Crucial GM Skills



So, this topic kind of came up on the Discord server, but I felt it would crowd it there too much.

We were discussing GMing skills that are usually overlooked and stuff like that, and, well…

I’d like to know what are, IN YOUR MIND, crucial GMing skills.

I’ll go with (going with more clerical stuff here):

  • Improv (or a facsimile): ability to think on your feet, or to think ahead and create things that make it seem like you are thinking on your feet, to deal with actions brought about by player action.

  • Notetaking: VERY overlooked, it gives you the ability to prep without prepping, and to prep ahead without thinking about prepping ahead. Taking ideas your players came up with and turning those on them is such a thrill for everyone.

So, what about you?


The ability to let go. Letting go of the idea that everything needs to be perfect or go according to plan.



Trying to help players see you are not some “other” as the GM, but another player who can forget stuff, accidentally skip a player, and experience emotions that can be unhelpful for the table. Admitting to all this I see as crucial i.e. “we’re in this together”

When I first viewed the GM role without experience, it was very intimidating. I would love to crack that facade for any new GM.


Be excited. About everything! Stoke everyone’s fire of creativity and be a fan of what you are making together. Just stop once in a while and say “guys, this is so fun.” “That was awesome” etc.


The abilities to GM are the skills that make a good host, friend, team player, leader.
I find that this hobby that there are people who lack social skills, and they’re no more fun to play D&D or ICRPG with than they are to play Ultimate Frisbee or Fantasy Football with.
The most important role of the GM is to get a group of people together and get them comfortable and energized and engaged and having fun.


The AngryGM covered this skillfully:


Action Resolution

Core Gameplay Loop

You can’t do much of anything else without knowing this.


Crucial DM Skills–
Preparation. Know the stuff you created.

Organization – have easy to follow notes and monster/room descriptions/stats ready to go.

Descriptions - have them for everything. The smell and moisture in the air, the lighting, the general “feel” of the area, sounds, etc. The monsters - don’t just show a picture or give a simplistic description, include description of its movement – ex- jerky, fluid, smooth, measure, etc, and monster temperament- angry, scared, determined, enraged.

Do not force a “story”. The players will always do unexpected stuff and make unforeseen choices. Let the players make the choices, even the bad ones.


Know When Its Over.

Not the game, the scene. If the game is in the reeds, just push the scene.

“Is there anything else you guys want to do before meeting the mayor?”
“Any last minute things before the party heads north to the Winding Road?”
“Okay, you all set camp. Who’s on first watch?”

And so on. When a scene is over, or players are being left out because they split the party, move on.


Knowing your players, which includes yourself.

  1. Let go of this notion that it’s about you. It isn’t. DM’ing is an act of service or hospitality. Be the catalyst to lift your players up and keep them in the spotlight.

  2. Become a master of your craft. That means actually DM’ing games and striving to get better. It means being a good player and consulting other DMs for advice. It also includes seeking meaningful feedback from your players. And if you’re lucky enough to have a group that is candid and not merely polite, for goodness sake don’t get defensive. Reflect on what the players are telling you and grow. If you’re in doubt about why you need to do this, see Number 1.

  3. Chase the elusive ZONE: that moment when you’re as deeply present and immersed in the fiction as the players are; you don’t need to look at any notes; and you’re making rulings and fading back into the background while the immersion stays mesmerizingly high. Your players are all cheering and laughing, bolstered by excitement and jubilation. Run a whole night of play this way, and it’s life changing. Bruce Lee said he doesn’t fear the man who knows 1,000 moves; he fears the man who practices 1 move 1,000 times. That means to train until you forget it — until it’s all on autopilot (see number 2) — and you can just lose yourself in the moment. One night of epic, killer play like this, and you’ll chase it like a drug. See 1 and 2 for tips on trying to find the zone.


Just ask a dramatic question before running every encounter. Once you answer that question with “Yes” or “No”, the encounter is over. Transition to the next scene.


Here’s a few more.

Adaptive/Fractal Pacing:
In a scene, the ability to find a natural “throughline” when it arises and spotlight it as the scene develops.

In a single session, the ability to notice when the players create hooks in the beginning of a game, to develop or “set” those hooks in mid game, and to pay them off late in game.

