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Write Your Own Naughty List

List your own faults as a GM. That probably doesn’t sound like very good advice. Heck, it probably doesn’t even sound like a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon — which it’s not.

But it is good advice.

Maybe not fun, but good advice. Here’s why.

It’s possible to be good at something without giving it much thought, if you’re both a genius and a prodigy in that area. This doesn’t happen very often, and it doesn’t apply to most of us.

It’s also possible to become good at something the “traditional” way: through hard work, practice and a willingness to learn. That’s pretty much what I’m getting at with Martin’s Maxims for GMs [1]: Focus on learning and having fun, and you’ll continue to learn and have fun.

This post is Martin’s Maxims with teeth. That’s not to say that it’s negative, just that it focuses on doing something that, when you get right down to it, most people don’t like to do: Enumerate your own faults.

I’ve got a number of faults as a GM, and I’ve been doing it for 17 years. Every GM has faults, and knowing what they are is crucial to becoming a better GM.

Figuring out what your faults are can be tough, though, because your players won’t always tell you about them. I explored that problem in Getting Player Feedback [2], and received some great responses.

The best approach is to figure out what you’re bad at yourself, and here’s where the teeth come in: My challenge to you is to think about your faults and weaknesses as a GM, and then write them down.

I’ll start.

My Faults as a GM

I have trouble building adventures. Specifically, I tend to focus on building the wrong aspects of my adventures — small stuff rather than the big picture, for example. Start Small [3] touches on this, in a roundabout way.
I tend to procrastinate. “Pressure makes diamonds,” and so forth. This one is awfully general, but it impacts my GMing.
My enthusiasm for prep is sometimes very low. One of TT’s most popular posts, I’d Rather Rake Leaves Than Do Prep [4], is about this topic.
At times I’m so detail-oriented that I get bogged down. This ties into my first fault, but also stands on its own.
I’m prone to hoarding my best ideas. Lead With the Cool Stuff [5] addresses this problem.
I’m often unwilling to prod my players along, when prodding is needed. Another post, The Bones in the Soup [6] tackles this fault as it relates to my most recent game.

Knowing all that, should you still read Treasure Tables? Absolutely! Wouldn’t you rather know that I know I’m not a perfect GM, and know that I’m interested in becoming a better GM, when you read my posts? If I were in your shoes, I certainly would. Sharing knowledge about GMing, and engaging in intelligent, open discussion about various aspects of this craft, are both big parts of what Treasure Tables is about.

I’m comfortable speaking with authority on GMing for three main reasons: I have a lot of experience doing it, I’m passionate about it, and I’m always looking for ways to improve. Every GM has things to learn, but it’s easy to leave them by the wayside and keep doing things the way that you’ve always done them.

There are two more components to this process. The first is this: Once you’ve written down your list of faults as a GM, don’t get discouraged! Think of it this way: Which is worse, having faults and ignoring them, or having faults — which every GM does — and using your knowledge of them to get better at something you love?

And that’s the second component: Once you have your list in hand, work on it. How you tackle the things on your list is up to you, and will depend a lot on what they are. One good way to start is to share it so that you can get advice from other GMs, either here or elsewhere. (I know the one I’m going to have the most trouble with is number two, procrastination!)

I invite you to share your own list in the comments, and to provide feedback on my list and the others that get posted here. If you start a thread about this on a messageboard, or on your own blog (etc.), let us know in the comments so we can join in that conversation.

Are you up to the challenge? (I hope so, because I’m going to feel pretty weird if this post fades away with no comments!)

Edit: In the comments, CJ made two points that I think are absolutely vital to keep in mind when using the “naughty list” approach.

One of CJ’s points was that when you work on improving your GMing, any improvement will make the game more fun — and fuel further improvement. His second point I’ll quote verbatim:

Most people (and groups) will do a far better job of improving if they focus on one thing at a time–or two, tops. If you have 3 things on your list, you’ll get far better results improving them serially, than you will if you try to improve all three over the same time.

I wish I’d included both of these in my original post — thanks, CJ!

17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "Write Your Own Naughty List"

#1 Comment By Omestes On November 13, 2005 @ 10:46 pm

Sometimes I go a little overboard, by overboard I mean brutally tough on my poor players. I always feel obligated to kill a character in the last session of a chronicle.

