All right, dumba$&es, let me get one thing straight. I do pay attention to feedback. All right, calm down. I swear this plays into actual gaming advice. In fact, it plays into some of the most difficulty decisions you will ever have to face as a DM. But it also explains why the slight change in approach to this week’s article. Several incidents over the last two weeks have thrown into sharp relief what might be the most important GMing lesson there is. Well, third most important. The first is adjudication. The second is narration. And the third is today’s lesson.
So, feedback. I do listen to it. I pay attention to everything anyone says to me. I watch my pingbacks and linkbacks and check out what people are saying about my s$&%. Why? Because, I actually don’t want to write crap no one wants to read. I really don’t. If no one is reading, I could save myself a lot of time and energy by just running the best games in existence instead of WRITING ABOUT running the best games in existence. So, I do listen.
The thing is, though, I don’t always act on the feedback. Are you paying attention? Because there is actually an important GMing lesson coming. I don’t always act on the feedback. For example, I get a certain number of people who are put off by my no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is tone that some people think is “egotistical.” They think I should “tone it down.” But, f$&% that. Humility is for people who aren’t the best at things.
For that matter, I also get a certain number of people who are inexplicably hostile toward the way I pronounce and type my swear words. Like, actually hostile. It literally makes people angry that my swears and curses come out the way they do. The thing is, I can’t f$&%ing help it. I was born a cartoon character. That’s just my accent. And I can’t get rid of it. Honestly, I don’t want to. Stop oppressing my culture, you ethnocentric d$&%holes!
But I do read it all.
Now, I want to be clear that there’s two types of feedback. The first type of feedback is people who disagree with my ideas. And that feedback I really don’t give much of a s$&% about. I mean, I know I’m right. But you don’t need my permission to run your game any wrong way you want to. Do whatever makes you happy. If you disagree with me, that’s cool. I’ll defend your God-given right to be willfully wrong because I believe in that. Sometimes, I’ll take the time to debate. Sometimes I won’t. But it doesn’t matter. You do you. Just leave me out of it.
That’s not the part that has anything to do with the third most important lesson in GMing.
The second type of feedback isn’t the feedback about my ideas. It’s feedback about the way I present those ideas and what ideas I present. It’s feedback about the site itself. And about the actual writing. It’s things like “your tone is egomaniacal” and “you’re the most toxic person in all of gaming” and “swear like an adult, you dips$&%” and “stop making fun of my favorite game/celebrity/class/race.”
Now, you might already notice a distinction that I often draw between a game and the way it’s presented. D&D 5E is a pretty cool game. But it’s wrapped in a really s$&%, slapdash, disorganized presentation that is designed to trick you into thinking it doesn’t suck by appealing to your nostalgia and relies on the fact that you don’t real RPG rule-books anyway because you already know most of it so you just skim. See? Ideas vs. presentation.
That second feedback, I pay attention to. Whether you agree with my ideas or disagree with my ideas, I try to be cognizant of whether my presentation is keeping my ideas from being accessible. IN THEORY. But we’ll come back to this when we come to “the hardest decision GMs ever have to make.”
For example, while the monster building articles were pretty well received, I got feedback via a lot of channels that they were very long. And, yeah, they sure as hell were. I write pretty long articles in general and I love that I have a group of loyal readers who will read long things. I do rich content. At least, I like to think I do (and I’m right). I don’t slap out McDonalds or Taco Bell. I do a six course gaming banquet.
But, even for me, those things were LONG. Well, message received. Got it. I’ll control myself. I actually do listen.
Likewise, a few people told me that some of my running gags were getting stale. Things like bashing Fate and Wil Wheaton. Fine. Again, message received. I still hate those things, but I was taking potshots at them unnecessarily. I’ve done that before: retired running gags when people started getting tired of them or when they seemed vindictive and spiteful. Done and done. I’ll find new things to bash until they get stale.
Also, a few people felt that weeks and weeks of monster building stuff in a row was kind of overloading one topic. Again, fair enough. In the past, I’ve tried to break up different topics, alternating between an ongoing series (like adventure building) with something different (like rules hacks). Fair enough. Not everyone builds custom monsters, so five weeks of that s$&% makes my website useless for anyone not doing it. Especially when due to work training, poverty, robberies, disconnected internet and electricity, failed hard drives, and all of the other disasters that have befallen me lately, I’m behind in OTHER content. I get it.
