What I Learned From RPGing and GMing

Update: One of the points below was unfinished. I was actually planning on splitting this post into two parts, but I guess I left it scheduled and it got posted while I was doing other things. It’s been linked a few times, so… I’ll leave it as it is. Except I went ahead and finished that point.

ORIGINAL Post: So: what did I learn from RPGing, and specifically from GMing? This is the last post in the projected series (though who knows, there may be more to say…)

I think I should put this into two categories: stuff I learned that applies to my life, and stuff I learned that applies to writing. If you’re a writer, it may be of use. If you’re a living person, maybe less so, though if you’re a gamer, it might resonate. Gamers and writers, I guess. And those curious. LIFE LESSONS

  1. Hanging around with a bunch of guys in a basement means you don’t meet girls. ‘Nuff said.
  2. Hanging around with a bunch of guys in a basement also means you don’t need to worry about what girls think of you. Unless you’re gaming, and fail to keep it a secret. Then you don’t have to worry because what girls think of you is a foregone conclusion.(Actually, not really. But that’s another story, one it took me much longer to learn.)There are, obviously, negatives to this formula. Not worrying what girls think of you may or may not be worse than worrying what girls think of you. But there’s something important to be said for the bonds I formed in those early, formative years of gaming, where almost all my gaming friends were guys, where our jokes were boy-type jokes, where our gaming was driven by boys’ fascinations.This isn’t universal. Some groups involve female gamers, and that’s great and wonderful and I wish ours more often and more consistently did too. (I’d have been less shy of girls sooner in my childhood had that been the case.) But what I’m saying is that it’s quite healthy and good that my male gamer friends and I had a space in which we were safe, were with other boys, and were able to exercise our imaginations without worrying about the monkey-cage politics of school popularity, the response of parents and teachers, and most importantly the real-world implications of the stuff running around in our heads. (Whether it was fantasies of running an asshole teacher through with a longsword, getting drunk, or having wanton sex with blond, busty barmaids.) Some will say that the games encouraged violent, deviant, or sexist fantasies, but I counter that those kinds of things are inevitable in the heads of teenaged boys, and the games provided an outlet for all of that. A healthy, safe, and fun outlet.It sure beat what some kids I knew were doing out there in real life: getting drunk and high, getting pregnant (or impregnating girls their age, or, occasionally, raping girls their age or younger), and getting involved in cases of real violence. Gamers didn’t do that stuff anywhere near as often because we had an outlet for all that crazy energy and those wacky ideas.
  3. Whenever there are rules, there are rules lawyers. You know, the people who nitpick and finagle and try to find a loophole. This isn’t absolutely true, of course: to be a rules lawyer, you need to know the letter of the law. If you don’t have a copy of the rules, it’s harder to be a rules lawyer. But really, in life, you’ll find all kinds of people interested in how to “technically” be off the hook, or to have done X or Y or Z. Rules lawyering is just a part of human nature, and it persists even though the people who are doing it are simultaneously aware of the fact it’s ruining whatever endeavour they’re involved in. (Like the game, like a marriage, like a business agreement.)I also learned that there are different ways to handle this aspect of human behaviour. Any kindergarten teacher can tell you that presenting an aura of authority is one way. Sometimes, if you radiate an aura of “don’t you pull that shit with me,” people will be reluctant to rules-lawyer. Other times, you need to simply make your ruling as quickly as you can and get it out of the way. And other times, you need to let someone rules lawyer because if you don’t, they will act out in other ways that ruin the game, like passive-aggressive character actions, sustained grumbling through later sessions, and so on.But at the same time, there have to be rules, and there has to be a kind of binding agreement between GM and players. People rules lawyer more when they feel the rules are being bent or fudged either to the detriment of themselves, or the unbalanced benefit of others. Things that help balance this out include trust, a degree of transparency, and a strong focus on the bigger goals of the group. The point of these weekly gaming meetings isn’t to kill this dragon, or to amass treasure. It’s to tell an enjoyable story as a group. Players need to (and need to be able to) trust the GM in order to relax and stop rules lawyering so the real work of telling a collective story can happen. So when players complain, sometimes it’s the players fault, and sometimes it’s also the GM’s.The point is–management styles (as a gamemaster, as a business manager, as a teacher, or in any position where one is running a group) need to vary, need to involve a degree of respect along with a degree of control over the proceedings. Very primitive instincts kick in when people feel they’re being dealt with unfairly, and they kick in along very familiar lines: nitpicking about rules, complaining, passive-aggression, and the collapse of the group. But with a good group and a skilled manager, all of this is avoidable.
