• Failures in Game Mastery

    by  • October 16, 2013 • Essays • 26 Comments

    Today I’ve been thinking about GMing.

    I have not GM’d much. In fact, it’s been fewer than 10 times. A large part of it is anxiety, some of it is just lack of time to invest.

    When I ran at Gen Con, the first session was one of the worst experiences in my entire gaming history. There were a lot of things at work:

    • general anxiety
    • inexperience
    • lots of ambient noise making it hard to focus
    • forgetfulness about the rules and scenario

    It all added up to misery.

    The second session went okay, but I still came out of it feeling drained and miserable. Not to the degree of the previous day, but still really bad. I felt sick to my stomach, more tired than I’d felt in weeks, and I felt defeated. The players seemed to have a good time but I didn’t.

    What this tells me is that I’m not meant to GM. I tried it because I wanted to and because I was afraid to, and I always try to do things I’m afraid of. I just didn’t like it. There’s nothing wrong with not enjoying an activity, right?

    However, it still makes me feel like a failure. Like, why can’t I do this simple thing? I know it takes creativity but I always thought that of all things I would have that. I know it takes organization but organization is like my entire day job. I know it takes enthusiasm and I thought I had that, but know I don’t.

    I’m also frustrated because I have ideas for stories but no idea what to do with them. I want to experience them but when I’m just a player, all I can do is sit back and hope that someday someone else will run something similar. I hate being reliant on other people to tell stories that approximate stories I want and that I wish I could tell.

    There has been a recent push for women to GM, taking the lead so that we’re more visible and bring in more women to the hobby overall. This is great! That’s part of why doing this was so important to me. But, I failed.

    I just guess I’m disappointed. I had wanted this, but now I feel like I’ve not only failed myself, but also failed other women by being incompetent at something that people want more women to do.



    I'm a 25 year old admin assistant from around Pittsburgh, PA. I am married, work and attend college concurrently, and have been tabletop gaming for about 8 years. I blog (very, very periodically), and write unpublished short stories. I play tabletop RPGs, board games, and both casual and RPG video games. I live for the social part of gaming, but do enjoy a good explosion, and am learning the ropes of creating worlds in which people can play.


    26 Responses to Failures in Game Mastery

    1. avatar
      October 17, 2013 at 02:06

      I’ve never GMed at a con, or for any players outside of my gaming group, but I do know that it is something that becomes easier with practice, and I strongly suspect that con game GMing is way harder than GMing for friends.

      Having jumped into the deep end with GMing at a con (and apparently doing a decent job of it if the players had fun) maybe you now need to build up some good personal experiences on the easier side with people you know?

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      • avatar
        October 19, 2013 at 02:53

        That’s definitely something I’m considering. Thanks!

    2. avatar
      October 17, 2013 at 09:26

      For years I found GMing exhausting and draining. I would get a GMing hangover after every game.

      That has changed since I stopped running games requiring heaps of prep. Once I moved over to low-prep games I found I was worrying less about getting it perfect and just going with it. In fact even in my long-term (trad) campaign my stress levels decreased as my understanding of the game reduced the need for prep. Indeed I tried a high-prep game recently after a long break from such things and came away tired and Dr-energised.

      It is definitely not because I’m tired from doing the prep – it’s something about having to remember it all and live up to it somehow, that takes normal tiredness from doing an intense activities and turns it into exhaustion.

      So anyway… maybe there’s a game out there that won’t kill you so badly.

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      • avatar
        October 19, 2013 at 02:54

        High-prep is pretty exhausting. I’m looking at simpler games with less prep still. Thanks!

    3. avatar
      Chirine baKal
      October 17, 2013 at 14:22

      May I offer some support? I know exactly what you’re talking about; I’ve been running both miniatures and RPG games for quite a while, and I go through the exact same set of trials you reported. If I may suggest something:

      Tell your stories, and don’t worry about the game mechanics; your stories will carry the game. I was introduced to this style of play by Dave Arneson and Prof. M. A. R. Barker, both of whom told me that they went through exactly the same things you did – you are in the very best of company!

