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Know Your Comfort Zone, Then Step Out Of It

I am incredibly comfortable improvising an entire game session with no notice, plan, or preparations.  Show me a table of players wanting to game and I will GM them!  I love to improvise, and I am really good at it.  I could improvise every single game I run for the rest of my life.

I realized that I did not need to prep at all for my games, and that my players were still having a good time.  And that is exactly why I stopped improvising every single game.

My improvised games are good, and often they can be great.  I have all of the skills needed to run not just a session, but an entire campaign with a story arc that stretches across all of the sessions.  I am complimented on my improvised games and I know that I have that part of GMing nailed down.

Now I force myself to do prep work.  It is harder, and I am not used to it because of all of those games that I have improvised in the past.  It requires more self-discipline, and time, and I just do not want to prep some days.  I do the prep work anyhow.  I need to do the prep work.

I am never going to improve as a GM unless I keep forcing myself to do something difficult and outside of my comfort zone.  If you want to be the best that you can be, with any skill or discipline, you have to keep looking for the next challenge and then take it on.  I want to be the best GM that I can be, and I cannot be satisfied with just improvising games in order to be the best.

Yes, my players had a good time with my improvised games.  Yes, the players did not have as much fun when I changed to a more prepped style.  Yes, I was not having as much fun as I adjusted to a prepped style of GMing.

But I am improving with prepped games.  It appears that the group is having just as much fun as they did under the improvised style of GMing.  Best of all I am a better GM now then I was when I just improvised my games.

If you are excellent with prep, maybe you should try improvising your next game.  If you are amazing when you run Dungeons & Dragons, maybe the next game that you run should be GURPS.  Whatever your comfort zone is, identify it and then step out of it.  It will make you a better GM.

Have you recognized your comfort zone?  Do you step out of it from time to time?  Have you ever changed your style dramatically on purpose?  If so, tell us about it in the comments section below.

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "Know Your Comfort Zone, Then Step Out Of It"

#1 Comment By Scott Martin On November 5, 2010 @ 11:25 am

Should your next game ever really be GURPS? 😉

More seriously, growing and stretching does take effort and often isn’t as much fun– at least at first. I know that it was a struggle when I pushed into lighter prep, but after a while the lighter prep became addictive.

Running D&D Encounters has been an interesting new challenge– it’s a short, straightforward 2 hour adventure made for drop in play. With the same players showing up week after week, it’s a challenge to stretch the adventure to build the feeling of continuity but keep the core as written.

#2 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 5, 2010 @ 12:30 pm

[1] – No love for GURPS, eh? *Sniffle!* Fine. Be that way! 😉

I agree that growing and stretching can be a bit painful. That is just part of the process of pursuing excellence though, and it is so worth it in the end.

#3 Comment By Harald On November 5, 2010 @ 12:55 pm


This is exactly what I decided to do after your previous post, so this is one GM you’ve influenced.

My strengths are world-building and improvisation, and my system of choice is nWoD.

What I have decided to do is plan and execute a multi-session adventure. So far I’ve laid down some ground-work, and next time I hope to get the heroes started on the story-line.

Its been years and years since the last time I’ve done this, so I find I’m rather rusty. I also find that the tools I used back then no longer work. All in all, I find I’m having just as much fun with this project as I used to do just improvising. Let’s just hope the players end up feeling the same way.

#4 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 5, 2010 @ 1:36 pm

[2] – Thank you. It is humbling to hear that I have influenced another GM’s style, because you fans of Gnome Stew influence my style with your comments more often than you know.

Keep us posted with how the new approach works for you!

#5 Comment By BryanB On November 5, 2010 @ 1:44 pm

Scott beat me to it. GURPS? Really? 😀

I’m struggling greatly to break out of my d20 comfort zone. I’m having a serious case of being overwhelmed whenever I drift away from the stuff I know best. I’m not sure why that is really. I used to handle several different systems (D6, Top Secret SI, Shadowrun).

But these days, I’ll be reading along in a new system and like what I see. Then when I try to apply what I have read, it becomes a jumble of incomprehensible gibberish. It is beyond frustrating to say the least.

#6 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 5, 2010 @ 2:18 pm

[3] – Another slam on GURPS? It really isn’t a bad system (at its core, some supplements are not that great), but for some reason people love to rip on it. Oh well.

Regardless of how anyone feels about the system though, I do suggest you check out some of their books for settings from time to time. There are two types of people who buy GURPS books: 1) people who actually play GURPS, and 2) people who want setting materials. The GURPS line does have some wonderful gems in that department.

Enough about GURPS though.

I’m glad to hear that you are trying to expand beyond d20. It can be difficult, but stick with it. You might discover something that you can bring back into your d20 games.

That is one of the great things about leaving your comfort zone, because you might just discover a new tip or trick that improves what you are already great at doing!

#7 Comment By Rafe On November 5, 2010 @ 8:39 pm

Ewwww! GURPS! That’s all anyone needs to step outside a comfort zone. 😀 Sorry, I had to rib on GURPS, too. However, my only experience with it was actually pretty rockin’, but still… EWWWW!

I’m not sure I agree that going against one’s natural abilities is a good idea. It can help, but it can also screw up a good rhythm and player confidence. After all, a drummer in a band doesn’t go “Hey, I’m gunna start playing guitar” and expect the rest of the band to go on stage okay with that.

That said, it can definitely make you appreciate and improve your chosen style of gaming if nothing else.

I’m not saying I completely disagree, because I don’t. I’ve had success going both ways (though I much prefer improvisation, as you do), but I don’t think everyone will benefit by going against the grain.

#8 Comment By Harald On November 5, 2010 @ 11:09 pm


I don’t agree with your allegory, Rafe. It’s not a matter of a drummer playing guitar, but perhaps learning a new beat, adding a few new drums to the set, or something along those lines (I’m no drummer ;)).

