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Nudging a Content GM

Posted By Scott Martin On June 1, 2010 @ 1:19 am In GMing Advice,Hot Buttons | 7 Comments

winking cupIn the suggestion pot, I’ve hoisted up a sordid tale of brotherly contest and woe. Well, not really, but “earnestly guiding his kid brother to game mastery” just sounded too Lifetime movie, you know?

Salbic asked:

Is there a way to “nudge” a GM who’s unwilling to change or grow?

In this case, we’re all pretty new to roleplaying. Our GM rejects any gamerunning-related reading (articles, blog posts) I suggest, and even brags that he hasn’t read the GM’s manual for the game we’re playing — he’s afraid that any new perspective would “change his style.”

It’s not that he’s bad. We’re having fun most of the time, and he’s got a good grasp on the rules. But just because his approach works with this game and this group of players, doesn’t mean it will work with others, and I’m afraid that by ossifying so early he’s limiting future possibilities for all of us.

I’m his assistant (away-from-table duties — photocopying, player liaison — only), and I feel like I know more about GMing than he does. I don’t want to attempt a coup; I just want to share some of that knowledge. Are there any strategies to make him listen?

Note: If I come off sounding a bit patronizing or possessive here, it’s because he’s my younger brother.

Good questions. I know that giving advice to my younger brother was always tricky, so I’m not surprised that your brother also resists the wisdom of his elder. It must be a defect in younger brothers or something…

There are a number of ways to nudge a GM, but they primarily depend on having a GM want to grow and change. Since your brother professes contentment, it will be much harder to introduce him to new ideas. It’s not impossible by any means, but it does mean that more work and subtlety will be required on your part. Of course, that’s often the older brother’s lot.

Lead by Example

The best way to encourage him to master a new skill is to demonstrate it yourself. If you already GM for a game he plays in, point out after the session when you applied a new trick you learned from GMing advice on the web or in the book. Showing that you aren’t perfect, and are learning yourself, will go a long way to making sure that he won’t dismiss your comments as a slam on his style.

Be an Analyst

You know those guys who work for the CIA in movies; they research a ton of information and somehow condense it into exactly what the hero needs to know three minutes before he’s off to break into the Turkish embassy? You can be that guy. It’s not as glamorous as being the hero, but he couldn’t do it without you.

So, you know how your current assistant duties include photocopying? You could slip in an extra sheet of paper or two when you return the documents to your brother– a printout of a great article on the web, a page of hints and reminders, or anything else that you’ve found that could be useful. Give him a few weeks then look back on the last couple of sessions. Does it look like he benefited from any of the work you did? If so, pat yourself on the back and keep it up– just make sure that you distill it to only one article every week or two. See if he asks where the new article is when you skip a week…

What other games?

You mentioned that you’re afraid that he won’t learn how to GM a new system appropriately– he’ll just keep using the same style he’s developed whether it applies or not. This isn’t that unusual a flaw among GMs, but it is something that a few systems just won’t take. If he is switching to a new system and you’ve read it, point out any unusual assumptions that it makes about the GM’s role and relationship to the players. If he refuses to listen and the session goes boom, that might help him listen the next time you offer a warning.

On the other hand, many GMs master only a few games. If your brother loves D&D, for example, he might never find it necessary to master any new skills. While his range of games might be more limited, mastery is valuable too– if he’s delivering fun to your group, then he’s doing right so far.

In fact, you might consider his focused interest to be a good split for game systems: he’ll run games that fit the style he’s mastering and you get to run the rest. You can even run the system he’s using if you twist it to emphasize a different slant than his style ordinarily handles.

Road Trip!

Many people learn better by doing than by reading or listening. Take your brother to a con and play in some games beside him as a fellow player. At the end of the session, point out cool things the GM did and see if your brother agreed that those things were cool. Then it’s time to reverse engineer those cool moments… if you do the research, maybe he’ll put it in the game. Since you’ve been reading, you’re probably already aware of some tricks to watch for.

Give ‘em a Break

When you’re first learning to GM, it often feels like you’re trying to do three dozen things at once and you can never remember them all. At this stage, more things to keep in mind is intimidating. Give your brother a couple of months to get familiar with GMing, then return to the topic again.

