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Thirty Years of GMing in the Books

Today is my birthday and looking at my daughter, I realized that it was at her age that I began playing — and running — RPGs, three decades ago. Like many graybeards, I cut my teeth on the venerable Dungeons & Dragons (for me the magenta Basic Set, circa 1981) and that experience led to many, many more adventures.

Wistfully looking back at the path that took me here, these are a few of the things I learned along the way. Sometimes, quite harshly!

We Learn By Doing

Every GM had to start somewhere and chances were pretty good that we botched it up. I remember my first foray outside of D&D with Top Secret, running a game for my parents (!). It was absolutely miserable. But like any stubborn child knocked down, you get up, brush yourself off, and try again.

Experience breeds confidence and the great thing about RPGs is that you’re at a table with a group of people invested in having a good experience with you as well. It’s a safe environment. Use it.

Fail Hard

Be it your first game or your hundredth game, when you have your first stinker (session, adventure, or campaign) it will hurt. A lot.

Running a game is a personal experience. You put a bit of yourself into it and open yourself to criticism. Even if no one says a negative thing and the game is quietly — and mutually — canceled off into the sunset, that hurts. That failure can gnaw at you.

But the good news is that it gets better. You can’t hit a home run every session; just try for base hits and rely on the rest of your team. Take the strikes with grace.

Great GMs Can Make the Difference

Bad players who aren’t engaged, are actively trying to ruin things, or generally just not part of the social contract at the table to be part of a shared, enjoyable experience can be overcome with a brilliant GM at the helm. Ideally you’d like to have both: a top-notch GM and an equally wonderful group of players.

But while a great GM can make up for a lot of shortcomings (rules, players, et al), conversely a poor GM can doom even the most spirited adventurers.

I used to have a saying that playing in any game was better than not gaming at all. (It was a dark period in my gaming history.) Well, that was predicated by years of having a stable group and wonderful GMs. Only after venturing out without a safety net and experiencing gaming with some truly horrible GMs (and a fair number of players, too) did I see the error of my ways.

Find — or become — the GM of your dreams and hitch your wagon for a long, enjoyable ride.

Great Players Raise Your Game

If you’re fortunate to be in a stable group of fellow gamers and get along well then consider yourself lucky. Like an athlete, gamers can raise their game to meet a challenge. Sure, many of us dread the appearance of a rule lawyer at our table but I can tell you that having another expert there can cause you to raise your game to new heights. I sometimes lament the encyclopedic level of D&D knowledge that one player brought to our table over several years because it was hard, hard work trying to raise my game to meet their expectations. But the game was better for it, I feel.

As a GM, having strong, creative, and engaged players also raises the quality of the experience for everyone involved.

Looking back at some of the great adventures I’ve run that achieved “classic” status, all had a defining characteristic amongst them of great players.

You Are Not Prepared!

I had my uber-planning phase about a decade ago where I had every plot element typed up, the NPCs statted to the absurd detail, finely-crafted handouts ready and still the players would take twists and turns that I couldn’t foresee. Or, worse yet, avoid my clever, intricate stories outright.

What cheek! I mean, I spent dozens and dozens of hours crafting this elaborate story (that I really enjoyed) but they didn’t seem to care or outright missed. Pages and pages of material left on the cutting room floor, all my work for naught! Why did the players forsake me?

The hard truth was that you can’t — and shouldn’t — try to prepare for everything. And those finely crafted stories that sounded so good in my head? They’re pointless if they’re so complex that the players miss them.

Spending your time on the important few elements versus trying to codify the masses. Some people even take this to extremes and do the all improvisational game. That’s outside my comfort zone, I’m afraid.

Gaming Group Romances

Don’t. Just don’t. 🙂

Rules Are the Vehicle, You Are the Engine

The greatest complement I can give to a rules system is when it disappears. You rarely notice a good gaming system. You always notice a bad one. “Bad” in this case is one that doesn’t suit the game’s needs; mechanically it could still be a fine system. I believe the recent iterations of D&D are great tactical wargames — and if that’s what you’re interested in then by all means. Can you role play an all-political drama with no combat with it? Sure. Just like you can hammer in a nail with a block of cheese. There are better tools for the job. With so many options available these days — and many of them free — I believe we can afford to get picky.

Find the right rules that will disappear so you can focus on what’s important behind the screen.

Evoke Emotions

There are a myriad of specific tips as to running a game I could provide and have picked up over the years but the one that I always go back to is tying that emotional connection. Conveying through description, story, or character a level of connection that ties the player to the game and evokes an emotion to where they are now a part of the story, rather than a passive participant/observer.

It’s quite difficult and the complexity is increased when you consider that each player is unique in what will foster that connection. Once you discover what elements they are likely to respond to you can start to make the connection. It’s hard work and takes time but the payoff is amazing.

Also, you have to maintain the health of that connection; you can’t engender an emotional response and then walk away. You have to foster it through play.

To put it another way, a vivid session is less remembered by the who/what/how elements and more by how the players felt. I remember what the NPC said but more so, I remember how it made me feel.

Always Learning

After 30 years, multiple published works, and a couple million words in the tank I know it all? Hell no. Even in the past few years I’ve still been learning and polishing my craft. You may be surprised to learn that the Gnomes learn as much from our articles as our readers do.

Even more humbling are the games that I look back on that I’ve run (recently) that stunk up the joint. Terrible, terrible stuff. Deconstruct them to find what went wrong and look to avoid those pitfalls in the future.

Every game you play in is an opportunity to learn something new and add it to your repertoire. I’m still learning — even from a session I played in last week — something that I can tweak/add/do/remove to be even better.

We are all life-long learners enrolled in the school of Great GMing.

