There will come a time, through no fault of your own, when you will be expected to run a game or exercise your GMing prowess and you will feel…lacking. We speak often of player and NPC motivation within the context of constructing a game or campaign, but very little about what keeps a GM motivated and returning to the table, week after week (hopefully). Some ideas to get through that darkness and into the light….

Fake It Until You Make It

You’ve probably heard this one before and for good reason: it usually works. Be it public speaking, combating shyness, or exerting yourself, just faking it — making the attempt even though you don’t want to — can, over time, lead to success. The key component of that statement is “over time.” Don’t fake interest in your own campaign for five sessions; just pull the plug. However, if you find yourself dreading the thought that game night is approaching and you don’t have anything ready (again) keep at it. Repetition breeds success. Over time that prep doesn’t become quite as hard, take quite as long, or seem like such a burden. Encouraging feedback given by the players helps a lot here too, as it highlights the payoff at the end of a session.

Power Through It

In many ways this is similar to the above with the exception that it’s a one-time deal. You’ve had a bad week and have to run a game that you’re normally engaged in. For four to six hours you can probably suck it up and just power through it, although be careful that its not to the detriment of the game. If you can’t keep a clear head about you and leave those feelings outside the door, then you might need to take the week off.

One interesting component of this strategy that I have found is that after a bad week, when I don’t want to run a game, within about 30 minutes of running said game, my mood has dramatically improved! Don’t underestimate the power of being with your friends and engaging in what is, presumably, a fun activity! It’s a game. Games are meant to be fun!

Psyche Yourself

This is the positive version of Power Through It: you focus your attention on that negative energy and turn it around for your own purpose. Playing your favorite music dialed up to 11, re-reading the campaign notes that got you excited to run the game in the first place, checking online “actual play” tales to inspire you. Whatever it takes!

For me, it’s usually those campaign notes or key NPCs. I develop a strong attachment to NPCs and if I’m not feeling it for a session, sitting down and putting myself in the NPC’s shoes and mentally walking through the adventure typically will turn that frown upside down! At that point I want to see that mental story come to life with the other players.

Use Your Lifeline

Sometimes the best thing to do is to confide in another that you’re lacking the motivation. This sounding board can help reinforce the things that made the game attractive in the first place. Ideally another GM, but even just one of your players can help with that extra bit of nudging and feedback that can get you back to the table.

Admittedly I use my wife who pretends to be interested (bless her soul) and that’s usually enough. Sometimes her advice is to just cancel the game, which, to me, feels wrong, and thusly, I can now find a way to Psyche Myself or Power Through It.

Call It

There’s no shame in calling the game. Be open and honest: you’re just not into running a game today. Now that doesn’t preclude your group from still getting together and engaging in some other activity or some backup game. However, if you end up having to call sessions more often than not, then you should really reconsider the game as a whole.

Also, if you’re going to call a game, be polite and give your players reasonable notice. Players psyche themselves up to play too! Sometimes your game is the highlight of their week; pulling the plug 30 minutes to game time is a kick in the nuts.

Have any tips to share on what helps motivate you as a GM? Share them below!

About  Don Mappin

For nearly 30 years RPGs have been a staple of Don’s life — so that means he’s pretty old. Author of a dozen RPG books, Don has worked with companies such as ICE, Last Unicorn Games, Decipher, and AEG. He now spends his time working in IT management, enjoying his family and two children, or gaming.



4 Responses to When the Darkness Comes

  1. I can think of a couple somewhat related things that have helped me get into the right frame of mind on game day. The first is to try and make sure I’m well rested before the game. If possible I’ll either take a 1 hour power nap just before or sit and relax quietly while going over my notes and listening to some mellow music.

    The second thing I try to do is make sure to eat something before the game and to make sure it is something relatively healthy and light. I used to wait until the group showed up and we would all indulge in the typical gamer cuisine i.e. pizza, burgers, chips, etc., but I discovered many years ago just how much of a brain-drain those foods really are. When I eat something light and healthy before the game and skip the usual gamer food, my mind remains much sharper and the whole session runs more smoothly.

    The thing that motivates me the most as a GM is always the players. When the players are excited about the game then I’m excited to run it.

  2. One of the players – actually, my husband – has lost mobility due to some health issues; our game hasn’t met in months. Now we’re going to be trying out some virtual tabletop stuff, and I’m finding myself in that dark place. I don’t feel entirely comfortable with the “newfangled gadgets” of the Roll20 site, and I keep second guessing myself about nearly everything as I try to prep. Often I get so frustrated that I just stop working on the game and go do something else for a while.