Sometimes, also, I take massive shortcuts, by passing my own good planning. (laziness!)

I know what you mean about getting sucked into the details though. Huge intricate chronicles! It’s like forgetting that you players have a mind of their own!

My solution to these problems was/is to just play for awhile, leave the GMing to someone else. Perhaps I can learn something!

#2 Comment By Martin On November 13, 2005 @ 10:50 pm

Oddly enough, I’m about to be doing just what you mentioned in your fourth point: playing in two games, and not running any.

I’m looking forward to doing some learning from the other side of the screen. 🙂

#3 Comment By Chris On November 14, 2005 @ 1:17 am

I’m having a great time having GM’ed several games, and switching off into playing in several games- it gives me a chance to see things from both sides of the table- and compare techniques, strengths and weaknesses.

I think getting a variety of experiences has given me insight I wouldn’t have gotten without being able to contrast gaming styles. It also helps having a couple of very honest players who are willing to talk about the strong and weak points in a constructive fashion.

#4 Comment By Omestes On November 14, 2005 @ 8:52 am

If you want a challenge to both your GMing and player, try playing a round-robin game, we used to do this with the WoD system back in the day. Each player is responsible for the next weeks session (sometimes we’d ever switch mid-session if someone got a good idea). It led to very surreal games, but tought the art of simplicity, and ad hoc GMing.

#5 Comment By Crazy Jerome On November 14, 2005 @ 9:25 am

Procrastinate is pretty much the biggie with me. I don’t really mind doing prep–most times I even enjoy it. But the quality of my sessions is directly related to the quality of the prep. So procrastinating leads directly to a substandard game. Fortunately, a substandard game tends to motivate me to do better instead of starting some kind of campaign death spiral. 🙂

I do make the distinction between essentially fixable things and unfixable things. My truly worst DM skill is dramatic voices–as in, I can barely do it at all. However, after much effort, I’m convinced that I’ll never get any better. Therefore, I don’t worry about it and try to compensate. For example, I’ll have the NPCs say things where the content is inherently dramatic–or even better, do dramatic things instead of talking.

The biggest thing I’ve learned about improving myself as a DM actually relates to most human improvement (IMHO): Most people (and groups) will do a far better job of improving if they focus on one thing at a time–or two, tops. If you have 3 things on your list, you’ll get far better results improving them serially, than you will if you try to improve all three over the same time.

There are several reasons for this effect, but I think one of the nice bonuses where DMing is concerned is that *any* substantial improvement, in any area–makes the game more fun and fuels further improvement.

#6 Comment By Frank On November 14, 2005 @ 10:54 am

In the past, I didn’t prep enough. D20 showed me the value of good prep. It also showed me the problem with playing a prep heavy game.

So the right balance of prep is definitely one of my weak points.

Another of my weak points is that I generally get bored with campaigns quicker than the players.

I will procrastinate if I don’t like what I’m doing. But the opposite problem I have is that if I’m really enjoying something, I may put a lot of work into stuff that isn’t all that important.

I’m also terrible at characterizations of NPCs, which tends to make me prefer running combats to talky talky.

Frank

#7 Comment By Lilith On November 14, 2005 @ 11:19 am

My biggest problems are keeping the pace of the game going and finding a good balance of prep work. I find that my best games have been those with little actual prep work and a fluent knowledge of the game world.

Another problem is letting real-world issues affect my attitude towards the game. I’m all for using gaming as a release, but I shouldn’t let my issues affect my attitude as a GM.

#8 Comment By Fnor On November 14, 2005 @ 12:48 pm

I have a big problem with the big deux ex machina scenes. I like to have powerful NPCs aiding the PCs along, but too often I let them get involved in whatever’s going on, instead of just being enigmatic. It’s a tough balance, my players often vacilate between “Wha? I can’t believe you had crazy Crane chick do that!” and “Uh, if these guys coming after us are that powerful, why are we still alive? We’re only rank 2.”

It’s really hard for me to get them to realize they’re in the driver’s seat, but ALSO that the stakes are high because they’re enmeshed in something they don’t (and can’t) fully understand.

#9 Comment By Martin On November 14, 2005 @ 4:29 pm

(CJ) Most people (and groups) will do a far better job of improving if they focus on one thing at a time–or two, tops. If you have 3 things on your list, you’ll get far better results improving them serially, than you will if you try to improve all three over the same time.

