We live on a stupid planet in a stupid solar system. Let’s just get that out of the way. It’s stupid. If we lived on a good planet, the year would be EXACTLY some number of days long. And that number would be divisible by something sensible like ten or twelve or whatever. Instead, the only useful factors are five and 73. Now, it’d be okay if our moon went through five or 73 cycles each year. It doesn’t even go through 12. It actually goes through 12.37 cycles in the span of a year. Because it’s cycles take 29.53 days. So, way back in, like, 44 BCE or something, when Julius Caesar recognized the calendar was f$&%ed because the seasons were all falling in the wrong place and he enlisted the help of an astronomer to fix it, we got a calendar that worked for barely 1,000 years before it got totally f$&%ed up again. And that calendar was pretty f$&%ing close, too. So, Pope Gregory had to fix the fix that Julius Caesar came up with.
Anyway, Julie C., had a pretty good idea about the calendar. He tried to have it based on solar and lunar cycles. But because the year is 365.24 days long and the moon takes 29.53 days to go through a cycle and because everything is off kilter and wobbling like a top and everything keeps changing, he basically had no hope. We’re closer now. But we still have to keep adding seconds now and again in addition to the ridiculousness of leap years just to keep everything synched up. But one thing that the big C that was sort of arbitrary that Pope Greggy didn’t bother changing was: the year starts right the f$&% in the middle of winter. January 1. Okay, technically, it starts 12 days after winter starts (give or take, usually). But whatever. And Julius just sort of picked that day out of a hat. The New Year previously coincided with the first of spring. Which makes some kind of sense.
The point is, there is absolutely NOTHING special about the New Year. It’s arbitrary. It’s meaningless. You can’t even say exactly how long it’s been since the last one or that the Earth is in exactly the same place relative to the sun each New Year’s Day at midnight. It’s all fuzzy. It’s off. New Year’s Day means jack and s$&%.
But, I realize that people LIKE to have this sense of new beginnings or at least to assume that the crappy stuff from the last year has ended, even though there’s no reason to believe any of that either. And people like to tie big, important changes to a specific date so they can say “on this date, I start doing this thing I want to do that I know is good for me” and then they can forget the whole thing a few weeks later. No one sticks with those resolutions. I mean, if the change were important and you really wanted to make it, you wouldn’t delay it until some magical date in the future. You’d start now. And that’s the thing, isn’t it? You resolve to start doing something (or stop doing something) on New Year’s Day so that you can keep avoiding it (or doing it) for a few more days or a week or a month or whatever right now. Because you really don’t want to start (or stop). And the longer you put it off, the easier it is to not do it and the more likely you are to backslide. The most successful way to quit anything (or start anything) is just to do it right now. Right. F$&%ing. Now.
But, look, people like this crap, even though they won’t do it. So, I’m just going to give in. Because people keep asking me questions like “what’s the best way to become a better game master” or “what’s the one mistake you see new game masters making” or whatever. They want quick, bite-sized answers. And I am NOT about quick, bite-sized answers. I mean, hell, I got to paragraph six of this Long, Rambling Introduction™ before I even mentioned how this bulls$&% might relate to D&D. But I am willing to try something new. And I’m going to do it right now and not wait until January 1st. So, before I find myself in ANOTHER paragraph, let me just come right out and say it. This article is The Angry GM’s Ten Ways to Improve Your Game Mastering in 2017! If you’re looking for some New Year’s Resolutions to fail at, feel free to steal any or all of these. And then enjoy two or three weeks of less worse games before you start to suck again.
1. Read Less (and Watch Less), Run More
People keep asking me how to get better at running games. My first answer is always “read my f$&%ing website and do everything it says.” I mean, after all, I write thousands of words every f$&%ing week of brilliant advice specifically to help people run better games. But, if I’m going to be totally honest, that isn’t the best way to run games. See, I’ve noticed that lots of GMs spend a hell of a lot of time reading websites about running good games. And listening to podcasts about running good games. And, worst of all, watching streams of other people running games (note that I didn’t say “good games”). Now, that’s okay. It’s okay to read my website. You can even read other things if you have some extra time. Or listen to things or watch things. But none of that will actually make you a better GM. The only thing that makes you a better GM is actually RUNNING F$&%ING GAMES. If you have time to read everything I write every week and still watch some other livestream or listen to some other podcast, you literally have HOURS that could be spent on gaming. RUN GAMES.
