Advice For First-Time GMs

Welcome to the first-timers’ series, in which I ask a panel of seasoned gamers and experts from the US and beyond to advise newbies on a variety of larp-related topics, from running a first game to organizing a convention. It’s not easy to try something new, but with the right advice, maybe it’ll be a little easier.

Today’s advice is for first-time GMs.

Geoffrey Schaller says to keep it fun:

Don’t do it out of obligation, or want for the role of GM – do it because you have a story to tell, to share, and to breathe life into.  Nothing kills a fun hobby quicker than it becoming a chore or job you *must* do, rather than *want* to do.


Juhana Pettersson reminds you of human needs:

For larp, it’s easy to overlook basics like sanitation and food. Don’t make this mistake. Hungry players are unhappy players.


Keep it simple, Jeramy Merritt advises:

Keep it uncomplicated. I am someone whose brain always wants to turn a short story into a novel and a novel into a multi-part epic. I have no ability to keep things simple, but I try my hardest to keep them uncomplicated. A plot can be complex and yet uncomplicated. The way you do this is by making the beginning and ending of a plot uncomplicated, you explain what is going on, what is needed to stop it, and the consequences for not stopping it. The middle is where you can get away with complexity. Make it difficult for the players to solve the plot, but never make it difficult for them to figure out the plot. 

Running a game is all about mitigating failure. You can never plan for everything your players do.  And when you complicate things they tend to ignore the plot and go smoke hookah (sometimes they will do this anyway). On paper, your amazing plot might cause women to swoon but as soon as it touches reality it is a failure. All you can do is plan for that failure, be flexible, have consequences, and make it seem to the players like you had planned it all along.


Sarah Bowman believes GMs should care for the well-being of their players:

First-time GMs should be aware of the massive investment they are undertaking, not just in terms of time, but also in emotional and mental energy. The most important qualities for a GM to possess are patience and compassion. If you are short-tempered you are likely to have difficulties with your players.

Have a clear creative vision for your game and communicate the tone, style, and emphasis up front. Do not expect events to unfold exactly the way you imagined and do not get angry at your players for derailing your carefully constructed plot. Role-playing is a co-creative endeavor. Encourage player-centered plots as much as possible. Respect your players’ feelings. You may technically be considered the ‘god’ of your game, but you are actually providing a service, first and foremost. You are giving people the opportunity to play pretend again and express creativity in a world that generally stifles it. I believe that role to be a sacred duty; do not embark upon it lightly.

Give each of your players an opportunity to shine at some point in the game. Do not kill player-characters lightly. Remember that characters are special to their players. If you must traumatize a character for the sake of the game, make sure to apologize to the player out-of-game and reassure them that you did not mean to harm them as a person. Set up events for your players to socialize out-of-game. A little out-of-character connection goes a long way to maintain a cohesive community.


Delegate, says Amber Eagar:

If you’re a senior staff member of staff, it’s okay to get some junior staff members and delegate things to them. Matter of fact I encourage it. Also, make sure you’re communicating information with all other relevant staff members. No matter if you’re a senior or junior staff member, remember why you volunteered for this and what you volunteered for and then do it. Don’t be a flake.


Michael Pucci reminds you to think about story arc:

Read the world materials you are going to run, and try not to go to epic too quickly. Listen to your players, make sure you have open communication about what they like and what they don’t like, and never underestimate the power of just sitting back and smiling when players find a hole in your plot. Chances are good they will come up with a reason why it isn’t a hole faster than you will. Also, know when to end a story. One of the greatest downfalls of a new GM is having a story that goes on and on well beyond when the story has finished telling it’s tale. Games are like stories: you need to create interest in the beginning, player investment within the first few games, an engrossing story arc that the players help create, and then the end of a story.


Avonelle Wing has a check-list:

Ignore anybody who sniffs officiously and tells you what larp is. Or is not. This is art, and if it moves you and moves your players, there is no “right” or “wrong.” That being said, there are things that will really  make your production “pop”, regardless of how you execute them:

