Lately, I’ve found myself in the strange position of defending holidays. It used to be that, as gaming’s resident irascible grump, I got to be the one quoting Ebenezer Scrooge while all my gaming friends were getting excited about Christmas. I used to tell everyone to stop talking about Thanksgiving because it was cruel to us diabetics who can’t enjoy all the starchy side dishes. I would make snarky remarks about celebrating the birth of your nation by blowing up a small piece of it. And on and on and on. But the thing was, I was only kidding. My remarks – my complaints – were absurd. And everyone understood that. I got to play the Grinch and everyone else laughed because they knew, deep down inside, no one could be that Grinchy. Not really.
And then, very recently, everything turned around. People really ARE that Grinchy now. People are miserable about the holidays. And they aren’t kidding. Hell, people are miserable about pretty much every damned thing. When I decided to be The Angry GM a decade ago, I thought it was a funny satire. I didn’t realize I was just a few years ahead of everyone else. I didn’t realize there would come a day when the entire internet gaming community would be pretty much defined by outraged, offense, and misery.
But honestly, I’m glad. It let me post a nice article about holiday adventures in which I actually got to confess my deep devoted love of Christmas. Sure, I had to turn off the comments on that article after only four hours because people were so angry that I would dare to suggest that Christmas was a good thing and that it might actually be about certain themes and those themes might also be inherently good. But at least I got to admit it.
Now, as I sit here on December 31 – well, okay, I’m technically not writing this on December 31, but the final revision will come on December 31 and it will be posted for my Patreon supporters on December 31 and for the rest of my readers on January 1 – as I sit here on December 31, I’m thinking about the New Year. New Year’s Eve. New Year’s Day. You know, the holiday that’s all about turning the page on a calendar. About incrementing an arbitrary number. And about pretending you’re going to fix all of your problems simply because you changed the wall calendar.
The thing is, that’s how I used to see the New Year’s holiday. As much as I loved pretty much all the other holidays and only pretended to be a mean, old Grinch, I wasn’t pretending with New Year’s Day. I really was down on it. And I wasn’t alone. There’s a lot of New Year’s Cynics out there. People who watch everyone around them make resolutions and then break them two weeks later. People who have probably made and broken more than a few resolutions themselves. And people who are too smart for that crap. People who know they aren’t going to suddenly become different – better – people just because the date is one digit higher. People who know there’s no sense in bothering.
We’re the smart ones, right? The ones who know we’re not going to improve ourselves just because we had to buy a new calendar. So why even try? Why aim for self-improvement if you know you’re just going to fail? Don’t even bother. Just sit at the back of the room with all of the other sneering cynics watching the fools count down the seconds to just another day like every day before and every day after.
And we insufferable New Year’s Cynics don’t stay quiet. When you tell us about your New Year’s Resolution, we delight in pointing out that you’re not going to stick to it. That New Year’s Resolutions never work and that you’ve failed every resolution you’ve ever made. But you know what’s funny? If we acted that way on any other day of the year, we’d be called assholes. And rightly so. If our unhealthily overweight friend came to us on, say, June 5th and said, “I’m really going to start working on losing some weight; starting tomorrow,” would we really point out that they don’t have the willpower? That they are going to fail? Of course not. Because we’d be assholes. But if they make that resolution on December 31, we’re suddenly allowed to act like complete jerks.
And that’s why, over the last few years, I’ve become less down on New Year’s. Because I realized that all of that cynicism and bitterness comes from the fact that I, myself, have failed too many resolutions to count. And rather than admit that I didn’t work as hard as I could have and probably didn’t the resolutions seriously enough, I blame the IDEA of resolutions. It’s just silly to tie major life changes to an arbitrary date. That’s the problem. The problem isn’t that major life changes are very, very hard and they take a lot of willpower, effort, and determination. The problem isn’t that success is measured in steps, not leaps and bounds and that I aimed too high and expected too much to happen at once. The problem isn’t that I gave up too soon because everything didn’t change immediately as a result of my perceived hard work. No, the problem is entirely that I was trying to make major life changes on the wrong date.
