The Pros and Cons of Self Improvement

I was talking with Nicholas Hopkins in one of those #rpgaday  threads about “your best session.” Turns out my run of Sagas of the Icelanders at NewMexicon last year was MadJay Brown’s, and that’s flattering, but you know what? I’d kind of forgotten all about that session.

Instead, I still think about how I could not pull together my session of Tenra Bansho Zero to my satisfaction. This, despite more than one participant telling me they had a good time.

My inner critic is at least 10x louder than my loudest player.

There’s probably a word for it, and it’s probably rooted in some unholy cocktail of narcissism, insecurity and magical thinking.

I mean seriously: of all the things one might choose to fixate on, to constantly strive to improve, I chose elaborate make-believe? OTOH I’m not totally persuaded that another fixation would be any healthier or more rewarding. Maybe financially rewarding, if I really hunkered down on career stuff or investing or whatever.

The upsides seem pretty apparent: improving my batting average. I don’t want anyone at my table to walk away dissatisfied. I even know that in many cases, that’s not even within my powers to decide. Maybe the game system or the genre won’t click, maybe there will be some personal chemistry problem, I mean who knows. There are so many variables. But I still have this feeling that if I shine brightly enough, I can brute-force everyone past those other problems.

But the downsides, oh the downsides. I run at least one very good event at every convention I go to, and my other events are typically better-than-average. Those disappear into my rear-view mirror pretty fast, like within a week. But I remember every beat of my middling-blah reverse Burning Empires thing I ran (3 years ago?), a middling-blah Burning Wheel long-con thing from 2 years ago as well as my disappointing Werewolves of Aquitaine game from Dreamation this year, my flubbed Tenra Bansho Zero thing at NewMexicon, the sad trad pandas at my Night Witches table in Tucson that I just couldn’t pull along by force of will. Those are all alive and well for me.

I’m honestly curious about this: how common is this? And how do you decide what skills to work, what areas to prioritize? I’ve got thoughts about that but right this minute I’m skeptical of my own motives.

Or have you settled on a good-enough plateau? How did you decide to settle?

0 thoughts on “The Pros and Cons of Self Improvement”

  1. YUP. I have been specifically invited to come to cons to run things, because of the positive feedback organizers have been given about my games. I’ve had people show up to play the exact same game twice in a weekend, telling me that they enjoyed it so much the first time that they were willing to play it again.

    And yet if you asked me to remember a con game? The time I totally flubbed Hollowpoint. And the time I wasted 5 hours of people’s time on a completely dissatisfying session of Night Witches (which I was told by several participants was actually pretty satisfying!).

  2. I…design games to develop the skills I want to get good at. I used to play inwardly focused characters that were interesting to me, but not to other players. The Intimacy, Desperation, and Sincerity mechanics in My Life with Master were for getting me beyond that pattern. Bacchanal is training to get good at telling stories with certain difficult content. The Clay That Woke is about getting good at hooking players with created setting and situations after wishing during playtesting Acts of Evil that I was consistently better at it.

  3. Cons I don’t sweat too much. I’m not a master GM but the only really terrible games I’ve run have been out of my control (the most memorable being a “couldn’t take a hint if I wrapped it around a brick and bounced it off his head” player in one Final Girl game) and cons have more wild cards than I can possibly account for. Having The Perfect Game at a con is doing some complex chemistry and none of your ingredients are labelled.

    Home games, on the other hand, I can talk myself into cancelling because “everyone is having a terrible time” while they’re all screaming in my ears that they’re having fun. The few times I’ve actually gotten feedback on things to change, I try to make it the focus of my next campaign to work on, and that’s about it. The criticisms my own brain lobs at my campaigns are too insubstantial to work on constructively.

  4. Bret Gillan oh yeah…home games have a whole different set of self-critique rules happening for me. EDIT: And “not quitting” is definitely high on my skill-to-learn list.

    I’ve actually regretted the last two or three quits. Maybe the skill I need to improve is restarting a stopped game.

  5. Do you play a lot with what you’d call “friends” or “strangers”? About 70% of the games I run are with people I know in real life, and feel no sort of…. drive to get it right. But with strangers? Certainly don’t want to fuck that up.

  6. We are our own worst critics, natch.

    And I think that, when we fail, the points of failure are often so obvious that they provide clear direction. E.g., my botched run of Monster of the Week fundamentally changed my entire PbtA worldview.

    That said, successes can also be obvious. E.g., when I hunkered down to learn Marvel Heroic after a few shaky sessions — creating my first serious cheat/notes sheet for an RPG — and it totally paid off, it taught me a lot about prep. There was a clear through-line from study to payoff.

