Recently, two things inspired me. One, I read an entry on Erik Jensen’s blog bout how he’s “Not an old school DM” and his “it gets worse” philosophy. Two, a friend of mine asked to pick one thing to absolutely always do as a GM, and one thing to never do as a GM. I gave an answer to the second, but had I read Mr. Jensen’s article first, I would have given a different answer.
No book can teach you to be a good game master; no podcast, YouTube video, or blog article can do the same. Oh, sure, you can take pointers and inspiration and suggestions from those things, but game mastering is an art, not a science. Like any art form it requires a little bit of talent and an awful lot of work. Finding and honing the talent you do have can often be the hardest part. As much as we like to tout ourselves as welcoming and forgiving, gamers are not always the easiest audience. It can be nerve-wracking and stressful!
Here’s where Mr. Jensen’s article comes in. He discusses how important it is to know yourself, and I couldn’t agree more. While my advice to my friend was “never put yourself first” as a GM – which is not to say that you should let the players walk all over you – you must be true to your own sense of style. As Mr. Jensen points out, it’s okay to enjoy something different as a player than as a GM. Mr. Jensen compares himself to the band They Might Be Giants: lighthearted and fun, and unlikely to – say- cover a Slayer song. I think of myself as being like the band The Joy Formidable my campaigns are often darkly joyous, full of energy and well-honed pacing. You probably won’t hear them covering a Top 40 song, or performing classical music. I like my stories big, complex, and full of interesting characters and places. While the World of Darkness is one of my favorite systems, I know I’m much better off playing in it than running it. Finding your ‘groove’ is hard, and will almost certainly require trial and error. Once you’ve found it, be true to it, because that is where you will shine.
The same friend mentioned above was lamenting to me that her players had a previous DM who spent their campaign simply trying to kill their PCs at every turn. They loved that style of play. She confessed she felt her DMing wasn’t up to snuff because she “couldn’t do what [he] did.” To this, I replied, “So don’t.” Likewise, I’ve had plenty of people tell me they “can’t” run a game because they “don’t know all the rules” – as if sitting in the big chair was some kind of rules-encrusted memorization nightmare. I reminded the last person to tell me that, that this is why they invented Post-It flags. (Besides, everyone knows that getting your players in the same place at the same time is truly the hardest part of GMing!) You don’t need to mimic someone else and you don’t need to be walking rules encyclopedia – you just need to be yourself.
How do I begin my journey of self discovery? Like I said, it takes trial and error. It takes reading through a Game Mastery section of a book and thinking “I agree with that” or “No, I don’t think so…” and then applying it in practice. It also requires a little introspection. What truly inspires you? What kind of books, movies, or music do you REALLY like? What makes you stop and say “damn, that’s cool!”? I can’t answer these questions for you, and neither can anybody else.
But Monica, the only way I get to game is via the RPGA/Pathfinder Society/Etc at my FLGS! All they use are premade adventures. How can I be true to myself when the campaign is already written for me? As much as some of their fans wish they did, the companies that produce pre-made adventures do not have style police. If you get your adventure in advance, read through the whole thing ahead of time. Add your own personal touches where you can. Be inspired by the text instead of following it exactly. Throw in minor, flavorful houserules (such as describing your action for a reroll, or including a critical hit/fumble chart, and so on). Find a way to make it yours – because, hell, if you paid for that adventure, it IS yours.
What if my gaming group only wants to play one thing? In this case, I’d advise either finding a way to run whatever it is your way (which, admittedly, requires the guts to tell your friends to suck it up and deal), or challenging your group to try something similar but new. To me, refusing to branch out and try one of the hundreds of other games out there is like going to a Chinese buffet and only eating pizza. How can you find what really satisfies you if you don’t at least sample a few different things? With the availability of electronic media, it’s easy to find a game that might be interesting with free or cheap quick start rules. There’s something out there for you, I promise.
My gaming group predominantly LARPs, plays story games, etc. What about me? That’s why this is going to be the first in a series! The GaW team is pretty darn knowledgeable about this sort of thing.
In closing, being true to yourself doesn’t give you an excuse to be abrasive, unpleasant, offensive, or selfish. GMing is, truly, a thankless task where enjoyment is derived from seeing others entertained. If you’re not wholly enjoying the way that entertainment is provided, then it can quickly become a chore. Remember, too, that this is a group activity, so it’s totally okay to talk everything out with your players, form houserule choices to the inclusion of difficult or triggering content.
Know yourself. Keep open lines of communication.
You’ll do just fine, we promise.