To get that “next level” of GMing, you need to make your own adventures. To get good at making adventures, you need to make a lot of them.
I’ve been reading Atomic Habits, a book on building reliable, healthy patterns of doing things to ensure incremental growth. The idea is that a 1% increase in anything over time yields incredible results.
One example they outline in the book comes from University of Florida where the professor split their students into two groups: A and B. Group A was told that their final number of submitted photos would determine their grade. One hundred photos would be an A, ninety photos a B, eighty a C, you get it. Group B was told that their final grade would be determined by the quality of the one and only photo they submitted. While Group A was experimenting with all of the factors of taking photos and producing results, Group B sat around and speculated how to produce the single best photo. The results? Each member of Group A produced many photos that demonstrated their learning from their mistakes, Group B produced one mediocre photo.
Group B just thought about “what makes a photo good?” Group A just went for it and practiced. They made mistakes and got experience. And don’t we gamers love the concept of experience?
Action beats speculation.
“Just do it” or whatever.
Making an adventure is a process of planning, to be certain. Yet GMs, myself included, get caught in “planning the planning,” a state of paralysis that yields no results but the over-chewing of raw lips. A lot of thought happens in this state, usually somewhere behind the eyes, but there’s little to show for it. The process of making a game can (and will) feel tedious and laborious.
Instead of “planning for planning,” I’ve resolved to make many adventures and learn the essential patterns of design from practice. I’m putting in the sweat to reflect on the results later, running the adventures, seeing what sticks and what flops.
Now, it’s all fine and dandy to say “I’m going to make more adventures because I need to learn how to get better.” That’ll get you off your butt to make one adventure. Maybe.
That Atomic Habits book has more in it about making this practice sustainable. This is the condensed version here. I ain’t got time to prattle on longer than I gots time fer. For building a habit, the book asks you to consider four principles:
- Is it hard to remember to do? Make it obvious. Remind yourself it’s there.
- Is it hard to start? Make it attractive. Starting is the most important step, after all.
- Is it hard to do? Make it easy. Remove the barriers.
- Is it hard to maintain the habit? Make it satisfying. Increase your likelihood of repeating the action.
So, I applied these to the new habit of making adventures. For parameters, I set each adventure on a single sheet of paper. One side for sketches of ideas and doodles, one for the adventure I bring to the table. The side with the adventure is the ONLY one that matters. In my experience, this nets about one hour of game time. It’s a one-shot. Here’s my current process:
Make it obvious. I put the materials on the bar in the living room. It has the resources I need: dice, pens, and paper, my Maze Rats booklet. I pass by that spot many times in a day. I see it, I’m reminded to do it.
Make it attractive. I have my best-looking dice on that desk, ready to use. That Maze Rats booklet is just dying to be flipped through and used. When I get back to my house, maybe I’ll include more resources like colored pencils or markers or my Tome of Adventure Design. Anything to make writing adventures “cooler.”
Make it easy. To reduce my proclivity to get distracted, I turn my phone on Airplane mode. This is especially helpful when I’m using a generator like Adventuresmith and notifications could happen at any time. The generators I have make things easy enough to not suffer any major writer’s block. All I need is time. And a dinging phone will sap away that faster than you can say “Arneson.”
Make it satisfying. I wrestled with this one. The obvious reward is to run it, but that has a vast time gap between “doing the thing” and the reward for doing. To narrow the gap, I thought to make the reward more immediate: I show my brother the work I did. A good ole “look, look, ain’t I great!” Now, sometimes he plays in the adventures, so he doesn’t get the privilege of a closer look, but it’s enough to get me excited about making more adventures.
What habit do you need to involve yourself in to get that 1% increase in skill? Is it the practice of prepping for your campaign? Is it running the game? Maybe I’ll write more about infusing habits and gaming if there’s a demand for it.
You’re out of excuses now (especially now). Make something worthwhile! Hang it on your fridge! Celebrate your work!
Get to it, master craftsman.