Save Yourself Some GMing Headaches

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0855

Today I want to talk with you about something that makes you a poorer game master and how you can change that.

The idea was first introduced to me by Alexis Smolensk who was talking to me one day about stress. GMs face stress during games because our brains have never left the savannah. Our bodies react to gameplay as if we really were in conflicts and struggles.

Things like remembering stuff while inventing stuff while portraying stuff. All this creates cognitive load, which Wikipedia defines as “the total amount of mental effort being used in the working memory.”

This translates to the amount and quality of thinking you can manage behind the screen at any given moment.

Your goal here is not to compare your INT to others. Instead, it’s to get yourself out of the red zone of max mental capacity while GMing so you have more brain cycles for creativity, being in the present moment, and thinking faster on your feet.

Here are some ways I’ve found you can reduce cognitive load while GMing.

Picture Things In Advance

When you have free moments, like waiting 20 seconds for the microwave to reheat your coffee, imagine something coming up in your campaign.

An important location, a cool NPC, a special item. Even mundane things are good, like a merchant square or sage’s tower or an earth elemental.

When you imagine things before the game, then you can run from memory during the game. This is much more efficient for your brain than having to conjure up something from nothing while under pressure behind the screen.

Our brains are wired for imagery. We remember images a whole lot better than sounds or text.

By creating memories — ideally in full colour and motion with sound once you’ve practised some — you give your future self easy-to-remember images that don’t drain your brain.

Use Tables & Generators

Handy reference material removes the toll of thinking about everything during gameplay.

For example, a table of goblin names means you don’t hesitate and give your players the opportunity to come up with terrible names for your monsters.

Everyone is different. You might struggle with encounter ideas while another GM gets beads of sweat on their brow conjuring up village details.

This is why I added random generators and table formatting to Campaign Logger.

Campaign Logger has a custom generators feature so you can roll your own and now boasts 137 tables to build ideas and generators from.

The Campaign Logger adventuring party has also grown by one member as Generator Sage ELF Vasala now works feverishly to expand your generators and tables even further. (Welcome, ELF Vesala! It’s awesome having your wisdom and crafting skills aiding our quest.)

Regardless of what app or method you use, create helper tools for your weak spots to reduce cognitive load while GMing.

Be An Agile GM

Jochen and I are banging the drum about this concept of Preparing, eXecuting (GMing), and Evaluating (we’re calling it the PiXiE framework) so you avoid the trap of becoming a rigid and brittle game master.

For example, if you create a script the plot must follow, then you are burning mental cycles constantly course-correcting gameplay. If the PCs wobble off the line, you instantly suffer stress and want to push gameplay back on track.

This trap includes cool ideas you had moments ago that you want to force to make happen.

Instead of trying to push and pull gameplay to a certain future spot, relax and take what your players offer and build the next moment from that.

Think in terms of building situations, failing forward, and stakes-conflicts-obstacles.

I like a combo of this. I prep ideas in advance and let them drop in during games if it makes sense or tweak these base ideas to match current gameplay to see what happens. This is roughly 60% of the time, depending on the group and campaign.

The other ~40% while GMing is bringing my Lego pieces into play based on PCs actions, or creating new Lego pieces and building situations with them based on PC actions.

Then, between sessions, I do my thinking on how the world reacts, what the villains and factions do next, and my Loopy Plans.

Point is, avoid the cognitive load of pursuing specific future pressures during sessions. Free up mental cycles by being more in-the-moment and actually playing with ideas to explore possibilities instead of wielding ideas like a plough to carve inflexible trenches in your game.

Session Logging Is the New Prep

You can also stay agile and avoid the red zone by taking great session notes.

When you can summon any campaign detail in moments during games, you free up your brain’s RAM from having to remember everything at all times.

Everything from ad hoc NPC names to the details of hooks you dropped three sessions ago to the stat block of the kingdom next door.

I’m blessed with players who log details in Google Docs during sessions. I also write some things on paper pad and use auto-complete and tagging in Campain Logger so the game stays fast.

After the session, I brain-dump into Campaign Logger so all details are searchable in future sessions. I also mine player notes where my memory fails.

In this way, I don’t bog games down with too much note-taking. And then I can pore over my session logs for ideas, hooks, loops, and opportunities. It’s like drinking nutrient shakes for my campaign.

I believe it’s better to free your brain up for in-game creativity, and record what happens to spur future ideas, than it is to create everything in advance and impose stress when things go awry, which they always do.

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Those are a few ways you can reduce cognitive load during sessions.

Do you do anything to cut down on mental effort while GMing so you avoid the red zone? Hit reply and let me know.