It’s been a while since I’ve ran a regular campaign. My group is seemingly unique in that every player is a GM, so stints between turns are spaced pretty far apart, even given that our campaigns tend to run aground in record time. My personal schedule isn’t very forgiving, so I’ve been dodging being the next GM in rotation for two years. The stars were right the last time the chair was up for grabs, however. The group wanted to play DnD 4e and aside from our usual 4e GM, who confessed she’d really like to play this time around, no one was interested in running a 4e game. I’d poked my nose far enough into 4e to see it wasn’t really my dream game, but that I didn’t actively dislike it either, so with some help from the group in world building , and armed with a DnD Insider account that makes encounter building a snap, I’ve gotten a few good sessions under my belt for the first time in years. Sure, I’m still in an epic fight with the prep demon, a longtime foe of mine, and sure I’m so rusty you can hear me creak when I sit down at the table, but no one’s thrown their dice bag at me in disgust yet so I must be doing OK.
In three short sessions running a game after my extended GMing break, I’ve learned a big “secret” that I suspect is one that many GMs learn quickly and then, like me, forget just as quickly. It’s one of those “little things” that’s easy to overlook, but well worth making sure you never forget. Not only that, but it’s system neutral, and it’s guaranteed to improve everyone’s game, from novice, to grizzled veteran. Ready? Get a pen.
The best way to improve your game, is to run a game.
That’s all. Well, not all, but that’s 90% of it. It’s far too easy to sit back and “armchair GM”, picking apart the way another GM runs their game, reading GMing theory, and yet never actually running a game. And while learning via observation and theory is good, it leaves out a huge factor in the equation: YOU. The way you personally work, the quirks you bring to the game and the table, has a huge dynamic impact on the way the game runs and how you apply all that theory you’ve been absorbing.
Let’s take a look at my new game for an example. Treasure distribution in 4e is supposed to be a fairly painless affair. Every challenge your players overcome, they get one of the treasure parcels from the list of treasure parcels for their level. Players give you wishlists beforehand so you can cherry-pick the magic items to put in treasure parcels just for them. To date, I have not yet remembered to place treasure in my adventure notes. That’s right! Not one single time. You’d think after the first time or even the first two times, it would pop into my head during adventure planning, but every time my players defeat a challenge, they turn to me expectantly and say “So what treasure do we find?” and I say “Oh shit!” I think deep down inside, they love that moment… Maybe not.
Point being, I read GMing theory all the time, and not once, have I ever seen anyone address the “How do I not be an utter n00b and forget treasure in my notes?” issue. That’s because it’s an issue more or less unique to me. A lot of GMing issues are like that. They’re not some big philosophy issue. They’re not game-breaking or universal, they’re little details unique to the game group and GM in question, and you’ll never know what yours are unless you actually sit down and play.
And then there are those issues that are big philosophy issues. Sure, I know I’m supposed to include at least one challenge, hook, or background element for each of my players in every session. Sure, I know I’m supposed to include a clue to a world secret or a scrap of lore in every session. Do I? No. Usually not. Why not? Because I forget, or I don’t see an opening for one, or I’m pressed for time. That’s the whole reason that you need to run to tackle the big issues too. They take practice to master, not just academic understanding of how they’re “supposed” to work.
Since running is the only way to shake your personal little issues to the top of the game, and to get practice on the big issues you want to incorporate into your game, the best way to make use of your game time to improve your game is to take notes. These don’t have to be complicated. Just a sentence or phrase on a 3×5 card while you play of things you’d like to address later on. “Remember to include treasure in notes” or “No one thinks poo jokes are funny” or “rogue doesn’t seem interested in combat”. Then, when prepping for the next session, you can look at your notes and make sure you’ve addressed them line by line. If a note needs to be addressed during actual play, keep a sticky note handy or put something in your adventure notes: “Be sure to use good tactics here.” or “Ham this guy up.” Once you seem to have an issue licked, you can remove it from your list. Don’t worry. You’ll always have something to work on.