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Game Master Tips

The Game Master has a big impact on how much fun Adventure is to play. Here are some tips and principles to make it as easy and successful as possible for you.

You can find a one-page GM cheatsheet on the downloads page.

The Role of the Game Master

The GM runs the game, and is generally not a player themselves (though they can be).

They introduce situations and narrate outcomes. They throw challenges at the players. They narrate the world and the creatures in it. The GM’s job to keep the pacing, action, and suspense at the right level for the skills and age-level of your players.

Running the Game

At the start of each game, a problem or situation arises that needs the help of a group of adventurers. The Game Master reads the game introduction to the players.

Feel free to use toys, props, sketches/drawings, and fun voices to add to the excitement and mystery.

Example: The Tower of the Black Pearl

Once a decade, the tides are low enough that the underwater tower of a late, powerful wizard peaks out from the sea for just eight hours. Tonight, it’s spire crested the waves.

You’re in a boat, rowing towards it, in the hopes of retrieving the magical black pearl rumored to be hidden inside. Many adventurers have tried over the centuries. None have made it out alive.

Suddenly, in the distance, you catch sight of it: the Tower of the Black Pearl, peaking out from the depths of the sea.

Ask Questions

You can make your life a lot easier as a GM, and get your players far more engaged in the game, by asking them questions about the world.

At the start of a game, ask the players why they’re there, and what they’ve heard about the problem or situation. You can work these hooks into the story and use them to fill in missing details.

Later in the game, rather than just telling players about a location, you can ask them what they see.


At the start of a game:

  • Why are you interested in the black pearl?
  • What have you heard about the wizard who used to live here?
  • Do you know of anyone else who might be interested in it?
  • What creatures and traps do you think await within?

During a game:

  • The tunnel you’re in suddenly forks into three small tunnels. Looking around and glancing down each one, what do you see?
  • A pirate appears from a hidden alcove and approaches you. What does he say?


As an open-ended role-playing game, the players can take an adventure in a lot of directions. As a Game Master, you’ll probably have to improvise and make stuff up as you go along.

If you’re using a pre-made adventure, it’s a good idea to read through it before playing, so you have a better sense for the places players can go, and the types of things they might find there.

Here are some things you can do as GM.

  • Present a monster or a location challenge
  • Reveal new information or foreshadowing
  • Use up their resources
  • Separate them
  • Give an opportunity to shine
  • Put someone in a tough spot
  • Offer an opportunity, with or without cost
  • Present two choices

And here are some things you can do within a location.

  • Change the environment
  • Introduce a new creature
  • Make them backtrack
  • Present riches… at a price
  • Spring a trap

Balancing Campaigns

When you first start GMing games, finding the right balance between “not too tough” and “not too boring” can be hard. There are a few things you can do to help balance games in real-time as you play.

  • Bring in NPCs. An NPC (or Non-Player Character) is a character the GM controls. If players are missing things while exploring, getting stuck on challenges, or struggling in battle, a friendly NPC can help point things out and and give them much needed aid. If they’re finding things too easy, a troublesome NPC can slow them down and create more of a challenge.
  • Hold monsters back. Rather than sending in all the monsters at once, send in a few and see how the players handle them. If it’s too easy, you can send in a second-wave of attackers while they’re fighting the first. If it’s just right, you can wait until the first wave is done, or skip the second-wave altogether.

Accounting for Difficulty

Under the die roll system, any action has the same probability of succeeding or failing.

But some actions are inherently more difficult than others. In addition to the Best Roll and Worst Roll mechanics, you can account for difficulty in complex situations by breaking each step into its own die roll.


A player is trying to run up to a giant, scale his 20-foot high boot, and hit him with a sword. This would involve three separate die rolls.

  1. An Agility roll to sneak up to the giant undetected (or avoid obstacles thrown at you while approaching).
  2. An Agility roll to scale the boot without falling or getting knocked off.
  3. A Strength roll to see if the hit with the sword does anything.

You might also require a Wisdom roll to identify which part of the boot to climb, or a blind spot where the adventurer can sneak up undetected.

Random Effects

If players discover an item and they’re not sure what it does, you can roll some dice to create a random effect. Here’s a table you can use.

Creating Quick Monsters

You might need to spin up a new monster in the middle of a game. Here’s a reference you can use to do that quickly. (Alternatively, you can browse the monster list.)

Difficulty Health Damage
Easy 1 HP 1 damage
Normal 2 HP 1 damage
Hard 3 HP 1 damage
Monstrous 4 HP 2 damage

You might give your creatures special abilities or unique features. For creatures that attack in hordes, players can damage multiple monsters with one attack.


  • Rat, 1 HP, attack in hordes
  • Skeleton, 2 HP, springs back to life after several rounds
  • Giant Spider, 3 HP, can shoot webs
  • Dragon, 4 HP, 2 damage, breathes fire

Total Group Knock Out

If every member of a group loses all of their health points, that’s a called a Total Group Knock Out (or TGKO).

A TGKO can happen if the difficulty of a particular challenge isn’t properly balanced for the skills of your group. It can also happen if luck just doesn’t work in the players’ favor (a series of low die rolls, for example).

