How to GM, according to me. (Part I)


cat behind gm screen

Shazam is a harsh but fair GM

With the advent of streamed RPG games, and the subsequent fire lit under the hobby as a whole, as large number of new players has entered the wonderful world of Tabletop RPGs.

This is, naturally, a wonderful thing!

It does also mean there’s tons and tons of new people trying their hand at running games for their friends and family, and they have many questions (some of which don’t really have actual answers, but we will get to that).

In this post I will tell you how I personally do it, in as much detail as my addled brain can manage. I will attempt to give alternatives to my methods where I know them so folks can pick whatever suits them the best. We will also be talking about expectations, and managing them, both for yourself as a GM and for your players.

Above all else remember the immutable rule: “If you’re all having fun, you’re doing it right.”

Gamesmastery is a skill acquired and perfected over many years, but like any skill there is knowledge and ideas you can be given to make learning the craft much faster (and way more fun) than learning everything the hard way!

The Hard Path

This is not you (probably), you may wish it were (or not)

If you are still reading, I am going to assume you either are a GM, aspire to become one, or just want to understand what that weird guy behind the screen at your table is actually doing for you. Good.

Let us begin with a brief aside about GMing styles;

Every GM has their own style, its a unique blend of their own imagination and personality as well as the way they interact with their players and how they run the actual sessions.

Referring back to the introduction; there is no “best style” as an objective standard. If everyone is having a great time, there’s no problem with the style of GMing.

I may sound like I’m repeating myself here, but it’s very important that you understand this.

The handsome man in the picture above is Matthew Mercer of Critical Role, a celebrated DM with thousands of online fans. He’s very good at what he does.

Should you be like Matt?

Absolutely not. Because Matt is Matt and you are you. You have different strengths and weaknesses to play to and mitigate.

Should you learn from Matt?

Absolutely. And not just Matt, absorb information from various GMs who kindly offer their views and techniques in blogs, youtube videos and podcasts. There is no such thing as too much advice in this instance, even if not all of it is useful to you, it’s worth knowing. I will include links to some of my personal favourites at the end of the article.

Being a GM is challenging, but very rewarding. Think of it like hosting a cool party. When the smoke clears and everyone has gone home smiling and laughing, and they talk about it in the week after, you are left with a deep and abiding sense of satisfaction. This is the high we are chasing, and this is why we do it.

As mentioned, it isn’t easy, but it also does not have to be hard.

Let’s get to work.


How to start

Before you can be a GM, you first need a game and players.

This seems very obvious, but there’s some complexity here that new GMs may overlook in their excitement!

The Game

There are a lot (a lot) of RPGs out there, from the 900-pound gorilla of RPGs: Dungeons and Dragons, to tiny single page pamphlet games on (like the ultra cool CBR+PNK by Emanoel Melo).

Most of them are actually good. You will find a lot of angry folks on the internet who just love hating on certain games, and sometimes they have some valid reasons for that, but as a general rule I completely ignore these critics.

If a game strikes your fancy, I think you should buy it, read and understand it, and then decide if this is something you want to run. Next, evaluate if your potential players would be interested in this game.

Sometimes players might just not be interested in a game, and that is entirely their right (you should of course give at least a cordial attempt at selling them on the idea).

If the players do not want to play the game I picked:

You have three choices if the above is the case.

  1. Select different players (perhaps some other people you know, or find online, might be interested)
  2. Find a different game to play (there is no shortage of cool games, and while you may be a little disappointed, that’s just life)
  3. Play a different game first, and try your first pick game on your players further down the line. (I call this the long con method)


Sidebar: Published adventures and campaigns

You may have been reading the above and wondering to yourself: “But I have bought this beautiful campaign/adventure/adventure path that has everything already decided, how can asking these questions help me?”

Well, for one, you should probably grab the back of the book you’re holding and rid it of spoilers, then share the text with your players to see if they are even interested in this material!

