I had every intention this week of writing an article about using rules outside of their initial design, and the pitfalls and opportunities that surround that. That was the plan, and I promise that at some point I will come back to that topic. Instead, I wanted to talk about something that I think every GM who has been behind the screen long enough has encountered… a slump.
Not The S Word?!
Slump. S-l-u-m-p. There I said it. I have been trying to avoid admitting it for a while, but it’s been stalking me, session to session for some time. I am in a GMing Slump.
When I say slump, I am not burned out. That comes with a dread about running a game or even about the entire hobby. I have been there, and would have been less embarrassed to admit that. We all get burnout, and after unplugging for a time, most people recover and get back into gaming.
A slump is different. I want to run a game…I really want to run a game, but the combination of what I am running, how I am running it, and my group is producing something like soda that is about to go flat. There is some fleeting taste of something good, but you know that it’s off. If I know it’s off, my players have to know it as well.
The way I am sure we know it’s off is by looking at the wake of discarded campaigns in the past year: All For One, Corporation, Agents of Oblivion, and finally a Savage Worlds Supers game. Four campaigns in a year, and I only run every 2-3 weeks. It’s not a good sign.
What Caused My Slump?
Good question. I think I know some things that are factors, but if I knew the answer with any certainty I would be working to rectify the problem. What I do know is that I feel like I am not growing much as a GM at this time. I have a formula for starting up a campaign and for creating stories. I have it worked out to the point where it’s become too easy. There is no passion behind it.
One contributing factor is that I am running games that have a very traditional, scenario/scene type of session. What I mean is that as GM, I come up with a plot for the session, I break it down into scenes, frame them out, and stock them with challenges. Then as a group, the players come and we sit down, and I run them through the plot, they overcome the challenges…lather, rinse, repeat.
I am also struggling with the games I am running. I am yearning for less traditional types of games. I have a few heartbreaker games that I have never run; Underground and Star Trek. I have games that I have been intimidated to run: Burning Wheel and Dogs in the Vineyard. I have games that I would love to run, but my group does not want to play them: Burning Empires and Call/Trail of Cthulhu.
I have also been running for essentially the same group of people for 15 years, give or take a guy here and there. Don’t take that the wrong way, these guys are family to me, and we have grown up together, we have watched each other get married, divorced, have kids, etc. I love these guys. I also know them like the back of my hand, and they know me equally. They have seen my bag of tricks, and I can anticipate their moves most of the time.
There is also real life. The past few years have not always been easy. There have been ups and downs; responsibilities at home and work have increased; and life seems just a bit more serious than it did a few years ago. That seriousness has made it hard in my group to play things that are dark or gritty (a favorite tone and style of mine).
As these bleak stars aligned, I sank into this rut of running different games that are all kind of the same in the way they play, and how I run them. The end result has been a rather lackluster showing as a GM, and a quiet (mostly quiet) frustration.
Finding My Way Out
I am not sure how I got into this slump, but the first thing I did was to admit I was in one. The second thing I did, which was very hard for me, was to get out from behind the screen and stop GMing (for now…). I turned my game over to one of the guys in my group, who is going to GM for the near future, and I am going to be a player in the game.
The next part won’t be as easy. I need to shake things up; try new things; break out of that comfort zone. A plan has started to formulate over the past couple of weeks. I need to change everything up: run for some different people, run something different from what I have played before, change up my GMing style.
A year ago this plan would have been next to impossible, but this year I have been fortunate enough to meet some incredible gamers in my area, as well as became the advisor to the RPG and Anime club that runs on my campus. So finding people won’t be a problem. I am not saying abandon my group, but rather expand the people I game with to include others, some who I cannot anticipate, to keep me on my toes, and whom I can learn from.
As for what to run, I am going to treat myself, and run one of my heartbreakers, Underground. This is a game that I have wanted to run since I picked it up at Crazy Igor’s in Rochester NY, back in the 90’s when it came out. I own every supplement for it, in both print and PDF. I have tried to run it once for my group, but it never got off the ground due to lack of interest. I figure if I am going to run something, run something I am passionate about.
Finally, a way to change up my GMing style, and get away from the traditional scenario/scene type of play. I would like to move to a more reactive style of play, where the players drive the story, and I play off of them. Not so much total improv, as in not having anything prepared, but rather to have prepared groups, seeds of plots, etc, and based on the players actions bring them into and out of play.
For that I am going do to some old fashion hard work. I am going to study. There are a number of games that have these features, that I can learn from: Dresden Files (creating a city & aspects), Apocalypse World (Fronts and moves), and Technoir (Transmissions). I plan to study and learn from these games, taking elements that appeal to me and working them into my game. Get back into experimenting with my style, try different things, and stop being safe.
There Is Only Up
Slumps happen, even to guys who spend their time blogging and writing books about GMing. What you do when you realize you are in a slump is what is important. It’s about getting back to that zone where your passion for the game drives your creativity, where your energy at the table becomes infectious to your players, and the combination of the story you tell and the actions the players take creates a dramatic fabric that you remember for years to come.
For me, it is a vision quest. A walk into the wilderness with the goal of finding something that I lost, so that I can return to my home group renewed, and GM for them once again. Sometime down the line, I promise you there will be an article called “How Phil Got His Groove Back.”
How about you? Have you ever been in a GMing slump? What caused it? How did you find your way out? For extra credit, feel free to impart any advice you might have for how I can get out of my slump.