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Oh God I’m On Fire!

As soon as I saw this comment from Chando42 [1] 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:

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 [2], involves playing on one of my strengths — improvisation — while neatly avoiding all the traps that cause me to procrastinate.

Prep templates [3] 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 [4].

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:

  1. Run the game your players want to play
  2. Take a break and run a different game that melds their preferences and yours
  3. 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 [5].

#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 [6]. 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. [7]

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.

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "Oh God I’m On Fire!"

#1 Comment By Rafe On November 9, 2010 @ 8:15 am

I know you said the Stew didn’t magically ensure that you did an awesome job GMing (WE HAVE FAILED)

NOOOOOOO!!! …damn you, foam-rubber!

In all seriousness, the guy might want to try a mini-campaign idea. I think it’s been written of here on the Stew, but in case it hasn’t, plan out a 2- to 3-session mini-campaign. You could even go as far as using pregens, depending on the system. For instance, it’s a very good idea for Burning Wheel, regardless of player experience with the system.

Now, that might help you get into GM’ing more, but it doesn’t address the main issues. That said, I mostly agree with Martin. However, for improv, I wouldn’t improv the end or conclusion of something. I’d test out your improv muscles on something small, between meaty scenes — a meet-up with someone the PC wants something from, or to introduce a possible hook (and if they don’t bite, then it doesn’t matter). Dip your toes in the water; don’t jump off a waterfall. 🙂

In terms of losing interest in your own game, happens to me all the time. I’m lucky in that most everyone else at my table is or has been a GM. So I just say “Guys, I’m not feeling this. I need to reorganize where it’s going. Can someone run a game of Dread, Dogs In the Vineyard or something next round?”

That’s actually where we came up with the idea for our mini-campaign insanity. I got burned out trying to get a full Burning Wheel campaign going and thought, “I just want to do a Conan-type game over like 2 or 3 sessions. High adventure, hard hitting, light at the end of the tunnel.” It was a light bulb moment for our group. We now rotate GMs every 2-4 sessions — new GM, new gaming system, new mini-campaign!

It worked great for my group, and it’s a great excuse to try out new systems. And to be honest, nothing will help you improve more as a GM than by reading and then running totally new game systems.

#2 Comment By Rafe On November 9, 2010 @ 8:16 am

(umm… there was a *falls on sword* after NOOOO up there… darn html brackets…)

#3 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 9, 2010 @ 8:38 am

Good stuff, Martin. My advice to Chando42 is to look at his current GMing schedule and to determine if he is too aggressive with the number of sessions that he is running. At sometimes during my GMing career I was able to run two different campaigns easily once every week, and at other times the sessions had to be done on a monthly schedule.

When you are running too many sessions at too fast of a pace you might be burning yourself out. You also need a recovery period between sessions to properly evaluate what is going right and what is going wrong with the game. I know a lot of GMs who get caught up in a mad dash of prep between game sessions and do not take the time to enjoy the game themselves. Make sure that is not the problem for you.

I hope that helps, and I would love to hear what Chando42 does next. Best of luck to him, and if he would like specific advice for a particular problem he is more than welcomed to join myself, and fellow gnomes Kurt and Matthew at [8] to discuss things with other GMs.

#4 Comment By evil On November 9, 2010 @ 10:37 am

Lack of improv skills and bad NPC acting can probably be solved in the exact same way. Steal, steal, steal. If you see a character in a movie that amuses you, if you read a book with a great bartender, if you meet someone in a store that would make a great personality, steal it. Use that as a starting point to give your characters a little life, and then run in a different direction. You’d be amazed how well Jim from Blazing Saddles or Luna from the Harry Potter books can slide into your games if you just rip the name off and put them in a different role. Once you’ve got a groove going with that character, let your imagination take it. The same can be said with plot points from books or movies. Change an item or two and let your players play. (They’d do a better job of getting out of the Death Star trash compactor, right?)

#5 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On November 9, 2010 @ 3:51 pm

I saw this come across the Suggestion Pot, and before I could start to mentally address some of the points, Martin had claimed it. And did a dang fine job at it, too.

