How I Can Be a Better GM

June 1, 2010

I responded to a question on SG about how to be a better GM. This response is really about where I am with GMing right now, after a couple unsatisfying experiences recently, and how I think I can improve.

I’m actually beginning to suspect — which I probably should have realized before — that there’s no such thing as a GM who’s consistently awesome, playing every game, with every group of people, under every circumstances. Just doesn’t happen. Roleplaying is so contingent on a variety of factors, including the behavior and expectations of the other people at the table, that you can’t make it awesome all by yourself, even if you are super talented and experienced.

The real question, I think, is how to use the social authority legitimately or illegitimately entrusted to you, as GM, to make the entire table or the entire game more awesome than it otherwise would have been. And most of the advice given here gets at some of that.

My current #1 suggestion would be: realize that different games ask GMs and players to do really different things, and many of them don’t even clearly state what those different things are. You can’t merely get by on your previous experience and talent at improvising, especially if you want the game to be really awesome instead of just enjoyable. What you need is fluency both with the game you are playing and in interactions with the other players at the table.

Fluency with game mechanics and pacing and such comes from reading, playing, and talking about the game, watching other people run it, running it extensively yourself, hacking it and seeing how that changes the results (for better and worse), playing a bunch of games that inspired this game or later games that were inspired by it, and that kind of thing. Fluency with the players at the table comes from playing games with them a lot and talking about those games, but also from hanging out with them, living or sleeping with them (in some cases), going to the movies with them, arguing about game theory with them on the internet for 8 years, sharing the same background in games played, etc.

If you don’t have that fluency with either the game or the players, awesome sometimes still happens, despite that. Sometimes everything just comes together, either with mechanics that really click, or people who you really engage with or fiction that turns out feeling “just right.” And sometimes playing with people or mechanics that are new and unfamiliar is necessary to push your group into playing more actively and attentively, instead of relying on their shared familiarity and having a fun but easy time of it. Still, in my experience, you can’t really beat fluency with mechanics (in their broadest sense, “what the game desires and requires you to do”) and your fellow players in creating the most solid foundation for awesome.

If you can’t or aren’t willing to invest in that fluency and intimacy, then you have to try to get as close as possible to it in the brief amount of time you have before and during the setup and play of the game. You have to really try to connect with other players and build connections between them as quickly and as deeply as you can, without being a creepy fuck. You have to be able to convey to the players what the game is asking them to do, both on a macro and micro level, which means the text either has to help you do that (“Do XYZ under circumstances ABC”) or you have to do all the work yourself, expressing to the other players your internal understanding of how the game works.

You’re not going to do this every time — just last week I was having trouble connecting with the other players at the table, for weird personal reasons — but I do think you can get better at it. However, it’s something you have to be aware of and actually have the energy to engage directly, especially if it’s being a problem or there are obstacles towards achieving fluency. It doesn’t always take hard work, in the sense of it not being enjoyable, but it does take sincerity, I think.

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