Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Overthinking things special: getting good

So, as I mentioned in my last post, I went last week to the Fitzwilliam Museum. My parents were in town and they were interested in seeing the watercolour exhibit, including the display of "Ruskin's Turners." "Ruskin's Turners" would have been the most English thing in my month if I hadn't been to see the Magna Carta exhibit at the British Library and also had a sausage bap and a pint of mild in a pub in Coalbrookdale. 

Anyway, what was I saying? Watercolours. Now, I will be frank with you: I was not expecting to enjoy this watercolour exhibit very much. You know the stereotype: grannies, seasides, all that stuff. Hotel room walls. But actually I thought it was varied and interesting; turns out I have these stereotypes because, as I may have mentioned, I don't know a lot about art.

But the thing that really grabbed me was the technical side of it -- there was quite a lot of discussion of the chemistry involved, and how changing paint- and paper-making techniques changed the appearance (and the sort of social context) of watercolours over the year. Painters talking to each other or to the public about technique as much as anything else, about how to capture a particular effect, which brush, which brushstroke, which whatever.

I always find that kind of thing fascinating, and it surprises me that there's so little talk about the nuts-and-bolts elements of running (as opposed to designing) a game. It may be because the fundamental tool of GMing is language, and people can talk, so they don't think of it like playing an instrument or something. It may be because each gaming group is so different that it's difficult to generalise across groups. It may be because the small-scale nature of gaming means that there's no way to recognise whether someone is an expert or not -- like, I have GMed a lot of games in my life, but my total number of players is probably no more than a few hundred, fewer than the number of people a moderately successful band fits into a single gig. So there's no consensus about who's a recognised good GM in the way that there is for a designer or painter or whatever.

I found these thoughts coming up during a recent effort in co-GMing a large game with a younger GM who, with no criticism implied, hadn't been running games as long as I had and therefore hadn't seen some of the common problems, didn't have as deep a bag of prepped material to pull from, and so on. I thought "surely there must be something I can do to help," but it was tough to think exactly what that could be -- most advice on running that type of game is focused on outcomes rather than on techniques for achieving those outcomes. Like: "ensure a balance of investigative, action and social play." OK, but how do you do that? Most "GMing advice" is a waste of air or ink, and when it's specific enough to be good, it may be too specific to be useful.

The social expectations on GMs also make this a challenge. In most gaming groups, habitual GMs are expected to be sort of social "leaders" -- and to some extent this is true, because it takes a certain amount of social presence to attract players to the table and running a game is much like keeping a conversation on target -- but, that being the case, offering a piece of advice to help someone's GMing is in some ways a challenge to their dominance.

I'm also not sure that we have a recognised way of teaching techniques other than emulation. For instance -- I was once in a game run by a friend of mine; there were some weird artefacts that the players were examining. The artefacts were represented by props that had been put out randomly at the start of the game; the GM had not planned them (most of them, anyway) in advance. A player used an ability on one of them to find out something about it and the GM asked her to roll to activate the power -- and, while she rolled and he interpreted the roll, he came up with something for the result. He used the system to create that little vamp to buy him ten seconds to come up with a good idea. It was very good, and I copied it, but I'm not sure he could teach you how to come up with something in ten seconds if that's not already something you're good at.

I know I have a list of techniques I admire in other GMs -- I should ask people to do some guest posts or something.


  1. When it comes to generic GM advice, there's a lot of stuff I like in the GenCon Games on Demand document (http://tinyurl.com/run-con-games), though much of that's specific to one-shot tabletop convention games, and I don't endorse every single sentence.

    1. I will check it out; I think one of the things the indie RPG movement is (or was, when I was paying attention to it) very good at is focusing attention on what actually happens during a session. However, a lot of the time I think they want different outcomes from the ones I want.