Whenever I run a game, I want to make sure it is the best possible game I can run. I want players walking away talking about it and ready for the next session. Maybe 1 in 5 games goes this way, even when I wing it, but it is always rewarding when it all comes together. The other week I was talking to a friend of mine who is getting into GMing. He was lamenting the lack of positive response to his games. We talked about it for a while and I mentioned the concept of “First Drafts Always Suck” and that being awesome at anything isn’t something you ever just stumble into.
After our conversation, I got to thinking about that concept more and more. It made me want to give a message to all the Game Masters who are starting out. It’s ok if you aren’t awesome at running a game, NOBODY IS. No matter how much talent you’ve got or how innate some of your skills are, nobody is awesome at anything without putting in a lot of time and effort and picking up a ton of little tips and experiences along the way.
I’m sure the most experienced GMs who have been gaming and running far longer than me will echo this sentiment, but no matter how creative, charismatic, rules savvy, or organized you are, your natural talent isn’t enough. This holds true for every single thing you do in life. Just like your characters can only skate by so much on attribute bonuses, you have to have the skills to run a game well. The only way to get those skills is to get experience by throwing yourself out there. You can help prepare yourself by reading advice and incorporating lessons learned from others experiences, but to internalize it and make yourself really good you have to get a feel for how to use your skills and the things you are learning.
To give it a different casing – I write code to pay most of my bills. I’ve got a mind that unravels patterns and can see the big picture. This makes me really good at it, but I’m crap if I’m working in a coding language I’m not familiar with. Even though I read through the code books and look at others tutorials, until I’ve got that broad base of experiences working with the particulars of this coding language, I struggle and stumble like a toddler with lack of fine motor skills. Once I’ve written a few programs and broken more than a few, then it starts to become innate and I can start to feel confident about it. Game Mastering is a complex field with many skills required to perform your duties. It takes time to build those skills up and experience to know when and how to implement them smoothly and seamlessly.
You may have run an incredible game last week, but that doesn’t mean you will this week. There are a million different factors that go into being successful at anything. Did you have enough time to prepare? Did you read your group’s expectations right? Were you distracted? Did you have a firm grasp of the game’s particulars? Did group members show up distracted and distract others?
You can’t control everything, and sometimes a game just slumps. When this happens, the important thing is not to let it get you down. Recover as best you can or cancel and come back to it later, just don’t let it make you feel like you aren’t cut out for running the game. It’s hard not to feel a bit down when you look out at the obviously unimpressed faces of your players. You promised a social experience of fun and for some reason, your fault or not, it didn’t occur. It’s ok. Don’t panic. Step away, take a break, regroup, and come at the problem from a different angle. Don’t worry, it happens to all of us. Anyone who says differently is lying to preserve their ego.
I’ve run a lot of games. Not nearly as many as some people, but a heck of a lot. This means, statistically at least, that I have also blown a lot of games. When I screw something up, I look for ways to make it come out better. What went wrong? Can I change that for the next game? What do I need to modify about myself. When a game comes together incredibly and everyone walks away excited as can be, I ask myself the same questions. I now approach the gaming table with confidence that I can run a decent game, even without preparation, but I still understand that the session after this one could be better in some way.
One of the hardest things about improving ourselves is admitting that we need to change something about ourselves. We are biologically wired to defend our positions and opinions as a means of mental self defense. So, digging in and saying that our way isn’t the best way and could be better takes a lot of willpower and introspection. Sometimes we can see the mistakes clearly and know they need changed, but we have to get past “I will do better” and into “How do I need to change to do better” in order to really make a lasting improvement. The best of us are only good at so many things, we can’t all be experts in everything. There is always room for improvement.
(and experienced ones too)
Being awesome is not something you stumble into. Your first attempts are often going to suck in some way, and even the games you run in or play after a long time gaming are sometimes going to suck. When you see somebody else who looks like they’ve got it all under control and are doing everything awesome, it’s probably because they had high skills, a lot of experience, and just this one time in the last five or ten happened to a roll a real life critical. Nobody rolls 20s all the time, so don’t feel like you can’t manage it because it didn’t all come together with ease, the way it seams to for someone else. There is a lot going on behind the scenes and just as much success is attributed to luck as it is to skill and experience.
Go be awesome. It’s going to take a while, but you will get there. Someday, I will too.