Bad Habits of Good GMing

We are not perfect people. But sometimes that’s useful.

Have you ever tapped out the notes of a song on a tabletop, perhaps with a pencil or your finger? There’s been some study of this, where one group tapped out songs and the other side tried to guess what they were tapping. The listeners had a horrible success rate, which is no great surprise if you actually listen to someone tap without already having the song on your head. But what was interesting was that the tappers were convinced that the listeners were a bunch of morons because it was SO OBVIOUS what they were tapping.

The internet makes me think about this a lot.

Anyway, this is also the basis of one of my favorite GM tricks, and that is this: your impressions suck. I know you think you’re totally *nailing* Walken there, but really? Terrible. We’re humoring you, but if you didn’t use catchphrases like “more cowbell!” we’d have no idea who you’re pretending to be.

That truth might be a little embarrassing, but its also very useful to a GM, because when you try to play an NPC like a particular actor, that means you will be _consistent_ in your performance, but you don’t need to worry about being to obvious because, as noted, you suck at this.

Ok, on the off chance that you don’t suck, then just step outside of the usual media. Use your fantastic skills to imitate a character from books or comics. Your interpretation will, again, be consistent, but it should be virtually unrecognizable. All in all, it’s a good trick for keeping characters straight. Especially if you suck.[1]

Harsh truths, I know, but we’ve got more coming. See, I’m not sure how to ask this, but, just between you and me, are you a bit of a dork?

Not you? Too cool for that? Well SOMEBODY is watching that anime, buying those Batman comics and keeping Syfy on the air, and it’s not me.[2] So it must be you.

I mean, you can see it in the characters you create. You finish creating a character, and you start thinking about all the cool things this guy or gal might be able to do someday. That cool power combo. That dramatic last-minute escape. That heroic facedown with your nemesis. The sacrifice in your moment of understanding. And the awesome swords. Don’t forget the awesome swords.

But it never really goes that way, does it? Sure, games are fun, but they’re never quite those perfect moments that the fresh character sheet promises you. So you tuck those hopes away in a dark place where they rot and become bitter, driving you to a life of posting on and telling people how they’re gaming wrong.

Yes, it’s a sad story. But that’s not the only ending for it. The thing is you need to take all those shameless, delighted moments of hope that you’ve tucked away and stop thinking about them as things you’ll never get to play. Instead, think of them as gifts. Gifts you can give your players. Next time you’re going to run a game, make a character first. Make an AWESOME character first. Release all the restraints that have been put in place by years of lowered expectations and discussions of balance. Make that character you’ve always wanted to play that you know you’re never going to get a chance to. Think about him and all the things you could do with him with the perfect GM running your game.

Then take that character sheet and rip it into very small pieces. Now is your time to be that GM. All that cheesy, cool fun stuff you really want? Hold onto it, but start thinking about how to give it to your players.[3] Certainly their tastes may not exactly match yours, but if a lot of exciting ideas are universal, and it is far better to make them happen for someone else than to never have them happen at all.

Lastly, that bit if laziness that tells you that when you’ve only got a little time to prep for a game so you’re totally going to steal the plot from that TV show you saw last week, only with some ninjas instead of accountants, and maybe on the moon?

Listen to it. It’s smart.

Good luck. You may need it.

1- Just to restate, this is about consistency more than quality. In reality if you pick someone particularly obvious, like Walken or DeNiro then you might tip your hand, but if you step it back just a little, but keep with people you know well (tv actors, especially dramatic rather than comic ones, tend to be good for this) so that you maintain the same tone whenever you imitate them. The imitation may not accurately capture the actor in question, but it will come to capture the *character*.

2 – Except it totally is.

3 – In addition to inspiration, this can be a mechanically useful exercise. Setting aside that a GM should go through chargen at least once for ANY game she’s going to run (if only to catch the pitfalls) this can be a very good way to understand expectations. If you make a character and realize all the cool stuff has to wait until he’s accrued an absolutely stupid amount of XP, then maybe you need to consider handing out more XP in your game, or starting with more of it. Finding out firsthand what the system can and can’t support is much better done before play begins than after.

5 thoughts on “Bad Habits of Good GMing

  1. Reverance Pavane

    I find you generally have to charicature than character to effectively give an impression. In other words do such a shameless exaggeration that any right-thinking director would not only boot you off the production but out of the theatre and down the street as well.

    It’s similar to what you do in a freeform. If you are, say sneaking past a guard, you have to exaggerate your “stealthy movement” so that the other player knows you are attempting to sneak past (and thereby resolve [or not] the situation). Whereas if you just try to sneak past there is confusion about your status (unless, of course, you have a much better stealth roll than the typical gamer).

    Same for the tabletop. You have to heavily emphasis what you are trying to project. Put it out there for everyone to see. Ham it up, because subtlety is lost in the noise. Monologue it when you can (provided that you do it entertainingly enough), so that people know where your character is at. You’ll find that people start responding in kind.

    It’s akin to the fact that secrets do no good hidden away on a character sheet. You have to put them out there to have fun. [Although if your are in a typical Vampire LARP where power-gaming is the rule, I believe, you should ignore this advice. Or do some role-playing and show everybody up. ]

    Cheese is awesome in gaming. Unless it’s blue.

    [Ooopps. Does this mean I should be posting on ]

    ObWalken: My impression sucks. Except when I’m doing the moves from Weapon of Choice, in which case watch out! Especially when I jump off the hotel mezzanine! That’s when I make a real impression!

    [PS: With regard to tapping, there’s a music show (Spicks & Specks) over here where panellists (who are usually musicians) are required to sing songs using the words of an unrelated text. The panel then has to attempt to guess the songs. It’s fun when the formally trained singers come on and the rapturous notes of Gardening For Beginners is brought forth…]

  2. Lisa Padol

    One thing I do to get away from impressions is what Ron Edwards suggested years ago — Take source X and make it a different genre / setting / whatever. This forces me to engage with THIS game right here and now.

    One of my players accidentally helped me a great deal with that back when I took family trees and plots from Ellen Kushner’s Riverside books by suggesting the setting be Germanic. Call Diane Tremontaine something Gudrun, and… I just think about her completely differently. She’s now part of the world we all created together, which is as it should be.


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