Burst of Insight—New Year, New GM Skills.


For a while now Monica and I, with the help of some close friends have been live streaming tabletop roleplaying games on Twitch (www.twitch.tv/marlowehouse) with some small success. While I love GMing, I’m less comfortable under the scrutiny of a live audience, so as our most frequent GM I’ve been doing a lot of research to improve my skills and increase my confidence and thought I might share some of the resources I’ve liked.

First of all let’s talk about watching / Listening to other great GMs and players. From polished and professional streams and podcasts like Critical Role, The Glass Cannon, or Knights of the Everflame we can learn a lot. Whether its house rules, how to weave in backstories, execute effective flashbacks or when to speak in funny voices. Noting what you like…and don’t like that a particular stream does is invaluable. You don’t have to expect to do any of these things as well as these professionals do to improve your own performance. Similarly, pay attention to the way your own GMs do things. If you are fortunate to live in an area with a thriving organized play community and several GMs or you can make it to conventions like PAX, GenCon, or Paizo Con get into games with a diverse group of new GMs. If you’re paying attention there’s a lot you can learn by just observing whether it’s a GM at your home table, a GM from across the country at a con, or one of the professionals.

The internet, particularly YouTube, has been full useful videos and articles on GMing. Obviously, we spend a lot of time right here on the various Know Direction blogs talking about various aspects of playing RPGs particularly GMing but our emphasis tends to be on Pathfinder and Starfinder and I’ve found some really great advice directed to the audiences of 5e and other games that had a lot of utility in my own games.

A few of the channels I’ve found useful include:

Mathew Colville (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCkVdb9Yr8fc05_VbAVfskCA)

Seth Skorkowsky (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCQs8-UJ7IHsrzhQ-OQOYBmg)

MonarchsFactory (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UChSBq3h26QNYGBmi2yQPHKA)

Dungeon Craft (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCD6ERRdXrF2IZ0R888G8PQg)


Finally let’s talk books. I’ve always been a reader and lately my physical reading has been very focused on RPG theory and advice.

Your Best Game Ever by Monte Cook may be the most comprehensive collection of RPG advice. It covers nearly every aspect of the RPG experience and includes sidebars from the some of the biggest names in the industry. In my opinion this is a book that deserves to be on every gamer’s shelf whether they run games or are just players.

Sly Flourish’s Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master by Michael Shea is an easy to read guide to GMing with a minimalistic style. This sort of “prepare only what benefits your game” approach may not appeal to every GM but I think being able to distill a session down to its most basic elements is a valuable skill for any game master even if they are open to more concrete adventure development. There is also a companion workbook but unless you are playing 5e I’m not convinced it’s worth picking up.

I’ve also found a lot of use in the various essays in the Kobold Guide’s from Kobold Press. An essay in the Kobold Guide to Plots and Campaigns inspired a huge portion of my recent Numenera campaign. And the Kobold Guide to Combat had several eye opening essays that had me rethinking significant elements of my playstyle. So far I’ve been very pleased with each instalment of this series that I’ve picked up.

Gnome Stew and Engine Publishing also have a series of books for GM’s I’ve been enjoying quite a bit. Never Unprepared cover’s session preparation and is very interesting when compared and contrasted to the Lazy DM. Odyssey covers campaign management and Focal Point Addresses the actual running of the game session. These three apparently started with a single book topic and developed into something of a GM trilogy. Gnome Stew and Engine Publishing have a few other titles that are probably worth checking out. I do have a copy of Unframed which like the Kobold Guides is a collection of Essays. Unframed focuses on Improv for GMs and the couple of Essays I’ve read so far have been very good, especially the one called “Hitting Rock Bottom,” by Phil Vecchione (one of the authors from the previously mentioned trilogy of GM books).

I think improvisation is a key skill for everyone in the RPG hobby and while it’s certainly one of the skills best illustrated by the professional actual plays. It’s something that I think everyone can benefit from. So I was very excited that for Christmas I received a copy of Improv for Gamers by Karen Twelves. I haven’t had time to properly dig into this book but I hope to get my gaming group playing some of the improv exercises from the book.

Many of these resources I’ve found useful as a veteran gamer and longtime GM but I think many of them will also benefit newer GMs. But for those of you who are new to GMing and are just thinking of spending some time on the other side of the screen. Let me also introduce you to New Game Master Month. Every January New Gamemaster Month introduces gamers to the thrill and fun of running games. The website focuses on four game systems Numenera, Unknown Armies, Trail of Cthulhu, and 7th Sea. Today January 7,2020 was the first day of this year’s series. So it’s not too late to get involved (https://newgamemastermonth.com/).

I encourage everyone who wants to improve in the hobby to take a look at the many resources available and do a little research into improving some aspect of their game play. If you have a favorite book, web series, or whatever drop it in the comments below. I’d love to check it out.

Andrew Marlowe

placed in the Top 16 of RPG Superstar in 2012 and 2014, one of the few contestants to get that far in the competition twice. Since then, he has contributed to many Paizo and third party Pathfinder products, including one of the network’s favourite releases in the Pathfinder Player Companion line, the Dirty Tactics Toolbox. Every other Tuesday, he will be sharing his Burst of Insight, with design tips for would-be game designers from a decorated freelancer.