Here’s the thing? Running games is a very personal thing. Sure, there’s some general rules that work for pretty much all the games at all the tables, but there aren’t as many as you think. Even some of the stuff I write won’t work for every table. Every GM is different and every group of players is a unique synthesis of unique personalities. Running games is a very personal thing. Hell, that’s the reason the game HAS a GM. Because the game is open enough and allows for so many unique styles and approaches and methods and things that you need an adaptable human brain at every table to make the game work for any given group. And the only way to get good at being an adaptable human brain that can make the game work for any given group is by exercising your f$&%ing brain.
Look at it like this: if you read every book you can about exercise and fitness, you won’t lose an ounce of weight.
2. Dare to Fail Gloriously
Theodore “Teddy Ruxpin” Roosevelt once said:
Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.
Here’s the thing: you’re never going to run a great game until you’re willing to risk running a terrible game. You can run an okay game, maybe even a pretty good game, by playing by the rules, going by the book, scattering some monsters and treasure around a dungeon, and calling it a day. But those great, memorable sessions? Those don’t come from doing things the safe, easy way. They come from pushing the envelope, taking risks, and trying new things. Do you have a neat idea for a grand set piece encounter with the PCs and a whole bunch of conscripts at the center of a conflict between two other powerful forces? Do it! How? Who cares! Just do it. Try something. Make it work. Adjust on the fly. Fake it. But do it. Dare to fail gloriously.
And that doesn’t just go for trying new things and stretching the game’s rules and mechanics. That also goes for you. Dare to humiliate yourself. Get out of chair, narrate the hell out of your encounters, do crazy voices, be over the top, put on a f$&%ing show. You’re a performer. No performer ever got by trying not to embarrass themselves. Play your role to the hilt. Whatever role it is.
Now, if you’re really trying to do great things, you are going to f$&% up. And if you’re daring to fail gloriously, you’re going to succeed. You’re GOING TO fail gloriously. You’re going to wreck your game and piss off your players. And then they will quit forever. And you’ll be alone and the only gaming you’ll have is watching some overrated voice actor making a joke out of the game you used to love. Or watching some overrated game designer making a joke out of the game you used to love.
This is the thing: you ARE going to fail. But your game is not nearly as breakable as you think it is. And your players are a lot more forgiving than you think they are. If you see a looming disaster because you did something wacky, crazy, wild, or stupid, stop. Stop. Just stop. Stop and say “hey, guys, look, I done f$&%ed up. I thought this would be really super cool but I see now it’s kind of a joke and also you’re all going to die. So, we’re going to pretend this encounter never happened, okay? Give me a few minutes to put something else together, we’ll roll back your characters, and then we’ll just pick up before this whole mess started.” Done and done.
That sort of transparent honesty makes your players like you MORE! I s$&% you not. See, while you’re f$&%ing up the game, your players are sitting there thinking “wow, this is s$&%, what is Alice doing (you’re Alice in this analogy), this is really bad!” So, if suddenly, you say “this sure is starting to suck, but let me fix it, sorry, and did I mention I’m Alice in this analogy,” your players will be relieved. And then they will be all like “oh, yeah, cool, don’t sweat it.” And then they will realize you are always going to do your best to run a good game and, when it isn’t good, you’re going to fix it. They will TRUST you.
3. Play More Games
Now, let me be clear here. I am not saying you should play more role-playing games (as in: play an RPG someone else is running). I mean, if you want to, fine. But that’s of dubious benefit. I mean, it’s no better than watching the wacky antics Matt Perkins or Chris Mercer. Lots of GMs like to insist there’s a value to being on the receiving end of a good game. Some dumba$&es even say you CAN’T be a good GM unless you play in games regularly true. That’s all bulls$&%. Running games is the best way to learn how to run games.