      Both of them learned to minimize the game ‘nuts and bolts’ in favor of being ‘the storyteller in the marketplace'; it worked wonderfully well, and I still conquer my own fear of failure by doing the same. Try it; see how it works. I think your stories will carry the adventure…

      yours, chirine

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      • avatar
        October 19, 2013 at 02:55

        Thank you for the support and suggestion! I really appreciate it!

    4. avatar
      October 17, 2013 at 15:49

      You’re beating yourself up over something that’s not worth this level of frustration! GMing takes practice, nobody is good at it the first few times they do it, but in a way you had set yourself up to fail by trying to GM in the hardest place in the world: Gen Con. I’m a girl GM too, and I don’t think you’ve failed, but you may have set your expectation too high.

      I recently did a round up of posts with advice for new Game Masters. I hope you can gain something from it, and try again under better circumstances: with friends, without pressure, and playing a game you already love.

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      • avatar
        October 19, 2013 at 02:56

        I think I had a lot to live up to. The game I was running is one I designed together with my husband, and when he runs it, it’s stellar. Makes it hard to have low expectations!

        Thanks for the link!

    5. avatar
      October 17, 2013 at 19:07

      My first GM experiences with a full table after a very long lapse of gaming in general were GMing demos at PAX East, and I felt the same exact way–before, during, and after.

      I think it takes a different sort of person (and GM) to run games in an open setting or in public, with strangers, and with little or no expectation that you’ll ever play with those characters, or even in that setting or those rules, ever again. Compared to a private group, or even with a group of regulars at a local venue, there was a level of performance anxiety and a weight of expectations that were way more intense, and I had no idea how the players would react to it.

      Even when the demos went well–when everyone enjoyed it, and most of the people playing even bought the product–I felt like crap. Feeling like I’d dodged a bullet still meant I felt like I’d been shot at!

      There’s more work to do during the game, planning didn’t help as much, it was more emotionally draining, and there were fewer emotional rewards. In retrospect, running con games are not the way I’d want to get back into GMing, and I wouldn’t recommend it to others just starting out.

      I’m going to run a game for friends and neighbors this week (maybe even today); it’ll be my first since running those con games. I’ll try to remember to come back and share whether a more forgiving crowd in a private environment reduces the pressure.

      I certainly can’t fault you for never wanting to GM again after an experience like that.

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      • avatar
        October 19, 2013 at 02:57

        I’m sorry you had rough experiences, too. I hope you have fun with your game – let me know how it goes! Thanks for commenting!

        • avatar
          October 21, 2013 at 08:34

          The game went great! It was much easier to run a game with friends, even though (and maybe because) they had much less experience than the con players. It was certainly more relaxed, and I got better feedback during and after the games.

          Thanks again for sharing your experiences, and good luck with GMing.

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    6. avatar
      October 18, 2013 at 15:38

      What anyone else may want or not is immaterial. You didn’t fail; you helped the players have a good time. You tried GMing & discovered you didn’t like it. You conducted an experiment & got a useful result. Sounds like success to me.

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      • avatar
        October 19, 2013 at 02:57

        I think I would have liked to feel less drained afterwards, because it would have allowed me a different perspective perhaps. Thanks for the vote of confidence!

    7. avatar
      October 18, 2013 at 16:49

      My first time GMing was for an online con, with a mix of friends and strangers. I was terrified beforehand, totally stressing myself out, and you know what? I made some mistakes, but overall I had a great time and so did the players. I’m lucky in that it’s just gotten better since the first game.

      I’ve found (as others are saying above) that there are some games I just don’t like running. They leave me more drained, cause more stress, and I have less fun, no matter how successful the session. Like you, the stories I want to tell with others are the important thing. So freeform games with simple rules that can fade into the background, like any of the *world hacks, suit my GMing style much better than crunchy games, even though I like playing those.

      It breaks my heart that you feel like a failure. You’re not. You tried, and that means a lot. Not enjoying an activity != failure. I think being honest about your experience helps that. If some women can’t talk openly about expectations and how some things don’t work for them, then we’re not providing room for everyone.

      I get the push for female GMs, too, plus the pressure to be the perfect GM. I’ll be running a game at an IRL con, despite feeling intimidated by the general amount of player experience, because last year there were no women running games. My post about it was met with enthusiasm and support, though. Con GMing isn’t for everyone. My partner has never run a game at a con despite gaming and GMing for even longer than me, and that’s OK.

