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I have played and tried to GM games since I was in elementary school, beginning with games like Shadowrun, Earthdawn, and Champions. Recently, I've gotten dack into gaming with a variety of other games (newer Shadowrun and Earthdawn, plus TOON! and Outbreak:Undead).

I've found examples of actual play and advice on how to actually GM a game in games to be lacking. I can only help but feel I am not alone as someone who isn't already a LITERAL dungeon MASTER.

I fully realize that there are an unlimited number of GM styles, personalities, etc. I do not think I am a very good GM though. No one else wants to be the GM, and few care enough to learn the complex rules that I often have to assist with and explain AS WE PLAY. Being left with the responsibility is quite overwhelming unless I create dynamic encounters or make it all up on the spot. I'm often left having no idea what to do.

Examples of Why I Think I Need Help

This question isn't about these examples so please don't dig into them in the answers - they're here to explain the basic things that leave me feeling like I don't know how to proceed as a GM.

I've read preparation is important, but last time I tried to make a story, the players immediately killed the primary character (a friendly person.) within about 2 minutes of starting the game. While I realize now that I let the dice take control over the story, it was rather difficult to continue a story that relied on this friendly character, with the players making enemies with the character's faction. It is still discouraging when my only other attempt at a prepared story ended with the players wanting to go in a complete opposite direction of where I planned. Both times, the hours of work I put into it were completely wasted, leaving me as ignorant as I always was before.

My group often wants to play Shadowrun, Earthdawn, or L5R- but I feel as though I am a horrible GM. The last time we played Shadowrun, I was bored out of my mind as we rolled hundreds of dice to do an obvious straight-forward "kick down the door" mission. If I make security as I believe it should or as the forum threads describe their security or a few example missions I can scrounge up (examples of stories, not actual gameplay), my players literally feel completely hopeless as to how to achieve their mission without total failure.

One time when I was a teenager, I had players blow up at me saying "We have no idea what would work. You're telling us that our character's experience or the ally operative says that would get us killed, but what else can we do?" Since there are no examples of what players can do - I am left with the same feeling as the players. As an adult, I've had a similar occurrence where a player said to me, "I don't know what to do. I don't think we can even begin this mission." I had to make something up and just go with it, creating an NPC group (that fit in with the story) that goes in before the players to do something stupid so they don't have to. Mainly because I ALSO didn't know how to accomplish the mission, so I acted as the players would using my NPC group. Extremely boring and IMO a failed dungeon run.

I've had successful stories, but I've had more boring encounters than successful ones. Seeing as how roleplaying takes endless hours to complete a story, I do not see benefit in an activity that wastes more time than is enjoyable.

How Do You Learn To GM?

Where are the resources? Books, blogs, gameplay examples? Am I missing them? How did YOU learn to be a good GM? Or do you feel as bad at this as I do, even when it's a successful, fun encounter?

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8 Answers 8

How To Learn To GM

There are a variety of resources nowadays that can help you accomplish this. There are also many existing questions on this site about GMing that will point you to more content than you can ever consume.

Watch

In your question, you mention wanting to see more examples of real play. There's a number of ways to do so.

Actual Play Resources

  • Podcasts capture the entire play session. There's video podcasts too. See Where can I find actual play podcasts for RPGs?
  • Session Summaries (aka Actual Plays, Story Hours, Campaign Journals) usually are severely abridged, but leave out a lot of the cruft. See Where can I find transcripts of actual game sessions? and Where to find game session reports?
  • Blogs. There's a million blogs about how to GM. Start with the RPG Bloggers Network. Go to the blogrolls of blogs you like to find more like them. Focus in on blogs about your chosen game(s) and play style(s).
  • Play by post forums. If you want to watch people actually play in text, there's a million of these too. Many dedicated sites, specific forums on RPG.net, ENWorld, Paizo, etc. In fact, RP-by-post is very popular even when not affiliated with a proper RPG/ruleset.
  • Sit in. There are plenty of other people running games, some in public places like your friendly local game store (D&D Encounters, Pathfinder Society) and conventions. See below under "Play" though, if you're going to the effort of being there you need to stop being a wallflower and get on in and play.

Some games also have better advice sections than others - see What role-playing games have good gamemaster advice sections?

Play

In the end though this is not the most effective approach. Watching games is less of a useful learning experience than actually being in one. Have you considered playing in those games before running them to learn from other GMs? It's reasonably easy to find other gaming groups, you don't have to abandon yours to play in another. Where can I find other RPG players?