But, you do want to play other games. Specifically, play video games. Find video games you like. Board games are also good, but video games are best. And don’t get snobbish. Don’t tell me how video games are so limited compared to RPGs or complain that there are no fun video games. There are a HUGE variety of games and genres. And, guess what, it’s the limitations that make them great. See, video games are doing the same thing role-playing games are doing. They are attempting to meld interactive storytelling and gameplay into one satisfying whole. And there’s a lot of problems that both video games and RPGs face together. Things like the unique element of telling a story in which the protagonists are also the audience. Things like finding a balance between appropriate levels of success and failure. Things like creating emotional engagement and motivating the player to keep playing. Yeah. All of that.
Now, video games are a much, MUCH bigger industry than role-playing games. Sorry. It’s true. Video games are a huge industry with huge numbers of people experimenting in many, MANY different ways. And video games have become an academic pursuit. People write academic f$&%ing papers on video game design. And video games DO have to function within limits. A video game can’t adjust itself on the fly like an RPG with a GM can. The game has to work for a lot of different people right out of the box if it’s going to be remotely successful.
What does that mean? That means that there is a lot of really useful s$&% to learn from video games. A lot of stuff that we can rip off. Sure, some of it has to be adjusted for the differences between the two media, but it’s easier to adjust the wheel than it is to reinvent it.
4. Learn a New Thing
Now, we can get into some very interesting specifics. All the previous advice has been sort of nebulous behavioral stuff. It’s time to get into some solid things you can actually do. Like, something you can schedule on your calendar. And here’s one: learn something new. Take a class. Learn to cook. Take a literature class at the local college. Learn how to program video games. Learn a language. Do yoga. Make those little ships that go in bottles. Learn something new.
The only rule? It can’t be about role-playing gaming. Why?
Well, here’s the deal. Gamers are especially good at obsessing over their hobby. And they tend to get tunnel vision. They game or they do gamer related things like painting miniatures or writing fantasy stories. They become a big, tightly wrapped knot of skills and interests and fields that are all related almost directly to gaming. And that’s actually really bad. See, a good GM has to be both an innovative creator and a creative problem solver. And inspiration and creativity both come from things rattling around in your brain, bumping into each other, and making random connections.
The more stuff you have jumbling around in your brain and the less related it all is, the more weird connections will form between things you never imagined were related. It’s kind of like going to aquarium and watching a dolphin show and suddenly seeing a new way to look at the pace and flow of combat. Yeah. Seriously.
A cooking class might give you ideas for a crafting system. A literature course will teach you a thing or two about story structure. Yoga might inspire you to create a new build for monks. Building little ships in bottles will help you see how ships go together and inspire you to run that nautical campaign you’ve been thinking of.
Besides all of that though, a non-gaming hobby is also useful because it lets the parts of brain that think about gaming rest sometimes. Have you ever been thinking about a problem or trying to remember something and you wrack your brain for days to no avail? And what happens? What happens is that suddenly, one day, when you’ve given up or forgotten about the problem, the answer appears in your head. That’s because your brain is really good at handling stuff in the background. And it needs random, unrelated input to drive it. To make weird connections and associations and fire the brain in just the right way.
The point is, a good creative gamer has a lot of extra stuff sloshing around in their brain. Not just gaming stuff. And it’s always good to add more extra stuff.
5. Run a Game You Hate (And Make it Fun)
We all have games we hate. I hate Fate. I hate Torchbearer. They are objectively terrible games. And the people who like them are wrong. But I’ve run them. Hell, that’s how I found out how much I hated them and how terrible they are. Do you have a game on your shelf that you hate? That’s good. Get some friends together and run it. Run a one shot. And make it a good one.
Here’s the deal: a good GM can run any game. I’ve been asked to run games at conventions and game stores before. Games I had zero experience with. Games I’d had terrible experiences with. And, for a variety of reasons, I’ve done it. And I had to make it a good experience for my players. And that means putting on my game face and having a grand old time running something I thought was crap. And, guess what, I still had fun.
I’ve also been in convention and game store games where the GM actually hated the published material. This seems to be particularly endemic in D&D. Organized play GMs LOVE to hate the games they are running. Fine and dandy. You can hate whatever you want. But you have a group of players sitting there who are just looking for a good time. Don’t drag them down with you. A GM has a responsibility to the table to make the game a good experience, regardless of personal feelings.
