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Relax and Have Fun: Notes from a Clueless GM

Thinking about GMing in the car (you know you do it too), it hit me just how clueless I was for the first several years. Oh, I figured plenty of stuff out on my own, and I developed aspects of my GMing style that persist today, but by and large I had no idea what I was doing. (There’s still tons of stuff I don’t know, but that’s another post…)

Social contracts [1], player feedback [2], the encounter formula [3], what not to do [4], what makes running solo campaigns different [5], spotting player likes and dislikes [6], the flashlight [7] — I could fill pages with all the stuff I know now and didn’t know back then (and I have [8]).

The funny thing is that even with all of these gaps — shit, gulfs — in my GMing knowledge, we had fun much more often than not, and in some ways that fun seemed easier to achieve. When you don’t know what you don’t know, you’re less afraid to make mistakes [9], and more likely to just roll with things and see what happens.

What I took away from that little bout of reminiscing was these two points:

  1. Don’t get so bogged down in learning every last thing about being an awesome GM.
  2. Just relax and have fun.

The irony of writing this post on a site dedicated to helping, teaching and inspiring GMs isn’t lost on me, but I also don’t see a conflict between wanting to improve and needing to remember to just go with the flow sometimes. GMing advice, like just about everything else, should be taken in moderation.

That’s easy to forget, at least for me, but now I know what to do when I feel like there’s just too many aspects of GMing I still need to work on: relax, dive in, and just have fun.

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#1 Comment By Rick the Wonder Algae On May 16, 2007 @ 8:34 am

And as a correlary, if your DM doesn’t have everything buttoned up, while helpful advice delivered TACTFULLY never hurts, don’t be afraid to let them relax and have fun either. It’ll probably help YOU relax and have fun while playing.

#2 Comment By John Arcadian On May 16, 2007 @ 9:21 am

See I don’t think the post is ironic as well. It is one of those things that goes along with mastering an art. Training, work, extra ways of doing things, all the learning and knowledge and skills you can acquire, all come down to just relax and do it.

The biggest and best thing I have ever gotten out of treasure tables has been the changing paradigm of how you look at a gaming group. Seeing it as a collaborative thing, instead of “here is the adventure the GM wrote for the players.” You can use a multitude of well laid out strategies to get to that point, but getting to that point is what is important.

It is the difference between using recipes to get a result, and knowing the terrain well enough to just cook and get the result. Both ways can get the result, but eventually you learn what you need from the recipes and get on with the cooking.

#3 Comment By VV_GM On May 16, 2007 @ 12:37 pm

For me this is the only reason to game. If you can’t enjoy it and if it doesn’t give you the chance to relax, then what is the point of doing it? No one (at least no one that I know of) is paid to be the GM. In terms of rewards, playing an RPG has very little going for it in comparison to other hobbies. RPGs do not give you physical exercise, and are not nearly as mentally stimulating as other activities available to a person may be.

So why do we bother when there are obviously more productive ways to spend our time? Because the entertainment factor for an RPG is so great for us that even the work involved is fun! And that is nothing to make light of since enjoying your life is one of the most important things that you can do for yourself. I know so many people who are miserable with their situations (whether they have great problems or not) and I don’t want to be like that. That is why I can’t take my hobby too seriously. I have to be able to ease up on it from time to time and just enjoy the game. Once it is no longer enjoyable I’ll quit playing altogether. I already have a job and don’t need another that doesn’t pay.

#4 Comment By Amy On May 16, 2007 @ 4:29 pm

Very zen – “the greatest method of GMing is to have no method at all”.

I suffered a mild case of burn out recently, and got to the point where I could not plan out the next gaming session. I turned up with a handful of notes scratched together on the train.

It was probably the best session we’d had in three months. It flowed smoothly, I kept throwing in old references and new events to keep the players from working out that I had nothing planned. Once I got over the initial “I have nothing!” panic, I relaxed and had a great time.

Since then, my goal is to do as little prep as possible.

#5 Comment By John Gallagher On May 17, 2007 @ 8:19 am

I humbly disagree with VV_GM on one point. I think our hobby offers a very healthy mental exercise. History buffs can garner little tidbits from other gamers, and apply them to their game. Our imaginations certainly get a healthy workout, or should. Our ability to think on our feet and improvise is tested. Just because we’re studying rule books instead of history texts doesn’t mean our minds aren’t engaged.

#6 Comment By brcarl On May 17, 2007 @ 10:48 am

Amy: Since then, my goal is to do as little prep as possible.

Welcome to the brave world of improv! 😉

I can relate to Martin’s musings, with my early GMing being basically a clueless stumble through pre-printed modules, and now developing into a more go-with-the-flow approach (well, once I get this next game started it will be).

I think a lot of it has to do with your personality. Some people are perfectly comfortable playing from the hip — even if they don’t know it (like Amy appears to be). Others have to have everything studied and laid out beforehand if they’re going to be able to function. It may seem like they’re up-tight, but really that’s the only way us *cough* undiagnosed-OCDers can be “relaxed.”

Another big factor here is the players. If the folks on the other side of the screen are in-tune with how the GM operates, and vice-versa, then things will be more loose and enjoyable all around. (Mark up another one for social contract.) I’m getting ready to re-join an old group as GM, and I for-damn-sure am going to make the first session focus on reviewing the group’s underlying assumptions about playing the game. Of course, I hope to achieve this in such a way that the players don’t know we’re talking about the social contract. I’m really eager to try out my “Awesome/Boring” survey.

#7 Comment By Martin On May 18, 2007 @ 11:00 am

(Amy) Very zen – “the greatest method of GMing is to have no method at all”.

Succinctly put, and although I wasn’t trying to be Zen this nails a lot of what I was getting at.

#8 Comment By D&D Nerd.com On May 22, 2007 @ 5:08 pm

I’ve only used one published adventure, and it was one that’s found in the Player’s Handbook II for D&D. Aside from that, I’ve either thought up my own adventures, or just see where the players take me. More often than not, any plans I do make end up being thrown out the window.

My group has a tendency to do some crazy things. 😉