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I've been running role-playing games on and off for years, mostly D&D going all the way back to first edition. I was the first person in my town to get the hobby bug when I was a boy, and so I was by default the GM for my first games. It stuck.

Over the decades I've had plenty of practice, and plenty of different groups. They all seemed to enjoy themselves, so I know I can't be a bad GM. I have, however, been told by some players who've had experience of playing under different people that I could be a better GM. A particular criticism was that I didn't evoke enough emotion in my descriptions or playing of NPC's.

On the occasions I've played under other GM's I have not, on the most part, found them particularly inspiring. Certainly not people I'd want to learn from or emulate. Perhaps I just prefer GMing. Who knows?

Nowadays, I GM mostly for my kids (not a comment on the RPG hobby - it's just that all my adult gaming friends prefer strategy board games). I either use pre-made adventures or chop and change existing bits of material (dungeons, NPCs etc) into my own narratives.

I do not have the time, nor the desire to go and play under another GM in a different group. If possible, I'd rather not watch videos of other people's game sessions: if I were to do so, I'd want something that I know would be good enough to learn from, ideally specifically tailored to that end.

What other options are open to me to improve my skills? I found this question on the site, How do I learn to become a good GM? - but the answers are tailored toward novices, which I am not.

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Guys - comments are not for answers, and "tips" are just small answers. Please contribute your good ideas in an answer instead. Use comments to clarify the question. – mxyzplk Feb 23 at 13:50
We're seeing a lot of answers here that are a repetition on the theme “I recommend this specific blog/podcast/video series”. is generally bad at questions that just have a pile of recommendations for its answers. Please, if your advice is just “read this great blog!” or similar, consider upvoting an existing answer that already gives that general kind of advice instead of dropping in yet another “ooh I like this one, you should try it” answer. – SevenSidedDie Feb 24 at 19:06
Agreed. It's OK to ask high level questions like this, but what gets them not closed as "too broad" is people providing answers that cover their options somewhat more comprehensively. If it turns into a list of stuff , then we need to look at closing and refining the question. – mxyzplk Feb 24 at 19:53

12 Answers 12

up vote 19 down vote accepted

Ask and read questions on RPG Stackexchange

No wait hear me out. To improve as a GM you need:

  1. Practice. If you're consistently running games you're going to get plenty so we've got that covered.
  2. Feedback. This can be harder since, in my experience, players can be reluctant to honestly discuss what they are and are not enjoying about a game. Luckily not only does this stack have plenty of questions related to talking to your players and encouraging their feedback, it can give you feedback. Say an interesting situation came up in your game (Maybe ship combat in D&D 5e) and you made up something to handle it (Used rules from D&D 3.5e Stormwreck but with lots of 5e style wide skill checks)? You can ask a question about the situation that already happened and post what you did as an answer. Make it interesting and this community will give you excellent feedback in the form of votes, commentary, and alternate suggestions. Speaking of alternate suggestions...
  3. New Ideas. It's too easy in modern roleplaying where the groups are often small to become isolated from outside ideas. But if you keep reading and asking on stackexchange you will constantly be exposed to different approaches and ways of doing things. Each user has a slightly different style and pushes those approaches in their answers. You get to take it all, sift through what you like and what you don't, and bring it back to your table. It's a great system.

Bonus: Read everything Brian Ballsun-Stanton has ever posted

Seriously it's like an undergraduate class in gaming history and philosophy. If you're looking to improve it's certainly a start.

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+1, but rather than pointing at BBS specifically, I would say "read everything that catches your eye, starting from the most upvotes". – eimyr Feb 23 at 12:44

You specifically want to improve the emotion in your descriptions and NPCs, so take introductory classes in creative writing and/or improv acting. Those people don't know anything about GMing, but "evoking emotion in the playing of NPCs" is acting, so if that's what you want to improve then approach it as improving your acting.

There may even be free or nearly-free amateur improv acting in your area. If you can take your players (kids) with you then all the better.

Of course, this would not apply to an experienced GM who has the acting nailed down but needs to improve some other aspect of their play. They would have to identify their own weak areas.