Now, I don’t want to stray too far from gaming advice into life advice. I promise this will wander into two bits of gaming advice that absolutely do not overlap in any way with broader life advice. The point I’m trying to make is this: it’s actually a pretty good idea to set aside a day of the year to reflect on what you could do better and then make a promise to do better in the coming year. When you say it like that, it doesn’t sound nearly as silly, does it? New Year’s Cynics insist that if you want to make a change, you should just make the change. The date doesn’t matter. But most New Year’s Cynics aren’t rushing to change their lives either. And every life can use some change. Some improvement.
No major change comes without revelation or reflection. Either something happens to throw a spotlight on something you have to fix, or you sit down to deliberately figure out what is broken in your life and how to fix it. And you can’t count on revelation. So, reflection is a good thing.
Last year, on this very date, I found myself reflecting on the fact that I was supposed to have written a book. There were a lot of reasons why I hadn’t. A lot of things had gone wrong. And nothing was where it needed to be to allow me to write a book. I decided it was damned well time to get things where they needed to be and get that book written. And I did it. It consumed a lot more of my year than I expected. And I barely got it in under the wire. But I did do it. There were other changes that happened too.
Look, it is very hard to make any sort of major change in your life. It is hard to fix something you want to fix. I know. I’ve made a lot of changes in my life. I’ve also failed to make a lot of changes in my life. And, recently, I’ve also managed to undo some changes in my life I was previously very proud of. But I guarantee you that if you don’t at least identify the things you want to change and resolve to change them, you’ll never have a chance at succeeding. And why not New Year’s? It’s as good a day as any.
What the hell does any of this have to do with gaming? Well, it’s like this: I give gaming advice. GMing advice. And I hear from a lot of people who are looking for help. And you don’t seek advice if you haven’t identified something that needs fixing and resolved to fix it. But there are no perfect GMs out there. Not even me. Just because I’m the best doesn’t mean I can’t be even better. There is something that each and every one of you GMs out there is doing wrong that can be improved. And you wouldn’t be reading my site if you didn’t want to improve.
So, if you’re a New Year’s Cynic or you think the rest of your life is so damned perfect that you don’t have to fix anything and you’re not planning to make a real resolution to fix something real in your life, you can at least spend a little bit of time reflecting on your past gaming year and see if there’s something there you can fix. And in that spirit, I want to talk about two particular gaming failings of mine that I want to fix in the coming year. They are a pair of related resolutions that have to do with something that I know a lot of GMs are struggling with. Because they keep asking me about it.
A Bad Year for Games
While it has been a very good year for me in a lot of ways, it has been a very bad year for games. I’ve run almost no games this year. I don’t have any ongoing campaigns going. I let my online games fall apart. The few games I have run have been mostly to playtest mechanics for articles I’ve written. Now, to be fair, it has been a busy year. Moving across state lines will disrupt your gaming life pretty severely. And there was that book thing and the starting a corporation thing. There were health problems and employment issues. I’ve got plenty of excuses. And they are all good excuses. But, whatever the excuses, they all add up to me not running any games.
And that’s pretty terrible. I mean, for one thing, my primary job these days is teaching people how to run games. And while I understand that the general rule in education is that teaching is something done by people who don’t actually do the thing they teach, I don’t want to be another example of those who can’t teaching. Of course, I know I CAN run games. I run GREAT games. But if you’re not doing something regularly, you’re not going to improve. I run GREAT games, but I’m not running BETTER games because I’m not running ANY games. See?
Moreover, though, one of the most important things for any game designer – even a fake, amateur, unpublished, non-professional game designer like me – one of the most important things for any game designer to do is play and run games. Lots of games. I used to experiment with lots of different systems and rules and try all sorts of different things. These days, I spend a lot of time thinking about games and reading about games, but none of that counts for shit if I’m not actually playing and running games.
Now, I don’t really lack for players. I have players lining up for online games I’m not running. I had a regular online campaign that I dropped once the book and the move started eating up all of my time. And I organized another, real-life group a few months ago that hasn’t gotten off the ground yet. That group is in a sort of holding pattern thanks to scheduling problems and the holidays. So, why the hell aren’t I running games?
Well, that comes down to the two things I need to fix.
You Don’t Find Time, You Make Time
I think it’s safe to say I’ve been a very busy little bee this year, especially over the last eight months. There’s been a lot of demands on my time. And I just haven’t been able to find the time to squeeze in a game. Now, the interesting thing is that I’ve recently ended up in a lot of exchanges with GMs online who are in the same boat I am. They want to run games, but they can’t find the time to squeeze in a game. That’s just a part of being an adult, right? It’s hard to find the time. Right?