You have to remember that your players most likely do not know what your printed material is about, and thus cannot make an informed decision on whether or not they wish to play this. If they are personal friends they may even just say yes to humor you. While that is of course very kind of them, the last thing you want is seeing a bunch of annoyed or bored faces when you peer over your screen during the game.


Once you have settled on a game

Your game choice completed, the first part of your Great Work begins.

Study the game, read it back to front, try to understand why it works the way it does, make a character and run some tests on paper.

You don’t have to know the rules by heart, no gm actually does. But you do need to understand the basic rolling mechanics and most importantly, you want to be able to find the rule you need quickly and efficiently.

If you’re new to a game system, and you’re not a nutcase like myself who indexes books by page art in their head, you may want to get some Post-it tabs (no affiliate) to mark various sections of your rulebook so you can quickly find what you need. Don’t worry, they’re not permanent and shouldn’t damage your precious rulebook.

This is also one of the places where a customizable GM screen can help, print out rules snippets you think you will need but can’t remember and stick them on a piece of paper and slide it into your screen.
Some GMs do not like playing with a screen, because they feel it creates a barrier between them and their players, and this is certainly a valid choice! You can still use a customizable GM screen however and just lay it flat (or just make a cheat sheet for yourself).

Talk to your players

You have a game now, great! This is the point where you should talk to your individual players (I feel this works better 1-on-1 than in a group) and talk about some very important questions you should have answers to before you do anything else.

  • “What would you like to see in the game?”

Ask your players about themes and subjects they find interesting in the game, write them all down. Do they want a big outdoor travel/exploration adventure, all alone on the frontier? Do they just want to delve deeply into the bowels of the earth, slay monsters, gain wealth? Perhaps they are interested in liberating an oppressed population, or fighting against other forms of tyranny and reshape the very world they inhabit? Almost everything they will tell you is viable and valuable information. 

If the player finds it difficult to suggest anything (perhaps they are not very familiar with the game, or have never considered it) you can volunteer some of the broad ideas you most assuredly already have in your head. Try to speak in general terms and not detail; “Fight to liberate the country of <name>” is about as specific as I would go, do not drop an entire plot on the player at this point.

  • “What DON’T you want to see in the game?”

This question is actually even more important than the first, because it also ties in with safety (more on that later), it’s vitally important that you understand what subjects and themes a player is not interested in, and more importantly; what subjects and themes the player is not comfortable with.

Write these things down. Do not forget them. Staple them to your forehead if you must.

I am hammering on this point, because while it takes many many sessions to make a campaign great and memorable to players, it can take only one to ruin the experience permanently.


No fear (mistakes and you)

Don’t be intimidated by all the things mentioned above, it’s important to understand that in any given session of play you will make mistakes.

Maybe you accidentally introduced a subject someone is uncomfortable with (see the safety section), maybe you got the order of some events mixed up or you misunderstood a rule.

That’s ok.

The only thing that matters with mistakes, is how you fix them and what you can learn from them.

General mistakes

You can approach most non-safety related mistakes in the same way. First, evaluate if the players have even noticed and more importantly if the mistake even matters.
If it’s inconsequential for your story and players, just ignore it and proceed.

If it’s something that impacts your fiction or the players directly, my preferred method is:

  1. Acknowledge the mistake, and explain what went wrong
  2. If needed or appropriate, either rewind to before the mistake (you can totally do this in many cases, as long as it was recent!) or just adjust the results after the fact (i.e. you misread a rule and did too much/little damage to a character, just adjust it now).
  3. If option 2 is no longer works, either adjust your fiction to accommodate the new state of things (example: your npc was supposed to teleport out at half HP, but you neglected to do so and they are now dead. Not a problem! Their place will now be taken by a similar (yet distinct!) new NPC that takes their place in the story) -or- if you accidentally really disadvantaged or even killed a player, narrate that they were just knocked out, washed away by the river etc. and have them rejoin the party, undo the harm you did to them, return the item you destroyed etc. No harm, no foul.
  4. If the mistake has lead you to some irrevocable problem that you can no longer handwave away (you threw a Player Character into lava and everyone saw them burn) it’s probably appropriate to throw the recipient of your mistake a bone and give their new character something cool as an “I’m sorry” (ask them if they want such a thing). Alternatively, ask the players to simply suspend their disbelief and hard retcon it (X never happened). You can do this, because it’s your game.
  5. Check with your players, if is everyone happy with the new state of the situation you can proceed.
  6. Don’t feel bad, you learned a thing!