  4. The best-laid plans of mice and men… yeah, I struggled to be a less controlling GM. But no matter how many contingencies I planned for, the people playing the games I ran always found a way of surprising me with some decision, some contingency I’d not yet thought up. This was where I first learned the importance of improvisation. (And of knowing your shit, so you can pull off improv.)
  5. Power corrupts. As a GM, I was definitely corrupted. I was the guy running the game. The big boss. I would do crazy things to the characters at times, just because I could. Not even for the sake of the story… just because I could. As much of a Monty Haul campaigner as I sometimes was, I was also a bastard as a GM… at least, back in the AD&D days.When I got to Storyteller games (like Wraith) it was more about narrative, and constructing something that was compelling, chilling, and plausible enough (given the fictional existence of ghosts and so on) for players to suspend their disbelief. So I guess that if power corrupts, aesthetics can decorrupt?
  6. Goals motivate people. Giving my players some goal that meant something to their characters, it was like magic. They’d push and fight and get all riled up. They’d stay up all night, or turn up three weekends in a row, to take down an evil wizard who’d screwed them over, or to save some kidnapped child from a rampaging forest monster. The fact that the goals were imaginary didn’t deter from their motivation to get it done. Some people say traditional RPGs don’t have winners and losers, but they’re wrong. Those games are always somehow goal-driven, and player-motivating.This a powerful lesson for anyone running a group, whether it’s a team at work, a company, a group of activists, or a classroom. In all cases, one gets much farther by helping one’s group members find their own individual motivations, while also supplying the group as a whole with a commonly shared goal or vision.
  7. There’s something profoundly magical about narrative. Yep, we humans are creatures of narrative. I think HG Wells got it wrong when he stated that ideas are to humans as water is to fish, or however he actually put that. Me, I think our water is narrative.This informs my writing, of course, but also how I teach things like public speaking, how I build the lectures I give in my culture-related courses, how I facilitate discussions, how I write official documents, and so on. It’s all about narrative.
  8. People are threatened by what they don’t understand, and rarely realize that they don’t understand, because very few people ever grow up fully. Adults worrying about Satanism in this hobby of mine taught me a very important lesson, which I try as often as possible to pass on to my students when they talk of conflict with their own parents: our Moms and Dads simply aren’t done growing up, just because they’ve had us and raised us for a while.Adults are not finished growing up. Some of them obstinately choose to land in arrested development, but that doesn’t mean they are done growing up, or necessarily know what they’re talking about in every instance, let alone knowing what’s best for you.
  9. The brightest minds are often the most playful. The people in my gaming groups who displayed the most intelligence and maturity outside of the gaming time we spent together, were often also the most playful during game time. They might goof off, or make jokes, or they might get right into their characters and really play for keeps. Either way, the brightest minds I encountered were the most playful.
  10. You pick and choose how to spend you time and money, and should be conscious of the decision when you do so. If I were to start gaming again, at least in a fantasy RPG, I would likely create my own world. I’d use some game books, of course, but predominantly it’d be a creative act on my part. I chose to spend my pocket money on D&D books. Might not have been a mistake, if I’d taken good care of them and sold them off later, but as it was… it was money wasted. The game would have been just as fun if I’d made up the world myself. But I wasn’t aware of it, so I just bought into one or another setting–especially, as I mentioned earlier, the Forgotten Realms setting–wholesale. Well, actually, retail. Which is worse.