Games Are Meant to Be Fun

On the surface it’s quite obvious but for many gamers — myself included — we can lose sight of the forest for all the trees. We get bogged down in rules, plots, NPCs, methodology, storytelling, resource management and so much more that we can forget that we’re playing a damn game.

Games are meant to be fun.

It’s okay to take a step back, put down the pencil and rulebook and just make a decision right there, in the now, as to what would be the most fun thing to do. Presumably we all play with friends and what’s better than spending time with friends and having fun?

So the next time you’re stressing about crafting the perfect plot, calculating that all the monsters are the right challenge level, and counting squares and plotting line of sight…take pause and remember why you’re doing these things. When the bullshit : fun ratio is more the former than the latter, it may be time to make a change or stop completely.

If you let fun be your guiding principle when running a game, everything else just fades away.

What pieces of earned wisdom have you learned over the years? Tell us below!

Game on!

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "Thirty Years of GMing in the Books"

#1 Comment By rabalias On September 6, 2011 @ 2:44 am

A couple of thoughts this provoked:

My big pearl of wisdom would be “know your group”. Some of the biggest disasters I’ve seen have resulted from misjudging the psychology of a player (simplest case in point being a piece of important information you need the group to know – don’t channel it through the guy who likes to hoard secrets), or the group (for example, you need to know how susceptible your group is to the player paranoia effect if you’re going to avoid tipping them into a state of tedious inaction). Conversely, if you know your players/group well you can play off their psychology, achieving beautiful gameplay without the use of railroading or whatnot, as if by magic.

This makes con gaming difficult. I dread running games where I don’t know any of the players – how can I begin to guess how they’ll react to what I’ve thrown at them? With such a group, the ability to be flexible and improvise is probably key. That, or railroad like hell (not my preferred option).

In response to your point about game mechanics: I don’t think I agree that the best thing they can do is disappear. I agree that a cumbersome, intrusive game mechanic is probably the worst kind of game-mechanical problem most of us encounter. But well-designed game mechanics can promote good play, in an active way (i.e. not merely by somehow invisibly lurking in the background). I’ll have to find time to write an article about this, because I don’t hink I can adequately express it in a comment.

#2 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 6, 2011 @ 11:43 am

Excellent article. I agree on every one of your points.

#3 Comment By Patrick Benson On September 6, 2011 @ 1:10 pm

Nice article, and happy birthday Don!

#4 Comment By black campbell On September 6, 2011 @ 6:49 pm

[1] – Agreed, knowing your players is essential to a good tight game session.

#5 Comment By DNAphil On September 6, 2011 @ 7:12 pm

Happy Birthday Don.
Looks like we have about the same number of years in and cut our teeth on the same boxed set.

You have some great nuggets of wisdom in this article. I Echo the point about no Gaming Group romances. Mine ended with lawyers and such.

I really like your point about always learning. To this day I find myself learning from my successful campaigns, but more so from my failed campaigns. Being a GM is being an constant scholar.

Enjoy your birthday.

#6 Pingback By Gaming Group Romances « The Black Campbell On September 6, 2011 @ 9:02 pm

[…] is a response to one of Don Mappin’s posts over on Gnome Stew – a guy I quasi know from the old Star Trek gaming BBS. In the post he had a series of […]

#7 Comment By Don Mappin On September 7, 2011 @ 8:17 am

Thanks guys!

And while I know there are surely gaming group romance successes, looking back at the 10-ish hookups I’ve experienced over the years, each of them 1) didn’t last (I draw no conclusions as to why) and 2) had a negative impact on the group.

@rabalias, knowing your group certainly makes your job easier. I don’t see it as a requirement, because even with strangers you can peel away some of their motivations in short time (less than a session). Defaulting back to “would this be fun?” is always a good safety net.

This could be a byproduct of having run hundreds of demos at various conventions with strangers, however.

#8 Comment By Martin Ralya On September 7, 2011 @ 8:35 pm

I’m late on the birthday wishes, but your party hasn’t happened yet! 😉

Amen to “Rules Are the Vehicle, You Are the Engine” — this has been huge for me lately, and it seems like we’re on exactly the same page about this what with Star Trek and all.

#9 Comment By LordVreeg On September 8, 2011 @ 12:49 pm

Happy Birthday!

I think these match up pretty well with me…the verbage is a little different in terms of the way I view them, but the concepts seem close.

I am going to admit that I still get far too much out of over-creating the world and the adventure…I personally have found that while everything I create may not get used, it helps form a deeper world and a better immersive experience. But it does not sound like you are against this, just that creating the ‘perfect railroad’ is still a railroad…

Vreeg’s first rule of setting design is,
“Make sure the ruleset you are using matches the setting and game you want to play, because the setting and game WILL eventually match the system.”

I think this is the same thing you are talking about with your conversation about the tools.
I really also enjoyed the reading, as well…

#10 Pingback By RPG News from Around the Net: 9-SEP-11 | Game Knight Reviews On September 9, 2011 @ 5:06 am

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#11 Comment By deadlytoque On September 9, 2011 @ 9:16 am

Happy birthday, Don, and great article.

My fiancee and I would have to disagree with you about gaming group romances, though, since she and I met over a game of D&D…

#12 Comment By GiacomoArt On September 9, 2011 @ 1:56 pm

Totally agreed with deadlytoque — great article, save for that one spot — except that my favorite gamer girl and I aren’t just engaged. We’ll be celebrating our 20th-anniversary next spring.

While it’s true that any break-up within a small social circle can be painful and awkward for the bystanders as well as the principles; and that even an on-going relationship can cause un-welcome ripples as it changes the dynamic within the group; what about all the tragedies that come about when couples don’t share each others’ passionate interests, and either wind up feeling shut out or trying to change each other to fit their pre-existing images of a dream mate?

My advice on gaming group romances would be, “Proceed with caution, but life’s just too short not to.”