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Sounds like LARPing – Kzqai Feb 24 at 21:51
@Kzqai: somewhat (I assume you mean talkative LARPs rather than the rubber-sword variety). It uses many similar skills, but the goals and structure are usually different. – Steve Jessop Feb 25 at 11:14

Something my group often did was to hold a short debrief session after every few game sessions. The GM would ask the players for specific feedback: what they liked best; whether there was anything they wished the GM had done differently; where each player would like the storyline to go; the results of one player's research on something for which an ad-hoc ruling had been made for expediency; a rules question that a player hadn't wanted to interrupt the game to ask, etc.
Occasionally, a player might also receive constructive criticism from the GM and/or another player.
There was a sort of social contract that, during the debrief, anyone - GM and player alike - could voice any concern or criticism they had, without fear of in-game reprisal nor OOC animosity; by the same token, we owed it to one another to listen openly to all feedback, and use it to become better players and GMs. (Each of us has taken a crack at being the GM at least once.)

Then, to ensure that we always ended on a positive note, we'd conclude the debrief with a "highlight reel", recapping the most memorable moments from the recent sessions - the barbarian throwing the Halfling rogue over a pit to reach a lever; how the cleric's two consecutive natural 20s on diplomacy checks convinced the entire bandit camp that they had a horrible disease that could only be cured by surrendering all of their possessions and then traveling to their respective birthplaces; or the wizard's clever use of Mage Hand to distract the guards while the rogue slipped away. Then each member of the group would cast a ballot for Best Combat and Best RP since the prior debrief. The GM would announce the winners of the voting, and also unilaterally declare one player as the MVP; each received a small XP award*.

*We used 25 XP per CL, which we found to be small enough not to significantly throw the power curve of a player with several consecutive wins, yet large enough to not feel completely insignificant at higher levels. The MVP award amount was occasionally altered, at the GM's discretion.

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But feedback doesn’t necessarily tell you how to improve. “A particular criticism was that I didn't evoke enough emotion in my descriptions or playing of NPC's.” how would you change that? – Michael Feb 24 at 10:13
Well, that particular criticism never came up in my group's debriefs that I can recall, but if it had, it would have been accompanied by specific suggestions related to particular NPCs. Just having the debriefs in the first place gave everyone a chance to get better at giving specific, constructive feedback. So I suppose my answer is of a slightly broader scope than the OP's exact question, but adopting the format could help him to get a more concrete answer from his own players, which would arguably be the best answer possible for the OP. – Dan Henderson Feb 24 at 13:04

Read the Angry GM's blog. It's fairly D&D focused, but most of what is covered can easily be generalised out to other systems if necessary.

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I feel I have improved a lot by listening to a RPG prodcast called Fear the Boot. They talk about GM techniques and RPG in general. This gave me many new ideas to try on my players, and also made me think about my GM-ing style. I guess many other podcast could serve the same purpose. I like that the podcasts are free and easy to consume. I listen to it while driving to work.

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Listening to podcasts/instructional videos is definitely the way to go. You can play with other groups or watch them playing, but 1) there's no guarantee that the GM is good, and 2) you might not understand why they're good. I recommend the GM's Guide series on Felder is very good (he's a professional GM who writes modules for D&D) and he's also very good at explaining why his modules work. – WithScience Feb 23 at 15:54

Try other systems.

Play/run (or just read the rules to) some Apocalypse World (or powered by such as Dungeon World), FATE, Fiasco, and other Indie games. Many work well for single sessions, and after you've played/read them steal what resonates with you and incorporate it into your GMing style. Honestly 5th edition has already done this to a small extent, it's in some ways the biggest departure from OD&D yet.

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“A particular criticism was that I didn't evoke enough emotion in my descriptions or playing of NPC's.”

I’m not convinced that improving in this area makes you a better GM. We all have different styles, and while someone else may be better in that respect, you are probably better in some other respect. And I’m not convinced that improving in this respect really makes you better...just different.

I certainly don’t want to discourage you from trying to improve. (And the other answers give some good advice about doing that.) I just think that it is important to keep in mind that there is no objectively best way to GM.

