Confidence is key to having fun long term as a game master. Last week we covered several tips on how to become a confident GM, and this week we deliver more.
Say yes whenever possible. Get into the habit of building on player input and ideas instead of overwriting them. Pass ideas around so others can add to them. Be open minded, which means give ideas the benefit of the doubt, be objective, and do not let an initial negative emotional reaction stomp on the contributions of others.
That last one is most important. You are always allowed your emotions. Do not suppress them. We all have biases. Our brains are designed to assess, compartmentalize and categorize. “I like this. I do not like this.”
But do not let an initial emotional reaction rule you, either. “Is he challenging my authority? What a jerk. I’ll show him.” That is a legitimate reaction, but experience it and then let it pass. Get objective. Probe deeper. Your assumption is likely wrong. (If it is not, you have discovered an opportunity to work with that player to improve relations and get a better game out of it.)
Opinions are a double-edged sword. Great feedback buoys you. Negative feedback can be devastating as it gnaws away. Long term, your best bet is to acknowledge all feedback, consider all opinions as constructive criticism, but distance yourself from feeling one way or another about it. Be a scientist, and do not let others dictate your emotions.
There is a notable exception. Your players often have fun even during those sessions you think bombed. It is funny how that works, but consider how each of us lives in our own heads and imaginations. While you fret over logistics, balance, pacing, rules and a dozen other things, your players are roleplaying their characters (often with each other, do not forget), taking actions, exploring the unknown. They evaluate games differently than you. They have no knowledge of what is ahead, like you do. This sense of mystery and the unknown, without a feeling of responsibility for the game overall, completely re-frames the game’s experience for them. So do not superimpose your impression of session quality onto them.
For this reason, go ahead and get feedback when you think a session bombed. If your players do not surprise you by saying the session was great, they will at least never feel a session was as bad as it seemed behind the screen. In this case, getting feedback and feeling better about yourself is a great lift and confidence boost.
Be fair with players, the game and yourself. A fair GM earns respect. Being fair and handling situations fairly gives you confidence about getting through tricky situations again in the future.
It is easy to say, be fair. But what does that mean? In my mind, it means:
- Manage expectations. Unrealistic expectations are unfair because they can never be met. It is an always-fail.For example, even the simple mistake of over-scheduling erodes confidence. You plot out a weekly or bi-weekly game that ends up happening monthly due to group schedules. It seems like there are more canceled games than played ones. A simple reset to a monthly schedule removes all the guilt and feelings of failure.
- Listen. You always learn more by listening instead of talking. Being fair means understanding all sides of an issue, and you need to learn from your players what their perspectives are before making judgment calls. Do not make assumptions. If the players are talking, listen, do not talk over them. If players are not talking then ask questions to get them talking.
- Be objective and avoid personal agendas. Not only do we all have biases as people and GMs, but those biases shift depending on if we are fresh or tired, alert or sugar crashed, neutral or parsing feedback. Catch yourself being selfish so you can stop. Put your players’ needs first, then serve your own. Be a referee.If you ever find yourself in a punishment mindset, stop immediately. Pinch yourself. Getting revenge, abusing authority and being petty kill fairness and confidence. When has punishment created a fun, happy, collaborative game environment?
- Do not favor one player or character over the others. I love wizards and barbarians, but I cannot neglect other PC types in planning or gameplay. New players should not be given less attention because I am not as familiar or comfortable with them.
Another type of fairness, this item deserves its own tip. If you do something one way one time, keep doing it that way until you have good reason to change. If you change, communicate what is new to players before the situation comes up again, lest it feel arbitrary and unfair (in cases of bad news).
GM a lot so you develop your own style. Then stick with and hone that style as you enter a new phase of GMing. Similar to how a writer learns to find his own voice, which consequently draws readers to him who demand ever more wonderful content, GMs with a personal style conducive to fun gaming are popular and celebrated. The power of this comes in part from the consistent experience a style provides.
Admit mistakes, fix mistakes
If you cannot admit to making mistakes, you fear making them. Then a mistake becomes something to hide, a secret, a potential shame.
Instead, adopt an attitude of being an ever-improving game master who constantly tries and learns new things. Your art lies in the process, not the final result. You can admit to a mistake easily if you know it will get you closer to your goal. It stops becoming about you and instead is just a part of the process of great GMing. The mistake becomes a thing out in the middle of the table for everyone to ponder, talk about and benefit from instead of making it all about you.
When players know their GM makes mistakes gracefully, they in turn relax about their own foibles. Being on guard often means being on the attack or on the defensive to deflect all those bad feelings that come with blame and embarrassment. Graceful errors that are learning opportunities bring down everyone’s guard and the bad behaviours that come with it.
Use player input. For significant mistakes, put them out there for everybody to chew on and ask for comments. The scientist will learn from shared input. The student will learn from collective wisdom. The storyteller will get new ideas.