Now when the mistake impacts game safety (again, we will go into detail on this subject in a subsequent post), things may get very unpleasantly complicated and emotions may get high. The tools in the Safety section will greatly help with (preventing) this.
I will however state one important thing to never forget in the event of a safety mistake: 

It’s never the fault of the person who has an issue with a subject.

Keep that in mind, and be prepared to enforce it at the table.

There’s a lot of things you can do “wrong” in a session, and the vast majority of them really don’t matter at all and can safely be ignored (your players probably will never even notice).

So don’t be afraid!




This section will explain my process for crafting the start of my campaign for my players. This is certainly not the only way, or even the best way, and largely doesn’t apply to purchased campaigns, but I hope it is at least of interest and/or gives you ideas of your own!

So, you’ve got a game system, you’ve got players, you have a list of things they like and don’t like, you’re ready to start working!

The first thing I do is look at the themes and topics the players have mentioned; generally I place them in tables to help me easily connect the dots:

diagram of player preferences in table format

Step 1: examine the overlap between “does not want” and what others are interested in.

If a player has indicated certain content is not ok with them it will not be in the game at all without discussing it with them, does not matter if someone else does want it.
In this instance we see that Caroline is interested in romance, but Danny absolutely does not want it.

What do we do? Simple, we check with Danny; Is your do not want entirely for yourself, or do you not want to deal with other characters’ romances?

In this case Danny just doesn’t want a romance plot that involves him as one of the parties, but does not mind if someone else has a romance.

Great! We don’t have to stripe off Caroline’s interest in this case, and we did the right thing by checking.
Whether or not you do a check for clarification or just rule it out is a bit of a “feel” thing, I’m not about to ask a player if sexual content is “ok” if it’s someone else, for example.

Step 2: look for matching interests/disinterests

Different players like different things, but when you can match interests across your players these topics are almost certainly going to be a hit when you include them!
Now in this instance a few things pop out at me:

We have two players who are interested in exploring, and one that is interested in mercenary life, something logical here would be to have the two exploring characters hire the mercenary to watch their backs while they go about it; I make a note of this and bring it up at character creation to help build the party.

Now Danny doesn’t particularly care about wilderness exploration, but it looks like he sure loves to beat the tar out of beasties in a dungeon, however two players are not interested in dungeon crawls or combat very much.

Does this mean Danny gets no dungeon or monsters to beat up? No, it does not. It does mean that I will not subject the party to multi-session mega dungeon full of combat encounters.

As a general rule, I will try to put any interest that doesn’t conflict with the safety topics into the game, but I will respect that it’s not everyone’s favourite and keep such content at a reasonable length.
So, we will have bits of dungeon while we explore with a bit of combat in them for Danny, and we will also have the odd political intrigue which Danny doesn’t care for, but we won’t devote entire sessions to either.

You can also look for related interests;

Alfred likes spy stuff, and Caroline is a fan of politics, these things naturally go well together!
This is great, if Caroline has a political problem, Alfred will almost certainly offer his suggestions for espionage to aid her endeavor.

But we can go deeper still…

Danny isn’t particularly interested in politics as mentioned, but he still loves combat so we can get him involved in the gameplay by offering him content that matches his interest and that supports the players’ goals. Perhaps some pesky guards need to be dealt with before Alfred can work his sneaky magic, perhaps a distraction is needed and violence can achieve that.

