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Take a Risk, or Take a Pass

If you want to be a great GM you must risk your current game being a failure over and over again.

You need to take risks in order to get rewards. Rewards do not come to the people who do the safe and sure thing. People who do the safe and sure thing get mediocrity at best.

Do you want to run a mediocre game? If you answered yes, stop reading this blog. In fact, stop reading any form of GMing advice whatsoever. If you want to run a mediocre game just keep repeating whatever it is that worked for you once before. It might still be exciting the second time around, perhaps even the third, but eventually it will become a boring and mediocre routine.

And it will only get worse from that point.

So with every game that you GM take a risk. Try out a new GMing technique. Improvise a scene instead of using your notes. Say “Yes.” to a crazy player idea. Take a risk, and when you fail learn from it. Then take another risk, fail again, and then learn from that failure. Rinse and repeat.

You will fail more often than you succeed. You will learn though, and as you learn you will realize that your game is more resilient than you gave it credit for. You will see it survive. You will see it improve, because you are now pushing yourself into new territory. You will be failing, you will be learning, and then eventually you will begin to succeed.

All those failures that you learned from became new knowledge. All those experiences that you have felt will have empowered you. You will then realize that you were not failing, but instead you were preparing to succeed. You were not risking your game at all.

You were saving it from mediocrity.

What risks have you taken with your games? How did you fail? What did you learn? How did you succeed? Leave a comment below and share your story with the rest of us!

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Take a Risk, or Take a Pass"

#1 Comment By Lars Larsen On June 1, 2012 @ 8:14 am

I think “failure” is very strong language for a botched attempt at a new GM’ing technique. Especially if you mean that by failure, the players at the table aren’t enjoying the game. The idea that you’re going to fail to play your game correctly or entertain your players most of the time when you try something new and it doesn’t come off 100% how you wanted, is dismal and a little silly. I try new stuff in my game all the time — sometimes it falls a little flat, but I’m always able to balance that with keeping my players engaged and the game running. So I wouldn’t categorize these GM’ing technique experiments “failures”. In short, I think this article needs a solid definition of what you mean by failure — because I think it can be sorely misread and discourage people from becoming good DMs.

#2 Comment By Riklurt On June 1, 2012 @ 8:29 am

I’m actually not sure /how/ to take risks in my currently ongoing games. I’m starting to feel like I’ve tried everything – which, of course, isn’t remotely true, but sometimes it can be hard to think of something you haven’t tried because it might not even occur to you. It’s very true what the article says, though – familiarity breeds mediocrity.

#3 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On June 1, 2012 @ 10:11 am

I think summer is the best time to take risks. Maybe it has something to do with being outside, exploring, trying new things, going places, etc. I think players appreciate it when GMs take risks.

#4 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 1, 2012 @ 10:51 am

[1] – Failure is when your expectations are not met. You tried something and it did not play the way that you were hoping that it would. That is a failure.

The other thing to keep in mind though is that failures are not BAD. They are simply failures. They are learning experiences.

Quitting on the other hand is BAD. When you stop taking risks consider that to be the same as giving up.

[2] – Is there anything that you are scared to do as a GM? Do it. If you are worried that it will not work and that will result in negative consequences, then that is something that for you is a risk. I know one GM who is an amazing D&D 1st Edition DM. He refused to run anything else claiming that he didn’t need to do so. I called his bluff, and told him “You are so comfortable with 1e that you are scared to get rid of that security blanket and risk running a game where you might not have mastery of the rules. Stop hiding behind that excuse, because you are a great GM and the system won’t matter.”

Turns out was right. He ran a game of The Dresden Files, screwed up left and right, and the games was still a blast.

I hope that helps you to determine what your next risk should be. Just follow the fear (or perhaps uncertainty is a better word) and you will find the next challenge.

[3] – I take GMing risks all the time, so I can’t say if one season makes it a better time to do so or not. I do like the concept though of maybe being planning to take more risks because it is a certain season. Sort of an outside reminder that you need to shake things up.

And I agree that players love to see the GM take a risk. They want unexpected twists and turns. If you have a four hour session I suggest playing 3 hours of it safe, and one hour of it taking off-the-wall risks. Your game will probably rock, but if only one hour fizzles you can probably recover from it.

#5 Comment By Razjah On June 1, 2012 @ 6:05 pm

I think every time I introduce a new game system or a new genre/mood/tone/pick your word I am taking a risk. Every time I try something new, such a noir styled Burning Wheel game, I am risking the game falling flat because I took a risk to go outside of my tolkein-esque D&D comfort zone. Sometimes they do fall kind of flat, my Skypirates game bit the dust after about 2 months. Other times they become a new milestone for my GMing, my noir Burning Wheel game really pushed my GM style in a new direction and it was awesome!

With the skypirates I learned that I was not clear enough about the expectations of the genre. So I adapted to make sure everyone was on the same page for my noir game. I had a list of films and books for inspirations and the players made sure they understood it. Another thing I learned was- for a role play heavy game, get good role players. I hand picked my players for the game I ran during the spring semester rather than opening it to the club like the skypirates game. The results were fantastic.

Another risk was going darker in tone. Many of my games have been more gritty, but not grim and dark. My noir game was near midnight in it’s brightest moments. The players made this better by constantly pushing each other’s and my own comfort zone. Hookers? Sure. Murder? Sure. Setting up nobles by hunting down and killing their loved ones? Plan failed- they got caught. It went downhill from there. One play got very creative in brutal ways, which was excellent for the game, if concerning (we talked with him about it- it was just a letting of steam/experiment on how dark we can get the game).

My failures were in this game too. I never managed to bring in PC’s slave background in. Whenever I had it set up the party went another way and left the slave information in the dark. The finale had a couple forced elements due to improper set up (slaver got the macguffin the party needed, and he came out of the shadows rather than their fear). Now I have another goal to work for in future games- better use of PC backgrounds and ensuring they are worked into the story well.

#6 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 1, 2012 @ 6:53 pm

[4] – Yep. You get what this article is all about. I salute you, sir! 🙂

#7 Comment By recursive.faults On June 1, 2012 @ 6:55 pm

My recent list of risks I’m pleased with are:

-Mixing Fate aspects with Savage Worlds
-Letting the players completely screw up any notion of an economy with absurd bets and wagers
-Running games with nothing more than a loose concept
-Making adventures out of the players’ backgrounds, personalities, and exploits
-Running combats without a single stat written down
-Telling the players if I plan on really am going to try to kill them in each session

Actually this makes me sound like a lazy GM. Though I have to say, it’s been fantastic and the players have been asking for more.

#8 Comment By Razjah On June 1, 2012 @ 9:24 pm

[5] – Holy Crap! I got a Gnome Salute™, if our comments had a signature like forums do that definitely go in mine.

#9 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 1, 2012 @ 11:53 pm

[6] – Awesome! That is what I want to hear about – GMs trying something new and the players asking for more! Rock on!

[7] – We give credit where credit is due. 🙂