Go to RPG conventions, find games at gaming stores, play on forums or G+ (see also Sites for finding online RPG players for a play-by-chat RPG Campaign?) - just get more experience. Being a GM is often called a "judge," and in the legal world you need to spend a lot of time being a lawyer before you make a good judge. You need to spend some time playing to become a good GM. If you can't think how the players will proceed in a given situation, you need more play time.

Read

There are many books on GMing - see What is the single most influential book every GM should read?

Also try watching/reading relevant genre media. "I don't get how to put together a story" should get its first-order correction by consuming some of that genre and looking at the stories.

Learn

A lot of the problem you seem to be experiencing is pure storytelling. Try How do I get better at narrating/storytelling as a GM? and As a GM, how can I create and role-play diverse NPCs better? Read up on the specific aspects of GMing you feel you're not good at, there's plenty here. Try questions tagged with the tag. Feel free and ask questions here as well about specific aspects of GMing.

There are also a large, large number of RPG forums out there in the world, for every game and type of gaming. If you don't understand something someone posts, you can easily reply and ask.

Do

aka How I Learned To GM

We didn't have these newfangled Interwebs when I was a kid. I GMed almost before I ever played. I did play in a very informal game of D&D in a car on the way to Scout camp, no dice, PvP, everyone had artifact weapons. But other than that, I started out as a GM. I bought a sci-fi RPG (Star Frontiers) without knowing anything about it (I had bought and played a little TSR chit game, Star Force, and was looking for other fun stuff from the same company). None of my friends were interested in GMing and I was in a small Texas town that didn't have conventions or whatnot - life was less mobile and connected back then. So I just ran games. And I kept running them, and learned from my mistakes and corrected. I read comics and science fiction avidly, so characters and plots weren't that hard to devise. Beyond that, I just learned the way you learn to do anything through practice, whether it's a sport, writing, a musical instrument... How-to's and YouTube videos are cute jumpstarters nowadays, but "Do, and learn from doing" has yet to be eclipsed in being the primary way to actually become good at something.

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Step 1: Forget "Writing Stories"

If you come at GMing with an Author's mindset, you've just rendered your players little more than passengers on the railroad of your story.

Write encounters. Have them be related, but not tightly interdependent.

Write NPC's. Drop them into the right place when you need them. If the PC's kill them, erase the name, the injuries, and change some description (or not), and put them back in the file for reuse.

Let the story grow from play, not play arise from a prepared story. OSR types call that "winging it"... new schoolers call it emergent story. I call it good GMing.

Step 2: Be a player in others' games

You'll learn a lot about GMing by figuring out what is and isn't working in others games.

Step 3: Find the right game

Shadowrun and Earthdawn are detailed settings with complex trope sets, tied to fairly complex rulesets. If you know them well, then they're not bad choices.

Simpler mechanics and constrained settings (like dungeons or active duty military games) make for easier GMing; you have an inherent carrot and stick, and can often use military games to simply point them at the end point, and ask them to find a way there. Dungeons limit their ability to go beyond your planning.

Step 4: Just Do It!

To be blunt: my first few years of GMing were hellishly bad. Better than some of my buddies, tho', so I got to keep trying. I kept getting better.

Play different games. Try a variety of styles. And play some of the newer stuff... A Moldvay D&D clone, Cosmic Patrol, Fiasco, Mouse Guard, Houses of the Blooded... games that do things very differently. You'll find ut after about 5 sessions of Mouse Guard or Houses what you do or do not like about them. Fiasco and CosPat will take less than that.

Resources

The best resource out there is your players. Ask them what worked and didn't!

The Book of Proverbs, The Sayings of the Buddha, The Tao te Ching and the I Ching, The Book of 5 Rings, the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, and several other such quoteable texts filled with sayings are excellent tools for improvisation. Pick a random bit. Then use it as the basis for an encounter or NPC.

Any book on programming adventure games. You get far better GMing advice from the guides to writing inform games than from advice on writing novels. In a Novel, the goal is for a person with total control to give the illusion that the characters have acted of their own accord. In writing adventure game programs, the illusion is that there was a single controlling voice, while the reality is that the story should arise from the interactions of environment and the player's choices. In roleplaying, the story emerges from the choices of several players and the prepared encounters (and unprepared but winged encounters).