Even if you never have to run a game you didn’t choose in a public venue, it’s a good skill to have: keeping your game face on and running a good game even when you hate the material. Because it WILL come up. You’re going to eventually have a day when the game isn’t going well and you hate what you’re running. You’re going to have the chapter of the otherwise good published module that sucks. Or you’re going to have the day when you’re in a sour mood and everything pisses you off.
But there’s more to it than that. Running a game you hate also teaches you how to adjust on the fly. See, there’s probably reasons why you hate the game you do. Unfun, rough, nasty, confusing bits of the game. There’s holes and bumps and pitfalls and things to dodge around. And by running a game you hate with a smile on your face and trying to make it a good experience, you learn how to navigate around those. You learn how to adjust the game on the fly, to patch problems and keep people engaged even when things go to s$&%.
Beyond that, NOTHING is entirely without value. Even bad games have interesting things. I’ve learned some very neat things from running some very bad games. And that isn’t even “learning what not to do.” Fate and Torchbearer both offer some unique solutions to gaming problems that would be really neat if they weren’t surrounded by Fate and Torchbearer. But it can be hard to see them if you’re fixated on hating a game. And that means you’re missing out on good tools for your GMing toolbox. If you’re running the game and trying to do it well, it turns off the negative part of your brain enough for you to see the diamonds in the turds.
6. Run a Game for Strangers (And Make it Fun)
We usually run our games for friends. Or at least, we usually run our games for people we’ve chosen. Acquaintances we think we could be friends with. Even gathering a group on social media will necessarily involve people that are part of your circle of friends, or friends of friends, and that helps with the selection process. It helps ensure that there is some common ground between you and the people at your table.
But, what if you sat down to run a game and five complete strangers showed up. Different ages. Different goals. Different preferences. Different backgrounds. And your job was to get them all to have a complete, fun experience in five hours. A good GM can run for ALMOST anyone. And a lot of good GMing is learning how to engage everyone at your table. And the best way to practice that is to run a game for strangers.
Let me tell you a story. Back in 2010 (I think), I volunteered to run a D&D 4E event at GenCon. The event was the Dungeon Delve. At that time, the Delve consisted of a short, two-part adventure. Two encounters, played over one hour. No more. No less. One hour, two encounters. And my shift was eight hours. My job was to seat a group of random strangers, people who mostly didn’t even know each other (though there were pairs and groups of friends mixed in), and run them completely through two encounters in no more than one hour and – this is the important part – make them want to play more D&D. Because this was an introductory event. A marketing scam. A way to introduce new people to the game. Once that group was done, I ran for another group. And another. And another. Seven in all. And every one of them got through both encounters.
I learned A LOT that day about evaluating players, about adjusting encounters, about making the game fun, about teaching the game, and about engaging everyone. It was an extremely valuable experience.
Now, I’m not saying you should go to that extreme. I’m just telling you to run ONE game for strangers. Volunteer to run a one-shot at a local game store or convention or event. Yeah. In person. Do it in person. It’s WAY easier in person. But it is also WAY scarier.
7. Run a Game Online or Run a Game in Real Life (Whichever You Don’t Usually Do
Some of us prefer to run games in real life. Some of us prefer to run games online. Either way, we tend to do one or the other. And we tend to dislike the other. And that’s because the two are FUNDEMENTALLY different. Seriously. There is an entirely different set of social skills and gaming tools at play in each venue. And thinking one will translate directly to the other will drive you crazy. Let me tell you something: I actually find running an online game for a small group of friends HARDER than running a game I hate for complete strangers under a strict time constraint. I would rather run eight, one-hour sessions of Fate, Delve style, than run online. It is REALLY hard for me.
That said, do it. Get a group together for an online game if you mainly run in game stores. If you mainly run online, get ye to a game store or convention and run a game there. Or run a game for friends. Even friends who have never tried D&D. That’s really cool. Have a little dinner party and bring them over. In fact, f$&% it…
8. Introduce Non-Gamers to Gaming
Let me tell you something: nothing energizes you like seeing the game through the eyes of new, excited players. Or seeing the game through the eyes of someone wary and skeptical as they gradually fall in love with the game. So, pick three or four of your non-gamer friends, have them over for a dinner party, and then run a game for them. Ask them to try it out.
