So you’ve got a collection of guides for game masters, an arsenal’s worth of GM tips, and a group of players who are happy to be your test subjects. In order to become a great GM, all you have to do is clock in ten thousand hours of practicing those techniques in order to become great at gamemastering, right?
Not so fast.
According to the research, simply reading a book, watching a video, or listening to a podcast and giving those concepts a try isn’t going to make you better. Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool details the process, as backed up by data, of how to get good at just about anything. You have to apply your newfound knowledge with practice, but you have to practice the right way.
If you just do something repetitively for a long time, you’re not actually likely to become an expert at it. You need to try, fail, recalibrate, and try again. In this book, the authors discuss the method that’s proven to work for the world’s top athletes, musicians, surgeons, chess grandmasters, and more: it’s called deliberate practice, and it’s designed to help you create stronger mental representations.
Mental representations (or ways of thinking about something) are what separate the good GMs from the great ones. Well-developed mental representations enable GMs to juggle multiple considerations such as plot twists, NPCs, and pacing in their heads all at once: they’ve trained themselves to be consciously thinking of those all those things and more at the right times during game. Mental representations also give GMs a model for predicting how different rulings or story choices will play out at the table, and for making the right call when presented with the players’ unexpected plans or unanticipated dice rolls.
Here’s what the authors of Peak say you have to do in order to practice deliberately and forge those mental representations.
Set Very Specific Goals
To make the GM tips work for you, you have to create for yourself an exercise that makes you practice one very specific part of that tip. It isn’t enough to have a vague goal like “do better NPC voices.” Have goals like, “I’m going to vary the energy levels of five NPCs this session,” and have a series of checkboxes in your notebook that you can tick off each time you do. In your GM notes, make sure to give all your NPCs a low, medium, or high-energy voice. Next time your run a game, add another checkbox, then another. Don’t stop until it’s become automatic to think about NPCs’ voice energy levels whenever your roleplay them.
In another example, say your goal is to “pace my sessions better.” Become conscious as to whether you’re dramatizing or summarizing a scene. After you can remember to do that, experiment with cutting scenes short during a session. Finally, try dragging out scenes longer and see what happens.
Stay Engaged the Whole Time
When you practice at the table, ensure you’re really engaging with the exercise. Become highly conscious of what you’re doing and why. Continuously dig into your thought process behind a certain decision and then extrapolate what you think the results will be. Write notes if you can to help you remember your reasoning and predictions after the fact.
This likely means that you’ll need to run shorter, more focused sessions, as the typical four-hour game sessions are going to be exhausting if you’re truly being conscious of what you’re doing the whole time. Alternatively, pick out 25-minute segments of your regular play time and resolve to really focus during those. Quality over quantity is the name of this game.
Incorporate Feedback, and Adjust
Now that you know exactly what you were doing and how you thought things would go, how accurate were you? How close are you to your desired outcome? Find out what’s working and what didn’t from your players, and then get their take on why. Solicit feedback from GMs you admire as well (and maybe get them in a one-shot session if you don’t get the chance to play with them usually). That way, you can learn whether the choices you were making were the right ones. In the next session, make it your conscious goal not to repeat those mistakes. The more feedback you receive and internalize, the better you’ll get at self-evaluation as well, so you’ll catch yourself right before you do something that won’t get the desired result or adjust your tack on the fly.
Find the Appropriate Challenge Level
Ensure that you’re always reaching farther than you are comfortable. This means pushing your exercises to the next level to make yourself reach beyond what you know you’re capable of in a given session. Try to balance on the edge of being challenged without being frustrated by failure. Dial it back a notch or two if you find yourself consistently failing the challenge, and then try again.
Revisit Previously Learned Skills
Ensure that you’re not forgetting a skill after you’ve learned it by sprinkling in the related exercises into your new routine. That way, you’re also building up your ability to juggle considerations about all the different things you want to improve as a GM. Make a plan to review an exercise you did before and ensure it’s still incorporated into your practice. If it’s hard to keep up both techniques, minimize the number of things you’re juggling and slowly build up to executing all your GM’s tips at once.
By using these techniques, you should be able to tell whether or not you’re improving, and you’ll be improving more quickly than if you just had vague goals about “being a better GM.”