You know what I hear a lot? Well, there’s a lot of things I hear a lot. I hear “you’re a killer GM.” I hear “you are so full of s%&$.” I hear “why can’t you swear properly; what are you twelve?!” I hear “stop killing our characters; do you get some sick jollies from killing fictional people?” And so on. But one thing I hear a lot is this:
“I read your advice and I always do the exact opposite and my game is awesome and my players love me and men and/or women are lining up to sex me and I got the E. Gary Gygax Award for Being the Most Awesome GM in the Whole World Ever and also I’ve sold seven different products on RPG Now so you’re wrong.”
Okay, maybe not in those exact words. But that’s the subtext.
Now, here’s the thing: if you come to me and ask me for my advice and then you say “well, I don’t think that’s right, so I’m going to do things my own way,” I always respond the same way. I even have it pinned to the top of my Twitter feed. “You don’t need my permission to run your game any wrong way you want.” And I MEAN that.
And if you don’t understand why that isn’t snark, why it’s actually poignant and important advice and why I’m brilliant, you’re probably not ever going to run a great game. And honestly, if you follow all of my advice, even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff, you’ll run a good game. But you’ll probably never run a great game. You have to understand the nature of creative endeavors. So, let’s have this out right now.
There was this gaming podcast I actually enjoyed that I had a MAJOR falling out with. The podcast was a short-form RPG podcast. It was twenty minutes long. It covered gaming news and various topics and gave out tasty bits of advice. It was really well done. And I really miss it. Oh, it’s still out there. But I can’t listen to it anymore. Because it became sort of poisonous.
See, they did this episode where this guy had done a thing for his game that took a lot of time and effort. And it would only be useful once in the game and it would only be useful if the players really bought into it. It doesn’t matter what it was. And they sat there and said, “Well, really, what’s the point. It’s a lot of work and, yeah, it looks cool, but it might not work and then you have a whole bunch of effort for a ruined game.”
Two weeks later, they did a segment about not trying new things. Once you figure out how to run an okay game, run that. Because every time you take a chance on a new thing, players might not like it and it might not work and that effort will be wasted and your game will be ruined. So don’t bother.
And so the podcast began this slide into “settling for mediocrity.” And I just couldn’t listen to it anymore.
Meanwhile, let’s look at my advice. When you get down to it, I spend a lot of time trying to teach concepts that are at the core of running the game. Understanding mechanics, managing and pacing the game, using the rules, understanding how stories work, understanding how games work. Pretty basic stuff. In the end, for the most part, my goal is to show a thought process. This is how to THINK about your game. This is WHY people respond to this or that.
But, if you sat down at my table, you’d discover that I am constantly breaking my own rules and going against my own advice. Well, not constantly. The baseline is always there, but I’m always trying new things. And, to be honest, often, I break the game. Not seriously break the game. Well, usually not seriously. But every once in a while, I do something disastrous.
And if you ever want to go against anything I said — or you ever insist that doing the opposite of what I say has created the greatest game possible — I encourage you. Go forth and run your game wrong.
There is something true of all creative endeavors: all creative endeavors necessarily involve risk. And, however much your players are involved, the game is essentially YOUR creative endeavor. You set the tone, you set the pace, you control everything that happens and doesn’t happen. And, most importantly, you also take responsibility. No matter what stupid decisions your players make, YOU will be judged. The players will hold you responsible for the quality of the game. If the game is s$&%, they will assume that’s because of you.
If you can’t handle the idea of taking responsibility for the entertainment of five people every week, you literally cannot run a game. That’s what it is. You are creating a game experience and you are taking the lead in a performance art. It’s all on you. And in doing that, you are exposing yourself. Not literally. Do NOT strip nude in front of your players as part of the game (but remember, you don’t need my permission to run your game any wrong way you want).
Art involves risk. First and foremost. That’s why not everyone can hack it as an artist. A creative. Some people just handle judgment, criticism, and people being outright a$&holes. Half the webcomic artists I know of — the ones I no longer follow — spend all of their days pissing and moaning about how people are mean and judgey and stupid. Well, you CHOSE this life. And you can complain that people SHOULDN’T be this way. But they ARE. That’s what the real world is. And if you can’t cope, you can’t art.