In her book, Confessions of a Part-Time Sorceress, which I absolutely cannot admit that I read and enjoyed for fear of growing a bajingo, Shelly Mazzanoble describes her own dinner party gaming experience with a group of the biggest, non-gaming, shopaholic girly-girls in the world. That was basically her description. More or less. Not mine. And they had a riot.
Teaching the game as you play it is an excellent experience. See, when you’re teaching the game to nongamers, you are trying to sell the game. You’re trying to create new gamers. And just like when running for strangers, you’re not really trying to get the game right and teach them everything. You’re trying to impart a love of the game and an excitement to come back and try again. It’s more about engagement than rules. And that’s an important skill for every gamer to master.
Now, sometimes this is going to fail. Not everyone LIKES role-playing games. I know that sounds f$&%ing crazy, but it’s true! Not everyone LIKES role-playing games. And you’re eventually going to find one of those people. That’s fine. As long as you did your best. And THAT is why you bribe them with food or booze. So that, even if they hate the game, they still get something out of it.
9. Run a Quick Start Game the Minute You Read It
Every year, lots of RPG companies put out quick-start games and Game Day modules that are designed to introduce the game to completely new people. Mostly, these are intended for game stores and convention play. They teach a GM the basics, provide a short adventure, and provide pregenerated characters. Get one. Ask at a game store. They might have some lying around. Search online for Quick Start RPG rules. Hell, offer to run a Game Day event at a game store. They always need people. Whatever.
Now, here’s the thing: don’t read it until about two to four hours before you’re ready to run it. Seriously. Read through it twice, reviewing any bits and pieces you don’t understand, and then sit down at the table and run the thing. You’re going to get it wrong, probably, but that’s okay. See, learning how to cover up your ignorance and keep the game moving OR how to quickly reference and assimilate rules are BOTH useful skills. And known when to cover up and keep moving and when to quickly reference and assimilate is also useful. You’ve got to learn how to fake it and you’ve got to learn how to fix it, and you’ve got to learn when to do which. This is a great way to figure those skills out.
10. Have a Non-Gaming Night Out
As I noted above, sometimes not gaming is important. It’s important to have skills and knowledge outside of gaming. It’s important not to let gaming being your only hobby and interest. It stifles your brain AND it can lead to burnout. And that is why you need a Non-Gaming Night Out. What do I mean? Get together with some friends or family and go out and do something social that isn’t gaming related. I don’t mean going to see a movie, either, unless there’s dinner involved. You need to talk. You need to engage with people socially. And, above all, you are not allowed to talk gaming. Ideally, do this with your other friends. Don’t do this with your gaming group. But if you do it with your gaming group, impose a “no gaming” rule. Talk about life, talk about work, talk about weather, talk about the latest developments in science, talk about politics or religion or philosophy, but for f$&%’s sake, don’t talk about gaming.
Because running a game is a social skill. If you want to be a good GM, you have to be good at being social first. You have to know how to talk to people. To interact. And to be likeable and charismatic. And to be genuine. Now, all of that stuff happens at a game, sure. But the thing about a game is that it provides a structure for the social interaction. The roles are defined, the goals are defined, everything is spelled out. There’s no social anarchy. It’s easy.
Now, I don’t want to criticize, but I know a lot of gamers whose ONLY social outlet is gaming. I won’t say that’s unhealthy, but I will say that it is hurting your ability to run better games by preventing you from expanding and growing your social skills. And, hell, a lot of GMs are paradoxically, very shy in unstructured social situations. I used to be. Hell, I used to – and still occasionally do – suffer from social anxiety. And I’m still an introvert. I need alone time to recharge my social batteries.
But, a few years ago, I made a conscious effort to work through my social anxiety (it was mild, obviously, if you have a severe case, talk to a professional before you decide to just jump into the social waters like this) and my shyness. And I discovered that, although I do still need to be alone and social interaction can be draining, I’m actually a social butterfly. I love being social. And learning how to interact with people without the gaming structure did me a hell of a lot of good.
Besides, it’s fun to, you know, go out and do things with people.