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Be Conscious and Reflective When You GM: Seven Maxims for Game Masters

In Lessons from the Long Campaign: Prep Only What You Need [1] (part of his excellent Long Campaign series of articles), the Stew’s own DNAphil [2] said:

Over the past few weeks, I have been writing about the lessons I have learned, from running my three-year long Iron Heroes campaign (here [3] and here [4]). As this campaign charges into the its final sessions, I am starting to realize just how much this campaign taught me about being a GM, and how to manage a campaign.

I’m willing to be Phil got so much out of this because he went into it actively planning to learn from his game, and reflected on what he was learning as he went. That points to simple, concise GMing maxim that has served me well for many years now:

Be conscious and reflective when you GM.

Since you’re spending your free time reading a game mastering blog, that maxim is probably one you know well. But if you’re new to GMing, or think about the craft in a different way, maybe it’s less obvious — and I still think it’s worth stating plainly.

Three years ago I wrote about my three gaming maxims on Treasure Tables [5], in Martin’s Maxims for GMs [6]. I fleshed that list out from three maxims to six [7] last year, and this new one brings it to seven. Here they are:

  1. Always put your players first
  2. Be confident
  3. Make mistakes
  4. Never stop learning how to be a better GM
  5. When you run games, try new things
  6. Learn from both sides of the screen
  7. Be conscious and reflective when you GM

Numbers 3-6 all stem from number 7, since you can’t learn while GMing without being at least a little bit reflective. You can learn without really intending to, just by experiencing things, but as in real life it’s not nearly as effective as actively seeking to learn — being conscious about what you’re doing — every time you sit down behind your screen.

I don’t even consider this kind of learning to be work; it’s just part of the process now. And taking this simple step — actively thinking, “I’m going to keep an eye on how this session goes, and reflect on it afterwards” — is a great (and simple) way to make constant improvement a part of your own approach to GMing.

7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "Be Conscious and Reflective When You GM: Seven Maxims for Game Masters"

#1 Comment By Brent On November 26, 2008 @ 6:43 am

Great list! Gotta think about that.

Yeah, since the players so often get excited and start rushing, it’s easy for the GM to follow suit.

#2 Comment By itliaf On November 26, 2008 @ 8:30 am

I have a tendency to overplan, and then be a bit hard on myself after each session over small details of my plans I inevitably forget to include in each session. Rule #7 is a handy little piece of advice in this case to make fewer notes, find a better way to organize my notes, and move on.

#3 Comment By BryanB On November 26, 2008 @ 2:46 pm

I am my own worst critic, BUT this has the benefit of helping me reflect on what went well, alright, or not so good.

The list is good but I might add: Allow yourself to receive constructive criticism from the players, although this may be part of what you meant by learning from both sides of the screen. Certainly, we can see what works well when we are playing in a game as a player. I like getting feedback from the players when I GM though. This helps me improve and it lets me see what they thought went well or it lets me know what I could have done better.

#4 Comment By Samuel Van Der Wall On November 26, 2008 @ 4:49 pm

Those are some great rules. I’ll have to use that as my mantra when I start my next campaign.

GM’ing can be really tough. It’s a lot easier just to show up each session. When you’re responsible for the fun of the group, that’s a lot bigger burden on your shoulders.

#5 Comment By Martin Ralya On November 26, 2008 @ 7:25 pm

[8] – Yep — when you can get it, constructive player feedback is pure gold. I find most players are either reticent to give it or don’t tend to provide much when they do. It’s always appreciated, but the gems are the folks who will tell you exactly what they think while still respecting the work you’ve put into the game.

[9] – You’re not solely responsible, though. The traditional model has the GM being largely responsible, but I prefer to think of us as players with a different set of responsibilities. In a good group, ideally your players are also thinking about how to make the game more fun for everyone else at the table.

#6 Comment By Swordgleam On November 27, 2008 @ 1:19 pm

I almost think 5 should be first, though I have no idea if these are in any particular order. My current campaign is one that came with a lot of disclaimers, since I was new to both the system, and the tone I was shooting for. I’ve learned a lot more from this campaign than from any other, and most of what I’ve learned is, “Wow, I really can do that if I try.”

#7 Comment By Bookkeeper On November 28, 2008 @ 7:44 am

Thanks so much for this. I think I just rounded up the last two players for my new campaign so I’ll stick these rules up somewhere as I work!