Monday, July 20, 2020

Soft Skills in Running a Game

I was writing the chapter on GMing my homebrew game, His Majesty the Worm, and I got to a section where I felt conflicted. The thing I wanted to say ("Jesus, just be fucking nice and learn how to read a room") felt unhelpful and insulting. I'm not sure Wil Wheaton ever really helped anybody with his oft quoted maxim. 

Roleplaying games have been compared to sex. You usually do it with friends. Sometimes you pay someone to be your dungeon master. Sometimes safe words help. Sometimes you don’t need them. Ultimately, it’s important that everybody involved enthusiastically consents to the stuff that’s going on and everybody has fun.

I've read a lot of project management books as part of my professional development. I've used a ton of these techniques in my gaming hobby. I thought I might write them down here in case they are helpful for anybody else. 

Caveat: I am the sort of guy who sometimes makes scripts to follow before I make a phone call, so take from that what you will. I find tools or procedures sometimes make me more comfortable when handling social situations.

Finding people to play with

I have a consistent gaming group. I feel blessed. They are friendly, tractable, open to new experiences, enthusiastic about the rules, funny, welcoming. They're great. 

I got this group by looking for games in my local area. I used a LFG website. I joined a D&D game and found a few people who were nice, and after I got to know them I invited them to join my own game. (I continued to play with them in their own games; I wasn't just pretending to join to find fodder for my own interests.)

Once you have nerd friends, you find other nerd friends. Breaking into a new friend group can be daunting, but it is doable. 

When I had an established game, I had the ability to invite new players into the hobby. Honestly, this is the best source for good players: they're free of gaming prejudices, force you to actually learn the rules when they ask you questions you don't expect, and have incredible insights into the peripheries of running table top games. I've found new players to be some of the most enthusiastic and talented role-players I've ever had the pleasure to game with. Invite new people and teach them many different games

Running a game

The number one rule for running a game is consistency. Play at the same time. Don't skip sessions. A skipped game starts a chain reaction where players (and the GM!) begin to think "Wow, this game isn't that important, I guess." 

That said, the real world always takes precedence over the fake world. If bad luck necessitates several players missing a session, it's not the end of the world (or the game). Don't try and cobble together a game night with just two people. Cancel that session and try again next week.

If a player is inconsistent in attendance, talk to them as soon as the pattern develops. Have an honest conversation about how much they want to play and how they're enjoying the game. If there's a problem in the game's content you can solve, try and solve it. If they are a player with poor time management skills, they might not be a good fit for your game. (Consistent attendance is one of the things that is important for me as the GM.)

I credit consistent play to my fairly good record of "completed campaigns" vs "abandoned games." 

Sensitive subjects

I am not currently using explicit consent tools in my normal weekly game. I usually game with friends. I'm explicit about the game's content up front. The game's content is mostly vanilla. This feels like it's appropriate for this particular table and this particular campaign. 

I use a session 0 to talk about the table rules for my game, set expectations, and get a sense of each player's boundaries. I use the Same Page Tool when running my session 0.

This is an important opportunity to make sure that sensitive subjects are treated with the respect that they deserve. If you plan on including difficult themes in your game, make this apparent up front. For example, if you’re intending to deal with themes of slavery, just say so upfront. Roleplaying games can be opportunities to confront important real world issues. They can also be the opportunity to escape these and not think about them at all.

Be respectful when listening to player’s reactions. Don’t put players on the spot (e.g., “Do you have any triggering subjects that we should avoid?”). This can be well intentioned but can make some players uncomfortable. Rather, ask open-ended questions that allow for honest feedback. 

Once the game has started, I check in regularly with the table. If someone looks uncomfortable, I will either check in verbally ("Hey, is this going into weird territory? We can pull a veil over this and move on,") or check in after the session if it seems more appropriate to be discrete ("Hey, I could tell that the group was sort of making a lot of jokes about your character this session. I'm confident they were doing it as a goof, but I wanted to check in to see how you were feeling about tonight's session"). 

Work together to find out what subjects are and are not appropriate for your friends.

Inviting new players to join a running game

If I invite a new player to join the game, I ask them to meet me downtown for a drink. I then essentially run a session 0 just for them--I explain the rules of the game, ask for buy-in about the subject matter, and ask gentle, open-ended questions that help me understand what subjects need to be handled with care.

For every new player, I try to tell them that not every game is for every person. You can like TV and not like every show. You can enjoy RPGs and not enjoy every game. That's fine. I tell them that if my game isn't their cup of tea, I would love to hear how I could improve it--or give them a chance to bow out gracefully. 

Dealing with problems

You are doing hard work by GMing. I assume you want to do this hard work because you want your friends to have fun. If they are not having fun, you will want to know (I assume). This is done by asking honestly for feedback and providing a safe and discrete space to receive the feedback.

The first one informs the second. Some people say they want feedback, but you can tell that you're just hurting their feelings when you give it to them. If you're serious about wanting feedback, people will be able to tell.

If someone is having a problem, you should feel goddamn grateful they were brave enough to tell you about it and excited about solving it with them. 

You solve problems by talking. This might seem obvious, but maybe it's not. When someone brings up a problem, thank them for bringing it up. Tell them you're sorry they had this problem. Don't make excuses. 

Sometimes, just talking is enough to solve the problem. After a chat, you both feel good and can continue playing.

Sometimes, you'll need to adjust content in your game in response to player feedback. That's fine: if you value your friends' fun, you can make adjustments to accommodate them. Apologize and correct the course. 

Sometimes the problem is with another player. If the player who had the problem is comfortable with it, you can discreetly talk to the other player. Or, you can all grab a drink together and talk it out. You're adults. Be kind to each other.

Asking for feedback and then respectfully listening to your players is the best tool you have to deal with problems in your game. 

Mistakes at the game table

You're going to make mistakes as a GM. At the beginning of just about every session, I say something sort of like this:
"Hey, I made the wrong call last week. I said that it should be a free action to get something from your belt, but I thought about it and decided that it'd be better if you actually had to use a move action to do that. I get this might make your potions a little harder to use in combat, but I think it will be better for the game. Let's try this rule for a little while and we'll check back in after a week or two, okay?"

Literally every session, I feel as if I could have done one or two things a little better. Instead of feeling guilty about it, I just publicly apologize. 95% of the time, this conciliation of the mistake is enough; you can move on. Sometimes, you'll need to apologize to a specific player privately and then publicly acknowledge the mistake and what you'll be doing in the future instead. 

In conclusion

Running a game is a collection of a bunch of soft skills. You're going to make mistakes and social missteps. That's okay. If you feel as if you've hurt someone's feelings, apologize and take responsibility. You are going to get better at gaming as you continue to do it, including the chores of running the game.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. You forgot the main comparison with sex:

    "Even when it's bad, it's still an RPG."