Running the World-machine: Relaxing for Your Player’s Sake

Hey everyone, here’s the first entry in a (hopefully) weekly column, Running the World-machine, which is about gamemastering for tabletop RPGs.  This week’s entry is about staying relaxed as a GM, something that can be more than a little difficult to do:

One of the hardest things for a Game Master/GM (okay, me) to do is relax while running a game.  There’s the constant evaluation of the players’ moods, wondering if the game is lagging, wondering if they’re going to remember something, getting frustrated at side chatter—it’s a lot to keep track of.  And on top of managing the world and all of the NPCs and trying to remember the obscure rule about climbing a rope while singing that was covered in a splat published by a single person on toilet paper three years ago, that can create a lot of stress and make you tense.  And let me tell you this right now:

Tense GMs are no fun.

Okay, that’s not to say they’re NO fun.  If you’re into schadenfreude, making a tense GM explode is kind of interesting!  But that’s a complete dick move, and if you want your game to stay together, I don’t recommend taking that path as a player.

Back to the GM’s side of the screen.  The more relaxed you are, the more willing you are to listen to players, give fair rulings, and be able to improvise.  I know when I’m tense as a GM, I get really snappy at rules questions, which makes the answers I do need to give take longer and slows down the game.  I don’t think I’ve ever killed a player’s character because they’ve ticked me off (and that’s one of the most amateur hour things you can do), but let’s just say I’d totally understand if someone did, even if I don’t approve of it.

It also gets harder to improvise, and when you’re running any game that isn’t dialog options down a strictly linear railroad, you’ll be doing a lot of improvisation.  For me, improvisation is harder when I’m tense because I get nervous that my players are judging my every word.  That’s clearly ridiculous, but tension causes me to drop into that mode and so I’m overly-cautious, either sprinting through scenes because I’m worried they’re boring or even glossing over certain things entirely.  This causes me game to feel more generic, with bland characters and easily-forgotten settings, because I didn’t take the extra five seconds to add the last few sentences that would let everything really shine.

So, tension as a GM is a big problem, for me and probably for some of you out there in internet-land.  How do I deal with it? I don’t! At least, I’m still working on it and am in no way perfect yet. I’m also naturally a very nervous person.  That said, there are some things I’ve found to be incredibly helpful for reducing my stress level as a GM:

  • Open Communication With The Players — If you need a few minutes because your players just ran left when you’d only mapped out right, just tell them.  It’s better to call a time out while you stat up some new enemies or make sure that you remember what’s in each room than it is to run a rushed, sketchy mess that doesn’t make a lot of sense.
    • A subset of this is having communication at the start of the game about how you’ll handle things like rules lookups or player arguments.  I had one GM who set a strict limit on how long an out-of-character “debate” with another player about something like rules could go on.  If it ran over a minute or two, he said they would have to resolve it later outside of game, and go with a GM ruling for now.  In my case, since one of my biggest stressors is rules lookup grinding game to a halt, I’ve told my players that I much prefer to go with an off-the-cuff ruling for the moment and then look up the rule later for future reference.  The obvious exception to this one is if a player character lives or dies based off that one ruling, in which case you want to be sure you’re running it “right,” whether that means exactly by book or just to the satisfaction of everyone at the table.
  • A GM Screen — This one helps me a lot because of my particular group and foibles.  I have one player who loves the nitty gritty crunch, and usually has a very strong grasp of the math of whatever system we’re playing.  When I wasn’t using a screen, this led to me thinking (sometimes correctly) that he was checking my work as a GM for every roll.  Having the little bit of physical barrier keeps the (well-meaning) side glances at the math at bay, and I can let myself worry about running a fun game rather than triple-checking the numbers.  Plus, it theoretically gives me something to hide my terrible poker face behind, a la the lovely GMs of 2 GMs 1 Mic.
  • Remembering the Players are There to Have Fun Too — At the end of the day, the reason your players keep showing is either a) Stockholm Syndrome or b) they’re having a good time. Let’s assume the latter, for sake of being less creepy.  Basically, the people sitting around your table running through the module you’re running or the adventure you’ve created are there because they want to be.  And, like when you are at something voluntarily, you’ll gladly put up with the occasional misstep because the end result is still fun.  So remember that these people are here to have fun, too, not to critique and judge you within an inch of your GMing life.  They appreciate what you’re doing for them, just like you appreciate being able to share your world.
  • Accept mistakes and move on — Inevitably, we all make mistakes while GMing.  It’s just a fact of life.  Don’t try to go back in time and fix them.  Just accept that they happened and learn from them.  And in the case of making a mistake in running a scenario, feel free to ask for those few minutes off mentioned above and take some time to figure out what you’re going to do.  No situation is hopeless, some are just a little more challenging to write your way out of than others. 😉

Hopefully one of those will help you figure out how to relax a little more.  Just remember, it should be fun for you, too, and you’ll enjoy your game more and your game will be better if you can relax and have fun while running it.  Anything I missed?  What do you do as a GM to try and relax while running the game?  Or, as a player, how do you help your GM ratchet down their tension level?

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