Monday, March 1, 2010

When Your GM's Out to Lunch

Running a game is a complex task, and one subject to a lot of externalites: mood, weather, what movies people have seen, player interest, and so on. I find a good session often really intangible as to what exactly went right. Bad sessions can be the same way-- where things are going on behind the scenes I'm unsure about. However for my GM work and problematic running over the last couple of weeks I can pretty clear point to one thing: quitting smoking.

So not smoking has hit me in several ways-- not the beneficial side, but the mental fall out from habit/reward removal. First, distraction-- in the sense that at the start I found it very hard to maintain focus on concentration on a task for more than twenty minutes. That meant I had to block out several tasks in a day, didn't take on anything that would require a serious investment of time. But it also meant I hard a hard time accomplishing anything, even if I broke it down into parts-- I'd just be getting settled in by the time that I started feeling restless and had to move on. Second, insomnia-- brought on by the other problems and also I suspect in part the bronchial infection, but that certainly didn't do me any favors. That meant my schedule got thrown up into the air, plus the wasted time tossing and turning for several hours every night. And of course that fed into the most problematic part of quitting: third, general anxiety. A real consistent sense of tension and worry-- that there's something else I need to be doing, that I've forgotten something, that I need to move quickly through what is happening right now. That's the real problem with the quitting, not the craving in an obvious way, but the insidious nature of the low-level constant signal my brain sends me that “something is wrong.” And of course that kind of tension and anxiety has a significant impact on short-term memory. That's one of the major indicators of stress-- short term memory access problems. So I have a ton of emails I've just dropped to the side, but then loom up in my must do now mental queue to throw me off and then spin what I've been doing out of control.

But I'm certainly better than I was the first week of quitting. In fact I'd say I'm doing better than I thought I would be at this point: still tense, still anxious, but now able to focus better and hoping to be able to turn that nervous energy into something more productive.

From that perspective, it is interesting to look at the impact of that withdrawal process on my gamemastering. The primary impact of the quitting has been to impair mental, rather than physical processes, and running rpgs is a primarily mental process. February, in some ways, was a wash for project progress-- and getting sick meant that I canceled nearly a full round of sessions. So I was pretty much sick at home, isolated and stewing in my own juices. I came out of that to run six sessions for five different games over the course of ten days. I think it would be fair to say these weren't my best sessions, and some were pretty lousy. So what impact did the withdrawal have on play at the table?

First, a real general muddle-headedness on the first several games. I pride myself on being pretty good at managing the table and keeping the various details juggled around. For names and specifics, I fall back to my wife having an absolute handle on those things, but I keep the general plot and scene purposes in my head. More importantly, I think I'm pretty good at improvising on the fly and riffing on the various characters and NPCs. As it was, I completely lost control over that the first evening. At least three times I absolutely lost what the players were saying/asking me. I was able to fake my way around it twice, but the third time I lost everything with a catastrophic memory shut down. By the time Sharon had finished describing her action, I had no idea what she's just said. Not that I couldn't understand what she was asking, but literally that each word vanished from my memory a scant few seconds after I heard them. So pretty bad blanking all through the session-- which meant my structure was really loose, sloppy and problematic since it was primarily a character interaction session. I held back on a couple of things I'd wanted to move forward on because I knew they'd end up being awful if I tried to do them in that state.

That, I will admit, absolutely freaked me out. I usually don't have GM stage fright anymore with the group (or rather, it is significantly reduced). If I'm doing something really new or working with players I haven't run for before, then I do get tense. But I had strange flashbacks to a couple of times I actually lost my lines on stage (once at a comedy showcase in college and another time during a musical number). After the LV session I got really shaky, and when I went to run the next night- for the Wushu game- I did my level best to avoid really running. I spent time on digressions, focused on working from straight notes I had, and tried not to move anything forward. I cut the session short because I was pretty freaked out still-- better and more focused than the night before, but quite out of it. And that was with a pretty friendly crowd of three players.

