Saturday, January 4, 2020

How to Run a Game Part I: Experience

@Mailanka mentioned being famous for over-prep and yet always getting a feeling of stage-fright before a session in the Tall Tales channel. I'm similarly afflicted, and I think there's a dearth of good practical advice for session planning -Mwnrnc
I sometimes talk about GM advice, but I don't go into it that much, because it's such a deep, vast topic that once I start, I will probably never stop, but if there's a lot of demand for it, and I'm working on a session anyway, I might as well spend some time talking about it.

I'll have to check that out...I've been reading Justin Alexander's blog for a while and I think his advice is generally good. But a lot of his examples sound like an attractive, charming, socially gifted person telling you that the best way to find a partner is to "just be yourself" -Mwnrnc

There's a lot of things I could talk about (a broad and deep topic) but I think the most crucial one is experience.   It's also what lies beneath Mwnrnc's objection above.  A lot of good GM skills can't really be picked up from reading a blog, only experienced.  If you've molded yourself into a good GM, and then you're "just  yourself," everything will flow fine.  But then the question is "How do you mold yourself into a good GM?" and the answer to that question is one people don't particularly like: "practice."

A lot of GM skills can't be taught, only learned.  Things like getting a feel for what someone wants but can't express well, or when someone isn't particularly engaged and how to get them back into the game, or how to build trust with your players so that they're willing to try out things with you that they wouldn't normally try, or just learning to be witty, so that when someone says something funny, you can instantly reply with something funnier, but that still fits in the game and keeps people engaged.  If you watch a lot of the best GMs, they have this sort of charisma, this magnetic appeal.  They just make games happen, and you likely have a hard time explaining, and if you ask them how they did it, they likely couldn't tell you.  I personally had this experience when someone asked for help creating a session, and based on her input, I had a session spooled out in less than 15 minutes and she sort of gaped at me and asked how I can do that. I had no good answer at the time, but I do now: I simply had more experience than her.

Are good GM's just more talented than other people? Maybe.  I do believe there's a darwinian force at play among GMs: bad GMs can't find players and so get winnowed out or discouraged, while good GMs have success that snowballs, so eventually, the top GMs tend to share a lot of similar traits.  But I tend to be skeptical of the notion of "talent" which I think understates the amount of work it takes to become a great anything.  Great artists or composers aren't born being good at these things.  They work really hard at them.  The same goes for being a GM.

Experience is also the best thing to focus on because, in a sense, it's the easiest advice I can give you: the way to become a great GM is to run a lot of games. If I tell you nothing else, and you follow it, you'll eventually become a great GM.  Everything else is secondary, little refinements to that core advice.  I can expand on that advice, and that will be the rest of the post, but the one thing to remember is that hard truth: run more games.


Always Be Gaming

Okay, so you're with me. You need to run more games.  Uh, but how?  This rather creates a chicken-and-egg problem, doesn't it? Because to run a game you need to know how to run a game, but to know how to run a game, you need to run a game.  Well, the short answer is you just do it.  I kick  you off the edge of the pool and shout "Swim! SWIM!" and you flail around helplessly and eventually figure some things out. But while you flail, you're going to splash a lot, and that will piss people off, and that's a problem, because to run a game, you need to play with people, and your splashing is going to drive them away.  Problem!

So the first thing you should focus on is cultivating a group of victims friends who are willing to endure your really terrible games, because they will be terrible and you must accept that.  You have an advantage here, though. Why are we talking about this at all? Because people want to know about how to run games.  A lot of people. Which means there are a lot of people around you who understand how hard it is to run a game and who, themselves, want to learn to run and are also looking for victims friends.  Maybe you guys can work something out?

