There are multiple styles of GMing, which is hard to grasp if you've never played nor run a TTRPG. Even when I did play for a while, I didn't fully grasp the different styles of playing. And really, it's a bit presumptuous to try to write a blog post about them. It's like an art style and you can't possibly cover it all. HOWEVER, at this point, I've experienced multiple GMs and have run games in a variety of ways myself. And I'm feeling presumptuous. So, here's what I've found, and some are not mutually exclusive....
1) Winging It!
This week I ran a one-shot wherein I had no idea what was going to happen. It was an experiment on my part. I used my Drinking Mini-Game (available for £1 in our shop, but I have made some adjustments to it. I'll be updating the PDF accordingly soon) and went with what the random tables said for the rest of the game. It was ridiculous and funny and a crazy ride. It relied a lot on player agency as I was reacting to what they did. However, I did have to come up with why some of those things happen, and I had to do it last minute. For instance, how did a character end up sleeping in a cart in their room at the inn, without any discernible way of getting it in or out and what happened to their bed? How did another character get an elephant mount? What did the gnome barbarian do to get locked in the stockade?
This type of GM'ing is all about improv and "winging it." I know a few of my friends and fellow Wayfaring GMs thrive on it, they love it, they lean into it!
It is not my jam.
Sure, I can do it, and I did. But I don't enjoy it. It's the same type of GM'ing required for Dread. Dread is a diceless system which uses a Jenga tower instead to simulate the tension in a horror/suspense themed game. I've been a player and a GM for it, and I prefer the former. The GM sets up the situation, the danger, and the rest of the game is reacting to the choices of the players. It is a very fluid story telling method, which is great. But, again, your GMing style should be fun for you, as you are also a player and should be having fun.
2) Prepare for everything!
This is a pitfall a lot of new GMs fall into, especially as it's so hard to prepare for anything in a game where anything can happen. So, if you are finding yourself sliding into this category but are also feeling the Overwhelm™, take a breath, take a break, and maybe I can help you organise your thoughts... especially as I fall mostly into this category. (If you are a preparing-GM, feel free to share your methods in the comments!!)
Prepare the bare-bones.
One: What information is crucial for your players to learn?
Two: A list of NPCs they can run into, including names... oh the names.... They will be butchered, altered and the butt of jokes. It's inevitable. These NPCs can provide the information from “One.”
Three: Possible loot for the players to gain.
Four: What will the bad guys be doing if the players don't act.
Five: Have an idea of your setting, who the major players are (are their factions? What are their goals?). Fun thing is to have an idea of what the weather is like. This can help with immersion.
If I'm using a pre-written campaign or module, I read through it and make sure I understand those things (the bare-bones). BUT I mostly want to get an idea of where I want the players to end up. So no matter what the players choose, I can use NPCs and drop hints with information about the story to help guide the players, via locations, items, and people.
A BIG danger with this method is removing player agency and railroading. If you do need to prep everything as a security method for your brain (I get it), you can allow player agency and adapt your info/hints/plot points to what their choices are. This gives the illusion of choice which doesn't steal any of the fun from the player. They still get to play their character and make their choices, you're just adapting to them.
3) Exposition and description is the word!
There are the GMs that love their lore, their story, and world building. AWESOME! If that's you, great! These things help build up immersion, which is so important in games. If this is your flavour, you likely want to run a homebrew game, with your own world and rules and story. That's great! With this comes a lot more prep and behind-the-scenes work (unless you are also a #1 person and love to wing-it. If that's the case, you're one of those people that can come up with lore on the spot, and I'm very impressed.) Be mindful of your players, though and look out for the glazed look.... you may need to pull back some of the description and lore and let your players get on with it. Having a session zero is even more important for you too, as you'll want to make sure your players are on board with whatever world elements and story elements match with what they want to play.
4) Combat and strategy
You are the GM that likes to have combat every game, have interesting monsters and villains. Perhaps a good dungeon crawl is your jam. Noice! There's definitely a side of gaming that tickles the strategist's mind - action economy and pushing your imagination and creativity when it comes to battles on the tabletop. This isn't strictly D&D either. Battles in other systems can really stretch the imagination. Use the environment, the skills you have access too, and adapt to your players. Challenge them and don't be afraid to adapt your combat mid-way to make it easier or harder on the players! Add timers to put pressure on. Send another wave of monsters. Maybe the monsters decide the fight isn't worth it and attempt to flee. Maybe your players will flee.
But, again, if you love combat, make sure you're upfront about that in Session Zero. Not all players want to fight their way out of encounters or even do combat every session. Some want to steep in roleplay and get their acting on. Some want more social encounters or puzzles. Some want all that delicious lore.
5) Silly? Serious? Horror?
There are GM's and players who just want to have a silly time. Nice! There are other GMs who want to run there High-Fantasy or super serious Spy Thriller games. That's great too! What kind of story do you like to play? If you want to run a serious game, the player who turns all their characters into walking Pun-Factories may not be the best fit. This is ok. They also might add a fun element to your game. Ultimately, don't take it to heart if you don't fit in one table, and visa-versa. It's a game, and it should be fun, and you can find a table that will fit those needs. I love drama in my games, I love the broken characters and have them work through their issues. I also enjoy narrative-driven PvP with resolution. But not everyone does! Again, communication is important at all tables. And knowing what kind of game you want to play is a big part of what kind of GM you are.
Ultimately, you will need to play to discover what your flavour of TTRPG GM'ing is. And as you do, you can let your players know what kind of game you want to run. Also be open to what kinds of games your players want to play, as that can open up more to you. I would also recommend playing a variety of systems, as you will learn different ways of playing TTRPGs, some you may hate and some you may love. A good way of trying those out is to join some one-shots. We run a variety of systems as one-shots, and currently have them available. Go check out the Events page to see what's currently running and join in the fun!