Game Mastering’s 10 Skills To Help At The Table

Being the Games Master (GM) of an in-person game requires a lot of work and attention to detail. It takes someone who can juggle many tasks at the one time while keeping an eye on the entertainment value of the game at hand. I have been asked to prepare a set of “skills” that I would abide by to manage a game in the best way in this circumstance. I had considered making it one rule, that is “Be Prepared” but there is more to it than that. I have broken that rule into many and also added some to the general idea of the preparation such as what to do with in-game problems. I list these rules here from ten to one in the order of importance to my table with number one being the most important to me.

10. Creature Comforts

Creature comforts are important when trying to reduce
distractions amongst your players.

You may think that this is the players responsibility, but it is really everyones issue. If a player has not satisfied all their needs then they will be distracted at the table. Work with your group to make sure that the needs that can be met, are. This will allow players to focus on the game. There are several concerns you can normally deal with.

Firstly make sure that, if possible, there is a source of snacks and drinks available. Try not to play at dinner times and if you do, pause the game and share a pizza or something similar. Have a chat about the game and what is going on or share time to catch up on real life. We play to have fun with friends so there should always be time provided in a game for a bit of general chit chat. No need for you to be in character the entire time you are together.

Try to find a time that is suited to all your players. You want to make sure they are as well rested as possible so they can be focussed on the game when they need to. Also try to find a venue that is comfortable so people don’t struggle for space and it is not freezing cold. Anything that can distract (like sudden loss of feeling to the extremities because of cold) is sure to have a detrimental effect on the game over time. Along these lines, if you enjoy a drink (alcoholic) with your game, make sure everyone is OK with it and don’t overdo it.

Make sure that where you play is conducive to the game. If you are going to play Call of the Cthulhu, somewhere that you can play by candlelight would be awesome, while the local park at midday may detract from the spookiness! Try and find somewhere that the background noise is not too distracting and allows you and your players enough space to focus on what you all need to.

9. Know How Much to Prepare For

Make sure you prepare for what you expect
to cover in the session.

You need to make sure you have a good estimate of how much you can cover in a game and prepare for it. Once you are on top of what you expect them to cover, prepare a little bit more because the players can, and often will, surprise you with their ingenuity. It can be a hard thing to work out how much to prepare for but you get better at it the longer you play with a group. You will often have to go by feel and you will almost always get this wrong. I have had weeks where my preparation was for material up to stuff that the players did not reach for three weeks. Soon after that I adjusted the amount I prepared for and they went through what I prepared in an hour and I played catch up all game.

If you are playing a prepared module this preparation includes reading the material from the module. It also should take into account what you think the players will do and prepare for that as well. In a home brew campaign it means designing out to the amount you think you need and a couple of encounters extra. If you are a GM that likes to wing things then it involves coming up with your seeds for the adventure before you sit down, come up with that spark and have a moment or two to consider where the players may go with it. Getting caught with not enough material is hard to do and it takes a great GM to be able to make it through that situation without the players knowing you were under-prepared.

8. Planning for Player Actions
The more you play with a group the more you will be able to predict their movements and strategies. This will enable you as a GM to prepare in advance for their likely path of action. In a pre-printed module this may mean that you have some extensive notes on ways to handle the actions that the module may not have considered. It is exceptionally important that you can access these notes when you need them. Of course you can’t prepare for every eventuality but if you have prepared for something it is a waste if you can’t find the notes when you need them!

7. Props, Miniatures and Special Effects

Get your miniatures together before sitting down!

If you are intending to use props or miniatures in your game make sure that you have them ready to go before game time. There is nothing more frustrating than a GM going through a case of miniatures in game time when this is one of the easiest things to do as preparation. Props are also a great way to bring your game to life but make them in the days leading up to the game and make sure that the props are in your GM Kit or bag before you go to the game. Have them in a handy spot too so you remove any digging through folders when it is time to get the props out.

Also, if you are planning on utilising music to enhance the game or you use something like roll20 to enhance the tabletop environment it pays to spend time updating this material prior to game day. Make sure your CD’s or MP3 player is ready to go and your notes clearly mark when you will play what tracks. Also that any maps, handouts or images are uploaded to the site that you are using to enhance your story on the tabletop. A lot of players are still a little averse to the idea of utilising technology at the traditional gaming table but I say go for it. If it helps, use it. If not throw it away!

6. Handling Speed Bumps (or Problems During Play)
Dealing with the speed bumps during play is part and parcel of the job of being the GM. The problems in play generally come from two different sources (although sometimes these sources combine to be the same source) and they are generally either rules or player issues. So how do we handle these issues? There are two words to approach this idea with, transparently and immediately.

Both of these issues have a major chance of derailing a game. It is important that you handle both situations as they occur, or immediately. In my experience, ignoring a rule problem or ignoring a player behaviour problem will never make the situation better in any way shape or form.

Let us consider a rules issue first. One that always tends to get us is how to handle a grapple in my Pathfinder game. Although these are a good simplified version of most grappling rules that I have seen they are still a little bit more complicated and rare enough in my game not to stick in my memory. So when a player has a question like “What can I do when grappled?” I often go searching for the rules. There are two things you need to keep an eye on in this circumstance as stopping a game to search for a rule is a major speed bump.

