Tuesday, December 2, 2014

This Imaginary Life: GM Weaknesses

Last week I had the chance to once again sit in on Rich Rogers’ amazing “This Imaginary Life” videocast. We had a larger than usual crew of amazing commenters (plus me). We took on the question of GMing Weaknesses and how we analyze those. We drilled down on a few individual weaknesses and explored what they meant and how we might deal with them. I have a bundle of notes from what I heard- and a couple of concrete techniques I plan to try out ASAP.
I should also mention that Rich has been tapped as producer for the Dr. Tom the Frog show, an rpg program with tight interviews. It’s hosted by an illustrious gaming maven and certified frog physician. (Not a physician for frogs, that would be a vet).

I have a few random thoughts on the TiL topic, some further afield than others…

Our Strengths
Assessing our strengths parallels assessing our weaknesses. What do you do well as a GM? For example, I think I’m strong on pacing. I like to keep the table moving. I interact with players to help things along. That’s combined with my desire to allow all players equal access and time at the table. I know that isn’t going to happen- players contribute differently from session to session. But I think I’m strong on communicating that they always have the opportunity. If they want to jump in, I’ll help them. I believe I demonstrate that if they give other players room in the spotlight, I’ll make sure they their time later. I’m also pretty good at coming up with names, something often cited as a GM difficulty.

If looking at weaknesses helps us, what can we learn from looking at strengths? For one thing it shows what we value at the table at least subconsciously. Thinking about it those elements embody what I expect most from a GM. I can forgive quite a bit: linear play, uninteresting encounters, slow character development. But if my play time pops with steady pacing and the sense I’ll get the opportunity to do things, I’m in. I also notice the strengths I’m identifying are about table management, rather than prep, system, or story. Why is that?

It’s also worth considering if there might be downsides to those identified strengths. I like to keep the pace brisk and I rarely stop to consult with the rules if I can help it. But I know at times I have cut scenes before they’ve played out fully. I may have kept players from the room the time to figure something out or suffocated an interaction because though forward momentum. I read a post last year about a gamer playing at a European con and being marked out for his “American” style. That seemed to be about a kind of impatience and desire to jump in and get out of moments quickly.

Checking and Assessing
We hit on it a little, but I think it’s worth emphasizing recordings can be a great way to identify what’s happening at your table. If you’re doing Hangout games, take the time to record and watch them again. It’s possible to record sessions privately, rather than broadcasting them on air. Then you and your players can watch them later. Or for F2F games record just the audio. Listening often puts you in the position of your players- hearing what they hear and how you’re interacting with them.

More importantly, watch other GMs. Play in other games or at the very least observe some actual play videos. Make notes, figure out what you like about what they’re doing. Pay attention to what’s actually going on at their table. When you find yourself thinking “No, what you ought to say is…” make a note of that. Figure out why that moment’s rubbing you the wrong way. I think GMs can and should build a conversation between their own weaknesses and what they see happening in other GMs’ styles.

Campaigns and Failing Faster
There’s a piece of age-old advice in design: fail faster. In particular, Extra Credits did an episode on this related to game design

That can be a problem for me, especially when I’m running an extended campaign. Most of my f2f campaigns last about two+ years and we’ve had many last longer. Often I’m using a homebrew system, hacking an existing game, or trying out new approaches & mechanics. That’s a great test bed in some ways- you get to see these elements in many contexts. But on the other hand, it can also be a real pain. I don’t like making large-scale changes after we’ve started playing. So I end up doing minor patch versions to shore up problems. By the time we’d played seven years with a particular early version of our Action Cards homebrew, I’d duct-taped the system together and the rickety beast barely made it over the finish line. In the meantime I’d developed and played out several iterations of the mechanics in other campaigns. The longer the campaign goes on, the greater the pressure I feel not to change.

There’s a fight in my head when I’m playing and the system isn’t working right. On the one hand I want to make adjustments and get things tweaked. On the other I don’t want to draw attention to the mechanics or change the rules in a way that screws someone’s character build. That comes from bad experiences in the past. I played with GMs who would change things on the fly “for balance.” What that usually meant was a player had come up with an effective build and the GM wasn’t sure how to handle it. But instead of discussion, they’d impose changes. I also saw several campaigns go south when the GM (in several cases, me) decided to change game systems. Conversion’s tricky and despite best intentions can never satisfy everyone. My new character’s never going to be the same as my old. Some players might come away happy, but others won’t.

So is this weakness a worry about changing and breaking the game? Let’s say it is. If so what does that tell me?

First, I’ve identified this hesitation in myself and I wonder if it extends beyond the mechanical. Do I have the same worries in adjusting my ‘style?’ I don’t think so because most of that side isn’t as visible to the players. Second, I have made some shifts to help me out with this. I’ve aimed for trying new things out via one-shots or shorter campaigns. I’ve also tried to break games into arcs or segments. If I’m going to make changes I do so at those transition points. I built my OCI campaign around that. We work through smaller worlds and tweak the system in between each. (I’m going to post more on this approach tomorrow). Third, it points to what’s really critical for me. To make shifts or changes successfully you need to have trust and communication. My bad experiences with game changes all come down to mistrust. The GM shifted things arbitrarily without explanation. Or they had a nonsensical cover story. In some cases they hadn’t demonstrated their mastery of the system, so I didn’t trust their judgment. In others they wouldn’t listen to feedback- either because they didn’t trust us or respect our judgment.