Except that’s also complete horseshit. Sorry.
There are A LOT of things we can’t find time for. And that’s because time isn’t something you find. It’s something you make. A doctor told me that once. See, I had just spent two weeks in the hospital because my heart was struggling to pump the viscous maple syrup I had in place of blood up to my brain and I was very close to a blowout. And my doctor and I were having the inevitable conversation about exercise. And I said I had trouble finding time to exercise. And she said, “look, there are 24 hours in a day and 365 days in a year. That’s all there has ever been and all there ever will be. You will never find more time. There isn’t any to find. You have to make time. Or you’re going to die.”
And dammit, she was right. Not about the exercise thing. Because this isn’t life advice. She was right about time.
Either something is important enough to make time for or it’s not. End of story. And that means figuring out how to shuffle everything else in your life around to get the time you need. It might mean getting up a half hour early every day to make enough time to exercise a few times a week. It might mean giving up a TV show you never miss to open two hours up for gaming. And it might mean cutting a deal with a spouse or significant other to give each other one specific night a week off. It might be going to your boss at work and changing your availability. It might mean having a late night once a week and being very tired the next day and learning to live with that. And it might mean only having one three-hour session every two weeks to game in. But somehow, some way, you can make the time.
And that’s something I have to remind myself.
Now, look, you may be looking at your life and saying “yeah, but it’s different for me because I really don’t have the time, nothing in my life can move.” I’ve heard that before. I’ve thought that before. I thought that while I was studying accounting at University while also working through tax season as a full-time tax preparer and maintaining my website. And some of my friends have thought that before two between their job and their kids and families and other responsibilities. Somehow, we kept games going. But it all comes down to hard you are willing to work and how much you want it. And how creatively you can manage your time. One of my friends arranged a babysitting swap with another mother. She couldn’t afford a sitter, but she could leave her kids with another mother for four hours every week one night as long as she took the kids herself on another night. Another family I knew used to host the games at their house so they wouldn’t have to find a sitter. I used to work an extra hour, four nights a week, so I could leave early on the fifth night to run my game. Surprisingly, sometimes, all it takes is admitting to a spouse or significant other how important it is and asking them to help you clear some time. Especially if you’re willing to help them clear some time in return for something they aren’t doing that they want to do.
So, before you tell me how you really don’t have the time, you’d better be damned sure you really have done everything you could and exhausted every brilliantly creative possibility to MAKE the time. I don’t want to hear how you can’t FIND the time.
And meanwhile, I am resolving to MAKE the time in the coming year to run games again.
Don’t Let Your Mood Dictate Your Actions
Let’s talk about GM Burnout. GM Burnout is something I’ve written about in the past. It’s a sort of creative malaise that affects GMs from time to time. A lack of energy and will and desire to run games. Every GM has heard of it, every GM fears it, and so, every GM wisely avoids it by giving themselves sometime off now and again.
It’s also a load of bullshit.
Okay, not really. Look, you can exhaust yourself doing anything. That’s all GM Burnout is. It’s just tiredness. It happens because running games takes work and it can sometimes be frustrating and stressful and that takes its toll eventually. And when GM Burnout hits you, it becomes very hard to run good games. You lose your motivation to run games at all.
So, the general advice is this: to avoid GM burnout, don’t run a game if you’re not feeling up to it. Taking a game off now and then will keep you fresh, see? It’ll prevent GM Burnout.
Except that’s not really how it works. See, the thing is that GM Burnout is a lot like Writer’s Block and Lack of Inspiration. It comes from this belief that you have some sort of store of creative energy inside of you and you need that creative energy to properly write or art or run games. But the funny thing is that every professional writer and professional artist will tell you that it doesn’t work that way. Writing, for example, is a job. And like any job, there are days when you don’t feel like doing it. No matter how much you love it, some days it’s just work. But, if you actually want to succeed at writing, you find a way to make yourself do it on the days you don’t want to do it. Artists who sit around waiting for inspiration instead of painting because it’s time to paint for the day never paint anything. They just cry about inspiration into their lattes.