    But I always come back. I may work for twenty minutes and take an hour break, but I do come back and work another twenty minutes. In a real work environment I’d get fired, no doubt. I find that the key, for me, is permission to get frustrated and permission to just step back and relax. I do what I have to do to keep my creativity flowing. If I can’t muster any excitement for a given session – well, the players just aren’t going to have enough to keep the energy going.

    When I need to keep focused on game prep or to keep myself in game mode – the biggest help for me is music. We’ve developed over the years quite a playlist of music that makes us feel like gaming. We’re almost exclusively fantasy players, so there’s a lot of Loreena McKennitt and Blackmore’s Night in there. But the music helps my mood and it recalls other games and the excitement at the table. It makes me remember how much fun we’ve had before, and makes me want to get back there.

    Redcrow’s comment about eating before a game is spot on, also. When we had face to face sessions, food was a huge part of the game session. Not only in terms of “who’s bringing pizza” or similar logistics challenges – but actually in-game food as well, which I was able to turn into a kind of cultural calling card. The details of my game world really make me happy, and make me want to work on bringing the players into a story in that world of details.

    • A deep immersion player such as yourself or one who enjoys the very fact of meeting people face-to-face as an aspect of the RPG hobby (me) has a hard time moving the RPG presentation process to a completely virtual environment. I hope you make the transition and flourish in your new “game room”, and hope all goes well for you and your husband. Gamer couples should be exempted certain of life’s unpleasantness in my opinion (but my opinion and two dollars will buy you a cup of Deli coffee in this burg).

      I would have liked to play in a game in which the in-game culinary arrangements were a factor. If I wanted to introduce that in my current games I’d have to figure out some sort of benny/xp reward to get the players interested. The only sort of culinary discussion in-game is the oft-offered exhortation from PC to NPC to eat lead. 8o)

    • Sorry to hear that about your husband, I hope his health will improve with time… Best wishes to both of you and I hope you still can enjoy your time as a couple and, if possible, also with your group of friends to play.

      On the food part, I can’t actually comment since back in the days we always ate before, seperately (not actively playing since a couple of years… actually, a decade). Maybe some snacks where present, but in the 90′s in Switzerland (that’s it, land of chocolate and stolen money hidden in secret bank accounts:), there wasn’t much of a “Snack-culture” going on. So maybe a bag of chips split betweeen the party, or acouple of M&M’s, that was it. Although we drank way too much Soda… and maybe shared, you know, one of those cone-shaped things you put on fire and inhale:)

      Here’s an approach for another situation, in which not the GM, but the players are the problem, which was chosen by my favourite GM after running an absolutely stunning Shadowrun-campaign for nearly 6 years: The group was shifting towards, how should i call it, “epic douchbaggery” (hey, a new word!). People stopped paying attention, didn’t sometimes even show up, more players were drawn into the group that had no clue about RPGs or just wanted “to try it out for a good laugh”. So you know what he did: He just killed us all. And you know what else: He was damn right! Sometimes, you just have to show lazy players (or GM’s, of course!) that you just had enough of the nonsense. If every session is just about giggeling and sharing lines from movies: Kill all the Players, call it quits and start from scratch, because by the next time: The players will know not to f&%k with you if they want to play seriously. And it worked! Now, the players pay attention and are very careful not to make the same mistake again, also since he now just kills players that want to bulls%&t around.

      The only sad thing for me was: I just got into the game for a few sessions after being already absent from RPGs for 2 years, and then, this happens. But as said, I can understand him: He put so much work into it, you could’ve compared it to the time they put into Ravenloft or a comparable setting (I mean, he was constantly on it! Hundreds of Maps!), and if you get dissapointed like this: Just pull the plug, kill ‘em all and teach them a lesson for next time if they want to keep playing.

      Of course, this is a drastic approach, but in my oppinion many players take the GM’s input for granted. Let’s make a statement here: The GM is the machine that keeps the adventure running, the players are (mostly) the ones who enjoy the ride, so the work is on the GM most of the time. So maybe we should instead open a thread here about “How to keep your GM happy, because you shouldn’t take his effort for granted”, instead of showing GM’s how to grind their teeth and just make it through a session without killing someone… in real life! (Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the input, just thought that I never read a thread about such a topic for player characters, I mean, how they get through a session when they’re not interested… I just think, why should there be one type of player that has to do almost all the work and still has less fun than the others? Makes no sense, does it?)

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