So, we’ll go back to alternating AND we’ll shorten things up a little bit. I can handle both of those. And I’ll leave Fate and Wheaton alone. I can handle that too. And I’m also sorry about the typos that got into some of my articles. The last couple were a mess. I was so far behind that I let my revision process slip. I’ve taken steps to fix that.
But I WON’T be changing my tone and I WON’T be learning how to properly pronounce American swear words. And there are other changes I WON’T be making. And there are ideas I WON’T be reneging on. And some of those choices are going to cost me readers. And some of those choices might even cost me monetary support.
And THAT is where the third most important GMing lesson comes in. It’s about feedback and players and your game and satisfaction vs. enjoyment and even a little bit about playtesting.
Trade-off and Opportunity Cost
Let’s talk about two economic concepts, because economics is such f$&%ing fun. First of all, the trade-off. A Trade-Off occurs when you have a couple of alternatives and those alternatives are mutually incompatible. You can’t have both. For example, imagine you’re at McDonalds and you’ve only got five bucks in your pocket. You can get either the cheeseburger meal or the chicken nugget meal, but you can’t get both. Though you COULD get a cheeseburger AND chicken nuggets, but then you can’t get french fries. And if you just get a cheeseburger, you could get an ice cream sundae. But again, no french fries. All of those are examples of trade-offs. You can choose the ice cream sundae, but the trade-off is fries. You can get fries, but the trade-off is chicken nuggets. Got it?
See, the thing is, there are very, very few choices in the world with correct answers and wrong answers. We tend to think in terms of right and wrong all the time. Especially in terms of politics, economics, and social issues. Almost every choice we make requires us to give up something OR risk losing something.
The thing we give up? Economists call that an ‘opportunity cost.’ Simply speaking, an opportunity cost is just the sum total of all the lost opportunities that accompany every choice you make. I get a cheeseburger meal with fries. That costs $5. But that also costs me the chance to have chicken nuggets. Or an ice cream sundae. Opportunity cost.
Okay? How does that relate to GMing?
Everything is Compromise
If you scrape away all the rules and the goals and the stories and everything else that goes into a role-playing game, you’re left with just a group of people getting together and enjoying a game together, right? I mean, that’s really all it is. RPGs are no different than bowling leagues and amateur softball teams and book clubs and knitting clubs. A group of people get together because they agree that an activity is fun and that activity cannot be done alone. Or else that activity is enhanced by the presence of others.
Now, different people have different reasons for enjoying everything. Take bowling. Some people actually enjoy bowling. Don’t know why. They just do. And some people like beer and deep fried foods and bowling is a great way to get cheap beer and deep fried foods. And some people like getting out of the house to hang out with friends. And when it comes to actually liking bowling, some people enjoy the game casually whereas others really want to get good at bowling and win bowling matches or whatever. Truth is, it doesn’t matter why anyone shows up to the bowling arena. They’ll figure out if it’s fun for them or not.
Now, why do I say it’s a compromise? Well, because there are opportunity costs associated with group activities. For example, the moment you accept membership in a group, you’re giving up some control over your own schedule. Bowling has to happen on a night everyone can bowl. And it has to happen at a place everyone can get to. And the time you spend bowling with the group is time you can’t spend doing something other than bowling. If you’re bowling, you’re not playing Dark Souls. And if there’s a night when you don’t want to bowl, well, you can’t change your mind. Or if you do, you’re doing it alone. You can’t suddenly decide that the group is a knitting club. It’s a bowling league. You might lost control in other ways too. You might not be allowed to exclude someone you don’t like because the rest of the group might want them along. Or you might have to accept a handicap because you’re a much better bowler than everyone else because you have no life. Whatever.
All group activities are compromises.
All of those compromises, all of those things you give up, those are opportunity costs. By participating in a group activity, you are tacitly paying a giant heap of opportunity costs.
When Compromise Fails
Now, let’s say, hypothetically, you’re one of the inexplicably brain-damaged individuals who actually decide to join a bowling league. And you’re doing it mainly because you like hanging out with your friends and because you really like beer and fried food.
But then, some of the more serious bowlers notice that everyone is drinking too much beer. The game is suffering. People are missing turns, they are joking and rowdy. People keep throwing up in the ball return or recklessly flinging balls around the bowling range. Some members of the group want to ban beer.
Honestly? There are several solutions to the problem. But they come down to three options: limit the amount of beer, ban beer, or keeping cleaning vomit out of the ball return and dodging 20 pound chunks of plastic missile.
Now, you might say the “right answer” is the middle ground. Limit the amount of beer. Or you might call that the “most rational” or the “most logical” answer. But, in actuality, there is nothing inherently more rational, more logical, or more correct about that answer. See, we tend to view compromise as automatically the best solution to every problem.