In a campaign, the ability to manage several hooks in multiple different tempos at the same time. In TV show language: scene arcs, episode arcs, multi-episode arcs, season arcs, and series arcs.

Nail the Ending
The most effective endings have a moment of external validation, reflect or recall something about the beginning, reverse something about the beginning, and hint at the future. The trick isn’t to cram all of this into the last 3 minutes of table time—it’s knowing when you’ve reached the beginning of the end and tossing this stuff in as you travel the the final scene, the final session, and final arc of a campaign.

Willingness to Leave Things Unanswered
For a while at least. Dungeon World calls it “Draw Maps, Leave Blanks.” GMs who are willing to keep beginner’s mind about their own plots and endings leave room for the magic of collaborative creation. You may not know why some NPC did some oddball thing that the dice made them do. Be willing to wait for the table to find the sense of it in the moment, rather than compulsively answering every question the second it arrives in the story. Let the question breathe like wine. Let it mature like a piece of meat hanging in a smokehouse.

Use Negative Space like an Artist
Sometimes the real power comes from what you leave unsaid, from what should happen but doesn’t. Capitalizing on those rare moments of Figure-Ground Reversal to create emotional investment of the players in their story world. Because they discovered a fact in their own head, instead of being told it. This also means knowing when to shut up.

Active Management of PC Expectations
Know what they expect to happen, and know when it’s time to give them what they expect exactly as they expect it, when to give them “the same but different”, and when to throw them a curveball. The storybook power of “things come in threes” can be your ally here. The third time something happens, it needs to finish an obvious progression, finish an observable evolution, or rock their socks off with something crazy that they should have expected—that seems so obvious now—but they just didn’t see coming until it happened.


I’m discovering that this is a subjective concept.

  1. Have fun!!!

  2. Enjoy the game, but the reality is the shared experience and company of others, foster that for the group. (Keep on track when 2 players get in a private conversation, let go when all the players are in conversation)

  3. Don’t overwhelm yourself. ( every GM describes their process differently and does it differently) incorporate new ideas slowly…try to keep your cognitive load small.

3.5 as the GM, keep yourself entertained, that keeps you enthusiastic. If that means keeping track of everything, do that. If that means playing 10 NPCs at a time do that…but as said above, you are a host of your world! That your players have an experience that they look back on fondly is your goal, to do that you need to be engaged with the PCs not the coolness of your favorite aspects of your world.


Let’s heat this conversation up again because I feel after nearly a year, we’ve changed a bit and learned from this.

Adding new skills to my list:

  • Stealing. Not criminally, but from sources of inspiration. Stealing relentlessly, and aptly. That one game is cool, BUT WHY IS IT COOL? Diving deep and finding the themes, the structures, the gimmicks that make for enjoyable scenes has been a tool in my bag that I’ve been exercising a lot lately and that’s been improving my games.

  • Listening. This has been one of the most fundamental shifts I’ve made in my GMing this past year. Though part of notetaking at foirst for me, this has evolved into a thing of its own. It has helped me notice need for changes in pacing, learn what players are looking to get out of the game that they aren’t saying, what is working and what is not in their playing their character, when to change the Target in a room. So many purposes to develop this skill.


Good ideas!

I’ve been working hard to be generous with information. I reveal more secrets when appropriate, I provide clues when the characters would find them. I share information regarding situations and emerging situations.

It has helped a ton!



Empathy. I rank that one pretty high. It might seem like something you’re born with, but I believe the ability to recognize what others are going through is definitely something that can be improved on with a little effort.

If you have terrible people skills, or literally don’t care how others feel at the table, you’re not going to make for a very good GM. You might as well be a computer program, running modules on autopilot without any regard for how the content bounces off your players.

On the other hand, if you are aware of how others are feeling, that can improve so many areas of the game. Pacing is a big problem for some DMs. (You can’t always rely on players to come forward and tell you your pacing sucks.) But if you can read your players, and tell when people are starting to drift, you’ll know when to wrap up the lengthy narration, or find some new twist to hold their interest through an unexpectedly long battle scene. (Likewise, you can tell when they’re really into something and add more of it to the game.)

I imagine it makes writing NPCs easier, since putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and seeing things from their perceptive is a pretty key part of character writing.

And it’s not just noticing, but actually caring about that stuff that makes empathy so important. It’ll help a million different ways. Like inevitable player conflicts and other fun stuff like that.