Do you find that you run one or two RPGs more than any other? I certainly do — I default to running D&D.
But some of my best gaming experiences have come from stepping outside of my GMing comfort zone, even if only for a little while.
This isn’t a new idea — getting out of your comfort zone is a good idea in other aspects of your life, too — but it might be one that you haven’t considered from a GMing standpoint.
And there’s not much to it: All you need to do is make a deliberate choice to do one or more of the following.
You can try any of these ideas as one-shots, or you can talk them over with your group and tackle one for several sessions.
Run a game you’ve never run before Even if the rules aren’t all that different — trying out d20 Modern when you’re used to D&D, for example — there will still be challenges that’ll stretch your GMing skills.
Try a new genre. Always play fantasy? Try sci-fi, or horror, or something else entirely.
Run a limited-scope game. The traditional RPG model is the decade-long campaign where the PCs go from being well-armed peasants to epic adventurers — break with tradition. Primetime Adventures is an indie game with a deliberately limited scope: You play a “season” of several episodes, and you know when the season is going to end.
Throw out a cherished expectation. Do you run games where PCs almost never die? Run a one-shot of Call of Cthulhu, and let the players know that their characters are likely to die by the end of the evening. They’ll play the game differently — and you’ll run it differently, too.
Apply the 20% rule. I wrote about the 20% rule — 20% of what goes into your next game should be different from your previous games — in my very first post here on TT, and it’s a great guideline. It’s also a fairly low-impact way to step outside your comfort zone.
GM a game in a new situation. Run a game at a con, or for a different group — you can even just run the same game in a different venue (like at someone else’s house).
Run a really crazy one-shot. One of the best sessions I’ve ever run was Pagan Publishing’s “In Media Res,” a Call of Cthulhu scenario in which the PCs are all escaped convicts. One of them is mute, and starts the game with someone else’s severed tongue in his mouth; another is like to shoot one of the other PCs within the first few minutes; and all of them have fucked-up flashbacks during the course of the game. It was wildly different than our usual fare, and we had a blast.
The thing to remember about all of these ideas is this: You don’t have to stay outside your comfort zone (it’s okay to come back quickly — I can almost guarantee you’ll have learned something useful), and as long as you tried a one-shot, even if you hate every minute of it, it’s only one session.
I went out for a couple of beers with my friend Don the other night, and a lot of these ideas came up in our conversation. We’ve both been GMing for a long time, and we have fairly different comfort zones.
What really struck me about the conversation, though, was when he brought up how challenging it was to run our Stargate campaign. He wrote every adventure like a TV episode, using the three-act model, and although that was frustrating for him at times, it was also an excellent challenge — and one that broadened his GMing skills.
This comes back to Martin’s Maxims for GMs (and in a roundabout way, Ask Your Players to GM at Least Once), and it’s great thing to try out at conventions.
There’s nothing wrong with having a GMing comfort zone (we all do) — but there is something wrong with never stepping outside it, with never challenging yourself to broaden your GMing horizons (and expose your players to something new at the same time).
What’s your comfort zone? In what ways have you crossed this boundary in your own GMing — and what did you learn from it?
My comfort zone is straight D&D, often in a published world (currently Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms).
The current campaign I am starting up isn’t even every far from this comfort zone, but it is still refreshing. I am doing a game with the Iron Heroes alternative player’s handbook. It has been a wonderful switch from magic/treasure heaving core D&D to a focus more on characters and tactics.
Changing did more than just refresh my batteries. It also jump started my players. They are more excited about this campaign than either of my other two.
Hmm, I’ve just had a bad experience getting out of my comfort zone. I’ve just decided the 5 weeks we’ve spent on Burning Wheel was a total waste of time. All I’ve learning is that you get what you pay for when you start a game without any real direction. And that games that don’t have a solid “this is how you set up the game to play” section really suck.
Now on the flip side, Dogs in the Vinyard which was also out of my comfort zone worked just fine.
But… but… but going outside of your comfort zone is… WORK!
Seriously, it’s scary to go outside of your comfort zone, but it definatly is rewarding. Now if only I could find a group willing to do the same…
My group has tried this a few times – different games, different GMs – usually works well with experienced gamers – even when the “GM Temp” wasn’t all that great, we at least learned what NOT to do – good advice!!
It’s so vastly different from any other RPG; I think every GM and player should experience it.
In my group, it has affected every other system we have used (for the positive).
Oh, and it’s insanely fun!
I was laughing at recognition at Patrick. I’ve been pushing games outside our communal “comfort zone”– but they want the potential of long range games. (But were unwilling to consider multiple PTA seasons the same as a campaign…)
(Wow that was disjointed. The first sentence should be: “I was laughing with recognition at Patrick’s description.” Sorry.)
My DMing comfort zone is straight-up D&D dungeon crawl.
Last winter we broke from our D&D Mode and ran a two-session adventure ripped straight from the Michael Crichton novel “Congo” with the Modern rules set.
It took a thorough re-reading of the novel, not to mention picking out the key “scenes”. So instead of the PCs going through a dungeon step-by-step, the adventure was presented in an episodic fashion — leaping from scene to scene.
It was my first try at scene-to-scene adventuring, rather than following a map.
We had a blast. By the time we got to the lost city in the jungle, we constructed the city out of empty soda cans from the previous session.
That’s all right, ScottM. I completely understand. No, really, it’s all right. I’ll live on after being laughed at. You don’t need to disguise it. It’s cool. 🙂 LOL
Martin: No, I never tried that site before. Thing is I don’t have time for two games in a week (I use to do that – had a psion in an Eberron campaign. That was a lot of fun), but I just couldn’t keep up with the other group, although it was insanely fun.
I love hearing everyone’s stories about pushing their GMing envelopes — thanks for sharing them!
My comfort zone would be published adventures. I always want write and do my own but lack the confidence. I’m going to give it a shot though with a Spycraft 2.0 game I’m about to run. I hope it goes well.
For me, the problem isn’t getting out of my GMing comfort zone, but getting the players out of their playing comfort zone.
My players aren’t all that interested in trying out new systems — we’ve done it a handful of times, but only a handful. I’m not sure how to get them to try other things — my thinking now is that perhaps I could try a once-a-quarter one-shot, with the few interested players from my group, and a few new players rounded up from outside of the campaign.
Ken, that’s a great topic for a future TT post — thank you for bringing it up!