GM: Never Too Old to Change

So I’m running an Amber game for a mixed group of players… some who know Amber well, some who are totally new, and some who are reading the books even as we play our first few sessions. I always love the amazing joy of the first few sessions when people are reading the books and learning about Amber as we go… I’ve always found it to be a magical place, one that I can return to again and again and it never gets old.

But running an Amber game is different than many games. It’s a game that involves a lot of talking, very little fighting, and by default it is very (sometimes painfully) player-driven. And sometimes, as a GM, you can learn new things, try new things, no matter how long you’ve been gaming. Last night was our second full play session (not counting the auctions and character creation). And we were stalling a little. Sputtering might be a better word.

I don’t prep for Amber. I mean, I have a vague outline of some plot elements I can hit. I have some vague NPC interactions rumbling in my head. But Amber is so player-driven, so fundamentally open, and so ridiculously simple to learn mechanically, that prepping too much is actually worse.

But I’m not always good at conveying to players what Amber needs. And we’ve had a few false starts. We’ve drifted a little. I think sometimes players are expecting there to be a “PLOT” and they are looking for “RESOLUTION” and as a GM I’m really mediocre at the first and really bad at the second. I’ll admit it. It’s part of why Amber works for me – I riff off of what the players want and just try to make it as awesome as I can. I give the players a LOT of freedom… maybe a paralyzing amount at times.

And I’m not a person who is good at explaining the “feel and flow” of a game. But we were sputtering. And I felt like it was my fault, not the group’s. And then a player asked a question (thank you Poppy/Jillian). She asked if her character noticed anything. It was a broad, open, weird question with too many options for answers. But she turned the wheel in my mind a little – got the gear cranking over, as it were – and I just paused the game, took a moment to collect myself, and explained in a very simple, direct way what kind of freedom the players had. I was able to express how – through asking questions – they were able to really control the flow of information. I forced myself to be very transparent about the way I run, what my expectations are, and how I wanted them to be in total control of events. They responded. We stopped sputtering. Players who had been largely silent became vocal, one of the New-to-Amber types completely erupted on the session – walking the Pattern, disappearing on the party altogether, and finding out about her mother and father in completely unforeseen ways.

And I found an NPC they seem to like. He’s exhausting and a joy to play as the GM. But they really came up big – and I’m so happy for them and for our game. I’d like to take the credit – but all I did was correct a bad behavior I’ve long held as a GM. They made it work.

But ultimately, I think – between my new approach to my current Pathfinder game and now Amber – that they real takeaway for me is that I’ve gotten a chance to actually improve as GM. It’s easy to develop habits “behind the screen” both good and bad. It’s easy to blame the players (and sometimes it is their fault, right?), but it is never to late to try something new, to change your approach, or to take a risk.

I love GMing. I think the reward for a campaign (or just a session) that goes really well is magnified exponentially for the “man behind the curtain.” I think I get more out of being involved in games as the GM than I do out of any of my other social outlets. But after being a GM for a long time I was in a rut. So thank you to my Amber group (and my Pathfinder group) for helping me to experiment and take a few chances with my GMing style. So far it’s paying off well.

So, you know, I suppose the payoff here (so I can be better about RESOLUTION) is that I’m going to encourage all GMs who read here to do the same. Start a new game. Start it with new players. Get out of the rut, take a few chances, incorporate mechanics and ideas from other games than the one you are running… do whatever it takes, just do something new.

As always, thanks for reading.

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One response

  1. i’m lucky enough to be in a position where i get to do that at least once a year. In a few short weeks (really should get the prep finished) i start my CP2020 game. I’ve run the game in the past, but I’m taking it to a whole different setting, and with a bunch of players who have have barely heard of the system or setting. I’m also moving away from the obvious cyberpunk plot starts and trying to make a city based sandbox game that’s going to be driven by the type of game the players want, rather than what I feel like running.

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