The following words are a reflection on the strange progression from last November (when the community center I once DM'ed professionally for closed) until now. More lessons, better observations, and a stronger step forward. Come along into my head and heart.
Death and Rebirth
When you're running a business, certain theologies creep in. You're constantly weighing cost and benefit, risk and reward, with every new endeavor. Often, you take risk - to stretch your creative muscles, to seek new tiers, and to press your luck for that big win. Sometimes that works, often it doesn't. And when you're running games professionally as one facet of a much larger business, the pressure to perform just to stay afloat can create subconscious perspective and habit, some of which are more detrimental than affirming.
To be frank, putting pressure on myself to put "butts in seats" in order to simply run a game...destroyed me.
I was constantly pressuring myself to strike a balance between margin and equity. The quantity of players mingling with the quality of the experience. Now, I went along with this idea, because, let's be honest, Game On! (my section of the larger business) knew what it was doing, and it was doing pretty well for the small tribe it had fostered. If it were ONLY that, perhaps the total might have survived.
But it wasn't, and the added pressure to carry the weight of everything else going on forces you to consider adding one more player when 5 was plenty, because one more player allows the class to cover its overhead, and actually make a sliver of profit for once; one more player keeps the lights on a little longer, the heat running.
And some players clash. Some tables work with a certain group of 4, but that 5th player throws it all out of whack, while other tables struggle with 5 only to synergize with 6. Some can grow and get over it, and others just can't. But these people are customers, so I would weigh the business's success to form a Social Contract, and hold players to it. This helped some groups tighten up; achieve a greater synergy, and augment play to new heights. Others, it drove the nail into the coffin. Players stopped showing up (which means they weren't paying), or would "forget" to pay. Do that enough, and now it costs too much to even run the game and the campaign gets scrapped.
When a single player at a table is the difference between your business succeeding or failing, it can CHANGE the way you view your game mastering. You tend to sacrifice more of yourself to make the clients "happy" or satisfied; you bend over backwards to make it work with way more players than the table should have; and you put up with things that legitimately bother you because the alternative is that client quitting.
It wasn't like this all the time, and as we went along, I became more acclimated to the idea of "owning" my tables. We set boundaries, we stopped and hashed things out, we posted clear and precise expectations for our tables. We adapted, and made our experiences tighter and more immersive with every new lesson. I am a thousand-times grateful for the professionalism I gained by treating this pursuit as my full-time job.
When the business as a whole shuttered its doors and I had 5 campaigns unfinished without a space to play...we adapted.
The most splendid tribe of people in history rolled with the changes and followed just me instead. I did my best to honor the rapport I had cultivated over the last three years and kept the transition as seamless as possible. So, games once in a community center are run in a dojo, or a home, or a rented game store. Wherever we can gather, we play.
And THEN. A pandemic.
We moved every campaign to online play only, and kept rolling as I learned the ropes. And, just recently, I finished one of those massive campaigns (Knight Owls Season 3 just ended this evening - it was AMAZING).
As humans approach the close of something, they often become much more reflective on the whole experience. At the end of June, I was BURNT OUT. Creatively spent, frustrated, emotionally exhausted; I needed time to reacclimate to my stories, and find the fire again.
I did. And. I thought deeply about the future. I thought about Knight Owls Season 4 here and there, toying with curious scenarios. I thought about Pugmire, and Exalted, and my old 4th Edition Knights Of The Round campaign from college. But most of all, I thought about Gray Owls; where it was headed, where I lost my players, where I lost myself, and my excitement when I considered the NEXT campaign. All the things I would fix for NEXT TIME; lessons learned once more.
Lesson 1 - It Took Loss To Free Me
To be blunt: Questers' Way needed to close in order for me to flourish. It took the loss of that job to allow the space to restructure EVERYTHING on MY terms.
To not worry about overhead, and mark down some of the best experiences I've been able to run at a table, digital or otherwise. All that professional training to justify a price tag still pays off, but play to play and player to player, how that price resolves...has no pressure on the electric bill.
This means I can adapt to the needs of others based on what I'M comfortable with...because I'm the boss.
Lesson 2 - This Is MY Table
And I will run it well.
However, just as some players don't always fit together, some GMs and their style don't jive with certain players. I'm pretty easy-going, but over the years I've established some strict boundaries. These help with having clear expectations at the table, meeting my players as fellow human beings, being patient and kind, and allowing everyone (including myself) a bad day. And the best thing? My brand is my own. It won't be bigger than me. So I expect my players to talk to me if something's up. In fact, they kind of have to, there's no one else. Meaning I'm not out of the loop on the stuff that matters.
In order to run an effective table, I need to know what's going on. When I was working in a larger organization, it was a weekly occurrence that I would be "out of the loop" on something that affected me and my campaigns directly; the communication infrastructure was terrible sometimes - there were just too many heads to the hydra and it never got back to the heart. Not anymore.
Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, amateur bartender, and aspiring fiction author.
1st Saturday: Patreon
2nd Saturday: Monster
3rd Saturday: Worldbuilding
4th Saturday: REST DAY