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The GM and the Chef

A stew pot with an array of vegetables: tomatos, green beans, mushrooms, garlic, and peppers

It’s International Tabletop Game Day and I am lucky enough to be at a friend’s house to run a rousing game of Pasión de las Pasiones. I walk in to the smell of something delicious and the sizzle of a hot pan on the stove. Fellow gnome Camdon is standing in the kitchen and he’s got piles of chopped onions, carrots, and celery while the chicken cutlets in front of him brown with a touch of salt and pepper, and he’s got capers and dijon set aside to add in once everything is combined. We chat, and then we sit down to game and eat some wonderful food.

Running the game, I lay out my thoughts — there’s a pile of relationships, all tangled together. There’s the glitz and glitter and riches of the telenovela, shining for our theoretical audience. There’s the evil twin, working at cross purposes. I’m throwing all of these into the sizzling pan of El Jefe’s illicit alcohol smuggling operation, with a little extra seasoning from the helicopter that is about to explode. We chat, and we laugh, and we jump in to play a wonderful game.

Plot on a Plate 1 1/2 cup Unique NPCs 1 tbsp Plot Flakes 2 tbsp Love Interest 1/2 tsp Goblins (or sub Kobolds) 1 cup Monologuing Nemesis 1/4 cup Mischief Powder At a large table, put out half the Unique NPCs and Mischief Powder. Add Plot Flakes and Love Interest and whisk thoroughly until there is a plot hook. Pour in remaining ingredients and slowly increase heat to high over time until the Monologuing Nemesis comes to a boil. In the same way that the practiced cook will trust themselves to create a meal, the practiced GM can drop a game. And in both cases it comes down to the same ideas — experience, practice, and trusting yourself. If I am going to toss together a meal, I need to have an idea of what ingredients I have on hand and what will work together to create a harmonious meal. When I’m running a game, I need to have an idea of what genres and tones of games I am comfortable running and what kind of tropes I can use or subvert to create a shared story experience that matches the expected tone. It’s fun adding that one flavor that makes the dish pop in the same way it brings me joy to throw in the twist that makes all my players gasp. And sometimes, when you’re tired, it’s perfectly acceptable to have a sandwich instead of doing anything fancy — just like it’s totally fine to run that game that is exactly and precisely in your comfort zone, that you don’t have to think about. (Except, maybe sometimes, grill it and put an egg on it. The sandwich, not the game.)

So what is the point of thinking of GMing the way we think about cooking? The thing about cooking is that anyone can learn how to cook if they don’t already know. Your taste buds will guide you as you learn, and there are so many recipes out there to help you get started. Some you’ll love and you’ll make again and again and get so comfortable with you’ll be willing to start tweaking. Some you’ll make and not see a need to make again — they just don’t hit the right flavor profile, or they were far more work than they were worth.

Don’t be afraid to experiment and not get it perfect the first time.
GMing is the same thing. Anyone can learn the skills to do it. The games that you enjoy will guide you to what you will enjoy running. There are many pre-written adventures out there that you can run, or analyze the construction of so that you can start creating your own. Some adventures may work better for you than others, and you can learn from both what works and what doesn’t work for you. Or you may be more comfortable starting with something you know — like a sandwich — and building on it, adding things that seem like they’ll work and learning from experience what works well and what doesn’t. You don’t need to be an expert to GM a game — just like cooking, you can ask other people what might go well in that dish, or what the best way to cook something is (or how does this mechanic work). If you try to make a dish and it doesn’t work, you might eat it anyway and shrug, or you might throw it out and go out that night and try again later…but we don’t tend to put the same amount of pressure on successful cooking that we do on successful GMing. Don’t be afraid to experiment and not get it perfect the first time. Every time you run a game, no matter how successful or not it feels to you, you are learning more about how to run a good one next time — just like how every almost successful meal teaches you to add more salt or to lower the heat a little. So go out there, pick up some plots at your FLGS on your way home, and cook up a good story tonight.

It’s really no surprise that we call this blog the stew.

What’s your best GMing recipe? Soup’s on!