Since a TGKO would otherwise stop the adventure in its tracks, the Game Master can use their creativity to save players from this situation.

  • A pet belonging to one of the players (see House Rules) runs off and returns with healing potion, or a non-player character that can help.
  • Players awaken some unknown time later. The monster is gone, along with what they were looking for and a bunch of their gear and items.
  • Players awaken to find themselves trapped in a locked room, unsure of where they are or how they got there. They must use their skills and items they can find in there surroundings to escape.

This can add a really fun new aspect to the game, so don’t be afraid to get creative!

A Sample Game

To help this all stick, let’s look at a sample game. In this game, Mercer is a knight, and Ashley is a wizard. They’re using D6 dice.

GM: As you enter the cave, you see a sleeping ogre curled up around a massive pile of gold. One arm rests over the pile, while his other hand gently clutches a massive wooden club. In the back of the cave, you see the baby dragon you’ve been sent to rescue wrapped up in an old blanket. What do you do?

Mercer: I try to quietly sneak past the ogre.

Ashley: While he does that, I’m going to attempt to carefully steal a few coins from the ogre’s treasure while he sleeps.

GM: Ok. Both of you make a Agility Rolls. Mercer, you take Worst Roll because your metal armor is very creaky and clunky.

Ashley: I rolled a 4.

Mercer: I rolled a 5 and a 2.

(Ashley partially succeeds, Mercer fails.)

GM: Great, thanks. Ashley carefully picks up three gold coins and tucks them into her pocket. As she reaches for a fourth, Mercer’s elbow accidentally bumps into the cave wall. The metal of his armor “clangs” and reverberates through the cave, growing louder before tapering off.

The ogre’s eyes flutter open. He catches sight of Ashley’s outstretched arm reaching for his horde. He shouts:

Just what do you think you’re doing!?

He stands up, towering a good six feet over Ashley’s head. What do you do?

Ashley: Umm… uh… I tell him that the coins looked dirty and I was just going to clean them for him!

GM: Ok, make a Wisdom Roll. You take Best Roll on that because you specialize in Wisdom.

Ashley: I rolled a 1 and a 2.

(That’s a failure.)

GM: The ogre rubs the crust from his eyes, lifts the club over his head, and says:

Do you think I was born yesterday?

Then, he lets out a roar and swings the club down towards you. What do you do?

Mercer: Seeing the ogre about to crush my friend, I unhilt my sword and swing it up to meet the club before it hits her.

GM: Excellent, make a Strength Roll, and take Best Roll because you specialize in Strength.

Mercer: I rolled an 3 and a 6.

(That’s a success.)

GM: As the club rushes down toward Ashley’s head, she closes her eyes and instinctively ducks. Mercer rushes between her and the ogre, unhilting his sword and swinging it up towards the club in one fluid movement.

His sword meets the club inches before it hits Ashley. The ogre, caught off guard, stumbles backwards a few feet. What do you do?

As you can see, the game is a series of choices, actions, die rolls, consequences, and next steps. Every choice the players make, and every random outcome of the dice, leads to the next logical step in the story.

Most stories have a natural arch to them, but it’s important to not force a specific direction if the players’ actions lead it somewhere else.

Adventure is a collaborative story you make up as you go. Lean into it.

How to Create Adventures

You can get by for a long time on pre-made adventures. But eventually, you may want to create your own.

Start with a Hook

What are the players supposed to do, and who has asked them to do it?

Most adventures fall into one of a handful of archetypes:

  • Retrieve/rescue an item or person from somewhere
  • Deliver an item or person to somewhere
  • Escape from somewhere/something
  • Something in the village is different/no longer working

The players could have been specifically asked to complete a quest by someone directly, or may have heard a rumor or overheard a conversation that drew their interest.


  • Lord Grasshopper has asked you to retrieve a magical gem rumored to be hidden deep within the Cavern of Mysteries.
  • You’ve heard rumors that the Black Pearl is in the basement of the tower, and grants immense power to whoever possesses it.
  • You overheard a party of dwarven miners talking about a hidden cache of gold deep within the mountain, guarded by a sleeping dragon.
  • A man arrives at the village looking like he hasn’t slept in days. As you approach and ask him if he’s ok, he tells you that he fled his town on the other side of the mountains after ice giants attacked and enshrined everyone and everything in a deep, magical freeze.

Fill in the Details

Once you have an adventure hook, you can fill in some details.

You don’t need to have all the details figured out, though. A lot of blanks can be filled in by asking the players questions and through playing the game itself.

Here are the key things you want to work out:

  • Some initial locations the players might visit
  • Some monsters they may encounter
  • Some events that might happen, based on what the players do in the world
  • Some questions you might want to answer about the situation while playing

Monsters and events can be tied to specific locations, or be standalone challenges you use to help improvise if players go off the beaten path.

Example 1: The Sorcerer's Gem

In this example, monsters and events are connected to specific locations.

