Motivation for the Easily Distra… SQUIRREL!
During the interview for the job I currently have, I was asked what type of animal I would be if I happened to be an animal. It’s a silly question, but it’s a good way to gauge the candidate’s response to something out of left field, as well as their sense of humor. Both of those things have proven to be valuable skills in my department. I thought about the question for a moment and answered that while cats and squirrels are my favorite animals, but I would most likely be a dog. A big, happy, easy-going, enthusiastic, and loyal dog. I very purposefully didn’t include the additional trait of being easily distracted by shiny objects.
Maybe this also explains why I love cats and squirrels so much. Hmm.
You’re wondering what that fascinating anecdote has to do with being a Game Master. GMing requires a certain commitment of time away from the game table to prepare for the game. Maybe a GM really good at improvisation doesn’t really need to prep – though I would argue that even they run a better game with some forethought put into the game, but that’s an article for another day – but most of us need to do SOME preparation to run a really good game. When you’re easily distracted by shiny things (such as a new computer game), it can be an uphill battle to force in the time to do the prep your game deserves.
At the beginning of this month, I attended the always awesome Running GAGG convention and ran two games. The first was my go-to convention game of Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space. There’s an established set of PCs for the game and I’ve run it at cons often enough that it requires minimal prep work. As long as I come up with a skeleton outline of a plot, I’m good to go. Most times I’ve run it, the players have done all the heavy lifting with the way the characters interact with one another.
The other game I signed up to run was called Monster of the Week, a hack of the Apocalypse World engine geared towards adventure/supernatural settings like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural, X-Files, Hellboy, and so on. I’d played in a few ApocWorld style games before, but this would be my first time running one. My prep should have consisted of a thorough reading of the rules to familiarize myself with the core concepts, as well as the usual plot outline. Going into it, I had already decided that character creation would be part of the session. Half the fun of the ApocWorld games is the way the players help create the story by fleshing out their characters and connecting them to one another.
Let’s just say my intentions were far better than my follow-through when it came to prep. I read the rules, but they didn’t stick very well (I’ve been told that MotW can be a bit obtuse with how the rules are described and it is advantageous to learn the core rules through other ApocWorld games). Every time I cracked open the PDF to try and parse the rules a little better, my eyes would glaze over and my attention would drift towards something more enticing. I completely GET the genre and setting, but my grasp on the rules was far weaker than it should have been when it came time to run the game. Still, I’d signed up to run it and I wasn’t going to back out.
I had three players and giving a big nod to the Murray Luck that runs in my family (we get lucky in small, stupid ways), one of my players happened to be the GM of my Dungeon World game. I knew I could count on him to help with the rules if I got into a sticky spot. The players decided to go with a Hellboy-esque inspired organization where one player was an ‘orphaned’ fae/monster that had been raised by the organization, another was a priest that was tasked with being her minder, and the last was a government agent liaison working with the group. The three of them had great chemistry together and the game’s story sprang easily from the background they created together.
I got lucky. If my friend hadn’t been one of the players, I would have struggled with the rule system and that could have impeded the fun of my players. I don’t expect GMs to be complete experts at rule systems, but I do expect them to be more familiar with the core concepts than I was when I went into that game session. We all had a blast, but it could have been a disaster. Ultimately, I expect better of myself.
I’ve also been running into the same situation with my Pathfinder Eberron game that I’ve been running off and on for the last few years. We took a hiatus when I got really sick in November (thank you, gastroenteritis), and my players are eager for me to get the game started back up again. For a variety of reasons, both legitimate and frivolous, I haven’t devoted the time I need to get the game rolling again. I owe it to my players to get the game running again, but it’s been difficult avoiding distractions.
So what should I do? How do I get past the hurdle of shiny object syndrome and do the work on something I know is going to be rewarding and awesome if I just give it a little bit of effort?
Never Unprepared by Phil Vecchione from Gnome Stew has some really good advice on the subject and is worth giving a read if you’re struggling like I am. The book outlines his own struggles with finding the time for game prep in a life already filled to the brim with work and his family. For him, maximizing the little free time he has by creating a structured method for doing his prep is what works, letting him run his game for his group once every three weeks. While I’m not sure his specific methods will work for me, I found a great deal of value in what he had to say.
I’ve found that a method that works well for me is to set deadlines with rewards. For example, I’ll require that I spend a half an hour working on something I know I need to get done before I’ll let myself go play with my latest distraction. Usually that gets me to at least put a little bit of work into the projects I’m trying to finish while also rewarding the eager puppy in my brain that wants to go chase sparkly squirrels. It’s not always perfect since my brain has the uncanny ability to justify pushing deadlines back to get in some time with a distraction, but it at least keeps me thinking about what I need to accomplish.
I find it’s also important to take a step back and examine why I’m avoiding working on a game. Sometimes it’s just that the distraction is more powerful than the prep work, but there are times when there’s an underlying issue with the game that needs to be addressed. At least once, I’ve had a game I just couldn’t force myself to make the time to do prep. Eventually I realized I dreaded running it for a multitude of reasons. Once I acknowledged that fact, I realized it wasn’t worth my own sanity to continue working on it. It sucks to admit failure at something like that, but it was better than forcing it when I was no longer enjoying it.
Ultimately, it’s important to understand your own tendency towards distractions and the reasoning behind them. It’s something I’ll probably always have to work at. How about you? Do you also chase shiny objects, and if you do, how do you get the game prep done when it needs to get done?