Confession: I’m still a relatively new GM, all things considered. I’ve been playing tabletop RPGs on and off for about 15 years, but previous to last year, had only run a one shot Shadowrun game and a Dragon Age campaign that fell apart after two sessions. For each of these, I was woefully unprepared for what was needed from me. Perhaps this is why I now swing the other way and tend to go a bit overboard with preparation when possible.
Regardless of my experience level, I’ve learned a lot very quickly and I think there are some rules that every GM should aim to follow. The most important of which is this:
Allow your players to be the hero of their own story.
“Hero” is a loose word here because there are evil campaigns that can be fun and there are plenty of anti-heroes out there that can do both good and bad in the same breath. I think a lot of this comes down to player agency and letting them feel like they have the power to make a difference in the world in which they’re playing. They should be able to make choices in their own arcs as well as change the environment/NPCs’ lives as they move through their journey. Actions should have consequences, good and bad, and these should play out in the players’ views as often as possible.
Without a sense of agency, players will quickly become frustrated. If they feel like they’re being railroaded from place to place, they won’t feel like they have the power to play on their own terms. If you trick or trap them too often, they won’t trust you as a storyteller and, once that trust is broken, it is hard to repair.
Let your players explore, let them problem solve, let them play. Be ready to have your plans ruined as they find solutions to what you give them in unpredictable ways. Create a dynamic environment for them to explore, which changes when they interact with them as well as changing around them as they focus on other things. Give their choices and actions consequences, which can aid or hinder their quests.
And please take a lesson from me: don’t let your villains monologue too much. Maybe a little, but keep that in check. Trust me.