The Better GM Challenge

I’m a little late to the party, but three days ago over at the Hill Cantons a challenge was issued to help “Build a Better GM.”

I was surprised to see that the author didn’t think we wrote enough about “good GMs.” Of course, that’s because anyone who knows me or reads here is aware of my championing of the GM role in RPGs and I’m proud of that. I feel as if I’ve been writing a lot (too much) about some of this lately — to the point of examining my own strengths and weaknesses — but I feel this is worth chiming in on. Then, I promise, I’m done with writing about GMing for a while…

So, let’s answer the three questions posed over at the Hill Cantons. I admit ahead of time, I’m going to break his rule and “cheat” by not sticking exactly to the format… but that’s probably a good thing for a good GM.

1. Name three “best practices” you possess as a GM. What techniques do you think you excel at?
2. What makes those techniques work? Why do they “pop”?
3. How do you do it? What are the tricks you use? What replicable, nuts-and-bolts tips can you share?

It’s hard to set out three “best practices” exactly as probably envisioned by the original post. I don’t think I can share a “DM Tip” because I always find those to be useless… you know, “here’s three ways to incorporate music into your game…” or “5 scare tactics to bring home the fear.” I tend to avoid those kinds of writing because they tend to focus on “hey this worked with my group that one time so it will work for you” and that’s rarely useful when generalized. I’m aware not all GM advice falls into this category, but my own experience has been that a majority of it does… so if you are offended by my last assertion, I apologize ahead of time, your experiences may be different.

But what three things would I actually say to a new GM? Well, since I’ve recently kind of shepherded (or dragged kicking and screaming) two different people into GMing, I can tell you what I’d told them…

Best Practices

1. Think about the game All The Time

Now, I don’t mean by this that you obsess about the game, have no life, lose your job, etc. What I mean is, the game should be percolating around in your brain all the time. If you think about the campaign once a week for the two hours right before your session starts that week — well, what can you really hope to convey to your players that seems like you’ve really thought about it? Going on a long car ride with your players? Ask them questions about the game and then don’t talk, just listen and take mental notes. Sitting around watching football with other GMs? Talk to them about their games and solicit stories, then just listen. Have a great idea for a scene between a PC and an NPC, write it down and then let it rumble around in your brain. Think about what your NPCs are doing in between seeing the PCs, think about what’s going on in the world, think about what makes the PCs tick so you can play to it and off of it. Think about the game all the time.

This has the added bonus of building confidence. If you are brainstorming and thinking about the game — and talking to your players about the game — then you have a better grasp of everything that’s going on when a session rolls around and it’s time to play it out. Also, talking to your players about the game keeps them invested too… everyone likes to talk about their character and the plans they have for that character. Lots of upside here.

2. Have Fun Too.

This may sound self-evident and even kinda stupid but I’ve run more than one bad game that basically came down to the fact that I, as the GM, hated the game. Even if the players were having a decent time, I just wasn’t invested at all. So you need to be honest about your play. If you are a GM who is never going to have fun running Deadlands, well, don’t run Deadlands. If you absolutely love Gamma World but your players are never going to be willing to give it a try — then try to compromise. Run D&D but homebrew up a world that’s fallen to a magical apocalypse and reflavor some of your races… Maybe the Goliaths are actually a race of powerful Gorilla Men fighting to preserve their High Mountain Homes from the encroaching Valley Princes in a world where a Dwarven Technology destroyed everything? You get the idea… but it you aren’t having fun, the game suffers. It isn’t all about the GM’s fun — but you are at the table to play the game too, so you deserve to at least share the fun. Some DMs who have the mindset to be Great GMs often forget that because they care about their players. It’s a good trait, but if you never have fun, you’ll end up a bitter, burnt-out GM.

3. Play to your own strengths (but keep growing)

Related to number two, what I mean is, you probably already know the parts of the game you feel comfortable with — so play to those things. If you are a great improviser, improvise. If you are good at funny voices, do that. If you are a meticulous encounter builder, awesome. Focus on your strengths early in a game/campaign so that you can build comfort and your players will see your confidence. But never lose sight of being better. If you hate, hate, hate, going “off-script” because you are worried about what people will think? Try it a little bit each session — heck, most players won’t even realize you’re off-script unless you tell them, so just relax and improvise a scene sometime. If it sucked, no big, just try again later. Just like a quarterback with a safety valve, you can always dump off a pass to your tight end if you need too… but if you never throw the deep ball, you’ll never be able to throw the deep ball. Terrible sports metaphor — that’s what the preseason will do to you…

So that’s my three, and I kinda wrapped up the answers to the other parts into my three pieces of advice — so hopefully you’ll forgive me for not breaking it down more.

I have one other point to jump on here before I leave. Some of the responses suggested that it is impossible to “teach” DMing. That it’s a talent, you are either creative or not… Some folks seemed invested in the idea that you can’t give DMing advice. I tend to think that attitude may stem from reading so-called GM advice of the sort I mentioned earlier — but that’s my axe to grind, not yours so I’ll shut up about it.

To those folks I say this — Talent is great, but you also have to hone it.

Let me quote from one of the first fantasy stories I read as a nine-year old who was already hooked on D&D but was still learning to love Fantasy…

“I don’t understand it,” she whispered finally. “It — it was like my body wouldn’t do anything I told it to. My mind was saying, ‘Do this! Do that! Do something!’ And my body just wasn’t connected. Sacherell –”

Sacherell was well enough.” Coram yawned. “He’s a bit of a natural. Ye’re just not a natural with a sword, Master Alan. Some are born to it, like me. I never knew aught else, and I never wanted to. Now some — some never learn the sword at all, and they don’t survive their first real fight. And then there’s some –”

“Yes?” Alanna asked, grasping at this straw. She was obviously not born to the sword, and she had no plans of dying in her first fight.

“Some learn the sword. They work all the extra minutes they have. They don’t let a piece of metal — or Aram Sklaw — beat them.”

–From, Alanna, the First Adventure, by Tamora Pierce.

This message is repeated over and over again — go watch The Natural, with Robert Redford, or listen to any coach talk about their best players… they all might have some talent, but they also watch the most tape, practice the hardest, and devote themselves to their game.

That’s the best GM advice I can give.

Thanks for reading — and thanks to Hill Cantons for starting such a great conversation!

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3 responses

  1. As regards the last few posts in this vein, I saw this and thought of you:

    http://strangemagic.robertsongames.com/2011/08/gm-merit-badges.html

  2. Thanks for the link. I read and commented. I think it’s a neat idea — but way too limiting and pre-packaged to really be as useful as some folks seem to think…

    And that sounded really harsh, which I didn’t mean it to… I just mean that when I read the list, I saw myself and my GMing style in ALL of his badges and that I can’t really say which of those features are the norm for my own style because I adapt my style to each Group of Players that I’m involved with too…

    Oh well.

  3. […] saw on RPG Stack Exchange, and my nascent thoughts on these were brought nearer to realization by a post on the Rhetorical Gamer about a post he’d seen on The Hill Cantons, which was actually in […]

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