The way I see it, it’s about expanding your tool-box, and learning new techniques. After all, unless you question what you’re doing, how can you improve?

#9 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 6, 2010 @ 7:17 am

[4] – The problem is that how are any of the skills used by a GM a “natural ability”? That term does not apply here, because all GMing skills are taught. Possibly those skills are accentuated by a person’s particular talents, but anyone can learn to be a great GM. Some people do not learn how to be GMs, but anyone (except for people with some forms of medical conditions that impair normal functions) can learn how to be a GM.

And taking upon anything that is difficult will have some failures attached to it, but no one is saying that you will succeed easily. Quite the opposite. You will have to work at it.

[5] – I agree. The drummer becoming a guitarist is more akin to a player wanting to switch to the GM’s role. A whole new set of foundation skills will need to be learned. A better example would be a rock drummer learning how to play jazz. Same role, but the drummer is now expanding upon his current skill set. He might need to play with another band for a while, and they are going to have to tolerate the drummer’s mistakes until he gets up to speed, but in the end he will be a better drummer.

#10 Comment By Raist On November 6, 2010 @ 8:10 am

While I do applaud your idea, and will be trying more of a preped game in the future I don’t agree with your sink or swim approach to it… It’s not only your game, you have to think of the players too. If it doesn’t go well, you ruined the afternoon of the whole group. You, I and other improv GMs can always fall back on our improv skills if everything goes wrong, but it doesn’t work the other way around…

#11 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 6, 2010 @ 11:48 am

[6] – If the GM wants to try new things that may go poorly she should not risk pursuing her happiness because the group may not have fun?

Should you let the player’s know that you are changing styles? Yes. Should you get feedback from the group on how things are going with the new style? Yes. But if your group is unwilling to work with you to develop your GMing skills you should consider leaving the group.

I don’t subscribe to the philosophy that the GM is solely responsible for the game session being fun for the group. Your group should be willing to help you learn and develop a new style, and I have no qualms with abandoning a group that would not want to do so.

It isn’t mean or demanding, and it has made my groups better. Because now the sessions are truly a group effort. My players understand that they have to participate and contribute to our games.

After all, I work with each player to develop the type of character that they want. It is only fair that they be willing to work with me to develop the style of game that I am working towards.

#12 Comment By Rafe On November 9, 2010 @ 7:51 am

Hmmm… I disagree, Patrick. GM skills aren’t necessarily learned, and if they are, they’re learned from other activities/skills and then simply transferred. There are very few skills in a GM’s toolbox that aren’t used elsewhere in life (and which weren’t learned there first).

In terms of improving, you can absolutely improve by going out of your comfort zone, but I think there are limits to that. The big problem with going from impromptu to prepared GM’ing is that you can’t do it off on your own. A drummer can sit down and play out a syncopated beat on his own time; the rest of the band (and the audience!) doesn’t have to hear him screw it up for hours on end. …the same can’t be said of GM’ing, which is too bad. “I’ll be in the GM-o-dome!”

How do you learn? By trying different methods of what you’re good at and learning from other people whose methods are similar to yours (but obviously different for the simple reason that they aren’t you).

I guess it depends on the person, really. We have a lot of people here who can obviously adapt well to either impromptu or prepared. Great! That can’t be said of everyone…

Anecdotally, I’ve seen GMs totally f**king bomb on impromptu… and then keep trying, thinking they were improving. Adding a cherry to pile of feces doesn’t exactly make it more appetizing, but thanks for wasting my time and the time of four others. Whipped cream? No, dude… it’s still fecal matter. Don’t you even look at those sprinkles!! 😉

The truth is, it wasn’t that person’s thing and it didn’t help them at all. Worse? He knew it and suddenly felt like he had a hole in his GM’ing armour. It affected his confidence for a while when he went back to his comfort style.

Do what you’re good at. Step out of the comfort zone by expanding, not changing direction. And for some people, going from prep to impromptu or vice versa is a radical shift. Worse, players have to suffer through that shift. To play devil’s advocate, can definitely pay off in the long run. But not always, and that was the point I failed horribly at expressing above.

Damn… I think I pulled a Roxysteve there. 😀

#13 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 9, 2010 @ 8:24 am

[7] – Your point about skills is dependent upon the definition of the word, and I was going by this one:

“skill – special ability in a task, sport, etc, esp ability acquired by training”

To clarify what I meant I am saying that all skills are learned. If it is an ability that you did not learn but that you are capable of it is a talent.

Your point about not being able to practice GM skills on your own is interesting, because I do believe that you can practice a lot of GMing skills on your own. You can research, you can design encounters and figure out the math behind them (just like Matt suggests here: [8]), you can study plot structure, work on accents for NPCs, develop props for the game, and so much more. But there is a point where you have to be like that drummer and step on stage with the band. No matter how well you know the music yourself you still have to learn how to play it together.

I agree that some people should take smaller steps such as what you described, but the article never said to ditch everything you have known in the pursuit of greater GMing skill. I did not mean to make that impression. I am saying to recognize what you do well and to challenge yourself by trying the opposite if that is an applicable tactic. I would never suggest that a person run a game using the art of a mime for instance. That would be interesting at best. 🙂

But sometimes changing direction is what you need to do in order to improve. Jerry Seinfeld ditched, rewrote, bombed, and then rebuilt his entire act at the top of his career. Chris Rock commented that most comedians never really push themselves like that again after obtaining Seinfeld’s level of success, but that the result was actually greater success for Seinfeld because he took such a risk.

I do agree that the speed at which you leave your comfort zone and enter into unknown territory is something that only you yourself can determine. Just like with exercise, do things at the pace that will give you the most benefits.