GMing Exercises

edited April 2012 in Story Games
So I was reading a textbook for fun (shutup, okay, I'm a nerd) when I came across this:
The Art of Computer Programming by Donald KnuthIt is difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to learn a subject purely by reading about it, without applying the information to specific problems and thereby forcing himself to think about what has been read. Furthermore, we all learn best the things that we discovered for ourselves. Therefore the exercises form a major part of this work; a definite attempt has been made to keep them as informative as possible and to select problems that are enjoyable to solve.
That got me thinking about GMing and learning to GM. I feel like the common answers to "how do I learn to GM better?" are:

"Play more"

"Play more, these games in particular"

The "these games in particular" bit is cool because it points out that some games give you tools or constraints that help you discover new things about GMing, but not everyone wants to pick up an entire new game and convince others to play just to learn some skill. Can we make "GMing exercises" that build a certain skill or help you see GMing in a different way? Can those exercises be at least semi-system-independent? (Like "this exercise is for drama-heavy games focused on personal goals and issues" or "this exercise is for action games with tactical positioning.")

So my challenge to you: I want to be a better GM. Give me exercises that will help build my GMing muscles.

Edited to add: To clarify, neither of those answers is wrong, I just wonder if they could be more pointed or directed. My original though was people would tell me things like "run a session of a drama-y game, one where you've got a web of connected people, but use only one NPC if at all possible (anyone else should play a minor role). Think about how focusing on one part of the web of connections shifts it." People have far surpassed my expectations.

Comments

  • edited April 2012
    What GM muscles would you like to build?

    (exercise one is before leaping to reply... stop yourself... pause... then ask clarifying questions to establish context and intent to make sure you are on the same page)
  • Frame Scenes like practicing scales. Start with the topmost element (who) and think of a scene. Then frame a totally different scene answering two questions, who and where. Continue from soft framing to hard framing:

    Who? (which PC’s are there, which NPC’s are there, who is allowed to show up during the scene, who may leave the scene)
    Where are they? (describe what can be scene, think about the geography, any themes you want to reflect?)
    When is it (explain what happened right before, what time is it now)
    What are they doing? (tell the players what they are doing or talking about, put them in a bad situation)
    Why are they there? (ask them why they are where they are, tell them why they are there)
  • edited April 2012
    That's a great idea, Sage. Because to learn to GM by throwing myself in the pool means a bunch of players have to get screwed by my ineptitude; I'm not the only one who suffers.


    How about flash cards with Burning Wheel / Mouse Guardish beliefs printed on them ('I'm too old for this shit', 'There's always a way to avoid taking a life', 'Don't do anything for free'), combined with flash cards with what the player just attempted ('Sneak into a guarded camp', 'Convince an NPC to help', 'Look for clues') You turn one up from each pile and try to figure out how you're going to use that failed roll to challenge that belief.

    Or use that second set of cards and practice turning those into AW blown rolls or 7-9 rolls.


    For adding descriptive details - how about you have a die and a random noun generator. You generate a random noun and you have to give it one unique detail - 1: sight 2: sound 3: touch 4: smell 5: taste 6: 'feeling' (a psychic impression - 'you feel like someone walked over your grave' etc)



    Hmm...coming up with solo exercises is really difficult. If you have a friend - for 'remember to ask questions' you can play that game where you ask each other questions and the first person to make a statement loses.
  • Posted By: jdfristromIf you have a friend - for 'remember to ask questions' you can play that game where you ask each other questions and the first person to make a statement loses.
    This sounds like a good thread.
  • I feel like having a few shared "challenges" that can be discussed and dissected a bit, and then built on into something like worked examples could be cool. You're expected to come up with your own answer before moving on to the discussion of what sorts of thinks could work well or be taken advantage of in the situation. Then the group would decide on one good/common answer, and iterate through a few times with successive actions/challenges.

    I'd actually really like to see a sort of "you Kick we Bang" style thread/site. In my head, it's all Polaris "But only if" responses, with some discussion of whether a player is likely to accept or reject each one out of hand, what future sorts of actions it's setting up, and what makes it deliciously tempting to the Heart.
  • In a perfect world, all players are viable GMs. It seems like there should be group GMing games to exercise everyone's situation/setting creation muscles as well as solo exercises.
  • Posted By: mease19In a perfect world, all players are viable GMs. It seems like there should be group GMing games to exercise everyone's situation/setting creation muscles as well as solo exercises.
    Annalise, Mystic Empyrean, Remember Tomorrow, Zombie Cinema, Mist Robed Gate, Grey Ranks, Fiasco, ... anyone else?
  • Posted By: sageI want to be a better GM. Give me exercises that will help build my GMing muscles.
    I don't think "play more" is an invalid answer, first of all. You get to observe another GM succeed or fail, you get to absorb the lessons of both, if you're playing a GMless game you get to baby-bird your own GM authority surrounded by tolerant peers and the ability to only 25% wreck the game. So, you know, play more.

