Gnome Stew recently posted an article about running on minimal prep game. One of the points was to GM with confidence, and that got me wondering about how exactly do you be a confident GM? Following are a few ingredients to that recipe. I look forward to your comments about what you do to bolster your confidence.
GMing is 80% confidence. Once you get through your first handful of sessions so you learn the mechanics of running encounters and handling a group of players and characters, it becomes about your ability to:
- Thrive in the spotlight because you have more spotlight than everyone else combined each session)
- Make decisions because you will make more decisions than everyone else added up, plus your decisions have more consequences, and so more responsibility
- Think in multiple dimensions because you need to handle the meta-game too
- Argue, or perhaps a better word is persuade, which means backing your opinions and decisions up when players push back a bit
- Be creative, because that is ultimately what separates you from an MMO server
Doing those things well stems from confidence. Mastering the mechanics of GMing is critical, but having confidence lets you execute those mechanics with panache.
Shore up your weaknesses
Define your fears
Take a moment to write out what your worst GMing fears are.
My top three:
- Complete mind blank. I am like a deer in the headlights, with no ideas or answers and I just sit there and struggle to be creative while squirming as my players watch.
- Making a critical logical error that derails a major game element, like a plot thread, villain or encounter. “But the villain could not have cast that spell three rounds ago, Johnn. He used that spell against us in the first round. We have to redo the whole combat. And now we know the villain’s powers!”
- Being boring. Players yawn as turns take forever, the content sinks like a rock, and people start preparing excuses to leave early.
Stop reading and write out your fears. In a rush? Then just note your biggest fear, or the first fear that comes to mind. Go back when you do have time and write your other GMing fears.
Analyse your fears
Now that you have your top fears on paper, check them out. Distance yourself from them. Pretend your friend has just told you those were his fears. De-personalize and be objective about them.
They are not so bad, are they? It is not life and death. It is just a game. Never aim for perfection. Just try to be better and have more fun than last game. Some sessions will rock, others will not.
For each fear, note the worst things that could happen. What could realistically result? For example, your players all quit, someone flips the table, you get embarrassed, you feel ashamed because of mistakes, gameplay rewinds, secrets are mistakenly revealed, you have a bad night.
If this is the worst stuff, you are doing great. It is all temporary. If you game with friends, this stuff becomes water under the bridge. Usually pretty fast, too. If you game with strangers, such as at a game convention, situations and emotions are even more transient.
I had two readers write in with truly serious situations. One GMed her boss, and the boss was a disruptive and selfish player. Another GMed her landlord, who was also a terrible egomaniac. Ok, if it is a real possibility you could lose your job or get evicted over RPG, you win this post. Those are serious stakes. Run!
But the rest of us – are our fears, whether realistic or not, going to mean we lose our friends, family, life savings, health, job or home? Put in this perspective, while I do not mean to say you cannot fear or should not have GM fears, they cannot let you stop playing because they grow so out of proportion that they become weaknesses. Do not let small fears with small and temporary consequences grow into real weaknesses and loss of confidence.
If you can adopt this attitude, then mitigating your fears is possible.
Crit your fears
Think up a solution for each fear. If a solution cannot be “solved,” come up with a mitigation strategy so potential consequences are reduced to as close to nothing as possible. Create a GM aid or Plan B so you have a safety net going into each session. Just knowing a net is there to catch you seems to magically give you confidence, which is the main benefit of this exercise. Once in awhile I need my safety net, but the irony is creating the net makes it unlikely I will need it.
Here are my safety nets:
Complete mind blank – For this I prepare cheat sheets in my GM binder.
You might only need this support for certain game elements. For example, you might want to bookmark links to NPC generators and create a list of 10 random encounter seeds. Treasure, conflicts, locations and other game elements give you no problems. You only worry about NPCs and encounters, and now you are covered.
What is great about this approach is you can carry this bit of preparation forward from session to session, adventure to adventure, and even campaign to campaign.
Going through my GM binder recently for a new campaign, I realized some of the emergency materials I keep handy were created in the 1990s!
Logic errors. I have a plan should this happen. I blogged about retcon rightly. Just having options available and knowing what they are gives me confidence to forge ahead regardless of potential problems.
Being boring. I have a list of five encounter seeds I categorize as “break down the door.” If things get dull, the game bogs down, the party seems lost, I am ready to immediately trigger a fun action encounter.
If you can find peace with backup plans and solutions, go for it. Who cares if the plans are never needed? Their purpose is to give you confidence.
Give and get respect
With mutual respect, you realize your players are your safety net. When I royally screw up, and I do something embarrassing, I feel confident about admitting my mistake and talking about it in the open with my group. We pause the game, I reveal the situation if it is not already obvious, and we talk it out. I might wait until between sessions to do this, instead, if it keeps the game flowing better. Either way, we chat.
Having respect gives you extra leeway, too. You build up a bit of credit with your group, who will give you the benefit of the doubt or stretch their sense of disbelief to accommodate you.
Trust your players, and give them the benefit of the doubt as well. Assume they always mean well. Assume they want you succeed. Assume they want everyone to have fun. Nothing erases respect faster than suspicion, ego and assuming the worst in others.
To earn respect you also need to put your time in as GM. It is a catch-22, but know that as you strive the become a great GM and you get more gaming in you, the respect will come as part of the doing.
Next week, I discuss more solutions for how you can become a confident GM. Stay tuned.