The advice I can give you is to seek out a community or a group of like-minded people and run games for each other.  The most successful GM-learning groups I've seen are round-robin games, where someone runs a session one week, and then someone else runs a session the next week.  Everyone in the game is a total noob at GMing, and so people tend to have more patience (and constructive criticism) for one another.  How much of a jerk will you be to a guy for running a terrible session when it's your turn next week?  Chances are, most of you are part of a community like this, whether you know it or not.  You've probably found this post through a link on a Discord group, a forum or a facebook group which means, boom, you're part of a community, and there are other people from that community looking at this, so work something out.  If you can't get it to work in person, swallow your fears of your own technical incompetence and try it out online.  There are lots of virtual tabletop options and VoIP protocols have made long distance conference calls essentially free.  Thus, there's nothing stopping you from doing this except your fear of failure.  Speaking of which:

Embrace the Suck

The only way to learn something is to try it, and the first time you try it, you're going to be terrible at it.  Accept that.  Embrace it.  There's a brittle sort of mentality that most of us have where we'd rather see ourselves as attractive, successful geniuses than face up to the fact that we might be homely, stupid losers, but that sort of mentality leads to fat 60 year olds dressing like they're hot 20-year-olds, or people with know experience saying "How hard can it be?"  Only by understanding and accepting where we've done poorly can we begin to fashion skills to fix those problems.

Once you've run your game, invite criticism. I would say "constructive criticism," but the truth is, even assholes give good advice, you just have to dig through the sarcasm to find it.  Get a thick skin and learn to suffer the slings and arrows of your player's disdain.  Learn to laugh at your own failures.

All that said, try to favor players who give more useful feedback over those who don't.  If you can only find assholes, then play with assholes, fine, but if you have a choice, the guy who says "I didn't find your NPCs believable" is much more useful than the guy who says "Your game sucked, dude."  You already knew the latter, but the former is giving you a clue as to why.

By the same token, learn to constructively criticize.  You need this for two reasons.  First, if you're going to be part of a group of people running and criticizing, you need to elevate your worth to remain useful to the group.  When someone else runs a game and (inevitably) you didn't like it, you need to figure out why, and articulate it.  You also need to learn it so you can criticize your own games.  Your core focus in all of this is defeating the Dunning-Kruger effect: you're trying to accept that you don't know what you don't know, and you're trying to figure it out, that means you need to guess at why your game didn't work, so you can try something different the next time and improve.  The possible things that went wrong are too long for me to list here, but what matters is that you forge a habit of introspection after your games, and try to think about what went wrong.

This is not to say that all criticism is useful or valid, of course.  As you get better, you'll find a lot of advice tends to be repetitive or aimed at less experienced people than yourself. You'll also learn that a lot of people tend to react emotionally, or have no real sense of what actually makes a game work.  A good example of that is a common suggestion of "Give the players what they want," which can be true, but needs to be more nuanced than that, as seen by its opposite "Monty Haul GMs are bad." You need to create a tension between the player getting what they want and what they have to do to get it and you need to know when there's too much tension and when there isn't enough, and you need to know what they want. All of this requires experience, part of the reason you're running games, but it's not the feedback the average player will give you, because it's not something they understand well themselves.

Some people will tell you that you should just "be yourself," that you should "love your games the way they are," but that goes back to that "you're talented or you're not" fallacy.  You can always improve.  Always.  If you're the sort of person who thinks they've got it all figured out and they couldn't possibly get better, chances are you're in the grip of the Dunning-Kruger effect, and you have no real self-awareness of just how bad you are.  If you seek self-improvement as a GM, it's more useful to think of yourself as a bad GM who could use feedback than to think of yourself as a great GM who never needs anyone's advice and all criticism is a personal attack.

Wax on, Wax Off

A common meme that I remember from my heady days on RPG.net was the notion that "gaming doesn't make you smarter." This was meant to undermine the arrogance of a lot of gamers who thought they were better than other people because they had memorized how many HP a balrog had, but it's something I object to because, the truth is, everything makes you "smarter" and all knowledge is interconnected.  For example, if you memorize the whole Monster Manual, well, then you've learned to memorize things in general.  Are there other things you might usefully memorize? That's a handy skill!  By the same token, being good at other things will make you a better GM.

So, in addition to practicing running games, there are some other skills you can practice that will eventually have applications in gaming.  I'm going to discuss three, broad categories, but that doesn't mean that there aren't more.