My not-so-brief advice:

Talk to your players. Tell them your issues, and listen to them. They might be enjoying the game more than you think they are. Also mention the ‘breaking the adventure’ issue you’re seeing.

Procrastination can be beaten. IIRC, it takes 10 minutes on average for the creative mindset to form. Your job is to work for at least 15 minutes at each prep session before giving up. Force yourself to sit down and start writing, and the ideas will flow.

Acting always looks better than it feels. (Yes, I’ve done some acting.) You may be kicking yourself for the 20th cliche in 10 NPCs, but the players are probably following along just fine. If it still bugs you, rehearse a bit.

There’s nothing wrong with a purely tactical game, if that’s what your players are interested in (and if you still enjoy it enough to run it). Think of it as a chance to take a break from the improv, the acting, and the complex plotting, and get more comfortable behind the screen.

Finally, for some reason, this situation reminded me of the setup for [9], especially the “my players want X, but I want Y” aspect.

#6 Comment By John Arcadian On November 9, 2010 @ 4:52 pm

I always refer to that first fail and rebuild moment as popping the GMing cherry. There is a point that I think ALL GMs go through where they just blow a game and then start to realize and react to situations instead of trying to pre-plan for them. The best advice I can give to any GM is to stand back up and try again. Learn from the mistakes, but realize you are going to make them. No one, newb or veteran, is immune to screwing it up; so don’t fret it when you do, just try again and learn from the mistakes.

#7 Comment By Chando42 On November 9, 2010 @ 9:57 pm

To everyone who commented, and especially Martin, thank you.
I talked this issue over at length with my group. They all seemed very put out when I told them that I wanted to try a different game. Two of them outright told me they didn’t want to change. Taking into account this graph ( [10]), I decided to continue running the Star Wars campaign. In other words, I went with #1.
I’m going to do my best to retool my campaign to fit both their playing styles and my own style. Lighter on the epic backstory and NPCs, heavier on the exciting combats and interesting challenges.
The prep template was a blessing, and I know I’ll be using it in all of my future prepping.
Once again, thank you for all of your help. There’s a reason the Stew is my homepage. 🙂

#8 Comment By Martin Ralya On November 10, 2010 @ 6:44 am

[11] – Rock on! This is why we write Gnome Stew. 🙂

#9 Comment By Rafe On November 10, 2010 @ 8:59 am

[12] – What?! I thought it was for the women. . . .

#10 Comment By IcebergTitanic On November 11, 2010 @ 4:29 pm

I think that I would offer in two suggestions for Chando…

1. Let go a little bit of the idea that it’s “your” game. Many times as GM, one can get wrapped up in the delicious story, or amazing encounters that you have so carefully prepared and lovingly wrapped in prose. Then, when the players go and do something “wrong” which deviates from your story, it can get the GM bent out of shape. Really, it’s about telling an interactive story. There’s certainly tools you can use to try and coax them back on track, but you gotta let them run a bit. The most fun I (and I suspect many other gamers) have ever had playing was when we kind of went off track and the GM let us go do our thing. This kind of ties in to point #2…

2. I have a book on my shelf by Orson Scott Card (the author of Ender’s Game) about how to write science fiction and fantasy. There is one very important point that he makes, and that is to try and create the entirety of the world in your mind, even if you’re only writing a small part of it. For example, in your star wars campaign, you should have enough knowledge of the universe and settings, that even when they party members deviate from the set path, you can roll with the punch because you have a clear enough picture of the world that you can make a pretty good picture of how it would react.

The group is infiltrating Death Start Mk. 4 or something. You have made yourself a general blueprint of how the thing is laid out, with perhaps some notes about garbage chutes, different areas of the base, and other useful notes. Also, you should have a small stack of “stock” NPC’s that one might encounter in any of those areas. Then, when your group suddenly decides to tie their lightsabers to a scavenged ventilator fan to make a machine that bores halfway through the station, you can have a good idea of what happens when they punch out into the large, open reactor core area, and what the surprised technicians in do when they see this happen. What happens when a billion monitoring systems suddenly find that electrical connections have been cut off, water pipes are leaking, and dozens of people are frantically radioing into the security center about them? Etc.

Good luck!