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      • avatar
        October 19, 2013 at 02:59

        Thanks for your comments, scorcha. I think I’m going to be looking at simpler games to see if maybe a different type of game and different situation might make it possible for me to run again.

    8. avatar
      October 18, 2013 at 19:29

      First of all, you picked the toughest most anxiety prone type of game to GM. It’s not surprising that you were exhausted afterwards. Secondly, when you GM you don’t judge whether or not you fail, your players do. If they all had a good time you succeeded no matter how miserable you might have felt. 😉

      Now improving your GMing experience is important (GMs should have fun too!). What I’m saying is, you’re being way too down on yourself after this difficult experience. Being a GM takes practice and you’re sometimes going to have painful experiences with certain settings or specific players. Don’t give up. Try seeking out lower stress situations, like GMing for a small group of friends in a safe, quiet home setting. Try lower prep games like Dungeon World and get used to GMing in systems where the load on the GM isn’t as enormous.

      As you become more comfortable some of the stress and anxiety will lessen and you’ll feel more comfortable with how comfortable you are with improvisation and what you feel you need to prep before a game. Every GM has different strengths and different tolerances. You’ll learn to play to your strengths and slowly improve the things you want to be better at.

      I had a terrible time when I started GMing. It does get easier as you get used to and gear the situation more towards your strengths. *offers sympathy hugs if desired*

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      • avatar
        October 18, 2013 at 22:37

        Speaking as the GM of my own gaming group, I would highly encourage you to try again. GMing can be a lot of fun, and I cannot understate the satisfaction of telling your own story and watching it evolve and unfold with the players. That said, there are a few things I would recommend,

        First of all, try GMing with your home gaming group first. Trying something new with people that you are familiar with is a lot less anxiety-inducing. You’ll be in your own environment, and the people you play with will be less critical of any trouble you have getting it going.

        Secondly, try starting off with a few one-shot scenarios – little two or three encounter stories. There is a lot less preparation involved because you are only getting ready for one night of activity, rather than making sure that your story is preserved or is moving forward. Once it’s done, you don’t have to worry about continuing it or making sure it builds into a larger narrative. You can have it do that, but you don’t have to.

        Thirdly, and most importantly, don’t stress the rules to much. A lot of the anxiety I’ve ever had while GMing was worrying about making sure I got all of the rules right and trying not to mess them up. As the GM, you are the arbitrator and it is your game. As long as you don’t have rules lawyers in your group, and as long as you are running the game as fairly as you can, it’s okay to fudge the rules here and there, especially if you’re not quite sure what the correct ruling in a situation would be.

        If you truly believe that GMing is not for you, that’s okay – it’s not for everyone. However, as you have stated that you do have stories to tell, I would encourage you to try again. If you do, I implore you to not try it at a convention. The atmosphere is much more stressful, and you will feel a lot of pressure to do things “the right way” because you are responsible for complete strangers’ expectations. You’ll be a lot more critical of your own performance and it will ruin the experience for you. Get some home games under your belt first.

        Anyway, that’s my two bits. I really enjoy GMing, and I hope you can have a good experience with it in the future. Best of luck!

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        • avatar
          October 19, 2013 at 03:01

          Thank you for all of the suggestions! I’ll keep them in mind and hopefully I can try again!

      • avatar
        October 19, 2013 at 03:00

        I’m not sure the players enjoyed themselves for the first session. It was pretty rough.

        Hugs! Thanks for the comforting words. Here’s to hoping I can come back with a vengeance!

    9. avatar
      October 18, 2013 at 22:38

      Hmm. That was supposed to be a reply to the article at large, rather than to ValleyViolet’s comment.

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    10. avatar
      October 20, 2013 at 06:14

      As someone whose desire to GM far outstrips his ability to run a coherent session (let alone campaign), I absolutely feel your pain.