There are always ways to offer players content, even in situations that are not their preferred type.

Often, players will suggest these ideas to you themselves.

Just say yes and go with it!

Step 3: Try and formulate an outline

Now that your gears are in motions and ideas are starting to form about things you imagine you might see in sessions: stop.

We don’t want to drift off into “what if…” dreamland just yet.

We need a core pitch for our campaign that will excite our players and help them make choices during character creation!

Now, you don’t have to front-load every suggested topic into the pitch or the start of the game.

Here’s what I came up with using the examples above:

“The story will be about agents of various kingdoms venturing into wilds to search through the ruins of <ancient fallen kingdom> in search of lost magic/technology. Your party will BE one of these groups of agents. You will explore the ruins of the former kingdom, and try to learn as much as possible before the agents of <rival country> do so!”

Hopefully, my players’ eyes will light up as the possibilities begin to dance in their brains.

At this stage, I generally think it is time to:

Step 4: Build the party

By this I do not actually mean character generation yet. We do that after, this is where I let my players discuss the makeup of their team and who will do what.
This is (in my personal opinion) a much healthier approach than simply having players show up with their disconnected home-crafting characters that may not fit together well etc.

Note that the degree to which this step is needed varies wildly from game to game. A game like D&D is definitely balanced towards having a mix of certain types of character, whereas indy darling MÖRK BORG  is explicitly about rag-tag bands of mismatched misfits doing things together. Keep this in mind and evaluate for yourself!

My players talk it over, and as I had expected Alfred volunteers to play a stealthy roguish character hired to protect Beate and Caroline (who have selected a bookish magic user and an intrepid explorer character respectively) during their mission. Finally Danny (much as was to be expected) gleefully informs the party that he is also a bodyguard; just with none of the subtlety of Alfred, but the strength of arm that is required when things go south.

Step 5: Character generation

My players will now go through whatever character generation the chosen game has, because I have read the game in its entirety, I try not to only guide my players through the process but think with them about what class/features/skills/perks will help them get closest to the character concept.


Side note: I’m not having fun with this character anymore

May sound far fetched, but it happens way more often than you might initially imagine as a new GM.

Sometimes a character just isn’t what the player hoped they would be, or just not as fun as they imagined.

Clear signals of this include:

  • bored look during playing
  • frustration at the abilities of the character in a certain arena
  • literally saying it

When this happens, take it seriously.

Don’t stop a session in progress over it, but do ask a player if they are unhappy with their character, acknowledge that you have heard them and ask them to talk to you after the game to see what can be done.

Personally, I’m generous in these situations, I don’t care what the book says, if my player is unhappy I will gladly do any or both of the following:

  1. Replace the character with a new character of the same power level, no questions asked.
  2. Allow the player change some of their choices made either during creation or improving their character

Choose option 1 if the character will still “read” the same to plot (i.e. The Explorer isn’t happy and would rather have been a more combat capable Ranger)

Choose option 2 if the whole character just doesn’t work for the player. Then invent a reason for character 1 to leave and character 2 to join. It doesn’t even have to be a very good reason, nobody is judging you.


table with players

By Diacritica – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Where possible I like to devote an entire session to building the party, making the characters, helping develop backstory etc.

Note that at this stage, I usually don’t actually have a setting created (unless I’m playing something with an implicit setting, like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay).
What my preferred method here is, is to fill in blanks about the setting using questions I ask the players.

To continue our example, I know nothing about the world, I use this session to learn about it with my players, rather than to describe it to them.

Beate asks what I know about the organization they will be working for, I have no idea so I just throw something out:

“Oh, the royal explorer’s league? Well they were hastily founded after the initial ruins of <fallen kingdom> were found, the ruins contained a power artifact and the King had grave concerns of <hostile kingdom> obtaining these items and using them against us. He put the stern dutchess Mari du Bargot in charge. She’s not very friendly or personable, but her efficiency and accuracy in organization are without peer. Outwardly it’s presented as an exploration effort, but both kingdoms know what’s up”

This will suffice for now, already my own head is spinning at all the NPCs I will need to represent a large government backed organization, but that is a concern for future me…

Danny suggest that perhaps he and Alfred are basically undercover military personnel and I think this is an excellent idea, so now it is truth.