The card games Aye, Dark Overlord and Once Upon A Time. They are excellent for developing the narrative skills. I can't say OUAT is "great fun" but it's definitely "good practice." And both provide nifty card sets that can be used for prompting when in need of elements for an off the cuff adventure.

A stack of index cards and some index card cases. It's one of the best tools out there for tracking stuff. Learning to make suitable notes and keep them filed is a life skill, but it's one that helps once you start winging it.

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You already have pointed out your problem:

It is still discouraging when my only other attempt at a prepared story ended with the players wanting to go in a complete opposite direction of where I planned.

You have written your story and then you feel disappointed when your players don't follow it as you planned. Players are not actors in your movie. Well, they are in the sense than they act in the world you have prepared, but they are not in the sense they are not given a script and expected to play his role as the writer intended.

So, the first lesson is: don't write a story that goes by as a path. Write a setting, prepare some events, and let your players move freely in those suppositions.

You also know your other mistake:

it was rather difficult to continue a story that relied on this friendly character

The lesson is straightforward: Never, never prepare a game that relies on an unique condition (a character, a clue, the players stealing some cursed object) because if that condition fails, the game fails. Plus, when you think the ways your players can be integrated in the plot, always think about what happens when the players do one thing or the opposite.

Recently, my GM felt he was not prepared for the next game, and we agreed that I would prepare a parallel story. I prepared it in 30 minutes, because there was no more time, so it wasn't a very good story. It depended on the characters meeting someone, so I prepared like 5 ways the characters could end in such meeting, plus a brief idea of how the game will be if they fail all the 5 ways and finally not meet this NPC.

About a more general advice, how to learn, I will sum in two words, like nearly all skills you may want to learn in live.

Theory and practice: read and play.

Theory: RPG books use to include useful GM/Storyteller chapters that help you how to create good stories, and manage your games. IMHO some of them give better advice than others, and you can often find even bad advices. But read a fair number of them and you'll have many tools that will help you. Also, there are literally hundreds of article of how to GM. They usually contradicts each other, but you can use them to form an opinion.

Practice: Don't feel bad for your failures. Everyone of us have been a bad GM in the past. When I remember my first games, I facepalm several times and I feel quite ashamed. I will possibly do in the future with my current games. Of course, there are some moments and some games that I feel proud of. Be alert, think about your games, notice your failures and your successes, ask your players often, and try to apply and evaluate the techniques you have learned with the theory and other's advice. Practice makes the master.

And the most important GM's characteristic: common sense. Apply it always. Use it to discover which advice is better than another. Break a rule if it just doesn't make sense in a specific situation (and explain why to your players).

To finish it, some ancient advice about learning, from Master Kung:

I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.

Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.

He who learns but does not think, is lost. He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger.

He that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools.

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While you've asked us not to dig into the specific examples, I'd argue that if you took each of these examples and turned them into a question here, then you'd gain some insight, because one of the best ways to learn to be a better DM is to ask other DMs. I'm lucky enough to have three to six dms at hand to discuss my specific problems with and it's an endless help. So I'm not going to dig into the examples becuase you've asked me not to but if you DID choose to post them, I'd love to help you by showing you it's not all on you and by a few changes in the way you appear to be thinking you can change the bits you are.

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There are a couple of really good answers already. I'd like to heavily stress one in particular: learn from other GMs.

Play in other games. See what their PCs do and how the GMs handle it. I won't dig into your examples but I will address them: The fact that you recognized that they were issues is a mark in your favor. Plenty of folks I know believe they don't need to learn anything new and have no need to refine their DMing skills. You have just proven yourself to be a greater GM than them. Even if you do see yourself making some mistakes, at least you don't make the most important mistake of turning a blind eye to them.

The best resource IMO is other DMs. Not only do you get to see what they do "right" but also do "wrong" (in your opinion, of course). Hit a play-by-post or a friendly local gaming store. Even if you're not a player just be a wallflower. Not only is it fun but also informative.

I've learned primarily through observing others. Sure it means I picked up a bad habit here and there, but the more I varied my network the fewer and farther between those got. I like articles and the like but for me nothing does it like witnessing another GM. Rattling off about what does and doesn't work in a game is all good and fine in a blog. At a game table with immediately visible results the effect is a lot more powerful (and generally credible). As much as I also kick myself in the rear for making similar mistakes as you do, I also make sure to give myself props for acknowledging where I can improve. You should too.

