ABCs of GMing – Leadership

The ABCs of GMing

L For LeadershipThe ABCs of GMing is an ongoing series by contributing writer Joe Bouchard about the different skills and ideas needed to run a successful tabletop game.


Zapp Brannigan

Be a better leader than this guy.

This week (after a long hiatus), we take a look at one of our more obvious ABCs to date: Leadership. The role of a GM, by its very nature, requires Leadership. You are the person in charge. You run the game, you set the tone, and you cast the gambit which your players walk though. It’s no surprise, then, that a GM needs to grasp being a leader to the group. Your players are looking to you to tell the story and get them from beginning to end.

The challenge in this skill lies in the type of group you play with. If you have a regularly scheduled game with the same friends, the idea of Leadership falls to the background. When you have an established rapport with a group of people, it’s easy enough to get their attention and focus. However, when walking into a GM situation with new or unknown people (such as volunteering to GM a Pathfinder Society game at your FLGS), you don’t have that established camaraderie to fall back upon. This is when it’s time to dip into your bag of skills and show these people what you’re best at.


Herd The Cats


Channel your inner Eleanor Abernathy (Yes, she has a name.)

Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to manage a group of total strangers. Even within your established group, you experience a variety of players. Different ages, different skill levels, different play styles – there’s an inherent diversity even among  close-knit friends. Their one commonality is that your game is what’s bringing everybody to the table. Take advantage of that.

Dipping into our previous articles about Balance and Focus, as a Leader you must do everything you can to keep your group engaged. For instance, if you have players that are accustomed to sidetracking and general shenanigans, don’t immediately punish them for it. Instead, give them opportunity to let their craziness take its toll in the setting. We all get sidetracked from tasks by other things. The key is to give your players some time for these sidetracks. Your game doesn’t have to be a consistent march through planned story and combat. For instance, if seriousness is in short supply, let your characters roleplay a night off at the tavern. It’s not difficult to whip up some random, harmless fun encounters in the process.

If you’re playing with a brand new batch of players though, or with some unfamiliar faces, this bonding process may take a while. You’ need to spend a few sessions with your players to get an idea of their play styles and what kinds of attitudes they bring to the table. Don’t be afraid to take notes about people themselves, not just their characters. It’s very difficult to engage a group of strangers for hours at a time, and (ideally) nobody should take offense if things are rocky for the first couple sessions. Take the time to know your players, both in and out of game. I’ve never had a single session where there wasn’t some amount of casual conversation either before or after the game. Use this opportunity to get to know your players better. Not only will it be more fun, but it’ll help you be a better GM for them.


Make Sure Your Expectations Are Met

As the GM, you have your own expectations for how the game should proceed. But the game also has to be entertaining for you. Your players may be the ones making the characters and the backstory, but it’s your world, your antagonists, and your NPCs. You still need to get something rewarding out of the experience. A good leader knows how to keep everyone happy and engaged, while still enjoying what they are doing. I’ve had games sink quickly because the GM wasn’t getting any enjoyment out of their role.

Find the aspects of your story that you enjoy, and make sure your players are engaging them appropriately. Give them a reason to follow these plot points. Make it seem like it’s in their favor to do it (even if you plan on killing them all, mwahahahah!).

Stick to your Master Plan

Stick to your Master Plan, at least until it goes awry.

If your players happen to blow up your master plan, don’t fret about it too much. Sometimes they don’t have as easy of a time with your antagonists as they would hope to, or they missed a key character event. Even the best laid GM plans can go up in smoke. Remember that sessions don’t always go exactly as written, and there’s almost always a swing of luck or ingenuity down one side of the table.

The key to being a GM with good Leadership is to use these swings to your advantage by keeping things enjoyable for everyone. Your players don’t want to be pushed close to death with every encounter, but likewise it’s not exactly enjoyable if they are trouncing your antagonists before you even get a chance to use them.


Be The Player You Want Your Players To Be

Leading by example is a classic expression, and with good reason: it is one of the best ways to help your players understand what you do and how you do it. When sitting on the other side of the GM screen, act like the player that you want your players to be. Know when to tangent and when to keep your eyes on the story. If your character is the team leader of the group, that’s even better for your cause, as it gives you the opportunity to be at the front of the team, organizing adventures and assigning tasks to relevant party members.

Being a good leader behind the screen definitely takes a good leader in front of it as well. Take the time to play on both sides of the equation. As a player, don’t be overbearing, pushy, or distracting to the GM you are playing for. The advantage to having practice as a GM is to understand what it’s like when someone else is running the game. Using that experience to your advantage helps set an example for your players when you sit side-by-side with them.


Don’t Be Afraid To Set The Game Straight

Thorin's Key

Did you guys not notice that key I dropped 10 miles back?

Few people want to be the jerk at the table, but sometimes players can subvert control of your game by being loud, distracting, or an otherwise general nuisance to your game. Knowing when to raise your voice and get them back on track is crucial. While some side conversation is always expected, encourage your players to keep it to in-character conversations, and make sure when an NPC is talking that they’re all listening.

If you don’t want to be confrontational when the need arises, however, then find other ways to get your point across. One good trick is to slip in some key information while the party seems to not be paying attention. Don’t pick anything game changing, but something rather simple that may help them out. Later on, when it’s clear that someone (or the entire group) didn’t pick up on it, give your characters a routine roll to see if they remember that piece of information. If they get their roll, give them the piece of information again. They’ll be sure to say something about not catching or hearing it earlier, in which you can politely point out that maybe they should pay more attention in the future. This ensures that you don’t always have to raise your voice to make a point, but it does reinforce the notion of who is in charge of the session.

At the end of the day, Leadership is less about doling out gold and describing the local countryside village than it is about maintaining a social game remains focused, interesting, and fun for everyone involved.

Next time, we’ll cover “Malleability” and how sometimes you just need to let your players win. In the meantime, feel free to let us know if there were any times when some of these knowledge tips factored into your game over on our social media pages.


Photo Credits: Zapp Brannigan by Futurama; Crazy Cat Lady by The Simpsons; Dr. Evil (Austin Powers) by New Line Cinema; Thorin’s Key (Hobbit) by New Line Cinema