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Is there an answer here? All I see is a frame challenge. Perhaps you could suggest an alternative area for improvement other than evoking emotion, and then describe how a GM can improve in that area. – Dan Henderson Feb 23 at 16:05
shrug I don’t think this gets any better if I randomly pick something to suggest working on instead. I think that would distract from the point. I thought about offering “best to talk to your group” but—again—I’m not sure that adds to this rather than distracts. I think there’s a broad enough definition of “answer” that can cover this whether it is a “frame challenge” or not. I don’t know if Stack Exchange’s definition is that broad or not. – Robert Fisher Feb 23 at 16:52
@DanHenderson I upvoted this, because while it doesn't answer the question as written, it is helpful advice that anyone wanting an answer to this question would to well to consider. – Matt Thrower Feb 23 at 17:23
@MattThrower I agree, but at the same time, I can see a case for the "not an answer" flag here. I'm not going to raise such a flag myself, because there is good advice in this post, but without a bit more substance, there's no argument against such a flag if someone else does raise it. – Dan Henderson Feb 23 at 19:53
This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post. - From Review – Oblivious Sage Feb 23 at 21:56

I found The Alexandrian very useful for improving my DMing. There's a tonne of useful tips, tricks and resources. I found the comments quite good too.

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Read blogs and articles, listen to podcasts. I regularly read Newbie DM, The Mad Adventurers Society, AngryGM, and Deeper in the Game.

Watch videos. I follow The Players DM, Geek and Sundry (particularly Matt Mercer's GM tips), and Mike Shea (particularly the "Lazy GM" videos).

Use social media. For example, I am active on several Dungeons & Dragons Facebook groups in my country.

Participate in forums (like :-). For example, EN World, and Giant in the Playground (while you are there, read the Order of the Stick comic, it is excellent).

And, of course, ask your players.

Try new things at the table and get feedback. Some things will work, some won't. Make sure your players know when you're trying new stuff, so they can critically evaluate it.

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Pretty much everything already posted is good advice depending on your preferences and time available. But I'd like to point out one name in particular that I'm surprised didn't surface at all: Chris Perkins. He's THE GM for the D&D franchise, and has been quite successful for almost two decades. It's hard to watch/listen to a single one of his sessions without learning something. He also does occasional "celebrity" sessions with the likes of Penny Arcade, some fantasy authors, UK TV writers, etc.

He's not overly dramatic, and in fact is rather soft-spoken, but still manages to run very engaging sessions and talk in a way that just draws you in to the game.

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Extracted from a comment from @Cronax that was supported by @Nemenia

Even though you say you'd rather not watch this ... it's worth giving this a try. (Modest frame challenge).

If you're specifically looking to improve on evoking emotions, try watching a few episodes of a Twitch/Youtube based show called Critical Role.

It's a 5e D&D game where both the GM and the players are experienced voice actors. The GM for that game (Matthew Mercer) recently also started a dedicated segment where he talks about his style of GMing and gives tips and tricks for fellow GM's.

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@ Cronax, if you'd rather get credit for this, since it was your comment that made it possible, you can cut and paste and drop in an answer and I'll delete my version. If a diamond mod asks us not to answer in comments (I was one of the first violators with a ref to Angry GM in a comment) then we ought to heed that advice. This is really your answer, and I'd rather you got credit for it. – KorvinStarmast Feb 23 at 22:21

There is one big question that I find really helpful, which is asking What is the GM Doing here?

Then start applying it all over the place - when you're watching a movie and a sequence is really interesting or entertaining or boring, pause internally and ask what the GM would be doing in this scene if it was taking place in a game? Could they skip it entirely?

When you're reading a book think about how scenes would work in a game and ask yourself what the GM is doing to allow those scenes to work. Also notice how it is described and see whether there are any tips you can take from the author about making the scenes vivid, keeping the stakes interesting, offering the unexpected. Writers have been contending with these questions for a long time, but they don't have to think on their feet in quite the same way a GM does. Having those tools super-available to you will help. There are a lot of good resources around on structuring narrative and developing characters and it's an interesting area in its own right.

Walking down the street, figure out how you could convey the scene in an interesting way as a GM - what descriptive elements would give the characteristics of this moment and no other. Why are you stressed or calm? What leverage is the GM applying? What stakes are in play?

I find listening to podcasts is a really good source for inspiration and for understanding how different GMs and player groups can work - My favourites include Friends At The Table ( which is sometimes genuinely beautiful ), Critical Hit, The Rusty Quill and the Chris Perkins/Penny Arcade D&D ones. Listen to different systems and different games. See what you can learn from everyone's styles - what they put in and what they leave out. What effect that has on the game. The other great thing about podcasts is that you can listen to them while you're driving or doing work or in the gym, so it's not the same attention commitment as a video.

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