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Group Coordination

First off, some of the difficulties you're describing may have nothing to do with you as a GM. It may have to do with the group not coordinated on trying to play the same game - just in the same sense if you sit down to "play cards" and one person is playing Spades, another Poker, and another Go Fish, you're not going to have fun.

In theory, this shouldn't be a problem but many published rpgs attempt to set up their rules to cover multiple, mutually exclusive styles of play and give the group no advice on how to organize that.

I wrote up The Same Page Tool specifically to cover this all-too-common problem.

A critical part of this is honesty amongst the group. There's some players basically want to play "Grand Theft Auto" as an rpg - they like to simply imagine doing ridiculous mayhem - and while there are some games that do this well (Paranoia, octaNe, Teenagers from Outer Space), most do not and these players will nod along and agree to whatever discussion about the type of game you've said it should be and then do the same old thing. If that happens, you need to stop the game and have a real discussion right away because if folks don't want to play the same game, that's fine, but there's no reason to lie or disrupt the game some folks WANT to have.

Pacing

There's a simple and powerful idea that comes from the Dogs in the Vineyard rpg (and has found it's way into numerous games): "Say Yes or Roll the Dice". What I sometimes see people do, is assume this means you should favor rolling dice, but no, it literally presents the two options as valid.

If there's something the players want to do, that you feel will devolve into meaningless dice rolling, especially if the outcome is already known, just Say Yes. "Oh, yeah, they're just minions and not really worth rolling dice for. It takes you 5 minutes and they're laid out... what are you doing next?"

This can go for larger scale situations too: "3 months later, you've crossed the ocean and you're coming upon the Imperial Capital" etc. You can even skip things that would normally BE a struggle, especially if you're doing a one shot or forced to end a campaign on short notice: "It was a hard 8 months of battle. There was a lot of back and forth, and two of your lieutenants died when you fought the Night General, but now, this is it, you've made your way to the Castle of the Hell King, and the gates have been smashed open, your troops pouring it. Now or never."

The number one rule to pacing is to spend time on the things the players get excited about AND can make fun decisions about and to always skip the things the players find boring. (If you realize that the game book has a bunch of rules that you never use because you're always skipping them, then it's important to realize you should probably find a different set of rules that focus on the things the players find exciting).

Improvisation and Follow the Players

There's two skills which have made my GMing a hundred times better.

First, is improvising - which works best when instead of preparing a set of events, you prepare a "source of problems".

That is to say, a set of events is a set of problems or situations the players go through and solve and then it's used up and done. Maybe the players don't even go in that direction and you find your prep is wasted altogether, or you have to work to try to shoehorn them into it.

Better is to simply come up with an idea, a situation, or an NPC that easily suggests a whole lot of problems that you can come up with on the spot. Just as much as the players manage to improvise using the characters every session, you improvise using the sources of problems.

Second, "follow the players" means pay attention to what they find interesting. RPGs with Flag Mechanics tend to do well to help communication, and beyond that it's paying attention to when the players get engaged, excited, and/or start spending lots of hero points or really struggling to succeed.

The better you get at reading your player's sense of enjoyment, the better you can use pacing to skip what's not fun and focus on what IS fun, and to angle the types of problems they encounter to be more interesting.

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Actually, I might be able to help you hear with a few techniques:

  • Write down objectives for you and some basic character traits, but don't strap yourself into a given story.

Players are unpredictable. They break your stories, rebel against any constraints, and they will always have a different mental image of the world than you do. The best way to combat this while still retaining cohension, I find, is to make a mental or physical lists of what you want to achieve in the game. Write down plot hooks, important characters, key scenes, whatever you can think of. If you need your players to dive into a troll's lair, change things up a bit if you have to. Maybe they stumble across it, maybe a local thief falsely accuses them and they are sent there as an execution method, or maybe that bar wench the characters where hitting on poisons them and they wake up there. There are many ways to put the characters into situations you want and make it seem natural. And while you dislike examples, they are extremely useful to describe these techniques, so I will give you one:

I had my players in a town that had a district walled off and overrun by the undead. I wanted them to go into the bloody evil district, but I couldn't think of a good way to do it. One of my players found an arms dealer that looked like a little old lady and threatened her at dagger point to give him her product. He took it at a massive discount and then left. Soon, the team found a bounty for re-killing the undead (5 silver a head, not bad). They started walking into the area, ordered that the guards keep the gates open, and then that little old lady came by right after they had entered and accused them of threatening and mugging her. Doors slammed shut, sentence declared that they were to die via the undead, and wham! Players had no choice but to go where I wanted and it seemed like a direct consequence of their actions.