    More on point with your request, anything that helps you learn how to listen will make you a better GM. Improvisation, Toastmasters, Model UN, structured social activities that involve spontaneity and communication. Find one you like and become a better listener.
  • edited April 2012
    Jason, "play more" is totally a valid answer. I'm looking for play exercises. Or non-play too, I guess. I'm not saying those answers aren't useful, I just wonder if they could be more pointed? Like "play this way to see a different view on NPCs" or whatever.

    In the text that prompted this Knuth breaks up all his exercises into numbered difficulty bands. I think that kind of applies here too: non-play exercises are generally easier (no need to waste someone else's time) but also less rewarding since you aren't actually doing it. Play exercises are generally more valuable, but require more investment.

    This is probably all wrapped up in my personal experience, but the "exercises" I'm thinking of here are a lot like musical etudes or programming problems: you're putting the skill to work in a very directed way to grow it in a more general sense. I mean, from my personal experience: learning to play bassoon or code C is much easier when someone's pointing you at skills, giving you challenges of a sort, all designed to build certain parts of that skill.


    jenksot: you caught me! :) I guess I was more excited to hear about what skills other people could suggest than any one in particular. So how about you tell me a way to work on something you're good at? (Which you already kind of did, feel free to run wild with it).
  • I love all the answers so far!

    My original idea was that people would tell me something like: "Run a game session for an action-y game where your only prep is one room. You can flesh out that one room as much as you like, but the only way to find out what's beyond it is by listening to the players and answering their direct questions. You can't make up anything outside the room unless a player establishes it or the player asks about it with absolutely no expectations (if they have expectations you have to use them)." I'd guess/hope that would help build skills in listening to the players.

    I love the answers that didn't fit my original expectation just for showing me how narrow my thinking was. Great stuff!
  • edited April 2012
    Posted By: HarlequinPosted By: mease19In a perfect world, all players are viable GMs. It seems like there should be group GMing games to exercise everyone's situation/setting creation muscles as well as solo exercises.
    Annalise, Mystic Empyrean, Remember Tomorrow, Zombie Cinema, Mist Robed Gate, Grey Ranks, Fiasco, ... anyone else?
    I had meant we needn't limit GM exercises to single-user protocols, aside from 'playing more' or 'playing more of game x'.
  • A disturbing anecdote that may be relevant:

    A few years ago we were all hot to teach Jeepform techniques more generally, because they are awesome, and came up with the idea of a series of approachable, short, modular minigames. Each would teach one technique. I wrote a stupid little superhero game that was exclusively about bird-in-ear, for example. We thought you'd play through them and emerge on the other side with some cool techniques under your belt.

    Totally didn't work. The games, in isolation, were too focused, too esoteric, too pedantic.

    You know what does work? The Upgrade, a Jeepform game specifically written to teach a bunch of different techniques. You play, it is a game, you effortlessly appropriate bird-in-ear in the process of enjoying yourself.
  • I thought we would be doing vocal scales....
  • Jason, do you think those techniques could be taught without the focused games, but as general purpose "try this" experiments?

    I'm not familiar with bird-in-ear or much Jeepform, but it seems to me something like this might work:

    "Before your next session, write down what each NPC or force is up to, and one thing that they might be able to accomplish within the upcoming session. During the session check your list often. If there's an opportunity for an NPC or force to do what you wrote down, make it happen. After the session look over which NPCs and forces moved towards their goals or accomplished them. How are these forces moving in your game?"

    That's a bit of AW transplanted into a "try this and think about it" exercise. I love trying different games, but with limited time and gaming it's super useful to me to have a way of trying out these concepts and learning from them in the context of a game I'm already playing.
  • Also, The Upgrade may totally be the kind of thing I'm looking for. It sounds like an exercise in developing those skills, yeah? I'm reading it now, but it looks like it calls out some skills that you'll develop while playing it, which is spot-on what I'm looking for (though since I don't Jeep, it's not useful to me in particular).

