white sheets of paper in Times New Roman, its easy enough to provide letters, maps, wanted posters or whatever else on some papyrus or parchment effect paper with a fancy font from or somewhere similar. I found an old wax seal which I’ve used on letters before now. Its amazing how reluctant players can be to open a sealed letter when its there in front of them and not just an ephemeral thing described in words.


Just use what you need to. Don’t bother trying to learn entire rulebooks if half the stuff isn’t needed in your game. Just make sure you know the bits that are needed! If there are special pieces of equipment, feats and advantages or anything else that requires explaining, try to have a one-liner on the character sheet that gives people a clue. You can always explain details later, but ensure you’ve given the player an idea when it might come in useful. Same goes for background info – give the players enough to hang their hat off in broad strokes and some cool detail about the world maybe – but a paragraph or two, maybe three is enough. Trust me, even the players who can be bothered to read any more don’t take it in. If there’s something important, make sure its explicit. Don’t rely on people reading information and getting out of it what you want them to unless its concise, clear and to the point. Which leads me to…

Managing Expectations

If someone’s character is a wizard, and using magic in public is a Bad Thing, say so. If there are any important details about how the game world works then its best to set it out clearly at the start. Crucially if there’s some way the characters (as a group or individually) should be acting or things to take into consideration, spit it out right from the off. Otherwise you risk players not only acting “inappropriately” for the game you’ve got in mind – and crucially, from their point of view – the players feeling stupid or ill informed when they’re pulled up by the GM or other players for doing it “wrong”. If the game is a pulpy sort with the player characters as heroes then give that signal to start. If the characters are all loyal and lifelong friends, tell everyone this – even if its written on the character sheet. Also be sure to pitch the style and tone of your game as a whole. If you let people know what you’re trying to achieve, you’ve got a much greater chance of achieving it!


Baz from the Smart Party has a nice touch at the start of a game – its really simple, everyone could do it, and yet somehow I nearly always forget. “Hi my name is Baz”. Obviously if your name is not Baz, saying that would be silly, but go right ahead and feel free to insert your own name (or pseudonym) instead. Weirdly at most cons, a bunch of strangers sit down together and don’t talk much, except when pretending to be someone else – normally a axe wielding killer with pointy ears or someone equally unpleasant. There’s really no harm – and a lot of good – in introducing yourself and asking how people’s cons are going (briefly) before you start. If you’re a personable fellow from the off, your much more likely to be treated with respect and generosity during your game. Besides which, its just polite. Similarly, don’t be frightened of asking everyone at the table if and when they want breaks, how things are going, is everyone okay? Don’t constantly mother them clearly, but checking on everyone after an hour or so and taking a quick five minutes out is a Good Thing. Sounds really obvious and simple, but 95% of the time I don’t see any of this happen. Roleplayers are weird.


5 thoughts on “Five Obvious (or not) Tips For GMs

  1. yong kyosunim

    Nothing annoys me the most than an unprepared GM at a con game. People spend money to attend a con and over in the East Cost, spend more money on top of that for a specific game event. The last thing I want to see is the GM show up to a game ask the players to borrow dice and pencils and tells us that he’s got the adventure “up here” (points to the head) and that he likes to play “fast and loose on the rules” (meaning that he doesn’t own the books or is too lazy to read them).

    • evilgaz

      “fast and loose on the rules”

      Ha! The Smart Party have a running joke about that old chestnut!

  2. “Hi. My name is Baz.” is just the start.
    Worth following it up with, “and you are?”. Write it down, use during breaks and thank them at the end of the game by name. It’s courteous, simple and incredibly effective.
    Chances are, you’ll see those folk again at the bar later. It’s embarrassing to be offered a pint and have to say “cheers… err… Elrondian Twofeathers”

  3. evilgaz

    Word. Conversely though, and something you’ve left tacitly implied, its an effective technique to refer to people by their character name during the game…

  4. I tend to introduce myself but don’t ask for the player’s names. Instead, as Gaz said, I refer to people by their character name during the game because I find it helps get everyone into character (“OK Fernando has dived over the bar and distracted the guard, what is Jean-Pierre doing?”)

    I try to have lots of hand-outs and props as well if I can – actually working on a copy of The Tombstone Epitah for a Deadlands game on Friday night 😉

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