Have a rules plan
How will you approach game rules during the session? Figure this out, perhaps with player feedback, and communicate to the whole group to set their expectations – and your own. You will get confidence from knowing how this tricky aspect of the game will get handled.
You have several options you can mix and match:
- Be an expert. Option one: set expectations that everybody should look to you for rulings, first and final. Explain your thought processes to gain player understanding and trust. Being the expert offers faster gameplay due to fewer discussions, but when arguments do occur they tend to be polarized. Transparency in decision-making should help work things out amicably, though.
- Seek an expert. Option two: enlist one or more players knowledgeable with the rules to be your consultants. You can defer to them but reserve final ruling for yourself, like a benevolent dictator. A little slower because of the feedback gathering, I prefer this option. It engages those players with rules knowledge, rewards them and encourages them to stay on top of new rules and errata, and makes the process feel collaborative.
- Decide now, look up later. Option three: make a decision fast and verify or correct rulings between sessions to improve future gameplay. I also employ this one to keep the game moving instead bogging it down with research.For rulings with high stakes, we pause briefly, get opinions and give experts a chance to find the needed rules fast. If we cannot get a reference within thirty seconds or so, I make a ruling and ask for objections. Minor objections are either allowed to modify my ruling or are declined with an explanation of how I reached my decision. Last, we note this ruling in the session log and agree to rule future situations similarly until an official ruling becomes available.
Whew. It sounds like a tricky process, but it takes us just moments now. Thanks to my ongoing attempts at fairness and consistency, even players who disagree with a ruling are not upset because they know rulings are not a science, that I aim to be fair, it is not personal, and they can research between sessions to fix things, if possible.
- Reference now, get it right. Option four: put in the time to learn the right decision for more consistent gaming. Landing on a ruling by personal decision or group consensus represents a new house rule. This opens up the possibility of rule conflicts and further discussions. It requires documenting the new rules as well, which for some groups is an issue.Avoid all this with due diligence during games. Play stops until you find the ruling or piece all the factors together to get to an official rule (i.e. figuring out a final bonus taking into account all the numbers, stacking rules, errata and exceptions). Rulings are generally solid, and there is no need to create a corpus of house rules to also factor into future rulings.
Create a small number of specific goals
My final bit of advice on how to be a confident GM. Many game masters sabotage themselves by pursuing an unachievable objective. “Be a great storyteller.” That is a common one. The mistake lies in not knowing when you finally achieve that goal. You never feel like you arrive, so you grow frustrated, then despair, then give up.
Create several small objectives for yourself. Then pick one or two to work on each session. This makes improvement manageable. You cannot focus on more than a couple improvement items at a time, so pick two and work on them, perhaps for several sessions or even a whole campaign.
Make each of these objectives specific. You need to know when you have achieved success. This means figuring out what success looks like before you even decide to tackle the goal. Envision what GMing will be like with your goal achieved. What will be different? Make notes on what will change and how.
Use SMART as a simple planning template
Specific - What exactly will success look like?
Measurable - Try to quantify the goal. Count a certain type of error, time an event or process, or personally rate how something went. For example, run a whole combat without forgetting to use any planned foe tactics.
Actionable - You need to be able to take specific actions to reach your objectives. If you cannot do anything about the goal, it does not make sense to place your hopes and confidence on luck. For example, make a player less tired. You cannot control their rest and health, though perhaps you can affect this with snack choice in sessions.
Realistic - The goal must be within the realm of possibility. Be realistic about constraints. GMing every day might be compelling, but unrealistic for you. :)
Time - Give yourself a deadline. Goals without an end date tend to dissipate. Worthwhile goals will have a period I call The Grind in them. The excitement of starting has worn off and the light at the end of the tunnel has yet to appear. A deadline helps you get through this period by motivating you to keep at it, even though it does not feel like you are making progress.
Start with a couple of small, easy goals. Complete them quick to build momentum. This gives you confidence to try more ambitious wishes (always try to break big goals down into small and achievable ones, for these reasons).
Perhaps goal one is to create an encounter hook the actually PCs grab onto. Goal two is an encounter with a successful hook and where the PCs choose to parley, at least for a round. Goal three is an encounter with a successful hook and that resolves entirely through parley, as designed.
Becoming a confident GM is a SMART goal, but a tricky one because the achievement is a feeling. It is hard to measure. I can see the deadline day arriving for you and you ask, am I confident yet? How about now? Now?
Instead, I would pick and choose from the tips in this article and turns those into SMART goals. Focus on the steps of the process and let the ultimate objective take care of itself.
Confidence is a strange beast. You see professional athletes lose their confidence all the time. Confidence comes and goes. Enjoy it while it is here. Hang onto for as long as possible. And when it goes, return to this article and do the basics again. Confidence will come back.