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Two Crucial GM Skills: Listening and Celebrating

We’re in the middle of convention season, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about convention GMing. I’ll talk briefly about two skills that we could all use constant reminders about as con GMs (and GMs in general): listening and celebrating.

Listening

Listening is, surprisingly to some, a hard skill to master. Improv teaches you how to listen and pay attention to others. There are various books and courses on project management about listening. Listening is a key topic in childrearing. So naturally listening is important to GMing. Unfortunately, “listening” in all of these situations means something slightly or significantly different, as it’s not just hearing words, but also reading social and personal cues, inferring from what is or isn’t said, reading body language, and so much more. So it’s not something you’ll learn by reading a blog post. Still, I hope to give you a few tools for the next time you GM, in the form of questions to ask yourself at various intervals during play.

  • “Who is being quiet?” Once you identify that person, the harder question comes up: “Are they happy being a quiet wallflower, or do they want to engage more than they are but can’t figure out how?” Plenty of people exist in both of those categories.
  • “Is there something I’m saying that causes people to become more engaged? Or to withdraw?” Listening to what you’re saying and the reactions your words and actions have is important.
  • “Is there a group dynamic at play that’s dominating?” Whether in convention or home play, it’s easy for a subset of the players to only or mostly play with each other out of comfort and familiarity. Or you could have a group dynamic with a hostile undercurrent that also dominates the play.
  • “Am I crafting or building toward the right emotional payoff?” Whether the excitement of pulp or the thrill of horror, you need to be constantly taking the emotional temperature of the room.

And most importantly, whenever you take a break or sense a lull, ask yourself:

  • “Who haven’t I been listening to as well lately?” It’s very hard to listen to everyone at once, so evaluate who isn’t getting listened to enough, and focus on them for a bit.

Of course, there are many more questions to ask. Add yours in the comments!

Celebrating

The other crucial skill to me is learning how to celebrate the players and the characters. It’s the Apocalypse World idea of being a fan of the characters. What this looks like varies based on the genre or tone you’re playing. In a high-action game, I cheer on character successes and even grandiose attempts. In a horror game, a bit after characters survive an encounter and get to a safe moment I express worrying they they wouldn’t make it.

It’s always honest, because I’m playing games with people so that we can all have fantastic emotional responses. After all, that’s the entire point of playing games. Even the little “Nice!” and “Sweet!” reactions that I’ll have when someone offers a suggestion or course of action add to this, and create a feedback loop where I (ideally) get more of that, which gets everyone else (ideally) more invested.

(Of course, listening trumps celebrating. I’ll tone the celebrating down if I notice that it’s creating a group dynamic that shuts someone out.)

Above all, I never cheer for the opposition, even when it’s overwhelming. I mockingly call that “GMasturbation,” because that’s just solo gratification, and I’m playing games with other humans because I want a fun group experience.


I’ll share more thoughts over time. After all, I have that convention GM book I’ve been promising to write for years…

– Ryan

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4 Responses to Two Crucial GM Skills: Listening and Celebrating

  1. blackcoat says:

    Amusingly, in last night’s pathfinder game, our DM was accidentally celebrating my success when he said “You know, the fight stops being fun for me when I can’t even hit you.”

    The only problem with this is, while I took it to be that my character build was awesome, it emphasized that he feels like the GM/PC relationship is an adversarial one (in that his fun comes from beating us and vice versa), not a collaborative one (wherein all of our fun comes from telling an awesome story).

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Even in an adversarial social dynamic, I consider that shitty GMing. Backhanded “compliments” aren’t genuine celebration. :)

      – Ryan

  2. Alan says:

    All good stuff. I like your example questions in particular. Another possible question:

    “Do the players see a different fictional world than the one I’m seeing?” Misunderstandings about what is happening in the fictional world are pretty much inevitable. If not caught and corrected quickly, this confusion about the fictional world can lead to frustration. Listen for things like players feeling they don’t have options or taking actions that seem very out-of-character or like obviously bad ideas.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      That’s a great question! I might put it as a subset of “Are we all on the same page?” to cover social elements as well, but having it as an explicit separate thing is probably more useful.

      – Ryan