1) Be Kind. Be Patient. Be Consistent.
Anyone who has ever looked at ANY rulebook knows, there can A LOT to remember. Just as no GM can be expected to memorize the spell book, no player is expected to know how to play awesome 100% of the time. Everybody has an off-day, and being patient and kind with new and old players alike will build stronger parties and better friendships. It should never be a problem to revert back to "teacher DM" to help out your players; no need to scold or reprimand, just teach it, roll it, make note, and move on with enthusiasm.
House-rules and home-brews are definitely a thing. If you make a ruling, make sure to jot it down, so you can take a look at it later. Maybe in the heat of the moment it made sense, but moving forward could cause problems or misunderstanding (I know how THAT feels). If you decide to make a permanent change, be sure to let your players know and hold yourself to the change, as well as justifying why you did so. Understanding the WHY of a house-rule is just as powerful as its own existence.
Remaining consistent in your rulings makes play expectations clear for your party; every GM has their own style, but players need to know what kind of ruling you roll with in order to play more effectively.
2) Use Dice Rolls Where Appropriate
Often, when first starting out, GMs will take every opportunity that they can to engage the variability of the game by demanding a dice roll, even for simple tasks. I recall one particular example of a GM requiring a Strength check for a character to kick his friend awake. The player rolled a Natural 20 (a critical success), and it was ruled that he punted his ally so hard that he took his head off.
There are a number of things wrong with this, of course. 1) A critical success has no business killing another character for something so simple. 2) And most importantly, there was NO NEED for that check anyway. It should have transpired as such:
Player: I kick Fenthris awake.
Fenthris: Ow! Jeez. I'm awake! Cut it out!
No die roll required. Simple tasks where the likelihood of failure is dramatically low or for impossible tasks (like hurling a javelin into the sun), should be ruled as automatic successes and failures, with no dice rolls. Requiring a die roll for every little thing bogs down play - especially for you, who has to now track the DC for walking down the street.
Also, if a task is going to be attempted multiple times - like leaping from rooftop to rooftop in an intense chase - I may rule that only one die roll is required per character, to keep things moving and to simulate their OVERALL ability. Use die rolls when appropriate, but often to keep story flowing and allow for smooth role-play, try to avoid requiring an Athletics check to walk down the street (but definitely use it if you're trying to chase down a brigand - see the difference?)
3) Communicate Campaign Expectations
Show up to a session expecting political intrigue, only to be thrust into hack-and-slash mayhem? Yeah. Adventurer whip-lash, here we come!
Communicate at Session 1, or even Session 0, what kind of campaign you'd like to run and ask what your players might be expecting to play. Their idea of a Hack-and-Slash adventure might be a little different than your own, and you want to make sure that everyone is on the same page moving forward. Want to run an Evil Campaign? Make sure you and your players know how dark they are willing to go and what line you shouldn't cross. Want to run a Monster Campaign? Discuss your player options, and where the story takes place, so no one shows up to a Goblin camp with a Beholder PC.
This communication can also happen mid-campaign, or at the start of another Arc, or the close of one. If you want to try something new, make sure that your players are aware of possible change and can have input as to the direction of the campaign. This is also a great opportunity for...
4) Ask For/Encourage Feedback
Game Mastering's a tough gig, I know. We know that we're not perfect; we make mistakes, get frustrated, tired, we miss rulings, we misinterpret things... I'm not talking about that.
I'm talking about having open discourse - good and bad - hashing out the previous arc, or the game as a whole. Go out for a couple drinks, have a brunch and build session, just hang out for a time before playing again. Let you and your players VENT.
I can feel some of you tensing your fingers in retort, already hammering away at your keyboards, but hear me out.
A Game Master will never grow unless they are given a reason to. Anyone starting out by running a game makes a ton of mistakes, but if the group still has fun, who cares? If those mistakes created some form of discord, air that out; clear the air, and move forward. Too many people, I feel, get SO WORKED UP over rulings and classes and balance that they forget that tabletop games' main purpose was just to have fun. No GM is infallible outside the context of the game, and that allowance in one's mentality opens the door for us to grow as players and masters alike.
Besides, by having these conversations, you may reveal another need...
5) Hand Off The Helm
By having open discourse with your players, you might reveal strengths in them that you never knew about. Maybe a player wants to try their hand behind the screen.
The first time a player expressed this, I felt that tiny bead of anger well up inside me; how dare they to STEAL my thunder - I wasn't that bad, sure I made some mistakes here and there, but already you want to replace me!?
That is not what is happening. It is a simple expression of desire for a player to request running a session, or a one-shot, and if your players are also on-board, then go for it. The act of Game Mastering doesn't have to be OWNED by you, carried like a badge of honor.
This can accomplish some great things:
1) You get a break. Someone else gets to be in the hot seat behind the screen; and often that experience for a new GM coming from playing is a powerful thing - guaranteed that they'll have a little more respect for what you do when they experience it themselves.
2) You get to PLAY. Here at QW, we make sure that each Game Master is playing in at least one other game run by another GM. Being on the other side of the screen is an enlightening experience; it reminds me what it's like to be a player, to have distinct desires for play, goals to pursue, the need for treasure, and the joys of being effective in encounters. It shows me that even "shopping episodes" aren't a waste of time; they represent investment by the players in future achievement.
3) You get PERSPECTIVE. What you perceive as the players losing focus is maybe just us thinking around the problem; maybe our resting faces look bored, but we're clearly not; advocating for a ruling may not be a power play, it's just us trying to understand the game better; "breaking" the GM isn't an act of us being mean, we're literally trying to think outside the box.
Just a short one today, folks. Hope it was a help for all you burgeoning GMs out there!
See you at the table.
Game On! Director, musician, music teacher, game designer, and professional game master. In short, I'M A BIG NERD.