So don't strap yourself into a set story, and give yourself story beats and goals, but a comfortable amount of wiggle room.

  • Let your players narrate a bit

This is a bit weird, but it's true. If you have issues describing or narrating a scene, then give the power to the players. Let them have a little more control over their environment and that minimizes the amount of immersion-breaking stops they have to make to double-check with you. Let them increase their own immersion and enjoyment while you focus on keeping the scenes engaging and the NPCs interesting. You focus on the story, they focus on their characters, and they will create their own fun without you lifting a finger.

  • Have fun, and ensure others do to

I was once in a game where the GM was incapable of noticing that his players were bored. Heck, my friend next to me was playing Pokemon at the table during his last session. The GM railroaded us, used mind-control magic to ensure that we followed his plot, and was the only person having fun in the whole group. The game ended when my girlfriend had had enough, quit, and started to read yaoi (male-male romance comics for the unknowing) on my phone for the rest of the session. After she left, myself and one other player tried to kill the GM's main NPC, each other (while drugged and magically charmed [winning combo, btw]), and even tried to minecraft our way out of a dungeon... repeatedly. We ended up trying to summon a demon to kill us, ended up in hell, and tried to annoy any demon we found enough to kill us.

Point of the story: you as a GM should have fun, but your job is to ensure that your players are having fun. And don't worry about your plot, the rules, or whatever. If your players are having fun, hooting and hollering, and are engaged, then you are doing a good job. Screw the rules, the tone, whatever. Maybe your players would get a kick out of a liche who is so sick of undeath, he asks for their help in throwing him off a cliff. Maybe the players will have more fun if that goblin they are beating up transforms into the indestructible "Green Clencher", the golbin superhero whose skin is made of steel [but he must maintain a heroic pose to keep his powers up]. Do whatever your group (and you) consider fun, and then role with it.

So, focus on more interesting characters, fudge dice rolls, send chainsaw-wielding lollipops after your players [or lollipop-wielding chainsaws], and do whatever it takes to have fun. If fun for you and your group is a deep, horrific story, then do that. If it's Deadpool style randomness, do it. Whatever it takes to have fun, it is worth it. No rule is sacred, except for this one: have fun.

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Welcome to the site, @ZakK - Unfortunately, I feel obliged to point out that this isn't currently answering the question "How do I learn to be a good GM?" There's some decent advice here, but if you could tie it more clearly to the OP's question it'd garner a few more upvotes. –  GMJoe Apr 7 at 7:25
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If there is one single thing that has made me a fairly good GM, it's...

It's actually two things. I suppose I could boil it down to only one thing, but that would make things ridiculously abstract and unclear. Not very helpful.

First, know thyself. I mean scrutinize yourself, the things you write and how you present it to the players. Analyze every situation that goes bad and try to pinpoint what it was that set it off. If your entire adventure relied on a single friendly NPC, then why did it even come to be a conflict? When did it turn sour and what could you have done differently to turn it around? Try to think of as many answers to those questions as you can and then try again with a new adventure, but written differently.

In short; if I check myself all the time, then I know where I'm at and where I'm headed. Nothing I do must be above my own personal scrutiny. This can also include asking the players what they thought about the adventure, what could have been better, what was awesome and why the hell they killed that nice guy who was about to give them lots of gold for a simple mission.

And that ties in to number two:

Know thy players. And by that I actually mean that knowing how people generally work is a great help. Your social skills will very much influence how well you do as a GM. You have to be adaptable and flexible, you have to be able to foresee what will happen and where things are headed. Are your players aggressive players? Then make sure that the friendly NPC is passive and likable so that there is never any reason for the players to escalate a conflict between them and the NPC. Are your players greedy bastards? Then sprinkle a trail of gold throughout the plot.

There is much to be said on this subject, but self-scrutiny and people skills helps me GM and is what I rely on mostly when I write adventures. When you're writing, always ask yourself: "What are my players likely to do?" After you've played, always ask yourself: "What could I have done differently?" and "Why did the players act the way they did?"

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