But what if there’s five bowlers and only one of them is unwilling to give up the beer. And it’s probably the one bowler who keeps vomiting in the ball return. Is compromise really a better solution than banning beer and letting the drunk find another league? Or, alternatively, what if EVERYONE is into the booze except for one over competitive guy who wants to win bowling. Isn’t the best solution letting the ace find another game?
And now, let’s look at an even more complicated situation. Five people. Three don’t care about the beer, they want to bowl. One cares about the beer, but is willing to compromise. And one who considers the beer the primary reason for bowling. Society is quick to label that last person what we in economics call “a d$&%head.” But that’s actually an unfair label.
Remember that everything comes back to opportunity costs. Every person in the bowling league had to make a choice about whether the bowling league was the best way to spend their time. And that was based on their own personal values, what they enjoy, what they want out of an activity, and what other things they could be doing instead. Opportunity costs. Yeah?
If the beer was the tipping point in the equation, such that they never would have agreed to be a part of the bowling league WITHOUT the beer, they aren’t a d$&%cheese, they are just making a choice. And if the equation choices, they have to make a new choice.
As social people, we tend to see that as a failure of compromise. But there is nothing failure about it. The decision making process is working entirely as intended.
What if Everyone Likes Bob?
Now, let’s make the decision even more complicated. Let’s say Bob has insisted he’s going to leave the bowling club if beer is banned or even limited. Bob isn’t interested in bowling as much as he’s interested in staggering around lobbing a 20-pound plastic sphere in a drunken haze and then puking in Alice’s bowling bag. But, the thing is, people really like Bob. He’s fun. He’s funny. Everyone likes Bob. You might think that this changes everything. Because, again, we as a society tend to think all the equations go out the window as soon as personal feelings are involved.
But, nope. They don’t. Bob is just another opportunity cost. So, Alice has to decide if she likes sober bowling or Bob more. So does Carol. And Dave. And Elaine. And, there’s a host of other emotional issues as well. Such as weighing the guilt over excluding Bob and deciding whether that guilty feeling is worth it.
There’s nothing special about personal feelings, though. They are just another factor in the equation.
Equations for Everyone
Now, here’s where things get complicated. Everyone has their own equation. I like beer, but not enough to quit bowling over the lack of beer. I like Bob, but not enough to quit bowling over the lack of Bob. I hate cleaning vomit out of my bowling bag. Bob has to go. Alice, though? She loves Bob more than she hates drunk Bob and she likes bowling, but she’d rather include Bob. Dave dislikes Bob. He doesn’t care about bowling or beer. But he’d have more fun WITHOUT Bob. And so on. It’s all personal.
And that is what makes group decisions so complicated and why compromise isn’t always the best solution. Sometimes, it isn’t even possible. And forcing a compromise just ensures everyone will be unhappy.
BUT… there’s something that complicates this whole mess even further when it comes to role-playing games. The harsh reality of being a Game Master.
The Harsh Reality of Being a Game Master
Here’s the deal: an RPG isn’t JUST another bowling club. And while everything I’ve said about group activities is true, it isn’t the whole story. Or rather, it is the whole story. But there’s an extra twist.
Most people will be quick to tell you that a GM is just another player at the table and the GM’s needs are no more important than anyone else’s. It sounds nice in theory. But in practice, in the cold light of reality, there’s way more going on.
At the end of the day, everyone has to make the decision as to whether the game is worth the opportunity costs, right? Is that Wednesday game worth it? It’s fun, sure. But is it fun enough to be worth traveling an hour and maintaining a character and buying dice and spending time leveling up characters and giving up Wednesday nights and having to deal with Bob who keeps throwing up in everyone’s dice bag? If the answer is yes, you keep going. If the answer is no, you don’t. Simple, right?
And that is one hundred percent true. Every person at the table, player or GM, has to weigh that equation. And if the equation is not working, they have a right to say something. If the beer is becoming a problem, any participant – player or GM – has a right to say to the group “I’m tired of drunk Bob flinging cheese balls at the miniatures claiming he’s a lactomancer and his Cheese Ball spell requires a Reflex save.”
But when it comes down to it all, there are up to two people at the table whose opportunity cost calculations are more complicated.
