Lost Time, juggling a GM’s schedule
Phil Nicholls blogs at Tales of a GM, where he writes about narrative gaming, faster prep and more story. He is currently running a HeroQuest Glorantha campaign in a home-brew setting. Phil has written for Johnn Four’s Roleplaying Tips newsletter and has a selection of self-published pdfs.
This essay is taken from the archives at Tales of a GM.
Some weeks prove difficult. My plans and real life often conflict, and gaming suffers along with the rest of my life. I have learnt several lessons from these experiences.
GMing in a busy world
Even with the low-prep approach HeroQuest allows, a lot of work is required to prepare for each Session. I am sure it is the same for you, and the situation must be a lot worse for more crunchy systems.
We live in a busy world, with many claims on our time. Work or study, family, chores, social media and general leisure activities all make demands on us. These demands can be managed, but it would be very difficult to exclude them entirely. Therefore, the answer is to plan out our available time as best as we can.
Advantages of planning
The first step is to make a plan. Actually, I need two plans. The first plan is to structure to the week. Most of the regular tasks for each week occur at the same time. Thus, I block out a plan for the week as a whole. Essentially, I have divided each day into three parts; morning, afternoon and evening. I note those parts of the week available for me to use, and then divide out my regular tasks among the available slots.
Be sure to leave yourself adequate relaxation time. Life is a balance, and all work makes for a very dull GM. I try to set aside time for at least one film a week, seeing this as narrative research as well as relaxation. This is all part of the process of being a balanced GM, to give myself time to think and to be open to new ideas. Combining plot elements from multiple sources can lead to an exciting game. Thus, even my relaxation time can have a positive impact on my work.
So, once you have a broad outline of your week, and the time slots available for the game prep, then you need to look at what you are trying to achieve. Much of game prep is cyclical, the same tasks every week; bookkeeping from the last Session, updating the Wiki, notes for next Session, emailing Players, etc. Assign a task to each of your time slots, and you have a weekly game plan.
Real Life intervenes
Of course, making a weekly plan and sticking to a weekly plan are two different things. Having a Prep Plan gives you a good benchmark, but be prepared to set it aside when Real Life come calling. The likelihood of this happening varies according to the complexity of your social life. I have one wife, two children and three cats. Real Life is a regular visitor.
The trick here, however, is to deal with the pressing issue and return to the game prep when convenient. Then, look at the remaining tasks, prioritise what you need and move on. Clearly, the most important part of the game prep process is to have enough material to run the next game session.
Regular and comprehensive updates to the Wiki would be cool, but how much impact does this really have at the table? Cool Player handouts are a great aid to immersion, but actually having a plot to work through is more crucial to running a successful game session. Save these bonus features for when you have time. If you are in a rush, then focus on the essentials.
Worst case scenario, run a game with minimum prep. You never know, you may find you like it and are good at it. You probably prep more than you need to, I know I do most weeks.
Be honest with your Players. If you are going into a Session with only minimal prep, then tell them. Decent Players will understand and cut you some slack. Awesome Players will step forward and create content for you, prompt encounters of their own or just filibuster amongst themselves to draw out what you have prepared to fill the available time.
Importance of an unburdened mind
My greatest lesson from schedule troubles was how sometimes I just have to let go. No, I did not update the Wiki, but I cannot overburden myself with too many tasks. Some things just have to wait, and may not actually be sorted at all. I have learnt to live with this, as the best part of running a game is having fun with friends during the game.
Many of the busywork tasks I give myself as a GM are just that; busywork. If I can find the time, then great, but otherwise it is no real loss in the bigger picture. The crucial part of the exercise is to keep my peace of mind.
The most debilitating part of a broken schedule was the stress I put onto myself. No, I cannot do everything, and I should not give myself grief for failing to do so. A stressed GM helps nobody. I had reached the point where I could barely work on anything as my mind was full of the enormous list of neglected tasks.
This state of mind was not getting me anywhere.
So, where does that leave us? Well, the answer I found was to reboot the campaign, reassess both my workload and my priorities and start again. More importantly, I took the time to clear my mental backlog.
In some cases, this meant sorting previously neglected tasks. Other items from the list were simply abandoned. I cannot dwell on past mistakes or omissions. Sorry, but at some point you need to draw a line and move on.
Quite simply, there is a limit to what you can achieve in a week, and you need to be content with that. I try hard to squeeze the most out of my time. Yet, I have to acknowledge my own limitations and be flexible about my goals when outside factors intervene.
Plan your time sensibly, work hard but be realistic about what you can achieve. Above all, do not stress over what you have failed to do. Learn from your mistakes, but do not drag yourself down by worrying away at them.
How do you cope with the workload of being a GM? Share your experiences in the comments.
For more essays from Phil, and updates about his latest campaign, visit Tales of a GM.