    But I do find that to be less common. Most often is the big fuck-up, followed by not doing that dumb thing I did and the resultant success.

  7. I never settle and, despite it being not what I want to hear, strongly encourage thorns (I do Roses & Thorns at the end of most games) because I always believe those are where the improvement comes from.

    I find that my impromptu color skills are great (adding those little bits of “color” to scenes to make them seem more real) but that I tend to sink into a cludge, narratively speaking, when I run extended campaigns.

    I had a TERRIBLE playtest of the game I am making, Cyclopean Stars, a few months back and haven’t picked it up yet (still smarts!) but it was still a valuable session for illustrating some very important points on character generation! I will get back on the horse soon!

    I actually upset my fiancee when I ran a session of Monster of the Week because what I thought would be cool with psychic powers didn’t turn out to be cool for her. It was a learning moment and one I have applied to all the games I have run since. I guess I just could have payed attention to the rulebook on that one: ASK QUESTIONS.

  8. Paul Czege, you kind of blew my mind a little bit when you told me at New MexiCon 2014 that you designed games that forced you to play in ways that were uncomfortable for you. Really crazy cool.

  9. Ah, if you’re focusing on con games let me expound in a way that might be a bit more useful:

    When I ran convention games routinely I basically worked up a portfolio of scenarios. After the session I’d just tune it based on what I saw happening. Things too chaotic and jokey (in a disruptive way), then I’d tighten the scenario up or give it some more obvious clichés that the players could hook into and immediately know what was expected of them. Too slow, come prepped with a few more crazy situations to turn up the heat. Too much work for me personally, then I’d see what wasn’t necessary that I could cut it out though this was the most likely thing to make me toss the scenario into the bin. Basically I found the problems I saw at the table weren’t Me the GM problems but problems with the scenarios that could be game designered away. It’s easier to see this when you’re running the same session multiple times rather than running a Fresh Piping Hot Game every time you sign up for a convention.

  10. There was an interesting video going around recently about “overfunctioning GMs.” It was tied to prep, IIRC, but the basic point I took pretty broadly – some GMs take on a very heavy percentage of the emotional work associated with making sure the session goes well. (Like me!)

    Two things come to mind – one, I suspect this pattern is learned pretty early on; you mention narcissism, but having a narcissist parent makes overfunctioning into a survival skill.

    The other thing is that the success of a gaming session has so many factors that it’s essentially gambling. The state of the campaign, where the players’ heads are at, where your head is at, the pacing of events as they emerge organically relative to the pacing needs of a session, etc. If failure (or even, anything less than greatness) implies unbearable or dangerous levels of vulnerability, then it can really turn you into knots trying to control for it.

    Being one’s own worst critic is sometimes about preempting attack.

  11. I think choosing to constantly improve your RPG skills is simply a function of RPGs being something that I REALLY enjoy. Why wouldn’t I want to improve my game? I want to have the best gaming experience possible, both for my own enjoyment and that of my players. If they’re having fun, that only enhances my own fun.

    What skills to work and what areas to prioritize? Fortunately, I can pick up game mechanics quickly and remember how to apply them. That can be done from reading the rules, and usually from reading forums or G+ conversations, as well as from YouTube videos.

    What I need to practice and develop is description and presentation of the fiction, and weaving that into the mechanics so that they flow smoothly into and out of each other, without jarring stops. Time management, pacing, distributing the spotlight. Improvising on the spot, quickly and smoothly, without messing up pacing. Reading the players, making sure everyone is having fun.

    Those are my priorities, I think. Weaving fiction and mechanics, while maintaining a good pace and distributing the spotlight to maximize everyone’s fun.

    I TRY to reflect on my games and figure out what worked and what didn’t, but I find outside feedback really important, which is why I try to elicit feedback from my players, and which leads me to write AP reports, describing my methods and my thinking, hoping for feedback, criticism, pointers, suggestions and such.

  12. I just try and do better each time I run a game. I think about what worked or didn’t after each session and if it was in my control to improve it. I also except that sometimes I or even the group can have an off night.

    The biggest thing I try to focus on and improve is keeping people in the moment. For me, I find that’s the most important aspect. If you keep everyone in the moment then the downtime, outside chatter and general rules issues greatly diminish.

    I don’t know if home games or pick-up games are worse for this. In home games we are all friends so we are there as much to catch up as to play and conversations will happen around the game. In pick up games people are usually there to play the game. But when you have a bunch of strangers you haven’t figured out yet I find it takes a while to kick in the groove to see what engages them to get them in the moment.