First, if you’re playing the game at someone’s house, there’s a host. Someone is letting the group be guests in their house. And hosting a game usually entails providing – or at least storing – snacks, cleaning up before and after the game, dealing with random spills, and so on. In addition, there’s an increased pressure. A player who skips a game is no big deal, but if the host has to cancel, the entire game is generally cancelled. A good host is aware of this fact and it usually weighs pretty heavily on them.
Now, everyone’s opinions are equally as important. At least in theory. But, for practical purposes, the host’s choice as to whether the game is worth it or not? That could lead to the end of the game. A group without a table is a group without a game. Or they are a bunch of LARPers. And NO ONE wants to be a LARPer. Either way, it’s bad.
So, that becomes an opportunity cost for everyone else at the table. If Alice hosts the game and she’s tired of cleaning up after Bob, she can put down an ultimatum: beer goes, Bob goes, or the game goes. Now, some people will view Alice as “holding the game hostage to get her way,” especially if the issue isn’t as serious as Bob peeing in the ficus tree every week. But, there’s nothing d$&%ish about it. It’s all down to opportunity costs. The game is not worth everything it takes to host the game. Time lost to cleaning, refrigerator space lost to snacks, the pressure to never miss a game, and so on.
The other person at the table with a more complicated pile of opportunity costs is the game master. However you slice it, the GM has to give up more than any of the players for the game to happen. There’s prep and planning time between games, there’s increased cost for gaming supplies, and there’s the pressure of not cancelling because it ruins the game. But there’s also often an emotional cost of GMing few people think about. Most GMs and ALL good GMs take personal responsibility for their games. They take in pride in their games and genuinely want everyone to enjoy their games. They want to do a good job. That’s pressure, pure and simple.
On top of that, most GMs also end up as the de facto president of the gaming club. What do I mean by that? Well, they tend to be the one to handle the personal problems and issues that arise. They end up being the teacher and administrator. When Alice’s power gaming is making everyone else miserable, it usually falls to the GM to address the problem. When Bob’s drunken antics ruin the game, it falls to the GM. When Carol and Dave have a nasty breakup and it starts to bleed into the game, it falls to the GM to dissolve the group and get the hell out of there because there is NO jumping into the middle of that mess. Trust me.
And when the GM has to step in and handle those problems, the GM is usually handling them with friends. And that means the GM has to deal with the emotional weight of possibly hurting feelings or losing friends over a stupid game. And as nice as it would be to say that stuff shouldn’t happen, gamers are human. It happens.
However you slice it, GMing is a costly endeavor.
And so, the GM’s personal opportunity cost equation is complicated. And remember, just like every other participant at the table, it comes down to: “are all of the costs WORTH the fun I’m having?” And, if they aren’t, the GM has a right to say so.
And, just like the host, the GM can effectively hold the game hostage. If the GM is not happy, the GM will not run games and without a GM, there is no game. End of f$&%ing story. Enjoy board game night, losers. The GM can take the entire world and go home. And, again, you might want to class that as d$&% behavior, but it really isn’t. It’s no more d$&% behavior than any player deciding the group isn’t working for them.
And that brings us around to a sinister truth.
Gamers are Easier to Replace than Game Masters
Look: GMing is costly. It’s a labor of love, you have to love doing it, but it also weighs on you. For all of the reasons I’ve already stated. It also takes skill to do it well. And practice. And here’s another economic truth to deal with: when you have something that requires specialized skills AND involves increased pressure and responsibility, it’s harder to find people who want to do it. That is how pay scales get set. That’s why surgeons make more money than McDonald’s employees. And, for that matter, that’s why you make less money in general doing something you love than something you hate. Sorry starving artists and freelance game designers (*looks in mirror* oh, right, damn).
That means it is much, MUCH easier for a GM to fill a table with the minimum number of people needed to get a game running than it is for players to find a table with a vacant seat. The sinister truth is: GMs are more in demand than players. It’s easier for a GM to walk away from a group and have a new game next week.
And you might think that’s not fair. The problem is, it is actually incredibly fair. That’s why it works that way. And that’s why people don’t like it. Because it’s fair.
So, how is all of this a harsh lesson for a GM?
With Great Power Comes Misery
Here’s the harsh lesson kids: the fact that the opportunity costs for GMing are much higher than for playing and the fact that it is so easy to walk away from a game and get a new one that makes you happier combine to give you a lot of power. You can literally destroy a gaming group that isn’t making you happy and probably be happier in two weeks. And, the worst part about it is there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing so. It’s perfectly fair. It works that way because it’s fair. You’re not a d$&%. You’re not an a$&hole. You deserve to choose how to invest your resources to maximize your happiness and you’re investing a lot more resources than anyone else at that game table.
