As soon as I saw this comment from Chando42 in our Suggestion Pot, I started writing — this one’s a doozy!
In fact, there’s so much too it that there’s no single theme that can tie together this article. Instead, I’m just going to tackle it piece by piece and try to offer useful advice for each element. It’s pretty freeform. My hips, I have shot from them!
The truth is, I’m not the GM I thought I was. I must say, I read just about every article on the Stew before GMing my first game. I thought I knew what I was getting into. I thought, “Hey, I’m good at acting, writing, and gaming. I have all the tools I need to GM whatever game I want!” And this turned out to be terribly untrue.
This is a great point: acting, writing, and gaming as a player aren’t the only skills you need to be a good GM, although they’re a great foundation. Writing is probably the least directly useful; I’d say the other two are more or less equal in importance.
You also need:
- A willingness to make mistakes
Not JUST those four things, of course, but those four are particularly relevant in this case. Ready to find out why? Let’s rock.
I have discovered my fatal weaknesses: procrastination, lack of improvisational skills, and bad NPC acting. Quite the deathly trio.
Ouch. That is a bad trio, but it’s not insurmountable.
I also tend to procrastinate, especially when it comes to game prep — it’s one of my biggest weaknesses as a GM. So how do I get around it? By prepping in a way that works for me. There’s no magic bullet — or if there is, no one shares the same magic bullet.
So how do you find the way that works best for you? Try something else. See what works and what doesn’t with the new approach, and then try again. My latest approach, going digital, involves playing on one of my strengths — improvisation — while neatly avoiding all the traps that cause me to procrastinate.
Prep templates are a huge part of it. I use the three-act model template from the Star Trek (Decipher) RPG, but the principle is the same. A template tells me “Hey dumbass, stop drawing fancy maps and do this stuff. Then, IF THERE’S STILL TIME, go draw a map.”
Will that work for you? Maybe. Actually, I have a hunch that a prep template would really help you, Chando42 — but if it doesn’t, the essential message is the same: Try something new. A little new or a lot new, you decide — but new.
And whatever it is, it needs to help you sidestep procrastinating. Trick yourself into not thinking it’s work, somehow (at least, that’s what I do!).
Lack of Improv Skills
Improv is a skill. There’s some knack to it, but it’s largely a skill — and because it’s a skill, you can develop it. Will you fuck up? Sure.
We all fuck up, though. Between the 10 gnomes who write for the Stew, there’s probably ~150 years of combined GMing experience — but we all still fuck up.
So pick a specific aspect of improv you think you suck at and focus on just that. Look at the other areas where you’re forced to improv and feel like things fall flat, and instead of relying on your improv skills for that stuff, prep for it (or around it).
It’s like a muscle: You gotta use it. If you suck at improv, keep working at it. Start by narrowing the windows you have to improv in — run a published adventure or two, or script a railroaded scenario with no ending, and improv the ending.
Bad NPC Acting
I know you said the Stew didn’t magically ensure that you did an awesome job GMing (WE HAVE FAILED), but it’s certainly come through for me on many occasions. When I read this part of your comment, I immediately thought of this article by Don: GM of a Thousand Faces.
Don knows his characters. They’re always memorable, even years later, and you don’t have to do a massive amount of work to create characters that actually do part of the work for you — they help you make them memorable during play.
The trick is to focus on just a couple of things. Your players will remember one thing best, so overact the hell out of that. Let the other stuff come up as needed, but make sure they can hang their memories on one specific thing about each character.
The problem is that my players aren’t interested in my story or my characters. My players are interested in fighting, skill challenges, and thinking up new ways to break my dungeons. I’ll admit, it’s not exactly what I’d want from a game. So, I’ve come to a conclusion:
I’m running the wrong game for my group.
Well, you’re right. Taking it on faith that you know what your players want because they’ve told you, not just because you secretly fear that that’s what they want, you are running the wrong game for this group.
You have three options:
- Run the game your players want to play
- Take a break and run a different game that melds their preferences and yours
- Run a game for a different group
The advantage to #1 is that it gives you concrete things to build around: creative combats, fun skill challenges, and tricksy dungeons. You can do those three things, and focus on doing them well, while still working on GMing skills you want to develop.
Assuming you don’t hate those three things with the passion of a thousand burning suns, you’ll also find that when your players are jazzed about what they’re doing, you’ll get jazzed about it.
#2 is most likely what I’d do myself in your situation. Bite the bullet, feel bad about it for awhile, but pick myself up and try again in a few weeks or months. If your players aren’t dicks, they’ll understand. Dust yourself off and try again, but try again in a different way.
#3 is a bitter pill, but sometimes it’s the right pill to swallow. And you don’t have to lose friends or even necessarily break up your current group — just play one thing with them, and another thing with a new group. Scratch both itches.
What happens when you have a bad GM who’s lost interest in their game?
The fact that you’ve recognized there’s a problem proves you’re not a bad GM. The fact that you’ve sought out help, and that you give a shit about your players and what they want to do, just confirms it. You’re not a bad GM.
But you do know a) you’ve got some stuff to work on and b) you don’t want to run this game anymore. We’ve covered A; B is something you just have to accept, and it sounds like you’ve mostly accepted it.
If you think running the kind of game your players have (presumably) signaled that they want to play will be as fun for your as it will for them, retool your current game to be like that. If not, then politely bring it to an end and decide where to go from there — but don’t quit GMing.
Be confident that you can do this, even if you can’t necessarily do it the way that you’re doing it now. Regroup. Try again. Next time, it will be better.
Did that help? I hope so! This is just one gnome’s rambling opinion, though — if you’ve got advice for Chando42, sound off in the comments.