  1. If it has taken longer than a minute to find the rule, or you know that you do not know even where to start looking for it make a ruling and tell the players you will run with that until you have the time to look it up. Alternatively get a player to look it up who is not currently in the action and go with a temporary ruling.
  2. If the rule is one that is a recurring issue, consider if a House Rule would be a more appropriate way of handling it in future

Player Issues
Handling player issues is also an important role of the GM. If a player is being abusive of another player and that abuse is directing the abuse at the player, not the character it is a problem. If a player is trying to control other characters actions it is a problem. If a player is falling asleep at your table, it is a problem. There is too long a list to include here but you get the idea. Player behaviour that detracts from the game is a problem and you need to deal with it because if you let it go the player will believe that behaviour is OK at your table. This can apply to behaviours like rules lawyering in game also. As the GM you need to be the authority and not have it undermined by a rules lawyer.

The way you approach the behaviour needs to be done in a common sense manner. Honesty and assertive behaviour is the order of the day. Ask the player if they are OK to play if they are a little non responsive or tired. Be prepared to pull the game if the conditions are not right at the time and resume at a later time. This can be annoying but better to do it early than have the game dissolve all together over an issue. Do not blame the character for insults etc. Just ask them to stop the behaviour up front. On every occasion that I have had to do this I have received an apology and the game has moved on. If it recurs in a later game, do the same but talk to the player about what is really bugging them.

5. House Rules
Games starting out with a new RPG are unlikely to feature any house rules but over time each table tends to gravitate toward an understanding of what rules slow down play so it is generally these rules that get changed. In my Pathfinder games I found the rules around grid movement for miniatures were forever frustrating me and my players. Different shaped spells based on grid location, movement on grid, diagonal movement, all of these things caused problems. So I abolished grids for movement and instigated a system more traditionally found in tabletop war-games of simply using a measuring tape. So, amongst some others our table has come to a set of house rules to make the game more efficient and less bogged down by fiddly rules.

The important think to keep in mind here is that the players know the house rules. If you are sitting down to a table and you have a new player join it is important that the new player has an understanding of these rules. Keep a folder or document that has all of the house rules for your table in one easy location. Make sure the house rule is written clearly and unambiguously including a reason why you changed the rule. Keep the folder/document on you at all times and make sure that all players at the table are agreed to the house rules as listed including getting the new player to read the details and answer any questions up front as to why the rules are different at your table. When you want to make a new house rule you as the GM should discuss the reason openly amongst the table and only proceed if a majority agree with the changes. The rules are there as a guideline but you should respect your players views on any changes too.

Finally, review your house rules. Talk to your players as you are getting set up about them and if they think they are still relevant. It may be that you have changed the rules and it has affected the game in some unforeseen manner so it is important to regularly (once every few months) revisit the changes and make sure they are still working the way that you want them to. Listen to your players advice as they are seeing the rules changes from a completely different perspective and whilst a rule change may make things easier for you it may be causing problems from a players perspective and may need to be adjusted or revoked to make sure an enjoyable time is being had by everyone.

4. Read the Rules You Expect to Encounter

Make sure you read the rules you need to know!

If you are running a game underwater it is probably a good idea to read up on the rules that cover that setting. If the game is likely to lead the players to a Cloud Giant’s castle, read the rules on aerial combat. The monsters you are using will generally have rules governing their use, make sure you have read them before running the game! If you know these things will occur in the game there is no reason why you should be caught unprepared when the Barbarian asks how does being underwater affect him when he swings his maul.

3. Know Your NPC’s
Make sure that you are across your NPC’s purposes for being in the game. NPC’s always have a reason for being in the game and knowing that reason can change an NPC from being represented as a poor facsimile of a two dimensional cardboard cutout to that of a well rounded believable character.

Pay attention to your NPC’s motivations.

Each NPC will have their statistics that factor into their whole. Especially if they are combative you should make sure you understand all the parts of their statistic blocks so they can be represented as well as you can. Most important NPC’s also come along with notes on their motivations, allegiances and weaknesses as well. Use this information from a holistic point of view to create memorable NPC’s. If you have memorable NPC’s you will certainly have a game world that is believable and memorable for the players.

2. Player Group Capabilities

Know what the player characters are capable of and attempt to highlight those abilities in the game. If you have a group that is without a rogue and the module lays a trap at every corner you should find another way of delivering a threat to the players. It is unfair to hit them with a ghost if none of them can use magic or have no magic items. It is just as important to understand the group that is adventuring in your game as it is to understand the components of your game.

Your players will be playing their characters because they want to experience what it is like to fill their shoes. If your game does not allow them that opportunity then they will be less interested in it. It is your job as a GM to make sure that everyone has the capacity to shine in their character role on an equal footing. It may be the case that a player may take more of the focus for one game but that should be balanced out in other games over time to make sure everyone spends their time in the spotlight.

1. Got the Basics?

Dice, screen, notepad, module, rules.  All set.

Make sure that before you are even ready to sit down to a game that you have what you need to play it. If you show up to a game of Pathfinder and you do not have a rulebook or the monster manual you need then the game will fall over. Don’t have your dice or forgot your notes? Then the game will almost be unplayable. There really is a list of things that you should check you have before you even consider GMing. These are my absolute basics before I will even attempt to run a game in person!

  • Dice (or a dice roller app)
  • Rule books (or an app/pdf with the rules)
  • Notepad and pencil (or you guessed it, an app)
  • GM Screen (if you roll that way)
So, if you are able to master most of these rules you should have an easier time at the gaming table. I am not saying it will be perfect all the time but you will find that things run smoother with the more you can manage. Of course managing these techniques is hard work. There is a lot to do if you want to be the GM but it is worth it. Just remember that at the end of the game to have a wind down session and listen to what the players enjoyed and what they did not. Adjust your play to suit the problems or say thanks to the things they congratulate you for. The more you practice the easier it will get and the better you will get at handling the sessions! Good luck and keep rolling. 


  1. I’m very appreciative of this self-reflective stage our GM is going through. Lets hope it all comes together. I will help where I can. 🙂


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