GMing (Part 5): Running the Game Session

Four people sitting at a table playing a roleplaying game, one person is GMing, and the others are playing.Finally, the time has come to play! You’ve assembled a gaming group and you’ve chosen a game. You designed the campaign, and you’re ready with the story for the first session. Now you’re sitting at a table with your friends, dice nearby, and the players all look at you. What do you do now?

Step 1: Relax.

It’s not going to be as hard as you fear. Trust your players, and let them trust you. You’re all here for the same reason, after all: to have fun. Ideally, these are people you already know and like. Running a game session isn’t going to be that different from sitting around with your friends on any other occasion. You’re just working on telling a story together.

Yes, most of that story is going to come from you. But you’ve already taken the most important steps. You’ve planned ahead, after all. You know what the campaign is going to be like. The story for tonight’s session is ready; just add players!

Step 2: Tell your story.

That is, in a sense, what a game session is all about. You’re telling a story. You, as the GM, will present the basics of the story, and the players will run with it. Let them know where their characters are, what they see, and who else is nearby. the players will describe what they choose to do. You just have to decide what happens as a result of their actions.

In most cases, this will be fairly common sense. The results of their actions is normally pretty obvious. But don’t forget to keep in mind the story you are telling.

For example, if the PCs are supposed to go on a mission for a corporation, and they decide to kill their contact, find a way to save that contact, or send another contact. I once knew a person who was asked to GM a game of Shadowrun, and that was exactly his plan. He sent a corporate executive to give the PCs the details of their mission. The PCs killed him.

Normally, the corporate would decide not to hire that team. But in the interest of furthering the story, this GM sent another contact, this time behind bulletproof glass. The PCs blew up the entire building in their desire to kill him. Again, in the interest of the story, the corporation tried again, this time via holographic transmission.

Although this approach to GMing is laudable for its commitment to the story, you must also remember:

Step 3: Trust your players.

Stay aware of the moods and actions of your players. Let them tell you, either verbally or via their actions, what they want out of the game.

In the example I described above, the players were clearly not interested in the story presented to them. The GM should have dropped his story idea. Obviously, what the players really wanted was an endless sea of targets to kill. This GM did a great job of sticking with the story. What he failed to notice was what the players really wanted. To do a better job of GMing, he should have abandoned the story and simply sent wave after wave of faceless mooks to be slain by the PCs.

Step 4: Let your players trust you.

Don’t feel so bound to the story that you’re unwilling to change it. Sometimes, the players will accidentally suggest a better idea. Listen to what they’re saying. Even if you don’t think it’s a good idea, the players might enjoy it more than what you had in mind. Besides, how good will it feel for them when it turns out they were right all along?

Let me explain a bit more clearly. Let’s say that you’re running a session in which they meet a ten year old boy whose parents were recently killed in a car accident. As they’re talking to this boy, you overhear one of the players say, ‘Yeah, the parents were “killed” in that accident. Right. I bet they’re still alive out there somewhere.’

Originally, you had expected the parents to have been actually killed in that wreck. But by retroactively having them survive, you can lead the story in a direction that will be more enjoyable to the players. And when they find the parents brainwashed by the New World Order, fighting on behalf of the dictator whom the PCs are struggling to overthrow, that same player can feel a sense of extreme satisfaction when they shout, ‘I knew it! I knew his parents weren’t really dead!’

The players never need to know the truth.

Step 5: Be ready to improvise.

I’m going to write an entire entry on this. For now, just keep in mind that the players will sometimes throw you curve balls. Be sure you can handle it!

This applies to things the players do both intentionally and on accident. For example, you might prepare a magical house in which the rooms move around. You have a modular map, with separate tiles for each room. When the PCs open a door, you randomly draw the next room. But what happens when each character goes to a different door and opens them all simultaneously? You hadn’t prepared for that!

As an example of the second case, just last night was a session of my Friday night Changeling group. The players were seeking a trio of lost starfighter pilots among the Drezem Consortium, an alien race known for their beautiful and sensuality. When they first arrived, I had everyone roll their Willpower to attempt to resist the seduction. Three of the four players had two successes, so I ruled that they succumbed to the charms of their hosts for a few hours before their sense of duty drove them to continue their mission.

I was prepared for the possibility of one or more person failing that roll: they would need to be prompted away from temptation by their teammates(s). What I was not expecting was for one player to botch that roll. But that’s exactly what happened! How do you handle a botch on a Willpower roll to avoid being tempted into sexual reverie?

Final Thoughts on Running a Game Session

There will be separate entries on getting a gaming session started, and ending it. But this article provides a good overview of the general process of running a game. It may seem like a lot to take in. But once you’ve done it a few times, you’ll find it’s not that hard. Remember that your players are there to have a good time, and will likely want to help you out. They’ll cut you some slack. And if they don’t, then you’re clearly playing with the wrong people, and should find a different gaming group.

That’s it for this week. Don’t miss next week’s episode, whatever it ends up being! Until then,

Game on!

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J was introduced to tabletop roleplaying games in high school, where he found that he enjoyed telling epic stories through the medium of games. Since then, he has only grown more fond of games, and is now an active supporter of his local board game cafe. He's been blogging about games at gamingdork.blogspot.com for a while, and is even working on play testing his own original RPG. He lives in Oklahoma with his wife, a cat, and two rats.

About J

J was introduced to tabletop roleplaying games in high school, where he found that he enjoyed telling epic stories through the medium of games. Since then, he has only grown more fond of games, and is now an active supporter of his local board game cafe. He's been blogging about games at gamingdork.blogspot.com for a while, and is even working on play testing his own original RPG. He lives in Oklahoma with his wife, a cat, and two rats.