We go on like this for a while until everyone has something of a backstory (remember, backstory is not set in stone! encourage players to add to their character’s history whenever appropriate) and I have a sheet full of notes of the things we discussed to use in my world building.

With this my first session will end, and everyone goes away with their completed character sheet, I encourage them to think about their character, what they are like, how the character presents themselves to others, what they keep secret or are very open about etc. I also tell them I’ll happily receive any new ideas they have about their character via text (it’s free content!).


But why do it this way?

The reason why this is my preferred approach, is that it creates characters that are entwined with their world and each other, before we have even played a single session.
The characters make sense to the world, and the world makes sense to them. They are a part of it.

Experience tells me that players of characters that are well-grounded into the fiction of the world they inhabit are more comfortable, more engaged and more likely to want to know more about the world.

This collective building of parts of the world and the party as a whole also prevents players getting tremendous writing block staring at an empty “Background” box on their sheets with no one to help them.
Shaped like a dialogue, party building becomes a snap as people will volunteer ideas to each other that they (and you!) can use. And for your own benefit you leave the session with a large number of handholds to hang your world building onto, and they will automatically be connected to the players.


Sidebar: Player Buy-in

Part of what we are doing here is creating what is called “player buy-in”. What this means is we are trying to make sure the players believe in, and want to support the campaign we are crafting for them.

By making sure (and communicating that) we respect their interests in certain types of content they will naturally be more inclined to participate and add to the story we will be telling together.

Even a great GM cannot make a game good without player buy-in. RPGs are a collaborative effort between players and GMs to tell the story of the player characters.

To be continued

This concludes the first part of this series, in part II we will talk about what you’re going to be doing after your players leave with their characters.

My apologies if things seem a little disjointed, it’s terribly hard for a scatterbrained individual like myself to try and condense 25 years of lessons learned in a linear fashion.

In part II we will be discussing how I handle initial world building efforts and plan my first outing for the players.

I hope to see you next post!


Inspirational links:

Matthew Coleville’s excellent youtube channel full of his thoughts on the matter.

Geek and Sundry’s playlist of GM tips & Advice

The Dungeon World gamesmastering chapter, which heavily informs my own style


Posted by Helicity in News, Tools
D66 Creepy Finds

D66 Creepy Finds

Sometimes, you just need something small to throw the players off, or be a red herring, or just general inspiration.

Here are d66 random creepy and disgusting things to throw at your players.
(This table was originally made for but has yet to be implemented)

If you’ve never used a D66 table before, it goes like this: 
1. roll a D6 to see which sub table you’re looking at

2. roll a D6 to see which entry of the sub table you will be using.



  1. [d6] carefully stacked piles of 10 complete fingernails each
  2. A wooden doll’s head without eyes, the hair is very realistic and soft
  3. A frothy pool of moist vomit and bile, inside the pool are a large number of plump, living, maggots. They have tiny human faces.
  4. Two old coins, one side of each is scratched out and defaced
  5. A set of footprints that abruptly end without a trace
  6. A mummified thumb, or perhaps [d6] thumbs


  1. A carefully taxidermied mouse with [d6] + 2 legs
  2. A pile of books, every page is filled with the same sentence in various handwriting styles
  3. A stench pepper and rot wafts over you
  4. [d10] deformed human skulls
  5. A persistent scratching sound. You can’t seem to tell what direction it’s coming from, but it’s getting louder.
  6. A flute made from animal bone, it is carved with detailed scenes of murder


