Friday, December 20, 2013

Becoming a Better GM: Play on Target Podcast Ep. 23

The latest Play on Target podcast episode drops just before the holidays. Perhaps this will become a seasonal tradition, sitting around a freshly decorated tree and listening to four people pontificate on the true meaning of gamemastering. Or maybe not. The next episode should arrive right at the end or the beginning of next year. That means we've done this for about one year; our first episode arrived Jan. 3 of 2013). That’s not a bad record- 24 episodes in twelve months. While we’ve covered many topics, it inevitably comes back to questions of GMing and running campaigns. That’s especially true with today’s episode... 

This show takes a slightly different approach to that question. It might be better put “How Can We Get Better at Being GMs?” We begin by identifying areas where we feel weak, have stumbled in the past, or could use improvement. That’s a tough question and requires an admission of weakness. I don’t know about my co-hosts, but I can be particularly defensive about how I GM. I’ve spent years doing it and I think I’ve developed into a consistently enjoyable gamemaster. But I also thought that in the past- and looking back I can see the wreckage of terrible decisions and awful games. I’m probably harsher on those campaigns than I ought to be. But I see where I could have done a better job and made the experience more enjoyable for everyone. Now I want to objectively assess what I do…which is freaking hard.

Play groups add another dimension to this. Right now I have five campaigns ongoing, just finished, or about to restart. Those have sixteen unique players- with several of them repeated across campaigns. That’s still a pretty small sample size. They’re mostly used to how I run. Do my techniques work with other groups? I’ve run a small number of online one-shots and I think they went well. But honestly I can’t come to a clear judgment about that. I haven’t yet gone back to watch any of those YouTube videos so I should probably start there. I also need to run more pick-up one-shots to test my style. Have I cowed my players into submission, am I running a fun game, or something in between?

Each of these podcasts we give GM advice despite our flaws and limitations. It is advice- things or ideas we found interesting, novel, or useful. But I don’t think any of our statements should be taken as “you’re supposed to do it this way.” I’d find it hard to make any kind of absolute pronouncement about how anyone should run. I can only address what’s worked (or not worked) for me or in other people’s games I've seen. As an example, I mentioned some advice from Kazuo Koike at the end of our episode on Developing Story. He suggests beginning with your Villain when figuring out your tale. I mentioned that as an interesting starting point for stuck GMs. Does that mean I think every game should have a villain? No. That depends on your group and play style. But if you’re trying to come up with something, that’s a neat way to think about things and it might help you spin out some fun sessions. It plays into my larger point: characters drive stories for me. That can be PCs, interesting NPCs or even grand villains. Other GMs might focus more on plot or environment.

Of course I dig my own advice, so I’m a little attached to it. When people suggest very different approaches, my immediate reaction is “But…but…”. I’ve had to learn to simmer down- you can’t survive reacting that way and reading gaming posts on RPG Geek or G+. You’ll have an aneurysm. If someone presents a GM-focused and plotted approach to running a campaign, that’s not a dismissal of my occasional uses of collaborative campaign design. They’re saying what’s worked for them, not attacking what’s worked for me. Consider how niche our hobby is: its frankly amazing and awesome that we have so many distinct approaches.

All of which is to say I hope you find some gems in our discussion and I recognize you have to sift through coal to get there.

I sincerely hope everyone has a great holiday season and manages to squeeze in some good games. Tonight I run what promises to be the last session of a nearly eight-year long campaign and frankly I’m terrified. If you like RPG Gaming podcasts, I hope you'll check out Play on Target. We take a focused approach- tackling a single topic each episode. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the podcast's page at