August 28, 2020

Refocusing on FUN at the TTRPG Table

There’s no doubt that good GMs/DMs work hard. There’s a lot of prep work, a lot of worldbuilding, and certainly your fair share of shepherding. And sometimes GMs & DMs can get lost in all that shuffle and lose perspective; they forget that playing stories is about having a blast and not about the result of a given scene or story arc.

Today’s GM/DM Advice post aims to provide tools to the story facilitator during these times of lost perspective to help them refocus on what really matters at the table – having fun!

It’s About the Table

We’ve all heard the expression “It’s not about you.” And to a certain point, that statement holds true for GMs/DMs of tabletop role-playing games. But extending it further, more accurately, the phrase becomes “It’s not about you; it’s about the table.” As you’re an intimate part of the folks at the table, your wants, needs, and concerns are just as valid as anyone else’s. Equanimity among everyone that’s invested in the experience is paramount.

And because every table is different and the various folks’ wants, needs, and concerns will all vary, there’s no one right answer to how best to design and facilitate a story. That said, because you have the opportunity to get at least some of those answers ahead of time, you should be able to proactively streamline the story experience for the players. Once their goals, likes & dislikes are out in the open from Session Zero (see more advice on that here:, you’ll be able to effectively weave in elements to your story that reasonably cater to everyone there.

Naturally, through the course of the story, chaos will arise. But do yourself a favor and focus on the needs of the table as a whole and do a thorough Session Zero!

Your Own Expectations

Part of mitigating your frustration is ensuring your expectations for what is/what will happen are in-line with reality. No matter how professional, focused, in-tune your players are with your vision – which, by the way, isn’t the ideal table setup for most – the story will not always follow what you planned. Many times in fact, it won’t.

GMs & DMs need to understand that that deviation is a good thing. It may seem counter-intuitive – you’ve done all this work, all this prep, eat, slept, dreamed this story – so how can it be a good thing when it doesn’t follow what you planned? It’s because players adding their pieces to the story is what makes tabletop role-playing games special. Without their input, ideas, creativity, planned or not planned, then GMs/DMs would be more like writers than they are story facilitators.

There’s obviously nothing wrong with being a writer – but writing is certainly a different art form altogether from being a game master for tabletop RPGs. So when there are unexpected twists and turns in the story you’re all playing together, GMs/DMs ought to try and embrace those changes, not get bogged down and frustrated when they occur.

Communication is Key!

Like in any relationship, both proactively and reactively talking with the players is absolutely crucial to the health of any ongoing tabletop RPG. At various milestones in the story, ask the players what they’re enjoying, what is more of a hurdle than fun, and what they’re looking forward to in the story. And vice versa, try and engage them in conversation about their characters, what you liked/didn’t like, and what you’re looking forward to for them as the story grows and evolves.

You don’t necessarily need to take time out of the sessions themselves for these quick talks. Over breaks, snacks, or via text/DM, try and take the time to keep talking. When you take the lead & initiative there, and that process snowballs, the players will most often appreciate your investment in the relationship. And you’ll find that many reciprocate when/where/however they can.

If you’re able to integrate these three themes into your day-to-day prep, session facilitation, and communication, I can promise you that you’ll be less stressed and frustrated and better able to live in and enjoy the precious moments you have at the table with the players. So give it a shot – and if there’s anything I can do to help, just shoot me a note!