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Angry Rants: Creating GMs

Just a quick note. Don’t panic, but this week’s column is a little different. It’s in response to a question several people (including a couple of game store owners) asked me on Twitter: how do we (as a community) create new GMs. And that’s a really great question. The thing is, though, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I don’t have a good answer. I have a few okay answers, but there’s a bigger question we need to answer first. And ultimately, my usual style of nice, clear cut topics and headings and things wasn’t going to cut it. This is one of those rambling, thoughtful things. So, welcome to the inside of my head. Basically, we’re just going to think this thing through together.

The following column is therefore pretty much a transcript of my thoughts on this topic. Welcome to the madhouse.

“How do we create new GMs?” Why the f$&% do people keep coming to me with questions about building the community? I’m pretty much the opposite of community growth. Why don’t people ever ask me how we get rid of s$&% GMs? Or s$&% players? I have A LOT of good ideas there.

I mean, I get why people are asking. Basically, without people running games, the community dies. There are no games. So, yeah, we need people running games. Apart from just continuing the hobby, stores need people to run all the Pathfinder Society and D&D Adventuring Encounter League Association crap — incidentally, just what the f$&% is the current D&D organized play, how does it work, what is it doing, what is it even called, why is it so f$&%ing confusing? Eh. Whatever. And folks like the Pathfinder League and the League of Baldman Games need people to run games at conventions. Hell, gaming conventions need people to run games. And whenever I talk to the organizers of these things, they always bemoan the fact that they never have enough GMs to meet demand. So, maybe it is a problem.

I would love to have some actual, solid data about the size of the gaming community, how fast it is growing, and what people are playing and running. Damn it, companies are so secretive with this s$&%. Which is moronic because this whole game is community driven. Right there, that is the biggest problem. The biggest players in the RPG gaming sphere don’t seem to understand their own market. And I don’t just mean WotC. Every company seems to be making fundamental mistakes. Paizo is doing okay, but their game is unapproachable and bloated for newbies. They don’t draw in new gamers, they draw in existing gamers. WotC hates the idea of sharing and community and they are so protective of their IP that they stifle the creativity of their community. Not to mention they are so backwards. FFG makes nice stuff, but it’s expensive. They are the cadillac. And again, it isn’t super approachable. I like Star Wars well enough, but those games are very complicated for newbies to pick up. They are expert level games. The indie community has it’s head so far up its own elitist a$& that they can only communicate with other people whose heads are already up there. And the OSR grognards are driven by an almost Puritanical nostalgia for the good-ole-days when gaming was completely unapproachable and inelegant. Nobody is marketing this s$&% to anyone except gamers. And gamers are already gaming. What happened to the WotC of the early 2,000’s that was marketing EVERYWHERE?!

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And that’s the thing. Gaming is aging. When I got started, I was ten years old. Where are all the kids in gaming? I go to the game stores. I go to the conventions. Except for the ones dragged there by the gamer parents, where are the tweens and teens? When we all start dying off of the inevitable heart attacks and strokes that are pretty much caused by “the gamer lifestyle,” what’s going to happen? But again. I have tunnel vision. I only see what I see. Maybe I’m missing it. Again, it sure would be nice to have some data.

But let’s assume it is a problem. It probably is. Without any sort of useful marketing, without any good on ramp, the only thing that is building this community is existing gamers. And that means the only thing growing the community is GMs. And that is a problem. When a player quits gaming, that’s a lost player. Big deal. But when a GM moves on, I’ve seen enough groups where there was only one person willing to run games; I know what happens. You lose a whole goddamned group. In my main six person group, only two of us are “alpha gamers.” There’s only two of us willing to run games. And one of us lives so far away he’s probably not willing to drive out and keep this group going. That means, when my blood vessels start exploding and shooting the pressurized maple syrup that is sloshing through my veins into my prodigious brain, I’ve killed off five gamers.

And isn’t that kind of a problem in itself? Why aren’t people willing to run games. Why do we even phrase it like that. It isn’t even something you “want” to do. It’s something you are “willing” to do. “I guess I’ll run games, if no one else will.” How many f$&%ing times have I heard that? Is running games really that miserable?

I mean, I love it. And I know a lot of people who love it. But it is a lot of work and it is hard to do well and there is a steep learning curve. But it’s worth it. If you’re that type of person. And there are plenty of those types of people out there. They are the same sorts of people who buy Legos and play Minecraft and write on fanfiction.net. Yeah. I s$&% you not. I mean, there’s people out there creating content for video games. There’s a passion for creation. And GMing offers something that those things can’t: the chance to watch people enjoy your creation in real time, the chance to adjust your creation on the fly, and the chance to move beyond the limits of the systems.

Why aren’t we talking to THOSE people? How do we talk to THOSE people? THOSE are the GMs right there. Fanfiction writers and video game modders and level designers and ROM hackers. They all have communities and they are all willing to put in an effort to create and to learn byzantine rules and complex systems.

But it doesn’t matter if you do talk to those people. There isn’t a f$&%ing game out there that sells the joy of creation. And the ones that do hate GMs. I need to hold on to that thought and come back to it. I’m going to highlight it. There. Bolded. Now I’ll remember to come back to it.