If you concentrate your initial offerings on tools to lighten his workload– links to random generator sites, advice on quick NPC personalities and the like, you’ll probably find him receptive. Everyone likes a shortcut that makes things better, or offers a way to concentrate on the fun parts.

What about you Folks?

That’s the advice I’m giving Salbic– what have I overlooked? If you avoided reading GMing books and articles at one time, what changed your mind and got you to read or listen to advice? Please share any tips that can help Salbic and his brother enter the fun world of babbling about RPGs.

About  Scott Martin

Scott is an engineer turned gnome and game store owner. He lies awake at night building intriguing worlds and plotting your character's demise.




7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "Nudging a Content GM"

#1 Comment By evil On June 1, 2010 @ 9:37 am

I’d like to point out that leading by example almost never works on its own. You have to pair it with another strategy, especially if the person you’re modeling for is as thick as most of us when it comes to dropping hints (ie…like me).

I’d be sure to point out that you’re not necessarily trying to change his gaming style, but rather you’re trying to help him expand his current toolkit for gaming. In a case like this, when someone really doesn’t want to change, but they should, then it’s of paramount importance to not imply that their current method is wrong, but rather that change is expansion in this case.

#2 Comment By John Arcadian On June 1, 2010 @ 1:33 pm

That is a rough spot salblic is in. His story actually seems like how I got into GMing. My very first DM was good at some things, but had a style that didn’t always work. When summer came (at college) and only a few of us on the group were still in the city, I started running games. When he came back we split duties and played in the others’ game. His style changed and I learned a bunch of stuff about GMing from experiencing his game with a GM’s mindset.

I would say offer to run a one-shot game in a different system, something that is VASTLY different from whatever you are playing. If you are running D&D, try something like Dogs In The Vineyard, Fudge, or Dread. Run anything that is different in style and what tools the GM has to bring to bear. Watching someone else GM something in a way that is completely different from his set style might open his mind a bit. That, or buy him a copy of Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering as a birthday or holiday gift. It is a quick read that really addresses some core concepts of what being a GM is.

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On June 1, 2010 @ 2:49 pm

@evil – You’re right: emphasize growth and new tools, not “change” or anything else that carries a sense of “you’re wrong”. As brothers, he’s probably sensitive about competing with you.

@John Arcadian – It sounds like just running a game yourself was a good way to learn/show the content GM a few new tricks– and give him a game to play in. I agree that a radically different game might help illustrate how many options there are in the world of roleplaying.

#4 Comment By BryanB On June 2, 2010 @ 12:48 pm

This is a hard situation to handle. Subtle doesn’t work on some people. Gentle guidance doesn’t work on some people. While these steps are good ideas and something to work from, player patience is probably the greatest factor in the nudge.

In the end, if everyone is having fun, there may not be a great need to nudge. I’ve seen what can happen when someone is nudged so hard that it becomes a push and that has never ended well.

I think you can gauge a GM’s willingness to be nudged by how well that GM takes feedback. Do they actively ask for game feedback? Do they accept constructive feedback? Do they respond defensively or negatively when given feedback?

I feel that a GM who enjoys or seeks out constructive feedback is going to be more open to nudges than one who does not. That has been my experience at least. Having the other party be a sibling though? Man, that has to be even more difficult when sibling rivalry is tossed into the mix. :D

#5 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On June 2, 2010 @ 7:04 pm

You’re siblings. Pick a fight with him over it. At least that’s how my two brothers and I got any issues worked out between us… And we still talk.

Seriously, you may just need to let this go. It’s his decision to be a lazy GM; you can’t make it for him. If you’ve tried reaching out (and I mean really tried, so that there’s no doubt as to what you’re saying), and he doesn’t change, that’s about all you can do.

If it’s enough of a problem that his game really suffers, then treat him like any other bad GM: Move on.

#6 Comment By Salbic On June 24, 2010 @ 9:09 pm

Belated thanks for a very practical article.

As it happens, the story is moving toward a happy ending largely on its own. We’re gearing up to play a different system, and studying up on the (slightly more involved) rules seems to be distracting Kid Brother from his ego a bit. We’re all equally confused, now, and all equally willing to admit it — that’s something.

#7 Pingback By GMing and Playing Styles… What’s yours? | Moebius Adventures On July 23, 2010 @ 8:52 am

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