Last week John posted an article about being a better Game Master , calling GM’s to define what aspects of GMing they need to improve. This week, I attended a Project Management Institute Professional Development Day, where I got to sit with and learn from fellow PM’s. The two things got me thinking about how we as GM’s can improve ourselves. What are the ways to learn more about GMing, and how can we exercise our skills to hone our craft.
A Community Effort
“Like iron sharpens iron so one person sharpens another”
When it comes to learning to be a better Game Master, there are no accredited institutions of higher learning, nor professional associations to define and train the skills necessary to be a competent game master. If there were, we would have the equivalent of the Six Sigma Black Belt or the Project Management Professional, or even the LEGO Certified Professional (no kidding that’s real– and awesome).
Instead we have a community of individuals with their own ideas on what makes for good GMing, who are willing to share their ideas and experiences for the betterment of the community. That diversity of thought is in fact better for us than a sole institution defining “good GMing”. That spirit of community and sharing is not new, it was there as the hobby came into formation, through the publication of newsletters and later magazines. In those heady days, I grew up getting my GMing advice from Dragon.
The Internet, having turned 25 this week, has allowed us to add a multitude of voices to the general discussion of the craft of Game Mastering. As the Internet matured, even the ways we get our information has expanded – starting with text, then audio, and video; allowing us to interact with advice in a manner most conducive to the time we have and the ways we learn. Regardless of the platform providing the advice, the basic model has not changed…we are a community of GM’s helping each other out, which is pretty cool.
Resources for Improvement
John’s article, as well as one I wrote years ago on GM improvement,Â challenges us to be better GM’s, to identify things at which we are weak, and then work to improve upon those areas. In order to improve, we often need to learn from and model someone who can do that skill better than we can. The good news is that its never been easier to find advice and ideas for creating and running better games.
Here are some of my favorite types of resources that I use daily to hone my craft:
- Blogs – Let’s state the obvious. You are reading us so you must be interested in GMing advice. There are thousands of RPG blogs out there…we are just one. Just a few that I read frequently: The Walking MindÂ and Look, Robot.
- Podcasts – I am big fan of podcasts, as I have more time to listen than to read. There is a robust podcast community producing content weekly. Here are some of the ones I subscribe to: Ken and Robin Talk about Stuff, Fear the Boot, Misdirected Mark, Metagamers Anonymous.
- Video Blogs – Not an area where I am well versed, but I know there are video blogs which talk about GMing. (In the comments please list out the ones you know.)
- Books – I love Gaming books, but they are less frequent than Blogs and Podcasts. Besides the books I have authored and co-authored (look to the right), some of my other favorites include: The Kobold Guide books, Play Dirty, and Play Unsafe.
- Communities – Be it communities centered around a Blog or Podcast or Game, Big Purple, a G+ Community, or even a Yahoo Group, there are online communities were you can go and ask questions and get advice. Right now I am a big fan of G+ communities.
- Seminars – I am a junkie for GMing seminars at conventions and show up at a few at any convention I attend. I love hearing how GM’s perform their craft and the challenges they overcome.
- Playing RPG’s – Find a GM you like, and be a player in their game. Watch how they run the game and get the chance to experience the game from a player perspective. Both will help your own GMing.
Advice is great, but until you apply it to your gaming it does not do anything to improve your skills. So with your newly acquired knowledge from your favorite source, you now need to put it to use in a game. The best advice I can give is to work to improve one skill at a time, even if you have a few which you want to improve upon. Sometimes we have a habit of getting over ambitious when we read advice, and our minds flood with new ideas. We then decide to make a bunch of changes to our style all at once.
Instead, make a checklist of things you want to change and then pick one. Work on that until you are comfortable and then pick another one from the list. By tackling your improvements one at a time, you can dedicate your focus and energy to making that improvement. Also, by only working on one thing at a time it will be less jarring on your players and your game.
Speaking of games and players, there are a few ways you can practice new skills.
One-shots are great ways to practice skills, because they have no impact on your existing campaign. They are best for learning skills such as: new game mechanics, different genres, improv gaming, creating new monsters/powers/etc. If the game does not go well, it was a learning experience. If things do go well, you can always spin a one shot off into its own campaign.
If you don’t have the time or opportunity to run a one-shot, then you are going to have to practice your new skills in your existing campaign. The real risk you run is having a session bomb because something you are working on did not come out well. For a lot of skills you won’t need to worry. If you are working on NPC voices, or better combat descriptions, you are not going to do any damage to your campaign. For the things mentioned above that can affect the party, or the overall campaign story, you will need to be more careful working those into your existing game.
In The Shower
For some skills, like accents, NPC dialog, or room descriptions, you don’t need to run a game to practice. You can work on them when you are alone, such as in the shower, or on the drive to work. The only risk you run is a stranger or family member overhearing your Gruff Dwarven accent, but you’re a gamer, so that has likely happened already in your life.
In the ITIL Framework there is something called Continual Service Improvement; a process where you always work to improve the service you are providing. Every GM should embrace that spirit, and continually work to improve themselves, to be a better GM game after game, year after year.
The good news is that the number of resources and sources of advice is immense; more than we can actually take in. We are fortunate to have a community of GM’s who are eager to help improve one another.
What are your favorite sources of advice and information? How do you work to improve those skills?
RPG forums, blogs, trying out games at conventions and reading reviews of games are my biggest sources for picking up new styles. The reviews on RPG.net are great because they so thoroughly describes the system.
But like you said: you can’t learn anything unless you try it, and nowadays I mostly play to experiment with different play styles. If I hadn’t discovered new ways of playing roleplaying games, mostly through my own designs, I wouldn’t be in this hobby today.
That’s funny. Yesterday I actually was practicing my NPC voices in the shower. (I was also singing “Let it Go” in a British accent, but nobody a has to know about that, right?)
I did something similar. My players didn’t like it. It was the last time I tried to mix TTRPG with LARP … and the last time I saw my players.
Your players quit because you were practicing bad accents in the shower? 😉
And I thought my players could be a fickle bunch. 🙂
Mostly I read to be a better GM, I read all kinds of material, stuff online, books, magazines, whatever I can get my hands on. The more I read (no matter the genre or content) the more my imagination is fueled. Not exactly helpful to other people, I know, but here’s one: I check out Gnome Stew just about every day for ideas and inspiration (well, I guess that’s not helpful either, since if you’re reading this you’re already at Gnome Stew).
Oh, here’s one: at work I write down any ideas I have on a little card, just short phrases so I’ll remember. I have a very boring job and so I spend a lot of time thinking. Sometimes I see an interesting individual or hear a cool name, I describe the person or jot down the name, it gives me fodder for NPCs and sometimes inspires a major character.
(By the way, Rickard, at one game that I played we actually had a “NO LARPING!” sign that we would display whenever it started occurring.)
I think any GM worth their salt is one that strives to improve their techniques across all aspects of the spectrum. This is really a never ending process but one that I feel is best achieved less formally.
What the hobby really needs is more articles like this for players. More players need to realize that they also have a responsibility for the success of a game and also the enjoyment of their fellow players and their GM.