One of the things I’ve noticed in gaming is this interesting desire for perfection. There seems to be a wide-spread desire to play the perfect game, tell the perfect story, have the perfect amount of game knowledge (rules, lore, or both). This is also often combined with the fear of failure, of screwing up, of forgetting rules, or even what the overarching plot you have created is. I can’t relieve those fears for you; I can’t tell you it’s going to be OK because honestly, those fears exist in me too. It’s often called the imposter syndrome, which is a good name but doesn’t cover all the issues you can face as a Game Master. Taken too far, it can even become a form of gatekeeping which is sad when you look at the sheer number of groups “looking for GM”.
So let’s discuss what happens if you screw up. Well… first you lose access to your GM license… No, that doesn’t happen because I would have lost mine a long time ago. Oh wait, you forgot a very important rule and the creator of your game comes to you in the night with men in masks to beat you with the core rulebook… Nope. So what actually happens if you screw up? Well, hopefully you learn from the mistake you made and work to do better the next time you run the game.
I keep typing the words ‘if you screw up’, but… it’s not really a matter of ‘if’ it’s a matter of ‘when’. You will make mistakes; you’re human. You will forget things, lose your train of thought, or commit any number of other gaming faux pas. Anyone who truly believes that a GM is perfect is smoking something really lovely and not sharing with the rest of us. No GM, not even Matt Mercer (to name the famous creator and Game Master of Critical Role) is perfect. Perfection is overrated anyways. Some of the greatest stories ever told came from someone’s mistake.
I could go over a whole list of ways you could ‘screw up’ or ‘make mistakes’ but in the end, it’s not about the mistake, it’s about how you as the GM and your players recovered from it. The most important factor in this is clear, clean communication. Apologize for the mistake then work with your group to move forward. This working with the group includes both conversations about the technical aspect of the mistake (the rules) and the narrative ones (the fictional story you as a group are trying to create). What is the right path? Whatever you and your group agree on. It’s YOUR game.
To put the other side in the hot seat, players make mistakes during games too. I’ve seen it happen more times than I can count, not just with mistakes in rules, but I’ve seen and had players that space out and forget the goal of the adventure or even the encounter. In other cases, I’ve had games go sideways because they didn’t listen to what I was telling them as the GM and the result was not what they expected.
For example: I was running a Shadowrun game. It was a fairly seasoned group and I was a GM that had been running for only a year. I had lists, notes and flashcards. The group I was running for decided to set explosives off in the basement, while they were on the top floor. Instead of trying to escape through the roof, they decided to run down the stairs. Both sides made mistakes, I made mistakes in not being more clear about the layout of the building. They made mistakes in thinking that just because they were ‘elite’ that they could make it. Hijinks ensued and things went bad fast, mostly because one guy kept demanding that they roll for running even though I wasn’t calling for it. The group died an ugly, gory death. However, instead of just throwing in the towel we sat together afterwards and discussed what went wrong and how we could do better in the future. The group and I decided that we would retcon it and start the next session with them being offered the job. Why? Because we made that choice together as a group (Yes, I know some of you would say it was the wrong choice, but quite frankly, I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I’m about the love of the game, the fun, and not just the rules).
The last thing I’ll mention is the fact that groups come and groups go, but what you want to seek isn’t a steady group, but steady friends, and as large a pool as possible. There are plenty of people that I would love to play with but can’t because of time constraints or scheduling (ours or theirs), however I consider them my friends and they can count on me as theirs. The #TTRPG community on Twitter is one of the friendliest and most welcoming I have encountered. The Cypher Unlimited crew are also good people if you love the Cypher System. Sly Flourish (Michael Shea) is an awesome person to talk to when you have questions, and has great advice for D&D. I can go on, but to be honest, if you want good people to follow, just look at who Angel’s Citadel follows, particularly on Twitter. We tend to avoid drama assholes. Even better, come join our Discord server and meet some of the people we enjoy hanging out with. Finally, accept that you’re human and going to make mistakes. Then get out there and game. What happens if you screw up? You have a new story to tell so go game some more. The choice is yours. Happy gaming!
- Joann Walles
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2 thoughts on “What if I Screw Up?”
Fjook Enterprises here. Don’t really comment, mostly just read. But this is really, really good advice. Thank you for putting it out there.