Behind the Screens – Advice For My Past Self

Dear Past Self,

This is Future Self.

I’m a freelance writer, podcaster, and Venture Lieutenant. I’ve got two regularly running Pathfinder games and manage to balance Real Life on top of all of that.

Yeah! So you’ve got all that to look forward to.

You’re, twelve.You just picked up polyhedral dice last week. You had so much fun playing in your first game that you want to run your own? Or have you run a few games and are looking for some new ideas? Here’s some advice that I wish I’d gotten at your age:


Share Your Plans

It can sometimes feel like that you can’t keep up with your players. After all, you’ve only got one brain. And all together they out-brain you. Are you looking for a new way to surprise your players? Or maybe your players are too good at figuring out your puzzles?

Well, thanks to the internet, no GM exists in a vacuum. There are thriving messageboard communities out there, Paizo, EN World, and Giant In the Playground to name but a few. There are likely discussions going on between experienced GMs about the very thing your wondering about! If there aren’t , it’s a simple matter of going out on a limb and asking the community at large. Chances are they’ll have some advice for your that you never even considered. And it can always be helpful to get some feedback on your campaign’s storyline and pacing. Sure your players may outnumber you at the table. But with the aid of the GMing community at large, you are many.

Plan Two Sessions in Advance – Be ready to Improvise

I’ve always found it helpful to know what my players doing during this session as well as what I want them to do the following session. Beyond that, it’s too hard to predict. Players can throw a wrench into even the most carefully constructed narrative. They zig when you want them to zag. And they zag when you want them to do nothing at all. So it’s always best to have a plan. But to be willing and able to change it at a moment’s notice. That means both having the creative energy to switch gears. And having the resources available to help you do it. The in my experience, the former is a matter of practice and rest. No one’s good at improve at first. But over time you get the feel for it and it becomes more natural. The latter means having a book or two handy. Some reference material like Monster Codex, or the NPC Codex, or any sort of Bestiary you can copy/paste a stat block from can be really helpful in a pinch.

Immerse Yourself in Fiction – but Broaden Your Horizon

Read more books. Watch more movies. Play more games. At first this seems obvious and easy. And honestly, it is. Immerse yourself in the type of fiction that you love. Because that’s the type of game you’re going to have the most fun running. But don’t be afraid to venture out of your comfort zone every now and then. A rule that I’ve made for myself is that for every three pieces of “brain-candy” I digest, I have to read something that’s different. So if I just finished a Pathfinder Tales book, a Horus Heresy novel, and reread Elfstones of Shannara then the next thing I read should be different. As an example, one of the things I’ve picked up recently is City of Sacrifice – the Aztec Empire and the Role of Violence in Civilization by Davíd Carrasco. I don’t know if I’ll like it. But the title is enticing and the subject matter is fascinating. It’s a nice break from fantasy fiction. And it might even inspire some of my own creativity down the road.

When It Comes to Rules – Let It Go!

Cue Frozen-style musical interlude. First off, I’m not saying not to care about the rules of the game you’re playing. Very much care about the rules. A GM should always strive to for a level of rules mastery that he or she becomes comfortable with breaking them. What? Yeah, seriously. Rules exist to put the narrative of the game into context. Someone who can Fly is *this* amount more powerful than someone who can’t. And someone who can Teleport is *that* much stronger than that.

But what about rules for someone who is just as strong as someone who can Teleport who wants to run up a wall, backflip onto a frost giant’s head, and stab him in the eye. There aren’t really rules for that. I mean, you could probably puzzle it out. But I’m familiar enough with how Pathfinder works that a DC 25 Acrobatics check to scale the wall, and a DC 30 Acrobatics check to perform the backflip-to-stab maneuver. I’d probably even give the player a +2 circumstance bonus to hit because it’s awesome.

Rule In Favor of Your Players

This goes hand-in-hand with Let It Go. There will come a time – several times per session in all likelihood – that a situation is ambiguous enough that calls for a subjective ruling on your part. In these situations it’s almost always in your best interest to rule in favor of your players. Because ultimately, the story you’re trying to tell is about them. They’re they heroes. They should be doing awesome stuff. And it’s really hard for them to do awesome stuff if you’re ruling against them all the time. Trust me, you want to let your players be awesome. They’ll remember your game and your story better and with more positively if it’s when they’re recalling their characters doing something awesome.


That’s it for this round, Past Self. I hope you grow up to be an awesome GM. Now go forth and make your mark on the world! Also let me know what else you want to know about in the comments section below. It’s always great to get feedback.

Anthony Li

Anthony Li has been pretending to be someone or something else for about as long as he can remember, which some people might consider a problem. He cut his teeth on 2nd Edition AD&D when he was 14 years old and his only regret is that he didn’t start rolling dice sooner. Due to an unhealthy addiction to Magic: the Gathering he missed the entire cultural phenomenon that was the 3.X era of D&D. After a brief stint with 4E, he was dragged kicking and screaming into the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game where he has since acclimated, adapted, and thrived. Most of his roleplaying experience has been behind in the GM screen where he has trained his dice to confirm crits on command. He always roots for the bad guys.

Craft Wondrous Item Banner