Learn to Host a Party

This is a position that a lot of gamers find controversial, but this is a hill I'm willing to die on.  The single most critical skill you can have as a GM is the ability to host a nice party.  If people get together with you and have a nice experience with you, and no gaming happens, or the game is bad, but people had a nice time, then you had a successful game. Period.  People will want to come back.  If your games are always terrible, they might favor doing something else ("Why not just a dinner party?") so if you actually want to run games, you need to develop good gaming skills, but it's still paramount that you learn to host.

Programmers often talk about "soft skills," which they use to mean the ability to interact well with other programmers and with business.  It's the sort of thing that's not a "core technical competency," but makes the difference between a good programmer and a bad programmer. Hosting skills are like that: it's not really about how good you are with the game, but it can often make or break the gaming experience anyway, because it doesn't matter how good you are with the game if everyone hates gaming with you.

At the end of the day, a game is about friends getting together to have a nice time.  It's like bowling, or tea parties, or movie marathons.  In fact, a lot of people using gaming as an excuse to keep in touch with friends.  The sorts of skills that make for a nice tea party or mini-golf event will make for a good GM, skills like:
  • Scheduling
  • Staying in contact
  • Reminding people of the event
  • Realizing that people will forget/lose key elements, so you keep spares around
  • Understanding the chemistry between people
  • Putting people at ease with one another so they can relax and have a good time
  • Facilitating trust
  • Keeping people fed and happy
If you can't run a game, consider hosting parties or events.  The experience you gain doing that will directly translate into your ability to host a good game.

Learn to Tell A Story

The second most important skill to learn as a GM is how to tell a good story.  A lot of GMs argue about crunch vs fluff, about good mechanics vs a well-told story, and I'm of the opinion that both matter, but if we're talking priorities and you can only learn one, learn to tell a good story.  A well-told and engaging story can cover the flaws of a badly run game.

Watch some films and read some books.  These will help you build your "literary vocabulary."  If you want an amazing scene in a game, you need to learn to articulate that, and learning how other people articulate it will help you learn to do the same.  You're going to see films anyway, but they provide a rich cornucopia of flowing visual images that you can steal for your games. But books tend to be better, because they learn to invoke more than just the visual and auditory senses, and they're closer to the medium you'll be using anyway: they tend to be better at talking about scents and feels than films are, and often take more time to discuss ideas that films tend to brush over quickly (because they don't work well in a primarily visual medium).

Learn to criticize those works too.  I know a lot of people who just watch a film and go "Mmm, explosions good." I'm not going to say that mindlessly enjoying a popcorn flick is bad, I'm saying that doing so doesn't make you a better GM.  Think about the structure of the film or the book. Think about what scenes or moments that you liked and why.  Think about what led to those moments.  Thing about the structure of it. Discuss it with friends.  Watch critical youtube videos on film making and writing in general. Noodle around TV Tropes.  As you get a sense for what works for you and what doesn't work, and how an author or a film maker created a particular structure, scene or emotional impact, you'll get a sense as to how to do it too.

You should also practice speaking.  This is not one I see a lot of people discuss, but actual storytelling is a real and legit tradition, up there with rhetoric.  It's something of a dying art, but you can still find people who do it, and you can learn from them.  There's a way to project your voice, or to carefully enunciate, or to shift your tone and tempo for particular moments (horror tends to benefit from slow, staccato patterns, little punctuations of speech in the midst of silence, while drama and action tends to benefit from quick, lagasso patterns, rapid flowing speech like the rapid, constantly flowing action, etc). If you practice giving speeches, commanding a room, or learning to actually tell stories, it'll help your ability to do the storytelling part of the game.

Learn how games work

I suggest that storytelling is more important than game mechanics, but that doesn't mean the latter isn't important.  If you want to be truly great, you need to master all the skills, and carefully weaving math, simulation and interesting choices through your game is how you elevate it from a nice story to a truly engaging game.

How games work is at least as complex a topic as how stories work, and understanding the tension between the two and how to resolve them is also an art, but as you learn that by running games, you can also learn how games work in general by playing more of them.  I highly recommend board games, or board-game like computer games, or collecting strange and obscure RPGs (we're in a golden age of that, by the way, so plenty out there).  Don't use AAA open-world action games for this sort of thing (they're fine, but they tend to be cinematic experiences that tell you more about stories than about how to construct interesting gameplay, as a lot of their techniques aren't easily replicated at the tabletop).  What you're looking to master is what games do well with their mechanics, what they do badly, how they tell their stories with their mechanics and, most critically, how emergence works.