I was still well off my game the next night, a Sunday bonus session of Changeling, but I'd calmed down a little bit. Part of my reaction to having such loss of focus was to try to build some structure more tightly into the sessions. I had a kind of pretty clear sense of the moments and focus I wanted to get to-- for better or worse. In both that session and the session which followed on Thursday I found I had less of a problem with focus and losing details and more with heavy anxiety and tension on my part. I wanted to make sure things kind of followed a line which meant I probably gave short shrift to the development of the scenes, and certainly I cut the Sunday session short. But when the players didn't follow up on some of the clues and trails I'd laid out for the investigation, I ended up shifting one of the scenes rather than letting the consequences of that investigation just fall out where they should have-- I kept pressing for the dramatic moment. But even more so I found myself rushing forward on all of the scenes for both sessions-- pressing onwards and not letting the scenes have time to breathe, probably getting ahead of the players own actions and desires. I was weird-- I had this tension in the back of my mind that I needed to tear through these scenes to get to something else. Not that there was anything else except the looming spectre of free floating anxiety. In my defense, I did warn the players in each of these sessions I was off my game, so I hope they keep that in mind in their consideration of the quality. I know I pissed at least one player off over the course of this.

So this would have been four games run in exactly a week when I finally came around to the Star Wars Action Cards short campaign I had been planning and working on throughout the previous month of being sick. I'd done a lot of work-- system building but also physical construction of the decks which the players would draft to assemble their characters. I was still freaking out over the plot-- I kept going back and forth on some things, waking up in the middle of the night and so on. It wasn't until a few hours before the game that I figured out I could collapse several of the threads I had into one thing. I also wanted to make sure that despite it being a short run game, I game the players plenty of choices as to where they would go (in this case a choice of three-four locations they could explore).

In any case, I got all of my stuff together and tried to be ready when we got to the table. I had a pretty scripted opening sequence in mind-- both because my anxiety level was telling me I had to have that and because the first session of a short run campaign legitimately deserves that. Of course some of my plans immediately took a shot to the ass because one of the players who'd I'd expected didn't show up-- throwing off my card drafting experiment a little. That was a problem easily overcome in a normal situation, but that managed to ramp my tension level up. That's the trick with these kinds of craving anxieties-- they make the smallest problem suddenly seem huge. But I pressed forward-- with only a few problems. The players probably didn't notice my couple of absolute blank points (for example I completely forgot one of the player's names for about half an hour. Seriously, someone I've known for years and I couldn't get the name out for the life of me). I got through the session pretty well though, and ended it early, with the excuse that it was the first session and we had a player out. I will write up a session report on that for Wednesday.

Then we got to Sunday's game which had a weird vibe all around. We had a couple of player show up late and I got thrown completely off my game. I ended up stopping that after about an hour and a half worth of play. More of a case of anxiety rather than blanking there. The less said in general about that the better-- I had a couple of players wondering what was going on with me and other players afterwards.

This week I have the Libri Vidicos game and the Wushu game. I'm hoping to be better by the time LV rolls around on Friday. I'd say right now I'm functioning in terms of table management for a full four hour session at anywhere between 70-80% give or take. I hope by Friday I'll be closer to 100%.

Anyway, that's the update-- kind of an anecdotal discussion of the impact of the mental stress of smoking cessation on gamemastering multiple games over a short period of time.


  1. And something I left out of that, but worth considering is the general heightening of my frustration and irritation level. That makes me much quicker to lose my temper or become more irritated by things. Where I'd usually cut some slack, I'm having to rein myself in so I don't fly off the handle. So generally I'm trying to manage those "unresolved anger issues" and make sure they don't flare up at the table. I think I've done a reasonably OK job of keeping that irritation with people (as a group) from bleeding into the game narrative

  2. Hang in there with the not smoking.

    Did you use any sort of nicotine replacement medication? They tend to improve peoples odds of staying quit.

  3. The patches end up giving me the night terrors and the gum's not so good-- though I have some. I just started a generic of Zyban today which should help with the anxiety. It did before the last time I managed to quit for several years.

  4. It's good for you to get this out there. I have to conclude that if players know what is happening, they are more likely to cut someone a break in these situations.

  5. I agree with Kaiju. Please be good to yourself during this time. Plus not feeling well due to bronchitis (round three for antibiotics for me for the same stuff) will make anyone irritable. Hang in there. I am so pleased you are doing this for yourself (and the people who care about you...)

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