  1. Characters need motivations. Without them, characters have no reason to do anything at all. And, here’s the thing for a writer to realize: motivations are equal to vulnerabilities. As humans, it’s necessary for us to forget this to some degree so we have a reason to get up in the morning. But every motivation and goal we have is
  2. There has to be a payoff, or people instinctively feel ripped off by suspense. If characters crawl through a dungeon for a month’s worth of weekend sessions, and then find that the local dragon’s already been slain, its loot long gone, they get pissed off. They really do.
  3. Every individual considers himself or herself the great hero of the story, even when it’s clear he or she isn’t. There are, of course, acceptable shortcuts. Flat characters, like pirate captains with one hook for a hand, or corrupt politicians, or kindly teachers, are all fine flat characters. But even they need some sense of their own specialness, or the shamminess of it all becomes too apparent for enjoyment to continue.
  4. Creating a character who is in some external sense different from you is tricky: female characters created by boys tend to be “about” male anxieties, and it’s hard for a 14-year-old boy to put himself in a 100-year-old man’s (or 1,000-year old elf’s) shoes. Creating a character from the Southern Mage Kingdom of Halruaa is going to have its perils, as you scramble for a model of behaviour for your character that’s both different from the Northerner characters, but also doesn’t simply riff on cheap pseudo-African stereotypes — much less the offensiveness of a cheesy Ebonics and a badly-done James Earl Jones voice.(While it’s nice that people try to include, for example, HOC (Halflings of Color) or other racially-diverse humanoids in a campaign setting, it’s far preferable that they not come off as cheesy riffs on modern American pop culture, even if some of that is unavoidable among white teenaged boys living in small cities where most of them have never actually hung out with a black or Asian person personally. The aesthetic one ought to go for is more akin to the one we see in Le Guin’s Earthsea books, I think, where high fantasy and great deeds are just as possible for characters who aren’t white just as easily as characters who are.)It’s much stickier when you are fabulating things in a version of our world. Even when something like Ebonics makes sense for a character, things can slide into stereotype and caricature too easily, something one needs to watch carefully. I’m reminded of my once-Haitian-slave vampire character Toussaint (he took the name conscious of its history) who’d spent years sleeping and woke in the late 1950s, and ended up trying to fit into New York City by refashioning himself as a kind of artist, first in jazz and poetry, and finally by the 90s as a neo-spoken-word poet/revolutionary-type, who consciously put on the modern lingo and consciously used Black Power and other such notions as a way of protesting the manifestly non-racial power imbalances in the local vampire community–things can slide into all kinds of ridiculousness all too easily… something my GM gently reminded me by slapping the character upside the head with the fact that the local vampire community saw race as about the least significant aspect of a vampire.)When fashioning characters from another background–racial, cultural, gender, historical, or whatever–it’s crucial to recognize there are gaps in your knowledge, and also gaps that you yourself don’t realize you have. You need to be open to correction. It helps, though, to conceive of every character in good faith, rather than chucking in stereotypes and cheap shortcuts. Problematic as Toussaint might have been, I was actually trying to put myself in his (slightly insane) shoes.
  5. The point of a character is its growth, and this only comes through hard choices and decisions. When I started writing seriously, this was something I struggled with. Usually, characters would simply encounter something they didn’t understand, or which dazzled them… or they would have something happen to them. I have a trunk story about a woman who basically witnesses her lover die from the inside, via neural interface. That’s the whole story, which is to say, it’s no kind of story at all. Nothing happens. The character doesn’t change. It’s an SFnal conceit and even a backstory, maybe, but it’s not a narrative because the character reaches the end of the story basically the same as she was before, albeit very traumatized and on the run. The point being that this story isn’t a story: it’s backstory.When I was at Clarion West, this was one of the things that was hammered into my head. I discovered, very quickly, that everyone expected the characters to grow. This was a shock to me, perhaps in part because I long felt as if I hadn’t changed very much from how I remembered myself being in the past. (It’s not true, I’ve changed a lot, but I have that sort of mind that focuses on consistencies and commonalities, and