Emergence is the large scale behavior that results from the interactions of small scale rules.  Games like Chess or Go have relatively simple rules, but you get these deep discussions not of those rules, but how they interact.  A lot of modern games really turn on some pretty heavy emergence; Magic the Gathering seems especially prone to this, as the rules tend to be fairly straightforward.  Understanding emergence is one of the great struggles of all game designers, as well as predicting it; in one sense, you can't actually predict it, as a lot of the fun of a game is exploring emergence, and if the creator could easily grasp what emerges from gameplay, chances are you can too and that negates a lot of the fun of that exploration (it makes the game "predictable"), but you can get a sense of what tend to be good ideas ("game balance" is about preventing all of the emergence from being too lop-sided, while a lot of complaints about "nerfing" are when people discover an interesting an unintended emergence that might, nonetheless, make for interesting gameplay). The only real way, though, to tackle these concepts are to try to play games that embrace them and understand what makes them work and what doesn't.

Consider cultivating mathematical skills, as well as programming and science.  Numbers are the language of game mechanics, in many ways, and what you're trying to do is find some way to simulate the world, to use numbers to tell a story about the world, which is what science and programming also do.  I'm not saying you need a calculus degree, but if you become more adept at playing with numbers, doing math in your head and learning how to express real world values in terms of numbers and vice versa, it will tend to help your games more broadly.  Computer programming is similar, though more about using rules-based logic to describe the world or solve a problem, and it also teaches a lot about how difficult it is to predict the interactions of complex systems and how to test for them.  I think there's a reason you see more and more good game designers with programmer backgrounds, as there's a lot of crossover between the two disciplines.

As with all of the above, it always helps to also practice teaching these or explaining them if you can, but it goes double here, because one thing you'll be doing as a GM a lot if explaining numbers to people and how they interact with the "real world" of your game.  Learning how to hold someone's hand through basic arithmetic and algebra is pretty important skill as a GM!

Abstractions and Critical Thinking

In the end, what you're looking to do is see how the skills you cultivate in life can apply to more than just what you cultivated them for, and to self-analyze to find ways you can improve, as well as to understand the things you're working with more deeply, to see how you can better yourself there too. 

In the end, I suppose I'm saying "If you try to be a better person, a side-effect of this is that you'll be a better GM too," and I know that's the sort of overly expansive advice that borders on being corny, but it's true.  We often like to talk about the give and take of advantage and disadvantage but notice the caveat that a lot of people seem to have it all while others seem to have nothing, and that's because a hard truth about life is that advantage breeds advantage, skill breeds skill.  Someone who is good at school tends to learn a lot of skills that make them better at life in general (how to knuckle down and meet a deadline, how to schedule, how to socialize, how to deal with BS bureaucracy to get what they want, and incidentally how to learn) while those that do poorly tend to do poorly at lots of things.

This brings us back to Mwnrnc's objection to GM advice that feels like "Just be yourself, provided you're already awesome;" that's sort of why it is that way.  A lot of good GMs tend to be generally pretty competent people who have learned core skills like self-analysis, how to take criticism, and how to abstract their skills and apply them more broadly, and they've mostly done this through experience and "intuition" rather than explicit application of advice and thus cannot easily express it.  The above is why.  In some ways, being a good GM is like being a good chicken sexer, you just have to know, and it's hard to express what you need to know.

The plus side, though, is that nearly everything you're doing already, if you figure out a way to apply it to your gaming experience, is making you a better GM.  This is often why they say your life experiences find expression in your art.  So take heart, and realize that whatever it is you're doing, there's some opportunity, however small, to turn it into a lesson on being a better GM.

If I revisit the topic, I'll discuss some other things that can help you as a GM.  There is, in fact, lots of possible advice, which is why there are tons of blogs on the topic and why the back of RPGs are cluttered with advice (advice that often looks the same).  As with any art, there is experience and practice, but there's also theory, and we can discuss theory.

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