Don’t Beat Yourself Up

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1072

RPT Patron A. asked me this question last week:

Tell me more about how you rate yourself fairly without demotivating yourself, I could use that.

The context of this request is a Musing I published that talks about doing post-session assessments of your GMing. And A. wants to know how to do this without being negative and harsh on oneself.

Because we are always our own worst critics.

That little voice in your head always complains about you.

“That combat was terrible.”

“You suck compared to Matt Mercer.”

“This is a lousy idea for an adventure.”

On and on it goes, beating you up and demotivating you.

I’ve been studying up on this, actually. Turns out this little voice kept our ancestors alive.

When the world was more dangerous for us every day, we needed a fast judge to watch out for survival.


“Get stronger because next time you will lose and die.”

“Those people aren’t kin and they hate you.”

But today we don’t have the same problems. We need to slow down, think systemically, plan more, create more.

There’s no point planning for next year when your belly is empty today and you’re competing with giant bears and cruel weather for food.

But our brains don’t know this. It doesn’t know we’ve evolved as a civilization.

Besides, planning is tough. It’s less costly on bio energy to keep the old program running.

What we don’t want to do is fall into the trap of mere positive thinking.

For some reason, in North America at least (tell me if this is true in your area), we’ve fallen prey to the illusion of the Charismatic Leader.

We’ve been taught that you need positive thinking, strong intentions, and a dash of flair to get things done.

Sure, being popular and engaging helps you a lot in life by forming great relationships with people.

But this surface level approach rarely earns deep wins. We’re being told via self-help books, phoney leadership training, and wishful thinking gurus that if we can dream it, we’ll get it.

To improve as a GM you’ve got to put in the time. Time to create and time to play more. With experience, we improve.

To combat that nagging jerk in your brain who constantly puts you down, I suggested a few tips and techniques to A. I’ll share them with you here now, in the hopes they might help you too.

Compare Yourself Only to Yourself

Looking to Matt Mercer, Gary Gygax, or some other great GM and trying to be them is a trap.

For starters, every GM succeeds when they learn their individual strengths and weaknesses and form a GMing strategy around those. Copying another person’s style and trying to be them will fail because you are different. Know thyself and develop your own style.

Look for incremental improvements in specific areas. Don’t try to improve everything at once.

How do you eat an elephant?

One bite at a time.

Don’t let your inner critic beat you up because you aren’t the best GM in the world (yet). Instead, each game aim to improve at one thing. Evaluate that, not the entire elephant.

The Journey is Most Important

Results take care of themselves if you are mindful along the journey. GM with purpose.

I know lots of gurus out there advertise you can just show up and run a great session.

Learning to improv is great. Mandatory, in fact.

But some game preparation goes a long way.

Gurus tell you to just write a few notes before a session and you’re set. But what they are truly doing — what they do, not what they say — is using a published world and published adventures.

That’s a lot of prep done for them.

If you homebrew, like I prefer to do because it’s a lot more fun, challenging, and rewarding, then you need to put in the time to prep.

Also, I’ve never seen a long storyline work if every session is all improv and the group wants a thrilling, cohesive story. If you have a pure comedy game, sure, improv it all.

But things fall apart fast when details don’t get tracked, consequences never happen, and synergies between villain, characters, and milieu never explored.

Figure out how creating (prep) can be its own reward. And have fun on the path to adventure, not just at the end.

I Treasure Learning the Most

A great session is….great. A one-time thing. A point in time.

But learning something about myself or my GMing, well that’s awesome and a lifetime boon.

So every learning is a big win.

I play to learn. That’s having more fun at every game.

Focus on the Positive

No, not in the guru wishful thinking way.

Be fair, be analytical, but do not focus on the negative.

Like how we suddenly see white cars everywhere once we look for them, if we focus on the negative, that’s what we’ll see.

This last point might be a bit woo woo. Here’s a more practical application.

When you identify a negative, you can’t just tell yourself to stop. That’s creating a vacuum and our brains don’t like that.

Instead, find a positive replacement. Now you have something to fill the void with.

And, you no longer focus on the negative (“Don’t do this thing, don’t do this thing, don’t do this thing.”). You are now focused on that positive thing (“Do this new thing. Do this new thing. Do this new thing.”).

For example, I’m trying to flip the way how I GM combat. I’ve become lazy and let what I know and teach in Faster Combat fall to the wayside.

I am tackling just one improvement at a time now.

And for each thing, I’m focusing on the replacement and evaluating that.

“Am I narrating transitions to the next PC in initiative?” That’s one goal and the replacement behaviour. The old behaviour was narrating what just happened.

So I’m focusing on the transition now. I don’t care about the old behaviour. I just focus on the new behaviour and look for learnings and ways to improve each time on that new behaviour.

That is focusing on the positive and putting action behind it.

Give Yourself A Break

Change is hard. The brain resists. The inner critic rebels (and criticizes without mercy).

We beat our biology with key hacks:

  • GM to improve, not to be the best GM ever
  • After sessions, compare your performance to your previous performance, not to some external ideal
  • Relish the adventure not the treasure — make the journey fun and it’ll be its own reward
  • Aim to learn and be strategic about what you want to learn
  • Replace bad aspects of your game with good, and focus on improving the good

I hope this helps quell your inner critic.