not on differences or changes.) And as Maureen McHugh pointed out to me, my tendency to try and spare my characters the pain of difficult decisions was what was preventing my characters from growing.Once these observations hit home, I think all that experience of being a Cruel Gamemaster suddenly came into play. Just as I used to pose difficult, painful decisions before the characters in the games I ran, I began to pose similarly difficult dilemmas before my characters. It started pretty quickly, too–it was very soon after that I started being, not quite mean, but definitely merciless in my treatment of characters. A little too merciless, perhaps. Sometimes, though, there’s no such thing.Incidentally, this is exactly the point I taught this week to my Creative Writing students.
  6. One must mercilessly put characters to the test… on occasion, but not all the time. Narratives need a kind of phrasal breathing pattern–some tension building up, then then some release. Piling end-of-the-world battles one upon another is a sure-fire recipe for burnout. In an RPG game, you can’t end one battle by dovetailing it with another battle. Characters need a little time to dress (if not heal) their wounds, to collect their treasure, to head over to the tavern and get hammered. And then, once they’re hammered, is when you can send in a squadron of dragonriding liches to scare the hell ouot of them.
  7. Stealing (of a kind) is okay. Lots of little plots, non-player-characters I came up with, and other bitlets were lifted from past games, from movies and books, and it was all fine. Creativity isn’t about making something up completely on one’s own, in absence of everything one has experienced. It’s a game of small (or big) variations and of riffing on past riffs. That’s how creativity works, I’d discover once I started reading up on Shakespeare more closely.RPG games are almost wholly made of stolen material. The structure of an RPG game is essentially based on the structure of other RPG games, with minor or major changes, for example. But also the setting details, the types of magic or technology that appear, are almost always riffs on familiar tropes. They’re usually particularized, altered just enough to be a little surprising or interesting, and that’s where the “of a kind” comes in.It makes me think of bands that do cover versions of music. In Indonesia, I heard a country band in some Mexican restaurant doing a cover version of some kind of jazz song, I don’t remember which. The thing was, they didn’t do it as country-jazz. They did it as a proper country song, thereby transforming it while keeping a lot of the essence alive. This is exactly what good RPG game writers (and gamemasters) and good fiction writers do all the time. It’s a game of riffs.
  8. If you’ve goofed or fudged some detail, someone will notice. It’s not just rules lawyers. RPG narratives and fictional ones are alike in that we know they’re artifices, and one natural human instinct when it comes to being confronted by artifice is that we look for holes we can poke into it, or, worse, we just naturally notice them because they fit poorly with what we know of the world. Another way to phrase this is, when we know we’re looking at a fantasy, our instinct is to recognize where its flaws lie. Whether it’s game mechanics, or historical details, it’s really crucial to know your stuff. Hence the importance of research.
  9. Sandboxes are good things. Of course, I didn’t know the phrase “sandbox” when I was gaming, but that’s what gaming was for me. Writing a short story, running a short campaign, they’re both sandboxes. Low-stakes ways of testing out an idea, setting, whatever. They’re good.
  10. Fractal structures are deeply satisfying structures–narrative or otherwise. As I discussed recently in a review of the gamebook Wraith: The Great War,
    RPG game settings and character structures are often powerfully indicative of the kinds of elements we expect in a narrative. We naturally expect all characters to have strengths and weaknesses alike. We expect characters to have unique skills and knowledge, and for those skills and knowledge to become useful in the course of their “adventures.” We also expect them to have motivations, to  face difficult decisions and dilemmas, to experience frustration, and to have to work and suffer to achieve their goals–if, indeed, they actually achieve them at all.But we also expect the structure of the character to “fit” somehow with the world around them, with the themes of the narrative in which they are embedded, and so on. Character design, world design, and narrative structure all fit together in a very deep way. And that way is, essentially, fractal. The structure of the character in an RPG suggests what kind of narrative the game is capable of; the structure of the world suggests the kind of character structure we need; the themes of the narratives the game is designed to encompass inform both the world and the character structure. These things are all intertwined.