But the risk of judgment, by itself, isn’t everything. Just by stepping into a creative spotlight, you accept the risk of judgment. But there’s another risk. A big risk. And I’m going to draw a parallel that will piss off a lot of anti-corporate hipsters. Being a great artist is like being a pharmaceutical company.
See, for every pill that hits the market because it does what it was supposed to and doesn’t actually kill people with enough regularity to make it officially dangerous, a thousand other drugs failed various tests. Pharmaceutical companies are in a constant arms race with diseases and illnesses and molecular biology and all that s$&% is actually very complicated. And so these companies pour billions of dollars into failing to invent new drugs that safely work just to discover the one drug that actually DOES work. And then, when they make the profit off the new drug, they pour all of that money into the next round of failing a hundred times with billions of dollars to find the drug that works.
For every new, creative, innovative idea that is absolutely f$&%ing brilliant, there are billions of ideas that are s$&%. And the problem is, you can’t tell the brilliant from the s$&% until you develop it and put it out there. But, just like inventing the drug that inhibits certain types of cancer with acceptable reliability that doesn’t actually cause blood to come shooting out of your nose or make your brain explode, the great ideas in gaming have a great payoff. That great game session where you pulled off the impossible? The campaign that was based on an idea that no one thought would work? Those are worth it.
If you want glory, you risk failing gloriously.
But now, let’s get back to that podcast and the advice about striving toward mediocrity and taking no risks. See, the thing is, you are NOT actually a pharmaceutical company. That is why you don’t have billions of dollars and a gigantic laboratory facility where you can develop biological superweapons. In case you were wondering.
What do I mean by that? Well, the company is banking EVERYTHING on the fact that they will periodically find one new good drug they can market to make up for all of those losses. If they have too many losses or don’t find enough good drugs, they collapse. They go bankrupt. Close up shop. Thousands of people are out of work. Pensions evaporate. And we have one less watchtower protecting us from constantly evolving diseases that want to wreck our s$&%. There’s a lot riding on that.
On the other hand, if your new initiative system fails, you look at your players and say “okay, that didn’t work, sorry you’re all dead. Let’s pretend that didn’t happen and go back to the start of the game.” Now, sure, if you do that EVERY week, eventually, the players get tired of being the lab rats in the “how much electricity can you shoot through a rat’s brain before it gets really pissed off or dead” experiment. But, even then, the stakes are still a weekly game of “let’s play house, only we’re elves.”
And that brings me back to MY advice.
First of all, I try to give good general advice. I try to give general advice devoid of a particular style. But I also know that’s impossible. All of my advice is filtered through the brain that is in my skull. So, there will always be some amount of my own, personal priorities in that advice. Fine. But readers know that’s the risk of taking advice. That is precisely why I spend so much time explaining my thought process. I could give short, simple bullet points. But I’d be doing everyone a disservice because helping people find new ways to think about problems is better than giving people solutions.
And all of the advice I give is advice I’ve sort of worked out by running games for years. Just like molecular biology — and I keep using that analogy because, let’s be honest, my articles are about as important as curing cancer — has been built up over centuries of people writing down their discoveries and conjectures, I write my s$&% down too so that a new GM doesn’t have to reinvent the entire science of GMing just to catch up to me. They can start where I left off and build the next great thing.
But even though everything I say is right and brilliant, that doesn’t mean there aren’t wrong ways that work too.
My point is this: GMing is personally risky. And if you want to be GREAT. If you want to run truly GREAT games, you have to take more risks. If you’re happy with an okay game, a game that works, that’s fine. I’ll help you do that. But treat everything I say for what it is: a baseline. A place to start building your own great game. Run your game wrong. Take risks. Take chances.
Of course, those risks should be calculated. If you rewrite every rule in the game and end up with a 200-page book of house rules, there’s a much MUCH greater chance of disastrous failure than if you try to tweak the inspiration rules or give elves some different racial features. And you need to decide whether it’s worth it. You need to know you can handle it when it fails. The price of success is failure.
And what failure you can handle is a personal thing. You have to decide. I can’t help you. No one can.
But I will say this: if you can’t handle failure, give up GMing. If you can’t stand the idea of running a bad game session, you can’t stand GMing. It’s risky. It’s dangerous. It’s personal.
And if you want glory, dare to fail gloriously.