Tips from an Ultimate GM Qualifier

Last weekend, the first qualifier for the Ultimate Game Master Challenge took place in Waterloo. While obviously all GMs are good for different reasons, this challenge gives people the opportunity to test their skills across a broader range of players. Those competing are scored by players who have volunteered; some with little roleplaying experience, some with time as a GM under their belt. There will be four qualifiers leading up to the championship in October. The winner of the first qualifier was Stuart Robertson. After the high score the players awarded him, I thought it would be valuable to connect with Stuart, and get some DM insights from him to share with you.

Stuart has been playing roleplaying games since 1984, when he was introduced by his babysitter, who told him the game was like a Choose Your Own Adventure but you could choose anything you liked. He has played many different systems, but his preferred game genre is fantasy, so that is where he always returns. Here are some questions I asked Stuart, along with his answers:

What is your personal philosophy around GMing, and what is the most important way you prep yourself for a session?

When I’m prepping for a new session I try and think of situations and elements that I haven’t used before, or maybe just haven’t used in a certain way. I’ll often go through the monster manual or fiend folio and look for things that I’d previously disregarded as too tough or too silly and make a challenge of trying to think of a way to use them in an adventure. A couple of weeks ago I ran an adventure that included Flumphs, mostly because the general consensus is they’re silly. The challenge was to use them in a way that didn’t come across like that. If I can run a session where everyone buys into the fictional world, even when things are strange or unusual, then I feel a sense of accomplishment with what I set out to do.

What are you personally working on improving as a GM?

Over the last couple of years I’ve been trying to improve my improv skills and the voices I give to NPCs. It’s one thing to be able to spend time prepping an adventure, but a slightly different skill to be able to adapt to where the players are taking things by interacting with random NPCs. In my ongoing campaign some of my favourite NPCs are random characters that the players decided to focus on and not ones I had originally intended to have major roles. Being able to quickly, and consistently, give them unique personalities is something I wasn’t as comfortable with before and I’m continuing to try and improve on. When I’m not running D&D I’m often entertaining my kids with imaginary YouTube personalities I invent who all have their own unique voices and personalities. They keep telling me I need to start my own channel or do more streaming of games, but so far this is just a thing I do with them for fun.

What can a GM do to really stand out, and make lasting memories for players?

My advice for really standing out would be to pour yourself into it. If you like doing crafts, which I do, then find a way to bring that to the table. If you’re more interested in writing, perhaps you could print out little books with samples of the texts they find in a wizard’s library. Even things people might not normally associate with Dungeons and Dragons — cooking, costumes, or music — these could definitely make for a enjoyable and memorable game for your players! For my games I try and do things with props quite a bit, but there are lots of different ways you can adapt your other interests and talents to improve your Game Mastering.

What is a piece of advice you’d give GMs that might be uncommon, or even unpopular?

My most controversial tip, and I know not everyone will agree with me, would be to get rid of the GM screen and roll all your dice in the open. Let the player’s know the monster’s armour class and hit points once they’ve attacked it too. The players will quickly realize they’re playing “without a safety net” of you fudging the dice rolls behind the screen to keep their characters out of trouble or steer the story in a particular direction, and it will change how they approach the game and increase the tension. After over 2 years of weekly games like that I’ve only had a few character deaths and they were always when someone decided to abandon the group and go off on their own. The possibility of character death is always there though, and that increases the drama and tension in the game.