I think some people shy away from running games because it’s a lot of work. I’m not going to lie to you – it can be. You hold a whole universe in your head! You may even need to dedicate your whole focus to the session, which can mean no personal distractions (no cell phones, laptops, knitting, doodling, etc). Running a game requires your time, effort, and attention. Let’s not kid ourselves. However, it doesn’t have to be draining or stressful. Always remember that the goal is to be entertained1, and that includes the person in the hot seat.
Relax. Take a deep breath. Remember that everyone at the table is (hopefully) there because they want to be. Unless you’re being rude, offensive, abrasive, or selfish, you’re probably doing a pretty good job. Don’t worry so much about the perceived “quality” of your game mastery. Take your focus off yourself and turn it instead toward your players. Are they paying attention? By this, I mean the majority. It’s unfair to expect everyone to give you 100% of their attention for several hours. Are they doing things like taking notes, asking questions, or going out of their way to talk to NPCs? These are all signs of engagement, and engagement means your players are loving what you’re doing, so don’t ignore them. You do not have to weave a masterful yarn, craft a story on par with a best-seller, or toss around descriptions that make blockbuster films seem inadequate in order to have engrossed players. The only things this requires are knowing yourself, and knowing your group. Like any working relationship, this takes time to form. Unless there’s a serious issue (use your good common sense), I’d suggest you give yourself at least a half-dozen sessions of play before throwing in the towel.
But Monica, I’m no good at thinking on my feet! This may make running games very difficult for you, because spontaneity is a big part of keeping the action at the table fresh. There are lots of gaming aids out there to help you populate your game world, though. If you surf around gaming websites, you may find free or cheap pdfs containing places, plot hooks, and/or character ideas. Lots of games come with random charts so you can use the dice to help you come up with a location on the fly. I recommend any of Sine Nomine Publications’ products which cover a variety of genres and have impeccable tables for creating places. To reiterate: let someone else do the work. That someone else, in this case, just happens to be a chart. If you’re really a go-getter, you can make up your own charts ahead of time. There are lots of neat things on the internet that will help you name people and places. I am particularly fond of this one though it only pulls names from the US census, so it may not be ideal for international gamers.
Use your players as a resource. I don’t mean to harp on this point, but seriously, there’s no need to put all the weight on your shoulders. Ask leading questions during character creation. Encourage people to give depth to their characters. Heck, build the setting together, if that suits your group. As an example, ask everyone what their favorite movies or books (or video games!) in the chosen game’s genre are. For example, if I’m running D&D, I definitely want to know what everyone’s favorite fantasy media is. Did you like the Lord of the Rings films? How about Dragon Age: Origins? Maybe your players are fans of the fiction of Stephen Erikson or Brandon Sanderson. Ask them what parts of those stories appeal, and then take inspiration from that to weave a world that everyone will think is neat.
I, personally, prefer if players provide details but keep them vague or general. This leave me room to feel like I’m also invested in the creative process and therefore makes me much more interested in their plot hooks. When you choose to game, you’re choosing to spend your time with a handful of other really creative people. Doesn’t it seem like a total waste to avoid taking advantage of that? In order to use your players in this manner, you have to talk things out with them. I think this is key; your roleplaying game should be a conversation.
Reincorporate: Did someone just say something you think is awesome? Maybe take some creative license with the setting you described? Perhaps someone at the table knows a whole lot more about a particular subject matter than you do. Let them show their expertise. Take advantage of cool descriptions. Say yes, and then work it back into your narrative. Reincorporation goes a long way with people, and it makes them feel immediately more engaged with your game. As an added bonus, it’s a whole lot less work for you!
In closing, find your zen. Take a deep breath. Relax. Take a load off. Abandon the self-imposed stresses of “being up to par” or “knowing all the rules” and the burdens of feeling like you have to keep your game on perfect track. Once you lighten your intellectual load, I think you’ll find your thoughts will come more freely. Give it a try and let me know.
- Even if you’re playing games that are about strong emotions and hard choices, it’s still entertainment. ↩