Game Masters. Most RPGs require them. Even the ones that don’t often have a facilitator or organizer. When it comes to selling RPGs, Game Masters are your bread and butter. A glance of the RPG products on my shelves shows me well over half them are GM-focused. While it is true player-focused books sell higher quantities per title, those intended primarily for the Game Master surpass them by the dollar (or pound). While many players might own a core rulebook or splatbook (and sometimes share these with each other), GMs tend to own most of the books for systems they run, and are among my best regular customers. To carry and sell RPGs profitably, I need Game Masters.
The GM is a different stripe of RPG gamer. There is no equivalent role in most board, card or miniatures games (though certainly there are games in these categories that need a facilitator or referee, there are rarely products published with that role in mind). Not every player wants to GM, and in many cases aspirant or prospective GMs are hesitant to try. The sad reality is there will always be more players than Game Masters. This can make finding them challenging.
The most obvious place to look is in existing RPG groups, where there will always be at least one. If you already have groups in your shop you’re in good shape. Game Masters are often the best evangelists for their hobby, and can enthusiastically help bring new players into their ranks. That’s where most GMs come from – players. Many times, the best GMs excel at kindling the spark of new GM-ship in people in their gaming group. Having great, memorable game moments naturally leads people to want to share that experience with others.
The truism for RPGs, that the best way to learn to play is to join a game and pick up the rules as you go also applies to the abilities required of GMs. In a similar way that online streamed play gives interested players a virtual seat at the table from which to pick up the ins and outs of an RPG system, so do many interested GMs gain insight into the skill set required to run a game by listening to asides and tips from online GMs. So, streamed games have been instrumental in growing both the number of players and Game Masters. And even as there are numerous great books about becoming a better GM, there’s not a class you can take to learn to become a Game Master.
Unless, of course, you create one.
Once a year in my shop, we host an event we call RPG Escape, where we invite designers, Game Masters, and authors to give panels and workshops on the unique art of creating worlds and experiences in RPGs. It used to be called the Gamemaster Symposium. We changed the name because we wanted people who were curious, but maybe felt a little too intimidated to call themselves GMs yet, to attend. People get ask questions about game and scenario design, and work through exercises in collaborative world-building, storytelling, and a little RPG psychology.
This event connects people together, forming new gaming groups and potential support structures among people with shared interests and varying levels of expertise. It breaks past barriers like fear of putting yourself out there, or not being ready, through a welcoming encouraging group activity. It’s one of the best things we do in the shop.
During the rest of the year, we also host GM Roundtables and Game Master Classes. At the Roundtables we invite experienced and new GMs to an evening in our private room. This is usually a small group. We put out snacks and shut the door. There’s a suggested topic, maybe “scenario building”, “game balance”, or “when player personalities clash”, but there’s no requirement to stick to one subject. Everyone has a chance to vent, listen, and offer up advice if asked for. It’s private and confidential, and feedback has been positive. The Game Master Class fits neatly between the GM Roundtables and RPG Escape in terms of size, and more closely follows the format of the latter, with a short panel featuring local GMs, followed by breakout sessions of tabletop play, accentuated with tips and explanations of the processes of running a game. The Master Class is more aspiring GM-focused, while the Roundtables better serve GMs who have recently taken the plunge.
For the RPG campaigns that routinely take place in the shop that tend to run for shorter durations (eight or fewer sessions), we try to encourage taking turns running for the group. Often times this will result in the next GM trying a different game or game system where they are more comfortable with their relative level of expertise or ownership. From what we’ve witnessed over time, a good way to start this practice is to suggest keeping a backup game in reserve to run when the regular game experiences a hiccup or off night. As more players in a group try their hand at running, it increases the likelihood that others in the group will want to take their turn, and before long there may be a game group that started by playing 13th Age under one GM, moved to a session or three of Little Things (from the Seven Wonders story-games anthology) with another, with yet another jazzed to run The Fall of DELTA GREEN in a few weeks.
These are just some ideas we have tried. Maybe you’ve had success creating GMs in other ways? My friends Paul and George do RPG Labs to demo new systems at their shop, Games & Stuff. My friend Dawn streams games from a studio in her store, The Game Annex (something we will be doing in the Adventure Game Society as well). Try some of these, or come up with ideas that better fit your store (and share them in the comments), and let’s foster healthier RPG play and business for all our shops!