There are several reasons for this effect, but I think one of the nice bonuses where DMing is concerned is that *any* substantial improvement, in any area–makes the game more fun and fuels further improvement.

In terms of general advice, these are both very strong points — in fact, I’m going to edit my original post to include them (with attribution, of course!).

It’s interesting to see all of your lists so far — keep them coming! 🙂

#10 Comment By David Michael On November 14, 2005 @ 5:40 pm

Making a list and improving one thing at a time is the core of Benjamin Franklin’s “13 Virtues”.

In his “Autobiography”, Benjamin Franklin described a simple yet powerful plan for self improvement. The core of the plan is to improve one virtue (out of a set of 13) each week. Instead of trying to improve in all 13 of the virtues at once (a nigh impossible task), you focus your efforts on improving just one. The following weeks, as you focus on the other virtues in turn, improvement in all of the virtues accumulates (hopefully). With 52 weeks in a year, you will have worked your way through the entire list of 13 virtues four times.

The truly useful part is: You can pick and choose your own collection of “virtues”. =)

You can find out more just by Googling “Ben Franklin autobiography virtues” or something like that.

-David

#11 Comment By Martin On November 14, 2005 @ 5:43 pm

David: I’d never heard of Ben Franklin’s “13 Virtues” — neat! It also ties right back into CJ’s point about going through the list step-by-step.

#12 Comment By Crazy Jerome On November 14, 2005 @ 8:58 pm

Franklin’s Autobiography is probably where I got the idea, though I don’t remember for sure. It was one of my favorite books as a teen. Now that my son is reading it for school, I’m just now getting around to reading it again.

It really does work well. Curiously, I don’t think it works as well if you have a list of only one thing. Who wants to spend all year trying not to procrastinate? 🙂

BTW, when I said “or two, tops”, what I really meant was one thing for the DM, one other thing for the players as a whole. We had a lot of success alternating every two to three sessions between:

A. DM – better prepared, players – pay attention better.

B. DM – loosen up on the action, players – roleplay with each other more.

Note that A had some synergy going between DM and player improvement, while B was completely unrelated.

#13 Comment By DM T. On November 15, 2005 @ 6:11 am

One of my faults is:
Letting the players lead the campaign.
I just hate to pull the players by the nose thus, I allow them full freedom of actions. Doing this, can lead to
– Frustrated players, not knowing what they “Should do” next.
– A major adlibbind done on my account.
I don’t think I’ll ever get past that fault, as I grew to live with it. In the end, I just adlib some more details and throw the players another bone to their pile, hoping this one would grab their attention.

Another one (fault) is wide scope view.
I like to think up on ideas that may lead to, sometimes, a huge campaign. It’s the small details and parts that I sometimes miss in the process.
– End result? More in-game adlibbing on my account (I have a huge notebook, where I write all of my adlib stuff in).

#14 Comment By Martin On November 15, 2005 @ 1:07 pm

(CJ) BTW, when I said “or two, tops”, what I really meant was one thing for the DM, one other thing for the players as a whole.

That makes a lot of sense — I like the idea of applying the naughty list concept to the whole group, and addressing things as a group.

#15 Comment By ScottM On November 15, 2005 @ 4:54 pm

I thought I’d already inflicted my answers on you. Since I haven’t…

+ I am reluctant to cut solo or partial group quests short, which can make for boring delays for the rest of the group.
+ To prevent the above, I’ve run games with less space for good characterization
+ I suck at managing player conflicts, especially when expressed in game (through characters, rules arguments, etc.).
+ I’m reluctant to dedicate adequate time, so I’m not GMing at the moment, despite requests.
+ I’m not good at voices, etc. for NPCs.

That’s what comes quickly– certainly not as complete a list as I’m sure is out there.

#16 Comment By Martin On November 16, 2005 @ 11:03 am

In terms of your first list item, Scott, a brief discussion of the social contract involved in gaming — including, “Let’s keep the side quests to a minimum, so everyone can have more fun” — sounds like a good starting point.

#17 Comment By ScottM On November 16, 2005 @ 3:40 pm

Yes– as a player, I suggested this for the game I’m currently in. It’s relaxing now (9 months and 11 levels later), and that’s a good thing. It’s something I worry about when I run again though– particularly since the system they’re clamoring for encourages non-group play.

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