View Details

The Situation: The players have been hired by Lord Grasshopper to find the mysterious “Sorcerer’s Gem.” It was lost some years ago, and is rumored to be hidden deep within the Cave of Mysteries. No one is quite sure exactly what it does, but many powerful people want to get their hands on it.

  • The Cavern of Mysteries
    • Monsters
      • Giant Spider
      • Rats
      • Troll
    • Events
      • A trap door gives way to another level of tunnels
      • Lava floods a chamber
      • A troll accuses the players of trying to steal his gold
  • The Goblin Village
    • Monsters
      • Goblins
      • Lizardfolk
    • Events
      • Goblins begin attacking neighboring town and stealing livestock
      • Players find lizardfolk being held captive
      • Lizardfolk turn on the players and attack them
  • The Dark Forest
    • Monsters
      • Wolves
      • Elves
    • Events
      • The elves are also searching for the Sorcerer’s Gem, and want create an alliance
      • The elves double cross the players
      • The wolves are controlled by the sorcerer, and track the players wherever they go


  • What does the Sorcerer’s Gem actually do?
  • Why does the Sorcerer want it back?
  • What do you know about the elves? Why are they interested in the gem?

Example 2: The Tower of the Black Pearl

In this example, locations, monsters, and events are standalone items that can be mixed-and-matched while you play.

View Details


  • The locked entrance
  • The hallway to nowhere
  • The trap stairway
  • The river of the dead
  • The lava passage
  • The room of the black pearl


  • Water snakes
  • Giant crabs
  • Sea rats
  • Undead merfolk
  • The boatsmen
  • Pirate thieves
  • The kraken


  • A room seals the players in, and begins to flood
  • Pirates also in search of the pearl encounter the adventurers
  • Stairs drop-out from under the players, becoming a slide
  • A maze of tunnels sends players in circles
  • The tide begins to rise, swallowing the tower into the sea
  • The enchantment keeping sea water out of the tower fails
  • The kraken that guards the pearl awakens


  • Does the black pearl even exist?
  • What happened to the adventurers who tried to find it before?
  • Why is the tower underwater?

Inspiration for Adventures

Here are a few ways to come up with fun ideas for adventures.

  • Take the main plot from a favorite movie or story and change some of the details.
  • Mash-up stories for a few different books or movies to create something unique.
  • Is there a superpower you wish you had or a mythical place you wish you could visit? What would happen if it were real?
  • Take a look at some of the maps on Dyson Logos and 2-Minute Tabletop. Imagine exploring them. What cool stuff would your adventurers find there?

Using Maps

A good map can really bring a world to life, and help players get a better sense for where they are, where they can go, and what's possible.

  • Ready-to-go maps created ahead of time are useful if your game has well-defined locations
  • Improvised maps are built in real-time as you play, are great for games that have more improvisation or open-ended exploring.

You might mix-and-match both styles in an adventure. Players may explore well-defined location, and then venture down a hidden path in a direction you didn’t plan for.

You can also choose to use maps for certain areas, and nothing but your imagination and the theater of the mind for others.

How to Create Maps

Want to try drawing your own maps? Here are some great tutorials!

You can also find tons of free maps at Dyson Logos, and inexpensive maps and other printables at 2-Minute Tabletop.

Depending on the age and interests of your players, it might also be fun and interesting if you added a physical element to the game. You can create maps for locations by building them with blocks, or using toys and figurines for characters, monsters, and NPCS.

One-Page Adventures

In a one-page adventure, everything—the story hook, events, monsters, and map—are all on one page. They’re really great for running quick adventures without a lot of prep.

Esper the Bard details how he creates his own in this video. And JP Cooper talks about his approach here.

You can find a collection of one-page adventures you can use as inspiration from the One-Page Dungeon Contest.

Building Immersive Worlds

Adventure is all about immersing players in a new world.

You can create any type of fantasy world you want, but I’ve put together an imaginary land, Farfaria, that you can use with my premade adventures. An intro is included with each adventure.

This video on Dungeons & Dragons GM Matt Mercer is chock full of tips on how to be an awesome Game Master (warning, some R-rated language in this video).

Non-Player Characters

Depending on the skills of the players and the difficulty of the challenges they’re facing, it can be interesting to add Non-Player Characters (NPCs) into the game.

These are characters that the Game Master creates and controls. They can be friends, foes, or somewhere in-between.

NPCs can provide critical information that players aren’t picking up on, give them misinformation to send them on a bonus encounter, jump in to provide extra fire power for an epic battle, or thwart their efforts if they’re finding an adventure too easy.

They could be shopkeepers who can sell useful items to the players in exchange for favors or gold. Or they might be inn keepers who provide a place to rest before a big campaign.

Use NPCs as much or as little as needed to keep the game fun and interesting.

Duration and Complexity

Games of Adventure can take as little as 30 minutes, or can last several hours.

As the Game Master, you have a lot of control over the length and complexity of each game. You can add more monsters and optional encounters, adjust Difficulty Rating for encounters up or down, and save the day with non-player characters you introduce to the game.

You can also spread an adventure over several sessions, stopping after an encounter, and picking things back up another time.