    In my head at least, an exercise doesn't have to be a stand-alone thing or something you do all the time. It's something you do a few times to stretch yourself and develop different skills. Saying "play this game to learn this" is completely valid, but I think there's space for "do this in your next session of a game in this general category and learn from it."
  • I think your approach could work, provided you think like Donald Knuth, which I do not. But if you do, hooray! Donald Knuth is a great American.

    The Upgrade is a game. You play it to be silly and have some swoony fun, and you learn techniques in the process without checking them off a list. Then when you go play Drunk and have to be a weepy alcoholic and someone starts whispering hateful things in your ear, it all makes sense.
  • edited April 2012
    Posted By: Jason MorningstarA few years ago we were all hot to teach Jeepform techniques more generally, because they are awesome, and came up with the idea of a series of approachable, short, modular minigames. Each would teach one technique. I wrote a stupid little superhero game that was exclusively about bird-in-ear, for example. We thought you'd play through them and emerge on the other side with some cool techniques under your belt.
    Jason, can you hook us up with some of these? This idea occurred to me to and I am interested in seeing what you all came up with, even if the results weren't what you were looking for.
  • edited April 2012
    Posted By: sageSo my challenge to you: I want to be a better GM. Give me exercises that will help build my GMing muscles.
    These are variations on Jamie and Morgan's ideas.

    1. Draw a relationship map for an ensemble TV show (the Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Arrested Development, Community, Parks & Rec, Battlestar Galactica, etc). Using that relationship map, frame an opening scene for an episode. Make it as relevant to as many characters as possible.

    (rationale: I really love doing the prep for an IAWA chapter. Plopping a bunch of brand-new characters and best interests onto an R-Map and then framing a tight first scene for them feels like running a brainsprint, like I've taken the 1-2 weeks of prep I do for a D&D session and boiled it down into 5-10 minutes of intense thinking.)

    2. If your game has a skill list or move list, write a list of "yes, buts" for each move or skill.

    (I did this for my fictionful D&D article and it definitely helped my play the next session.)
    Posted By: jenskot(exercise one is before leaping to reply... stop yourself... pause... then ask clarifying questions to establish context and intent to make sure you are on the same page)
    Yes, this is a very important technique! Is there a way to practice it alone?
  • edited April 2012
    A GM-exercise:

    You may choose to do this with a game you know, or as free-form.

    - Let the players make cards with NPCs, together, secretly, 2-5 each (leave the room while they do it)
    - Each NPC must have a clearly written NAME, and one or two traits (no numbers)
    - Let the players then proceed to frame all the scenes in the game of the evening, taking turns doing so
    - You will be handed a NPC-card when a person is introduced in a scene
    - From that point on you play the NPC (try not to hesitate)
    - You or the player framing the scene may end it
    - Give the card back at scene-end (the player may wish to use it again)
    - Do the rest of your GM-stuff as normal

    Example NPC-cards:
    Harriet Olsen
    - beautiful wife
    - moralistic
    Berthram Spiff
    - sly solicitor
    - ambitious politician
    Acca-Bazan Hoot
    - master magician
    - daughter; Nyana
    Good luck!
  • I'm terrible at improvisation. I really am. So in the last hour I came up with this (I'll edit it later to make it look pretty).

    Setup

    Decide on a Genre.

    Gather 24 index cards together. Set them aside in groups of twelve. You will also need a timer, three coins, and three d6's. The coins represent players (or more specifically, their interest in the game.)

    One is the Characters deck. On each of them write a character appropriate to the genre. Include a couple of traits and a general motivation.

    One is the Setting deck. On each of them write a location appropriate to the genre. Include some general features.

    You have ten minutes to create the decks. For every thirty seconds longer than this you take lose a player. To do this, turn a coin over to tails.

    Play

    Draw one setting and three characters. You have two minutes to frame a scene using that setting and involving at least two of the characters. For every thirty seconds longer than this you take lose a player.

    When you are done, narrate the scene. Break it down into actions and reactions, and try to create a sense of buildup. When the scene reaches it's peak, there will undoutedly be a conflict brewing. Assign a die to each character and roll them. Whichever character rolls highest wins the conflict; narrate accordingly. Then, wrap up the scene. There's no time limit on this part but you must try to keep things moving: if you pause for longer than 30 seconds, lose a player.

    Now, shuffle one of the characters back in the character deck. Draw a new one. Repeat the process until the story feels complete.