  1. 7 black candles wrapped in a stained cloth that smells like lavender
  2. A jar of rancid butter. Hidden inside the vile stuff is a piece of paper. What does it say?
  3. A patch of mushrooms, shaped like a person. A skinned bat lies on the “head”
  4. [4d6] identical fingers, each in a small phial of formaldehyde
  5. A pair of weighted dice, the pips are carved like very tired eyes
  6. A loaf of stale and moldy bread, a big bite has been taken out of it


  1. A small puddle of rainwater, full of leeches
  2. [2d6] small monkeys, all crucified
  3. The sound of dripping water, yet none can be found
  4. A set of rusty metal manacles, there are spikes on the inside
  5. A piece of parchment, on it are your names. All but one are crossed out.
  6. 6 iron nails tied together on a piece of catgut like a necklace


  1. Shattered funeral urns, the ashes are missing 
  2. Three daggers pinned into the ground in a triangle formation
  3. A door. It stands free, without a doorway or wall. Where is its key? Where does it go?
  4. [2d6] small porcelain figures depicted dissecting each other, they are smiling
  5. An ornate but battered hip flask, it contains fetid seawater and very old fishing hooks. It feels sticky to the touch.
  6. A carefully arranged complete set (32) of human teeth, there are no cavities


  1. A journal describing your travels, in familiar handwriting. The final page describes the writer creeping up on your group with a sharp knife while you sleep.
  2. [3d6] rusty knives of various designs wrapped in a tattered leather roll
  3. Two pairs of large metal tongs, the handles are extremely long. Bits of blackened flesh cling to the business ends
  4. A coffin lid, the inside covered with scratches. The outside is carved with unfamiliar letters
  5. A detailed painting of one of the player characters, but the eyes are entirely black and the fingers much too long. Other than that it’s remarkably accurate.
  6. A number of freshly dug shallow graves, there’s one for each of you
Posted by Helicity in Tools

Nechrubel tarot card

A morky-borky tarot card I doodle just for fun using fineliners and copic markers

Posted by Helicity in Artwork

Mr Reaperman

I’ve been trying to learn some watercolours, very unusual medium, but I don’t hate it!

Posted by Helicity in Artwork

A village map

A  village map I doodled up on the train

Posted by Helicity in Artwork
Mork Borg DM screen (a5 inserts)

Mork Borg DM screen (a5 inserts)

I love Mork Borg, but (until the recent MB: Heretic kickstart) there was no GM screen available, so I made my own by building a book cover-like screen with a5 folders glued to the inside.

Posted by Helicity in Crafts
Pathfinder character binder

Pathfinder character binder

We started playing some Pathfinder 2 a while back (before we got even more locked down) and I wasn’t very happy with the original character sheet.
So, I made my own (still in development really) to resemble my Witch’s grimoire. Naturally this meant it needed a binder similar to my zine binder!

Posted by Helicity in Crafts
Zine binder

Zine binder

Zine binder project

So, RPG zines are awesome! Some of the coolest content comes out in this format, but there is one big drawback; Zines are fragile.

In order to extend the lifespan and beauty of my precious zines, I decided to cobble together a custom binder to keep them all safe and sound in my bookcase.
This turned out to be a relatively simple thing to make, and you can see the basic construction I used in the gallery below!

There’s been a lot of folks in various Discord servers asking me if I intend to produce these, and the answer is a resounding “maybe”.

That is to say; I’m investigating if it’s financially viable to bulk produce some cool zine binders for folks, but I am not even close to done on doing all of the math on it.


Posted by Helicity in Crafts

Mork Bork dice tray

A one-of-a-kind dice tray made as a giveaway prize for the awesome Mork Borg roleplaying game.

The tray was given away as a prize in a really cool gamejam which you can see here!

The tray itself was constructed using an IKEA Ribba picture frame and actual bible pages.

Posted by Helicity in Crafts

Setting up theme completed

Ok, we made it a bit less of an eyesore to look at.

This will suffice, now comes the arduous task of creating some actual content, stay tuned

Posted by Helicity in News