    This works differently than in fiction, of course. Fiction is more monolithically controlled–there’s usually one author, or occasionally two authors working together. While too much hyperdetermination can leave a narrative feeling contrived, a balance is possible with a huge a amount of thematic and plot control in the author’s hands, meaning, a great deal of freedom in terms of structuring things fractally. RPGs don’t work this way: they’re stories with a plethora of authors, each working out their individual narratives from the point of view of the character. But the structure of the game–its mechanics, character sheets, character classes and races, and whatever–are, in the best-designed gameworlds and settings, roughly analogous to this: they suggest themes, and fractally incorporate those themes into the structure of every component of the game.

And as a bonus for this list, and the other one I’ve posted:

  • People want to have fun. It’s impossible to overstate how important this is, and what it teaches us about necessary skills for writing, as well as for interacting with groups of people. Human beings have a limited ability to focus on a task without some degree of interest. If you’re lecturing, you have to make it interesting, but interesting won’t always be enough for people. A few jokes–and even better, the cultivation of a few in-jokes–goes a long way. Teasing people, when you can keep it light, is a powerful tool for drawing people into some task.Yes, work is work, and play is play. There are elements of work that simply cannot be turned into play, and should not be. But there’s no reason people cannot enjoy all kinds of workplace tasks, except for the fact that management has seen fit to render the workplace a joyless place for the sake of “seriousness.” Well, serious people are those people who can remain serious and on task while also being able to kid around a bit, take a moment to shift focus, and so on.In fact, it’s those little breathers that allow people to focus better on the task at hand. Some people will never really understand that. Some people, the same ones, will never really be good managers. It’s unfortunate.

For more on similar lessons learned from RPGing, Jo Walton (papersky) has apparently posted about it here. (Thanks, Melopoeia, for the link.) I should add that her observation is on the ball: most of what I learned, I learned GMing, not playing.

And I think her comments on the nature of FRPG might explain my disaffection with mainstream AD&D/D&D:

… roleplaying games, and roleplaying worlds, are by their nature derivative — and this is a good thing. It’s a good thing for the game because the more it is set in Fantasyland, the easier it is for the players to get into character and the less they have to ask about stuff. (There are certainly games which are not set in generic fantasyland, which is more work for GM and players, but they’d be even more useless for a writer to watch unless the writer was planning to set something in that specific world.) If you watch a game set in Fantasyland, even a very good game where the players are really in character, you’re watching people playing in Fantasyland while manipulating a set of rules intended to help them simulate stories of generic fantasy. Doing this is going to help you produce boring cliched derivative fantasy.

Of course, I have to wonder if onetime-gamer China Miéville’s D&D campaigns were all that clichéd and derivative… if they were, the derivations were, I imagine, a little more far-flung and new to his players, and perhaps a little less clichéd than your average out-of-the-box prepackaged campaign run by-the-book (using the rules in the rulebook with little or no variation) by your average GM.

That is to say, a really great D&D game run by a great GM might be something a player could learn from, in terms of worldbuilding and so on… but even if it ain’t necessarily so, Walton’s characterization surely does ring true of a lot of game systems, and game settings, that I have encountered.

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2 thoughts on “What I Learned From RPGing and GMing

  1. Hi Gord,

    I really enjoyed this article.
    It brought back some happy memories.
    In high school and university I GMed a D&D campaign that lasted about 10 years.

    I think it was great training for writing in terms of learning what storylines/character interactions motivated/interested the players.

    It was also interesting to read some of your comments about expats living in Korea.

    I taught English in Japan for 4 years and there were of course lots of people who liked to do nothing more than complain about Japan.

    I’m actually in the process of organising a trip to North Korea later in the year.

    Have fun,

  2. Pingback: SF Signal

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