Except that sitting across from the table from you, relying on you, are human beings. With human emotions. And you probably care about those human beings. You probably consider them friends. So, the moment you decide to execute that power, you’re going to be hurting five people you care about. And that means guilt. Lots of guilt.
I said there were several incidents that prompted me to write this article. To teach THIS lesson that no DMG will ever discuss. One was dealing with all of the feedback and deciding whether to listen or not, to do what I wanted to do or what I thought was best OR to lose readers. Trade-off. Opportunity cost. The other incident is this.
I’d been running D&D Encounters at a local game store for a group of six regulars. Despite the crappy material, we were having a good time. And I genuinely liked the people. And suddenly, the store closed down. Like, really suddenly. Now, I want to have a good, solid weekly game. And they are a fun group. Not too experienced, which I actually prefer, and genuinely nice people. But the hiccup was not having a place to play.
Well, see, actually that wasn’t a big hiccup. I have an apartment. I can run a game in said apartment. In fact, I prefer to run games at home. All my stuff is there. I don’t have to pack up a bunch crap and lug it back and forth across town. I don’t have to bicycle or deal with mass transit. I’m happy to host a game if it means I don’t have to travel.
The big hiccup is that everyone was coming a long way to get to the game store and my apartment would be even farther away. So, my apartment is only really ideal for me.
So, we’re stuck without a venue and we’ve been fishing around without much success. And, in fact, I’m most of the barrier. There’s a few game stores more convenient for everyone except me. The players found a sports bar and another bar that would be willing to accommodate us, though obviously with the understanding that we’re going to be purchasing food and drink to make up for the fact that we’ll be occupying a table for four hours. But such venues are noisy and space is limited and they are all a pain in the a$& to get to with a full bag of books, miniatures, maps, and so on.
For me, it should be an easy decision. I can find players easily enough and I have an ideal location. Any of the current regulars not willing to make the trek are out of luck. I can replace them. That’s the logical, rational thing to do.
But the personal feelings – the guilt at excluding people I like and knowing they’re out of luck for gaming – that’s weighing on me. Because, you know what? I’m f$&%ing human too. And you don’t get to be a GM without a certain bit of altruism. Without a certain desire to make other people happy.
Do I run the game in a way that will make it easy and comfortable and fun for me by excluding players and replacing them or with strangers OR do I pile on the opportunity costs unnecessarily and run a subpar game so I can keep the current regulars that I genuinely like?
And that brings us to the ugly lesson.
The Third Lesson: Do Your Math, Let Everyone Else Do Theirs
Here’s the lesson kids. The harsh, ugly, mercenary lesson no one will tell you. You can’t run a game unhappy. If you’re not enjoying the game and if you can envision ways to make the game more fun, you’re going to run a s$&% game. It’s just going to be bad. See, all those opportunity costs? They add up. They pile up. Over time, they tend to become more and more pronounced. As time wears on, you become more and more cognizant of the cost of running a game. And it always has the same tipping point. They start to pile up on that one night when you’re tired or you had a stressful day and you really don’t want to run the game that night. But the guilt gets to you and you decide to do it anyway. That’s the day when the opportunity costs start to add up. After that, you notice the costs more and more.
As long as the game is fun enough to outweigh those costs, though? You’ll keep gaming happy. But if those costs ever manage to exceed the fun of the game, the game is going to tank. You’re going to burn out. You’re going to hate it.
So you need to start off as happy as possible with the game and do everything you can to maintain that high level of happiness. I can’t tell you how to do that because I don’t know why you run games. Only you know that. You know what you value most. And if you don’t, figure that out. Figure out why you run the game.
And from that point forward, run the game you want to run and trust your players to keep showing up as long as the game is worth it for them. And when the day comes when one of those players is unhappy and comes to you and wants you to change something? Obviously, you have to weigh that feedback. But you have to weigh that feedback in terms of you and what you value. Will it make the game better for you? Worse for you? If Bob quits, will that make the game worse? Worse than if you make the changes for Bob? But, for the love of f$&%, don’t start taking responsibility for the players. They choose to be there or not based on their own sense of fun. And you need to make the exact same decision. Obviously, personal feelings will be a factor. Bob’s presence might be more important than banning warlocks. But you have to make the best decision for YOU first. Bob will make his own decision and, ultimately, it’s his choice and his responsibility. You make your choices, everyone else makes theirs. That’s the ONLY way. And it sucks.
And never, ever stick out a game that you’re not enjoying. That just ruins the game for everyone.