Want To Be A Better GM?

I was sitting in a room full of teachers yesterday considering the possibilities of a new model designed to help engagement with students that made me think about this topic.  It is a great thing if you want to be a better GM and I am a happy person if you look to my blog to assist you in this task but there is more to this process than just saying “I want to be a better GM!” and reading a blog or two and putting it into action.  There is a lot more to it and I thought that some of what I am going to talk about is common sense but yesterday I found that even with some of the most highly educated people in a room together, collectively they can be very dumb.

How engaging students made me think of wanting to be a better GM.

I work as a teacher of Computer Science and a range of other computery type subjects in a college in Tasmania.  What that means for people outside of Tasmania is I teach to year 11 and 12 (sometimes 13) students.  They are generally between 16 and 18 years of age.  I have a University degree in Computing, not teaching though I am working on that degree as I teach.  The kids have finished their year and are on exams and we teachers get together every year to talk about the College plan and improving the college.  This is really the first year I have been able to focus on it as I have been focused on learning to teach otherwise.  So the following conversation happened (I am paraphrasing but you will get the drift).

Leadership Team Member (LTM): “Here is a graph that shows important things.  It shows if we are in this quadrant or this quadrant or this quadrant that it will be bad so we really need to be in this quadrant so we have chosen this model by [insert important academic here who likes writing in broad statements about very little] to make sure our students are fully engaged.

At this stage I look around at all the smart people in the room.  They are all nodding their head and agreeing wholeheartedly and I wait for one of them to ask about the elephant in the room but none of them do.  You see, I am currently awaiting to hear if I win my job from the College so I did not want to be that guy.  I wanted someone else to ask the obvious question.  The LTM started to get ready and I put my hand up sighing that I may be throwing the job away but I will not sit through a session on something if I can’t clearly understand it.

Me: “Where are we on the graph at the moment?”

LTM: “That is a good question.”  He then looks around the room and there is about two minutes of awkward silence as he looks around for help and I look at him and some of the highly educated people in the room begin to wonder why they did not ask that question.

Me: “I mean if we are already there then why are we implementing a model?  I don’t mean to be awkward but how did you determine we needed to do this and how will it be measured?”  The LTM now looks really uncomfortable and he is saved by another LTM who just says that we need to do this model and lets get into it.

So how does that relate to me being a better GM?

Well, I have live a long and varied life and done a lot of things that have led me to a point where I know if you want to implement a change you need a few things.

  1. You need to have a goal.  And what is more that goal needs to be a specific goal.  We will talk about that soon but “I want to be a better GM” is not a specific goal.
  2. You need to be able to measure that goal.  This implies that you need something to measure with which we will talk about too.
  3. You need to know where you are in relation to that goal to start with.

I truly (and also very naively) believed that I worked in a place full of smart people with degrees but after yesterday I realized that in actual fact I am metaphorically on a rowboat with many captains and no oars.

Setting your goals

better gm brain storm
Some skills that I quickly came up with that I think makes a great GM

I have attached a very brief mind map that I made of what skills makes up a brilliant GM in my eyes.  Now before I go on I will answer the question I get asked most when I put in a mind map – the software is ThinkBuzzan’s iMindMap 7.  I did that little map in under five minutes and I know there are a lot more skills I could put on there but I want to illustrate the point that there are a lot of skills that go to making up a great GM so you saying “I want to be a better GM” is much, much too broad a statement.  No blog in the world can give you one post that touches on every skill all at once.  What you need to do is work on skills that are part of being a great GM and improve them.  Over time with some specific goals you will become a better GM and can move on to other skills and improve those while you maintain the ones you have.  It is called incremental improvement.

I have people that think I am a great GM.  I am pleased to hear that but I know that I need to improve.  Some people in the past have said to me that I am so lucky to be able to GM the way I do and I say to them:

I find the more I practice the skills of being a GM the luckier I get!

It is rare that people get the joke but the truth is the more you practice, the better you get.  So step one to being a better GM is thinking about the skills you need to be a better GM and then set yourself a goal.  Make it a realistic goal like:

I want to be able to do voices for my important NPC’s.

People in games love voices or characterizations for NPC’s.  They love to recognize the NPC from a voice or a facial tic.  That is a great solid goal and it is also a measurable goal which makes it that much better!

Measuring makes a better GM

I am giving you a very formal system for something that you will likely do very informally, but it is important that you understand these concepts and use them to improve.  A goal has to be measurable and because it must be measurable you need measurements that will tell you how you are going.  Take the voices example from the previous section.  It is easily measurable by the number of NPC’s you do a voice for, or perhaps the number of times you use a voice other than your own for a character in the game.  These are things that you could legitimately write down or record from session to session to see how you are going.

Also, along these lines at the end of the game you could ask your players “How do you like the new voices?” or “Do you want me to add some more voices in the game?” and listen to what they have to say.  It can be that simple and you can take that feedback away and use it to measure how the players are feeling about the voices.  They do not need to sit down to a thirteen page survey about it, just use your after game chatter to get an idea on how your skills in a particular area are improving.

Also, do not rely wholly on feedback of others.  Sometimes people are having a bad day and they may not be as receptive to a high pitched squeaky voiced sprite and react negatively at the end of the game.  Take feedback as a whole and remember that some changes will not please everyone.

Before you start an improvement plan check where you are against the goal.

This is so important.  This is where my college of teachers is so falling down.  They are working off a perception that may or may not be true and are putting the cart before the horse by implementing an improvement model with no idea of how they are currently performing.  Before you set out to increase the number of voices in game (for example) think about how many you already do.  Spend a game night looking at it and ask your players “Do you think I should ham up the NPC’s a bit more?” and listen to the responses.  If you hear back that the NPC’s are a bit flat or two dimensional then that might be a goal that will really improve the experience for everyone.  If you hear that your NPC’s are coming to life for the players and they really love the color you bring to them then it may not be a goal that is worth setting yourself.

Be realistic about what goals you set yourself.  I am really bad at recording ad-hoc bits of information.  I know that if I could use a central notebook rather than napkins and random bits of paper the experience would be much more fluid for my players when they say “What was the name of that Inn in Volstock?”.  But you know, whenever I go on to try and make myself a better GM I always end up spending time planning more and most of what I plan goes to waste anyway.  Be real about your goals and they will make you a better GM.

Save waste and be a better GM

Using these three concepts (a goal should be measurable and specific; you should always know where you are before you spend time on a goal) really is all about saving you from wasting time.  Imagine that you do what I do and throw yourself into hours and hours of planning and at the end of the game you go “Ha!  I think that was the best game I have ever run!” and one of the player turns around and says “It was good, but all of your adventure designs are great.  I really wish you would give me more than 3 hours notice that a game is on though I almost missed this one because my boyfriend is ill” then you will realize that you have wasted your time with the extra work.

Find your weaknesses any way you can.  Take a hard look at yourself, critically think about your games and ask questions of your players.  Take that data and build goals around those weaknesses.  Read blogs then that tackle those specific ideas or ask a good blogger to consider writing a piece of advice.  It is from this work that you will improve well and become a better GM.  By working on goals that strengthen a strength then you are wasting your time.

I hope this rambling has helped!  Keep rolling 🙂

1 Comment

  1. Catching up on your blog after a week of being slack….

    Brilliant post. To often in life do we set “goals” so general that we can never achieve them. This leads to disappointment but the reality is that we never gave ourselves a chance.

    I agree that you should identify specific “weaknesses” you want to work on but I would say don’t neglect your “strengths”. They may not need as much of your time but they are the components that bring you enjoyment and allow you the freedom to work on your “weaknesses”

    2 cents…


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