Nothing is selling the joy of creation. The thing that got me into D&D? Mapping dungeons. Building dungeons. My beloved Mentzer D&D Red Box started me off on creation. It understood what was going to sell GMing to me. Rules and administration? No. World building? Maybe a little. But he nitty gritty of building something people were going to play and love and being able to watch them do it? Yeah. That was the thing. I used to sit in English class with my friend Peter, filling graph paper with squares and lines and giggle. “I can’t wait for them to explore THIS room. This is going to be great.” And my players saw it. I remember Nick, one of my players, who watched me come to the game every week with hand-drawn maps and notes. One day, he decided he wanted to run games. Why? Because he saw the love of the act of creation. And he had it to.

What do players see in the Pathfinder Society and the D&D Encounters of the Adventuring League PGA? GMs who memorize rules and do it out of books. The adventure tells them everything. Administration. They are like f$&%ing robots. Sure, maybe they love it. I don’t know. I’ve never been that type of GM. But I can’t imagine that the budding rom-hacking level-designing fan-fiction lover is going to see that and say “yeah, I gotta get me some of that!”

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Honestly, have you read a modern RPG book? Most of them suck. They are so dry and boring and filled with rules and stats and arcane minutiae. And they are always talking to the players. Why is the Players’ Handbook and Character Creation always the first thing people see? Because we all know that if you get a GM hooked, the GM will find some f$&%ing players. Why don’t these games just accept that the GM is going to buy the first book. Or decide not to buy it. Sure, players will buy player supplements. But you’ve got to get them playing first. And that means you need a f$&%ing GM. And you need to teach the GM first.

But let’s get back to that thing I boldfaced. The hatred of GMs. I’ve noticed this weird trend in the gaming community lately. Obviously, there has always been an undercurrent of distrust in the GM. But that’s to be expected. A bad GM can absolutely ruin a game. But bad GMs are far more rare than the fear of bad GMs. There are also two other interesting factors. First is the idea that the GM only facilitates creation by the players. That is, the GM simply invites the players to create the game and to tell their stories. That’s a nice idea, in theory, but that further turns the GM into an administrator. And the question then is what does that leave the GM to really love, to feel passionate about? Is it a failure when the GM is more invested in the game than the players, or is it actually a useful feature? A passionate GM is one who creates games and finds players. Especially because, when you look at it, the games marketed on “the players create the world” like Dresden Files are marketing to players the experience of being a GM. That’s kind of silly. Because if you have five people at a table who are all willing to be GMs, you could have 25 gamers instead of just five. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with having the option for that kind of feature out there, but it seems like all the ground being broken in gaming is about ways of emphasizing the players’ creativity and relegating the GM to the role of a functionary.

I will never understand, for example, why games exist that take the dice away from the GM. Now, I’ll admit to having fun with Dungeon World. And I am liking The Strange so far. But I still don’t understand why anyone made that move. Because GMs are gamers too. They like to play games. Why treat that like a negative?

But Dungeon World is incredibly smart. And so is The Strange. The Strange sells a LOT of the joy of creation. And Dungeon World actually provides a game with rules for the GM to play. The GM isn’t playing the same game as the player, but there’s a game for the GM. Things like giving the GM moves, the game of how steadings interact, and the way fronts work are all mini games for the GM. And they are all fun. Honestly, if you rewrote Dungeon World with an eye toward selling it to the GM and trusting the GM to find the players, you would have the perfect game to box up and put on Toys R’ Us shelves to sell to the tween and teen creatives. Hey! Adam and Sage! You listening? Call me.

The problem with all of this pontification is that it isn’t an answer. Because, the question isn’t “how are all these companies keeping these games from growing so much faster than they are?” The question is what can we, as a community, do to create new GMs? What can a gaming store do to create new GMs?

I don’t know. Pay them? I mean, when you have something someone doesn’t want to do or something that requires a lot of hard work or specialized training, you pay them. That’s why people doing things they love doing get paid less. Or they do it for free. Like me.

But beyond that, maybe the trick is to find a way to get the GMs to create new GMs. Lots of stores run gaming events. Lots of stores run free RPG days. But how many stores run a seminar like “learn to run a game?” or “how to build a gaming group?” Social media marketing is pretty cheap nowadays. You sell an event like that to the right forum or community, maybe you create a bunch of gamers. Maybe you get a bunch of people who will all buy beginners boxes or core rule books if you get a passionate alpha GM to tell people how awesome it is to run games.

Same thing at conventions. Run a “how to get started in RPGs” event targeted at building GMs. And for content creators, maybe your next Free RPG Day module should be a “learn how to run my f$&%ing game” kit. And market it to stores that way. Get the store owners and community leaders to specifically offer slots with that kit to people who have never run games before.

Honestly, I have no idea if any of that will work. I’m just an accountant, not a marketer, and I’m just a GM who loves creating and running games wondering why so few people seem to love it like I do.

All right… what’s my word count? Fine. I’m done. F$&% this bulls$&%. Next week I’m telling everyone why they need to stop playing RPG races in nonstandard ways. Oh, hold on. I have to do that thing where I tell everyone to leave a comment. A “call to action,” the editor calls it. Leave them with a call to action! Always. I hate that s$&%. I don’t even want people bothering me on my Twitter account. F$&% editors. [Oh-ho-ho-ho. Angry does like his little jokes, doesn’t he? – Ed]

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