Here’s the reality: if you’re feeling tired or run down and you cancel a game because of it, that’s fine. It’s only fair. But it makes it easier to cancel the next game. And the next one. And eventually, you tell yourself you must be suffering GM Burnout. So, you put your game on hold. And you figure you’ll come back to it in a month or three or six. And nine months later, you’re wondering what happened to your games.
GM Burnout is caused by not running games. It’s caused by canceling games. See, games feed themselves. Running games is hard. It does take effort. But the more you do it, the more you enjoy it. It’s kind of like exercising in that respect. Exercising is hard and tiring. But each time you exercise, you get this little squirt of victory that makes you want to do it again. After you power through not wanting to exercise for a little while, you find yourself really needing that victory squirt in your brain. It becomes a habit.
But we all have bad days. We all have days when we don’t want to do the hard things. We’re tired. We’re frustrated. We’re stressed. We’re unprepared. Whatever. We’re not in the mood.
My girlfriend and I used to have a board game night. Every week, every Sunday, after dinner, we’d play a board game together. Just the two of us. We played through all the years of the Harry Potter Battle of the Warthog card game. We played through a bunch of the Pathfinder Card Game. And then it went away. Because, one night, one of us wasn’t in the mood. And we asked very politely if we could skip board game night. Because we were tired. Or whatever. And two weeks later, the other of us wasn’t in the mood. We skipped another one. And gradually, we were skipping more board game nights than we were having. And eventually, there were no more board game nights. And now we’re having a hell of a time starting the habit back up.
There is a brilliant biblical scholar, historian, and talk show host named Dennis Prager. He was once asked to give some advice to a married couple facing a similar problem. And he told this story about how when he was a kid at a Jewish orthodox school, he had the nerve to tell a very old Rabbi that he “wasn’t in the mood for afternoon prayer.” The Rabbi said “oh, so little Dennis Prager is not in the mood for afternoon prayer, eh? Well, so what? Why do you have to be in the mood to do it? You just do it?” And that became a credo for Prager: “don’t let your mood dictate your actions.”
Here’s the thing: the board game nights were always fun. Once we actually started playing a game, we had a good time. We never once had a bad board game night. We never regretted a one. Sure, sometimes we lost the game we were playing and sometimes we ended up a little tired the next day because we stayed up too late playing a long game, but the game itself was always worthwhile. But, sometimes, if we were tired, we dragged our feet getting started. And picking a game could be a chore if we were both feeling drained and indecisive.
See, a mood is a temporary emotional state. It’s a current state of being. And moods change. If you’re in a bad mood, it’d be stupid to say “well, I’m not in a good enough mood to do anything that might cheer me up.” The problem is that people often mistake moods for something else. You’re not exhausted, you’re just tired. You’re not burnt out, you’re just a little drained. And when you do that, when you make that mistake, you avoid the very things that might turn you around because you think you’re in the wrong state to enjoy them.
Well, that’s what happened to my games too. I have run bad games, sure. Everyone has. But, in thirty years, I have run precisely three games ever that I actually regretted running. Three games that I wish I hadn’t run. Three games that I walked out of feeling decidedly worse than when I had entered. Beyond those three, I have never run a game I truly wished I hadn’t. Once the game actually got rolling, however, I was feeling at the start, I had fun. And so, did everyone else. At least, that’s what they told me.
But this year, I got into the habit of canceling games. I had excuses, sure. There was always a damned good reason for me to cancel a game. But every game I canceled made it easier to cancel the next one. The reasons had to be less and less good before I just said, “eh, I’ll never pull this off in time, I’m just going to cancel.” And here I am now. One campaign that has been on hold so long it’s practically dead, another campaign I can’t get off the ground, a line of people waiting for me to run some games for them, and a simple one-shot game that has been pushed off twice in three weeks.
Because I let something as minor as my mood dictate whether I would run a game. And I resolve to break that cycle. And not let my mood dictate my actions.
But remember, this stuff about time and moods? It’s only about games. And the value of self-reflection and resolving to change? That’s only about becoming a better GM. Don’t you dare try to apply this crap to anything else in your life.
Also, Happy New Year.
P.S.: yes, I also resolve to finish making that magic item crafting system and building that adventure and do something with the megadungeon too and to write fewer of the bullshit pontifications.