      I don’t know about you, but I have an image in the back of my mind of the “Perfect GM”. In my ideal world, I would be able to do the following for every session of every game I ran:

      * Do lots of prep
      * Know the rules well
      * Keep track of what everyone is doing at all times
      * Watch the players to keep everyone engaged
      * Run for friends or strangers, small groups or large
      * Foreshadow future events
      * Remember past events
      * Pull together loose threads of plot
      * Be alert and attentive through the entire session
      * Keep an eye on the clock
      * Explain the rules, as needed
      * Manage player expectations
      * Make sure everyone has fun

      Writing it out like that makes me realize just how ridiculous those expectations are. While some people seem to be able to pull off the “traditional GM role” with ease, I’m starting to think that they’re the exception. I suspect that trying to hit all those points, or even half of them, is what has made GMing exhausting, stressful, and not-fun for me.

      As others have noted, GMing is a skill that gets easier with practice. And while I agree (and, in general, agree with everything else that people have written), I think it’s very important that you get the right kind of practice. The most important thing, I think, is to make GMing fun. If you keep having exhausting, stressful, and not-fun GMing experiences, it’ll just burn you out on GMing at all. Try lots of different techniques, and combinations of techniques, until you hit on the ones that you’re having fun with. Here’s a few, just off the top of my head:

      1.) Play with friends, not strangers.

      2.) Play one-on-one, just you running the game for one player.

      3.) Stick to private, comfortable surroundings, rather than public settings.

      4.) Use simple rules, or rules you know really well, or just freeform (they tell you what they’re trying to do, you decide how well they do it).

      5.) Facilitate a GMless game, like Fiasco. Or run a game that relies heavily on player collaboration, like PrimeTime Adventures. Or play a game that’s not even a roleplaying game, like Microscope (a collaborative world-building game).

      6.) Play real casual. Play something ridiculous and light, like XXXTreme Street Luge or the Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Open a bottle of wine at the table, maybe. (Or two!)

      7.) Use a setting you’re really familiar with. (Big Harry Potter fan? Do a Hogwarts game!)

      8.) Stick to one-shots.

      9.) Play games that require little to no prep, like Monsterhearts.

      10.) Run short games, one or two hours long.

      11.) Run long games, all loose and casual, where it takes as long as it needs to, and no-one’s checking the clock.

      12.) Co-GM a game. One of you can “run” it while the other plays NPC roles, or keeps track of all the rules, or takes all the notes, or takes players away for private conferences, or however makes sense to divide the work.

      13.) Limit game homework. Do game prep with a co-writer in the same room with you, in a fixed amount of time. Do all the prep while you’re together, and don’t do any on your own.

      14.) Limit game homework. Write up all your post-game notes at the end of the session, before anyone even leaves the table.

      15.) Don’t hold back your best ideas. Don’t keep the awesome plot backstory secret. Share your ideas by revealing them through play.

      16.) Don’t GM for a while, but do play. And when you do, note when your GM uses a technique you like, or falls prey to a pitfall you want to be sure to avoid.

      Whew! I hope that’s helpful, and that there’s something here that gives you some inspiration of what you might want to try next. Let me know if you want clarification on anything I’ve written here, and I’ll do my best to oblige.

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      • avatar
        October 26, 2013 at 18:32

        Thanks for all the thoughts and suggestions! If you have a blog or social media (G+, etc), you should totally put this into a post and link me! I’d like to share it with my followers.

    11. avatar
      October 23, 2013 at 12:42

      Hi Brie,

      You really are being too hard on yourself. I have been running the superb HeroQuest 2 for over two years, and I frequently question my performance. While it is often hard to match our own expectations, if your Players had a good time then you must judge the game as a success.

      Consider the opposite scenario. Suppose you thought that you were superb as a GM, but the Players hated the game. Would that have been a better outcome?

      No, of course not.

      You gave yourself perhaps the greatest challenge for a GM, to run for strangers at a busy Con. It is only ever going to be easier after this. Be pleased with yourself for overcoming your fear, and learning a lot about your GMing qualities. Yes, you felt that you could do better, but that is part of being a GM. Try again with some friends, and I am sure that you will find it a lot easier.

      Remember “to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.”
      TalesofaGM.com, a Heroquest 2 GM blogs

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      • avatar
        October 26, 2013 at 18:33

        That’s a nice quote, Phil! I hope that the players had a good experience. Thanks so much for your comment!

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