Tuesday, December 29, 2009

More Business of GMing

When I brought up the parallels between management and GMing the other day, one particularly valid point was brought up in the comments. I'd suggested that there are enough parallels that there is probably useful GMing insight to be found in the world of management/leadership literature (at least in part because so much more thought has been put into it).

I'll stand by that position, but I must acknowledge the very, very important caveat that was raised: most of that literature really, really sucks. Seriously. For every good book on the topic there are five crappy ones, and five more crappy ones which are just rehashing the first crappy ones. So with that in mind let me step back a little bit to discuss what's useful and what isn't.

First and foremost, I'm talking about leadership. This comes in many forms, and there are a lot of misconceptions about what it means. Most notably, it is often conflated with authority because the hope is that the person with authority has the qualities of leadership. Certainly, the person with authority will tend to believe they have those qualities - after all, who is going to tell them differently?

But authority is a funny thing. In all but the crudest of cases, it depends on a certain level of buy-in by all participants, and the person further down the ladder can often just say "Screw this, I'm quitting". This gets muddy when you start talking about big things, like society and laws, but for most of our day to day activities, these are tradeoffs we make, usually for something we want. We want a paycheck, so we give our boss authority. We want to perform on stage, so we give the director authority. We want to fly in a plane, so we give the airlines authority.

That last illustrates an important point. Just because a deal is being made doesn't mean it's always a very good deal. The more you want or need the thing you're getting, the more authority you're likely to concede.

And that brings us back to gaming, and GM authority. You want to play a game, sure, but there are lots of games and maybe even lots of other potential GMs. A given GM may have a lot to offer, but in the grand scheme of things it's only so much. As such, any authority the GM has or seems to have is extremely tenuous (at best) and rests upon his players finding it more fun to grant him that authority than it is to go read a book.[1]

And that brings us back to management disciplines and leadership. It is rare that books actually call this out (because it is uncomfortable for leaders to acknowledge it) but there is an entire strata of advice and literature that is more or less dedicated to the question of how to lead when you have no authority. This is a great strata because it puts a lot of emphasis on what the people you lead want and need, and how your job is to really help them excel and make everything work. These are great lessons for a GM to take.

In the modern business world, most of that strata is labeled "Project Management". You probably have some at your company, but if you've never stopped to consider their job, it is this: to get groups of people to get stuff done despite having no power (authority) to insist they do so. They can wheedle or cajole. They can lead or inspire. They can bully or sulk. They might do all of these things and more, depending on how good or bad they are.

Sound familiar, GMs?

Now, the catch is that the good to crap ratio is even more skewed in project management than it is in regular management. I can wholeheartedly recommend Scott Berkun's "Making Things Happen" (formerly "The Art of Project Management") but after that I start coming up dry. There's some interesting stuff in the arena of agile software development (Paul Tevis has raised some interesting comparisons between his gaming and scrum development) but I worry that's a bit too specialized.

Not to say there's nothing to use. Even the bad books have some fun tools - PM's have a lot of tools (some good, some bad) for representing complex sets of actors and actions, some of which are in parallels, others of which are sequential. Most RPG designs still consider the flowchart to be cutting edge technology, but project management has embraced a host of tools (most famously the gantt chart) to try to express these complex relationships visually.

This is worth bearing in mind because a lot of what they're tracking bears structural similarities to good adventure design. Imagine a project plan/gantt chart of a set of NPCs in a town and what they're up to. It's a useful overview, but the introduction of the players is going to mess things up, just like real life events constantly require project plans to be revised. Project management is not just about making those plans, it's about revising those plans when things go off the rails.

Again, sound familiar?

Not to say that Project Management is the only useful discipline out there. Leadership and planning are necessary in many fields, not just business. The trick is that if you expect it to be useful for gaming, you need to find where it's similar (and where it's different) and work to understand how to apply those strengths.

1 - This is a bit of a simplification. Social interaction, bullying, secondary concerns and such can all complicate this, but if that's what's going on, it's not about the game or the hobby, it's about that specific group.


  1. What's really interesting to me, in a kind of "bridging the gap" way is that GMing is really, really great practice for managing. My years of GMing have had a noticeable effect on my ability to communicate with coworkers, organize my thoughts, and to generally manage things. There's that odd stereotype of the basement dwelling nerd who has no social skills, but I think that the opposite may be true in many cases.

    GMing is cat herding at its finest. No one has a real obligation to be there, and even amongst friends they might decide that Xbox is more entertaining than sitting through another dull D&D session. So you really are forced learn the fine art of incentives, instruction, and general leadership. You even get a good feel for punishment, because you can't really punish a player in any meaningful context, but you can use "in-game punishment" and sometimes shaming to accomplish the goal.

    Those are valuable lessons for any manager, how to provide incentives and punishments that never really exceed the scope of "the game" but still remain effective. Someone aught to write a book on *that*.

  2. Yeah, the more I talk about it, the more "Things I've taken back out of gaming" seems like a super rich topic.

  3. Yeah, I'd really love to see an ongoing series of posts about "gaming as applied to life". :)

  4. I've always said that you could get more and better GMing advice from a random management book written by a Vice President of Nothing who thought he was great in 1996 and blessedly has never been heard from again.

    There's actually going to be a presentation on it at our next local GM's conference, should be cool. URL here: http://www.meetup.com/TucsonRPG/calendar/12099326/

    Cool presentation.


  5. Although it takes things to a level beyond the casual GM, here is the website of an old professor of mine:

    Codifies a lot of what good GM's and Project Managers do naturally.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.