Sometimes it’s a nice happenstance when several of the Gnome articles in a series match up and dovetail into one another easily. Both John  and Phil  have recently written about iterative steps in becoming better GMs and/or exercising best practices for continual service improvement. (As an ITIL follower myself, I heartily approve of the methodology!)
My contribution is about that continual service improvement but doing so even when you’re not running a game; those downtimes that can last weeks, months, or even years between our next time behind the screen. It’s one thing to seek improvement but also another to continually hone your skills for the next opportunity. I’m of the mindset that once a GM, always a GM, or so to say, you’re probably thinking about that next game right now, even if you’re not scheduled to be running a game any time soon.
I’m a fan of the lifelong learning philosophy in that no matter your experience level there’s always a learning opportunity out there. As a GM, there’s always something we can tease out of a game that we play in. Keeping that critical eye observing—or in other words, keeping the GM side of your brain always active, even when you’re regulated to “just” being a player at the table. What new ideas or concepts can you learn from the game you’re playing in? More so, what can you learn from interacting with your fellow players? In many cases your fellow players are likely going to be the same players in that next game you run. Monitoring them, their playstyles, and reactions can help fuel your decision-making for your next foray behind the screen.
The Next Game
I’m constantly thinking of the next game. It’s just a strange way of being wired. It’s not a case of hoping the current game will run aground or wishing upon myself more work when there’s plenty to go around, but just the mindset of being prepared. Running concepts through the internal filter, doing the mental exercise of “how would I run that?” and just as quickly letting it go. In the span of the last year I must have planned at least half a dozen games, none of which will ever see the light of day. Wasted energy? No, I don’t think so. The process is informative and keeps that muscle memory of running a game in good shape.
GMing By Proxy
I’m guilty of doing this all the time as well: putting myself in the current GM’s shoes—as a player—as part of a mental exercise of “what would I do?” Adjudicating rules mentally to myself, comparing notes with the actual GM. It isn’t a case of challenging authority or wanting to take over the current game—quite the opposite, in fact—but an instance of using the real-world examples that come up every week as a “what if?” opportunity. The beauty of these situations is that it’s a “live fire” exercise with real rules in real situations but with none of the overhead of running the game…or the fallout of potentially making a wrong decision!
Sharpening That Saw
Just like Phil spoke about , using those avenues for research and becoming a GM, even during your downtime. Choose your favorite poison, be it forums, blogs, or even crafting your own articles; there’s value in just exercising that part of your GM-brain where you stay in that creative mindset. For myself, writing for the Stew is an obvious outlet, although sometimes it feels strange to be writing about GMing when I haven’t run a game in over a year. In those cases I feel rather vulnerable in that I haven’t earned the right to pontificate about GMing issues because I’m slumming it as a player. Yea, I’m my own worst enemy. 😉
I’m fortunate in that my group has a high tolerance—and enjoys—one shots . These provide a rare opportunity to take a new game/ruleset out for a spin but also be a GM again, albeit if only for an evening. I try to have at least one in the wings at any given time, should our regular GM be unavailable to run a game or some opening in our schedule presents itself. Party because I’m greedy and love to role-play; I can’t stand a “wasted” weekend opportunity to game. Also, because it does provide that chance to run something new or unusual and be a GM again, even if only for one evening.
For the newbie GM who wants to crack into their group’s lineup, this is a perfect opportunity. The willingness to run a game on short notice also comes with a degree of latitude in performance; it’s a great stage to flex your skills with a supportive audience.
For myself, game writing and design is cathartic in its own right. Even if I’m not running a game, taking that objective, critical-thought side of my brain out for a spin is highly rewarding. Right now I’m fortunate to be in a game where a number of the rules are open to be codified; it’s an enjoyable exercise to not only design again but also approach from an angle of being a GM again, although technically I’m not running the game. A bit of an edge case I’ll grant you, but there may be an opportunity in a game that you play in to help your GM with system or adventure design. Worth considering to expand your own experience while helping your GM at the same time.
We’ve covered  this topic before at the Stew in more detail but in brief it involved splitting the GM responsibility. There’s a litany of issues to be on the watch for and it’s challenging in its own right, but if you’re feeling the need to get behind the screen this may be an opportunity within your own group. A high level of trust is required so this option may not be a good fit for everyone. I’d toss round-robin  GMing in this corner as well.
Much like continual learning as previous discussed, this is a specific version centered around just becoming more familiar with and absorbing other games. Many of us are voracious readers and, dare I say it, collectors, of games. That unto itself is a chance to absorb new concepts, theories, and ideas around games. Be it mechanics or campaign design, nabbing that game off your shelf that you haven’t had a chance to read—or ordering the new hotness off the Internet—is an equally valid way of honing your GM chops. If you’re in a group that’s blessed with a number of qualified GMs, this may be your primary outlet of keeping up to speed on game design and the latest rules.
These are just a few ideas on how you can stay fresh as a GM even when you’re not running a game and don’t have anything planned on the calendar. Undoubtedly you’ve got a few methods that work for you; share with us below!