My Path to GM Mastery

So last week, I talked about the Hard and Soft Skills of being a GM. This week, I am going to look at my own path of GM Mastery and see how my recent understanding of hard and soft skills has given me insight into what things I should do next. Along the way, I hope to inspire you to perform some self-evaluation and start to understand your own path to GM Mastery.

My Own Path Towards Mastery

Back in the summer of 1994, I started running Amber:Diceless RPG and it was during that campaign  that I underwent a personal transformation from being the guy who everyone made GM, to really understanding what an awesome role and experience being a GM can be. It was shortly after that, that I began to really challenge myself to be a better GM, and throughout the years, I have gone through periods of self-improvement where I have tried to improve my GMing skills.

As I said last week, after some brainstorming, that GM skills fall into two major types, the Soft Skills (the people skills) and the Hard Skills (the mechanical knowledge).  A great GM is a master of both the Hard and Soft Skills. For me, my path to GM mastery has been primarily focused on the Soft Skills. I think a lot of that had to do with the types of games I was running and the influence of the prevalent game systems at the time.

Back to the 90’s,  when Pearl Jam was considered cool by some (not by me), Vampire ruled the night. A game of storytelling; one where it was far more important to tell the story then to adhere the rules. I could have not agreed more at the time, and dove head first into being the best storyteller that I could.  To create a deeper storytelling experience, I used props, turned down the lights, mood music….you name it, I did it, and it worked.

By becoming a better storyteller I really did enhance my games. My players were captivated and engaged in the plots of the stories I was telling. In turn, the quality of player participation reached very high levels, and the lines between player and character blurred.  We had reached that mystical gaming moment when you look up from your notes and you do not see your friends at the table, but rather you see each character looking back at you. Some of the sessions were so intense that there were nights that ended in total silence, where the group was moved by the power of the story. There were even a few sessions that ended in tears.

I am not ashamed of any of that, and it really did help me become a better storyteller, in the long run. I still use music as a key part of setting the background of my games, but I don’t mess with lighting and props too much anymore; doing it occasionally.  Over time I reached a balance in my storytelling style where I feel comfortable with my storytelling skills (because there is always room for improvement).

By the end of the 90’s and into the 00’s I had drifted from Vampire into some more mechanical based games and eventually into D&D 3.0. At the same time as all that was going on, I started reading The Forge, and reading about different gaming theories. Also, at that time, outside of gaming, a number of us in my gaming group had some significant life-changing events occur, that had us re-prioritizing where gaming fit into our lives.

It was at that time, that I really pursued areas of the Social Contract. Having been introduced to the concept from a Forge post, I began to work with my group on formalizing our social contract, so that the time we did have to game, would be one without party in-fighting, misunderstandings, etc.

I also started to work on ideas about meta gaming in RPG’s; the concept of playing the game away from the table. My ideas on this culminated in a d20 Modern campaign, called Heist, a cross of Oceans Eleven and Reservoir Dogs. Through a solid social contract, defining what was expected of players and the use of metagaming (mostly posts through a Yahoo Groups page), the Heist campaign ran furiously for a whole year, and was one of the most exciting, fun, and at times dramatic campaigns I ever ran.

Flash forward a few years to today… As my GMing skills go, I think I have remained in a holding pattern. I spent a great deal of time working on my Soft Skills, and reaped the rewards of that work in several very successful campaigns. But as I look at the mind map that I created, I realize that I have boosted my Soft Skills at the expense of my Hard Skills.

I have always treated the rules to any game as something that can get in the way of my storytelling. Not so much because there are design flaws, but often because I do not put in any effort to attempt to mastering the system I am running,  so I often do not have full command of the rules of the game. To make up for this, I often rely on my players to fill in what I don’t remember (or care to remember) about the game.

My initial reaction to this revelation, was “Who cares?”, but then I realized that I am neglecting a key part of being a better GM. If I more fully understood the rules to any game I ran, I could use that knowledge of the game to make more challenging encounters for my players. By understanding the rules better, I could make new powers/spells/feats that would surprise my players create unexpected moments.

So my next path towards GM Mastery is going to be to really learn the rules to the next game I run, and to leverage that knowledge into making better encounters and scenes for my players. My path to GM Mastery lies in the Hard Skills.

So how about you?

To find your own path to GM Mastery you are going to have to do some self-reflection. Look at the mind map and think of how you would rate yourselves in these areas. Ask your players, and ask them to rate you as well.

Once you see where you are strong in and where you could use improvement, think about what may be the most interesting or challenging skill you want to improve. Perhaps there is a skill that if you mastered, would pay off in great ways in your current game. Or perhaps there is one skill that you wish you had for a campaign you have not launched yet.

Finding Help

Once you know what you want to improve, you will need to find a way to improve your skill. In almost all cases, you will benefit from input from other GM’s. If you have a collection of GM’s in your gaming group or area, then sit and talk to one that has the skill you admire, and ask how they came to be so proficient with it. If you do not have any GM’s in your area, then consider any number of the Online gaming communities. My personal favorite is the Treasure Tables discussion boards.

Also, if you can get to a gaming convention, you can always sign up for Seminars or Workshops for the topic of interest. I have been to a number of excellent GenCon seminars that gave me great ideas for ways to improve various skills.

The path to GM Mastery is long and challenging, but the benefits to your own enjoyment and the enjoyment of your players, makes the journey worthwhile. Do not think of Mastery as a place you reach; instead think of it as a journey you take. Always challenge yourself to be a better GM than you already are; be honest in your assessment of your abilities; do not be afraid to learn something you do not know. Only then can you achieve GM Mastery.

Tell me your path to GM Mastery.

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