  1. Preparation. Sit down and think through the player experience. Remember, players aren’t actors who are being given the opportunity to participate in your great work. They are customers – even if theydon’t pay you.  You are providing entertainment, and you must remember, at all times, that if you’ve created strife out of character for your players, it will put a damper on the in character experience. Paperwork should be ready when folks walk through the door.  Item cards, character cards, backgrounds. Have them ready beforehand. And not the night before, either. Printers break. power outages happen.
  2. Two: Quality control. For the love of all that is holy, be consistent across your documents and copy edit.  If you aren’t the type to notice that your font changes constantly, or that your background documents are full of grammatical errors, enlist help.  Get your buddy’s English major girlfriend excited about the project and ask her to help you. (Then buy her pizza and beer or cook her dinner to say thanks!)
  3. Three: Production Value.  Decorations, props, NPC costumes. They’re all important to immersion. The more you make the outside world fall away, the easier it will be for your players to become immersed in your world. It took me a while to “get” this. and now, I spend a great deal of time figuring out how to add production value at a good Benefit to Energy Expenditure ratio. My personal secret: Scene Setters are great for hiding a space and making it look more in-genre.
  4. Four: There are no rules. If you have no budget for decorations, skip ’em and overcome that in other ways. No props because the truck they were in disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle? Skip it. If the game is well-written, and the concept is strong, you can run in an empty basement. Yes, this goes against #3, but if you’re going to do it, do it as big as you can. Pick your priorities and really focus on them. If your game NEEDS awesome props, then build those and ignore the ficus tree decorations.
  5. I call this one the “Crew Blacks Rule.” A stage crew wears black so they don’t disrupt what’s happening on stage and break catharsis for the audience when they do come into visual range. Sometimes it’s unavoidable that a crew member might be seen by the audience. Minimize that impact. Never have decision making discussions in public – always create a GM space with a drape or screen, or go into the hallway. Wearing Crew Blacks isn’t a bad idea, honestly.
  6. Avoid NPC TV. Imagine you’ve put the time and energy into building a costume, perfecting a swagger, creating goals and vices and weaknesses. And you show up to discover that 90% of the “screen time” is going to the storytellers or their buddies. Yeah. No fun. Don’t fall into that trap. Use plants – quasi-NPCs who are tools of the gods, and drive your plot, your timing, your character development, but do NOT give all the fun/juicy/public/sneaky roles to staff and buddies. If there’s a ruling body that meets during the game run, let your players BE the ruling body.  You’ll just discourage and stifle the rest of the game otherwise.


Aaron Vanek recommends research:

Participate in as many larps as you can, from player to NPC to staffer, gathering as much info as possible on how a larp was written/designed, and then produced. Designing a larp is a different skill than running one, and not everyone can do both.


And most importantly, don’t forget to sleep, Mike Young says:

The larp will take longer to produce and will be way more work than you expect.  Be sure to budget enough time for it.  And sleep.  No matter what, get a good night’s sleep the night before.


Geoffrey Schaller is a gaming gypsy, having wandered into and out of tabletop RPGs, Collectable Card Games, Miniatures, larp (WoD, boffer, and other), Board Games, MMOs, and countless other forms of gaming, as a player, play tester, demo-runner, author, and staff member.  He still dabbles in all of them when he gets the chance. He is the Technical Director of Double Exposure, Inc.

Juhana Pettersson is a Finnish journalist, TV producer and game designer. He has published three books and been translated into five languages.

Jeramy Merritt is a long-time larper, first-time caller. He is the creator of Doomsday, a sci-fi larp.

Sarah Lynne Bowman received her PhD from the University of Texas at Dallas in 2008. McFarland press published her dissertation in 2010 under the title The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity. Her current research focuses upon understanding social conflict within role-playing communities and applying Jungian theory to the phenomenon of character immersion.

Amber Eagar is a long time larper and game organizer, who edited the academic books put out in conjunction with Wyrd Con in 2010 and 2011 (Journeys To Another World and Branches of Play). She is a former columnist, and maintains two mailing lists, called LARP Academia and International LARP Academia, for those in the USA or those around the world who like to take a more academic look at larping.

Michael Pucci is the CEO of Eschaton Media and the creator of multiple larps, tabletop books, scripts and gaming-related media.  He has more than twenty years experience storytelling for larps, tabletops, and convention games, and spent five years in the business side of the gaming industry. He proudly holds the title of ‘Zombie Lord‘ while looking for more inventive approaches to modernize gaming.

Avonelle Wing is the Senior Vice President of Double Exposure, Inc. Along with her partners and a team of friends, comrades and co-visionaries, she works to produce two full-sized gaming conventions and a variety of other gaming related productions each year.  She is a larper at her core – collaborative storytelling is her art form of choice.

Aaron Vanek has been playing, designing, running, and thinking about larps for 25 years. His larp publications include the illustrated essay “Cooler Than You Think: Understanding Live Action Role Playing“; “The Non-United Larp States of America” in the Talk Knutepunkt 2011 book, “Predictions for Larp” in Journeys to Another World, the Wyrd Con book, and the blueprint for “Rock Band Murder Mystery” in the Do Knutepunkt 2011 book. He hopes for at least another 25 years of larp.

Mike Young has been writing live roleplaying games for over 20 years.  His award-winning larps have been run across the world, and many of them are available for free download at his website.

Got a hot tip? Is there a first-timer’s guide you’d like to see? Leave it in the comments!