A few weeks ago I was running my Cortex Prime game, Aux. The session went well, and my players had a few minutes of time, so rather than just a simple check-in for how the session went, we got into a really in-depth critique of how the campaign was going to date. Overall, the feedback was positive, and there were and are things I can do better. When everyone left that evening, I found myself drained rather than full of that post-game, GM high. With that drained feeling came the self-doubt, and I just slumped on the couch, wondering if this game was really doing what I needed to.
The following day, I hit up my players on Slack and told them how I was feeling, and they told me that there was nothing to worry about everyone was having a great time. They did make one suggestion, which was to not do a deep analysis just after playing if I wanted to have the GM high, as the two don’t often go hand in hand.
It was sound advice, and it was at that moment that there was something I had not been thinking about, which was what do I want…what do I need from a session?
Why Do We GM?
For the first decade of my gaming, I never gave a thought to why I GMed. The answer was easy…because no one wanted to. I was a GM by conscription. If we wanted to play…someone needed to GM. I really wanted to play, so I took up the mantle.
Over the past few decades, my reason for wanting to GM has changed. There was a period when the most important thing to me was to craft exciting stories for my players. That gradually morphed into creating exciting stories with my players, and today that morphed into making sure everyone has a good time at the table (though I still love a good story).
Why we GM is a question for each GM to answer, and that answer is personal to you. You will know what you want to get out of a game, and most likely that will change over time.
Emotional Return on Investment
The fact is, GMing is more work than playing. In the current state of how RPGs work, the vast majority of games require a GM to play. And so, there will always be one person at the table who is putting in more work and effort – before, during, and between games – than the rest of the table. There is nothing wrong with that, because that is what the role of GM entails, and for the most part, we willingly accept that role.
What is important is something I am going to call Emotional Return on Investment or ERI, and that is the emotions (should be positive) you get from running a session. The investment part of this is the time and creativity you expend to create a fun session for your table (yourself included). After running a session, the session should bring about those positive emotions in you. ERI is then how many good feelings you got for the work you did.
A good ERI means that the good emotions you got are greater than any bad ones (if there were any) and are “worth it” for the time you spent prepping and running the game. A bad ERI means that the emotions you get at the end of the game were not worth any negative emotions playing nor the work you put into prepping and running the game.
When you have a good ERI you will come out of your game feeling good, and excited to prep and get to the next session. When you have a bad ERI, you come out of the game feeling less than good and you may be hesitant for prepping or running the next game.
Given enough bad ERI, you will likely start thinking about canceling your games or killing your campaign.
Possible Reasons To GM
Back to what you want to get out of GMing. It is important to know what you want to get out of a session so that you know how to structure the game so that it facilitates what brings you enjoyment. Now, hopefully, you have been doing this for your players as well, as the ideal you are striving for is one that brings enjoyment to everyone at the table.
So why do people want to GM?
There are way too many answers to this question, but I will give you a few more common ones. This list is some of the reasons I have GMed over the years. This means the list is not complete, nor is it in any order, but is here to give you some examples of reasons you may GM and how you get good ERI from them.
To Keep Gaming
The group/game will not exist without them GMing, so they are the ones who GM. While this is not the best solo answer (it is better if this is one of the reasons to GM), the good ERI from this is that the group/game persists.
Your interest is to entertain your players. You want to tell a compelling and dramatic story, have exciting encounters, have players gasping at plot twists, etc. Your good ERI comes when everyone is having fun playing through the session.
Your interest is derived from providing a service to the group. You GM because doing so allows you to serve others. Your good ERI comes from providing the game to players and that you did a good job.
You love the power of being a game master and you enjoy wow-ing people with the awesome things you come up with. (I am going to say, from experience, that this is not the most healthy reason to GM, but at some level, many GMs have some of this). Your good ERI comes from the praise you receive from your table.
To Craft A Story
You love crafting a story and seeing it play out at the table. You have all these great ideas for playing out epic stories and you want to bring them to the table. Your good ERI comes from the reactions of your players to the stories you are creating.
You love seeing what happens at the table. You create situations for your players and then wait to see how they react and how the game unfolds. There is excitement in keeping up with where the game is going and figuring out what to do next. Your good ERI comes from those moments where the game goes in places you did not expect.
You won’t have a single reason for GMing, often it is a combination of a few factors. For me, today, I would say my main drivers are: To Entertain, Service, and Surprise. I want people to have a good time, and I want to facilitate that enjoyment. At the same time, I love being surprised by the games I run.
Figuring That Out For Yourself
You should take some time, after this article, and figure out why you like to GM. Recall a good session you recently had, and think about the reasons why it was so enjoyable. Was it the tactical challenge of giving the characters a strong opposition? Was it acting out one of the NPCs in a dramatic moment? Was it the revelation at the climax of your plot?
Take some time to figure it out.
Picking Games and Groups for your ERI
I love GMing theory, but if this is going to be of value, we need to talk about this in practice. Understanding why you like to GM and what gives you good ERI helps you understand which games, groups, and play styles will work best for you so that you get the best ERI from session to session.
So going back to my opening story, I said that I like to Entertain, Service, and Surprise. So when everyone has had a good session, that ERI goes into Entertain and Service. People had a good time, and as GM I facilitated it. When we did a deeper analysis of the game and got more critical, it felt like I did not do a good job providing that GM service, and that took a hit and I lost the ERI, which is why I felt empty after the game.
Knowing what gives you good ERI is going to help you with what games work best for you. Do you like the tactical aspects of gaming? Then you know you should run games with more of those elements and avoid games where combat has fewer tactical components. Or if one of your good ERI’s is to make sure that this game continues, and the players all want to play a system that you don’t love, it may not matter because it may be more important that the group keeps playing rather than trying to change systems.
Now your enjoyment is not the only thing when it comes to running for your group, but knowing what you need will help you as you work with the players to find the games and play style that you all enjoy.
Maximize Your Investment
GMing can be a lot of work, and we only do it because of the feelings we get when we have a great session. As I say on one of the podcasts I co-host, the more you enjoy GMing, the more you will GM, and the more you GM, the more games you will play, and the longer you, and others will remain in the hobby. Understanding what feeds you, emotionally in gaming, will allow you to make sure those needs get fulfilled, and thus make GMing more enjoyable for you, and keep you behind the screen making great stories with your players.
Why do you GM? Where do you find your good ERI?
I mostly game master nowadays to try out new ideas, may it be how we talk, trying to master new things, playing around with how we can construct stories, or even playtest mechanics. I’ve been playing for too long (and are too analytic) that most of roleplaying games are mostly a bore. It doesn’t matter if we change world or rule system when the play is the same in most roleplaying games.
I think innovation is a great reason to be GMing. I have had periods of my GMing tenure where I was into innovation as well.