    In either case I accept that the best I can ever maintain focus is probably 75% of the time. It’s when you have those off games where it’s less than 50% I really try and figure out where things went off track and consciously what I can do better next time.

  13. I too really liked Michael Prescott’s points.

    For me, I prep less. I often prep very little, or have prep that isn’t specifically prep. (Like, I’ve spent two years reading books and Pintresting pictures for a Khorasan apocalypse game, but that’s dreaming and filing more than specific and pointed prep.)

    The tradeoff in freakish control issues, for me, is that my need to do the emotional labor/be responsible for the game to a possibly unfair degree is that I work on skill building. So rather than spend 20 hours prepping for this game, I spend 200 hours prepping for all kinds of games by constantly working how to do things better.

    Still, those comments very much resemble me IRL.

  14. Michael Prescott​ was also the one who mentioned, in a totally throw-away comment, that parenting would fire off all kinds of forgotten childhood stuff. That’s proven true nearly every day and is happening faster the older my kid gets.

    I wish I lived close enough to hire him as my therapist, because he’s got this shit dialed.

  15. Honestly, I don’t remember most of my convention games that I run, good or bad. I’m too busy running the game that my brain can’t spare any room for remembering things, I guess.

    I think if I’m emotionally able to run a game at all I’m able to separate the game experience from me personally; if I’m in a place where I won’t be able to do that I’ll usually just cancel the game tbh. Which is kind of shitty but hey, here we are.

  16. I can say that running a few games for my daughter was hugely rewarding in reminding me what the hell got me so hooked on the hobby in the first place. Even if she so far hasn’t been hooked into, running a game for a true first timer was awesome.

  17. Michael Prescott’s comment reminds me that many games — most of the ones with which many of us grew up — assume that the GM will take on the majority of the work required to make the game a “success”; the players’ job is pretty much just to show up, and if the session “bombs” it’s either a Dork Tower situation where one or more players “ruin” things, or else that the GM didn’t do the required work.

    I.e., many games facilitate the narcissism. I can’t help but picture Matt Mercer running games on YouTube (which I’ve been posting about lately), and how he completely dominates the sessions — his prep, his story, his performance. This is the model so many games simplicity or explicitly present as “the way it’s done.”

  18. I have to admit that I have felt a great deal of angst when running games for our group. I really liked Michael’s response about (paraphrasing) expecting the fun to come from the G.M. Good thread though, as an inexperienced G.M. nice to see how the metacognition can impair the fun of running games. I will keep all of thoughts in mind when examining my success at running my next game.

  19. Robert Chilton best way to get better at GM’ing is to GM. It sounds cliche but it’s true. It’s like learning to ride a bike. You can read how to do it, you can watch videos on how to do it but the only way to learn is to do it and the more you do, the better you’ll get.

    Once you know how to Ride/GM that’s when reading about different techniques can help improve your abilities. But you really just need to put in the time and find out what works best for you.

    A big part of that is understanding what works for you. Also accept that you will have sessions that flop and you will make mistakes. Don’t fret them or get discouraged it’s all just part of the process. Get back up, dust yourself off and go again.

    If you’ve got the GM bug keep at it as I’d bet everyone in this thread would agree that GM’ing is so much more rewarding than just being a player.

  20. For the last ten or so years, I’ve fancied myself a pretty good “home campaign” GM for the most part and have consciously worked on getting better, though there are a few campaigns which, while not awful have been quite mediocre. When I’ve mentioned these on social media, my players tend to apologise or feel a bit guilty, so I tend not to self analyse in public now.

    Then there’s Hangouts one shots. The last few I’ve run have been really good, awesome because of the players, and ‘okay, I guess, but a little uncomfortable’ respectively. There was a dark theme the players didn’t really engage in for the last one, and I don’t think they’d signed up for that. Mea culpa.

    As for con GMing and game store demos, my first one 8 years ago was pretty bad, but I didn’t quite realise how bad at the time. I pressed on, and worked consciously to improve and become less clueless about what makes things tick. I had a run of really good games for years, with the occasional miss for me personally (and again I got guilty feelings for public analysis).

    The last couple of years, I’ve gone down to more like a 50% strike rate, with the highs higher than they’ve ever been before, but the lows more noticeable to me. I nearly got put off at a recent con where I ran three games and only one of the three was as good as I’d hoped, but I worked on things again, and got myself excited again to run games.

    I agree that it’s not all about the GM by a long way.

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