    At any time, you can buy an extra thirty seconds to think by asking a question. Don't continue until you come up with an answer. Also, when you come up with something really juicy and satisfying, gain a player back.
  • Hey Sage, I think one of the biggest fears (for me at least) to experimenting with untried GM practices, was the effect on the other player's experience at the table. Often it was enough to play a new system and explain that I was as much a novice at implementing the new 'system' into our role-play, and thus be granted some leniency when things feel somewhat disjointed. So my first suggestion would be to second the practice of playing more and playing unfamiliar systems, but with the adage to everyone at the table that it is a practice run, with the expectation that after we share a meal and we talk about the things that worked and things that jarred. Thus play becomes the exercise, for both GM and players. We are still playing (and having fun) but we are also taking notice of our play and what is enhancing experience, and what is detrimental.

    I like all the above exercises though! When I'm watching a particularly good series or movie or reading a book, I like to transpose the tense fiction resolution onto any given system that I'm learning. If that narration had been played out during a session, what mechanics / process / randomiser would have been instigated? I love to imagine 'what if' at a conflict driven moment. What if the hero had failed then? What antagonism is in the back of mind as GM? What would have the player been thinking as they pursed that flag? What is obvious in this scene? Unexpected? What has been re-incorporated? What choices would I have given the players? How would the 'conversation' of the table, the back and forth between the players and GM play out?

    When characters are introduced in movies or books I like to ask myself are they protagonists or antagonists? What does their stat block / character sheet look like (system specific)? What are their flags? What do they want the story to be about? What are their goals? How can I challenge them? How will they be changed by the story that emerges? Then its exciting to see how they are challenged, or how they change and compare with my initial, intuitive response.
  • When you pick up a new game, try to play it exactly according to its text.

    Give it and the designer the benefit of the doubt and don't dismiss it or hack it until you've played it enough to understand what the designer's going for.

    (This isn't really exercising an established muscle, rather it's a way to discover new muscles.)
  • edited April 2012
    Instead of cards (which I also have in abundance), I like throwing down some Rory's Story Cubes and building a scene from that. I have literally done this hundreds of times last year as part of a new year's resolution and I never once duplicated a story/scene.
    --
    TAZ
  • Read the Tips, tricks, and advice for the GM chapter from Lady Blackbird and apply it to any other game. Don't talk too much and try not to answer any question. Make a lot of questions to the other players and build on the answers. Try not to tell a story to the other players. Let them tell you a story to you.

    And read Play Unsafe, by Graham Walsmley. Very awesome stuff in there.

    All that has been very helpful to me and I would like to believe that significantly improved the way I GM. (At least greatly improved my ability to enjoy the games I play.)
  • edited April 2012
    I wonder if you couldn't distill Fiasco down to a 3-person exercise where one person frames a scene, the next introduces a tilt, the third resolves, and then everyone rotates roles, repeat (each cycle being about 2 minutes).
  • @Jon - that's a beautiful solo game !
  • edited April 2012
    ...:D
  • Jon, how are questions meant to be used? Can you give me an example?

    I am trying the game and it is really stretching my creativity. It's so hard to be obvious and to let things naturally flow.
    My reaction is to come up with tricks to get me out of trouble, which I guess could then become improvisation techniques.
  • Good discussion here.

    I was part of the team working on one scene/one technique exercises. Mine was Flashback Alley. If you're inclined join a defunct forum, you can see discussion of the other exercises here: Structured Freedom: One Scene, One Technique threads.

    Also, Matthijs Holter and I are working on a framework for play that lets you use jeepform/freeform techqniques, as the group sees fit. It's called Playing with Intent. Feel free to whisper him or me for access to the text in progress. We've played a few times now, and it has worked well. It's very democratic in it's use of tecnhiques, and I can see it being helpful for fostering skills for GMing semi-live play in anyone.
  • Posted By: Jason MorningstarA few years ago we were all hot to teach Jeepform techniques more generally, because they are awesome, and came up with the idea of a series of approachable, short, modular minigames. Each would teach one technique. I wrote a stupid little superhero game that was exclusively about bird-in-ear, for example. We thought you'd play through them and emerge on the other side with some cool techniques under your belt.
    Thanks to my experiences of translating American indie game principles and rules into larp rules and then handing it back to the Nordic larpers at Fastaval, my second game will be about specifically teaching these techniques (negotiating with a stick, scene framing, counter-player stakes) through the initial scenes, like a video game tutorial.

    Meta-game thought is a muscle one must develop and exercise indeed, and one cannot expect it of the players unless the scenario demands it implicitly.
  • Great idea, Evan. An inoculation against the pervasive allergy to meta one finds in nordic circles.
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  • This zombie mostly just reminded me how awesome the original 'You Kick, we Bang' thread was...
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