The Public GM

I have the best damn job in the world.

I’m not a fighter pilot. No matter how much I strut around and do hokey martial arts-like moves, I’m still not a Power Ranger. I’m actually a librarian (technically a paralibrarian, but I don’t want to slight those parachuting librarians out there) and I run a Young Adult Gaming League at work. My job is to introduce a handful of middle and high schoolers to the realm of tabletop games and RPGs.

That’s right. I’m a GM and I get paid for it.

Of course, having the best damn job in the world doesn’t mean an end to anxiety or frustration. If anything, it amplifies those feelings, since I have such a personal connection to the whole thing. Fighter pilots might crash or get shot down or not make it into the squadron volleyball championships. Power Rangers sometimes get mind-controlled, and I’m pretty sure they’re required to become disillusioned and throw away the morpher for a while until the power of friendship and the sense of responsibility draws them back in. I think they’re in the same union as super heroes.

And the hurdles I face as a “public GM?” Well, they’re actually a lot like the hurdles you probably face with your own gaming group, except they’re amplified a hundredfold. For example…

You Can’t Quit

We’ve all been there. Even the most charismatic extrovert gets burnt out if they’re the center of attention for too long. If you’re smart, you planned your game to alternate between GMs so you can relax and be a player for a while. If not, your friends occasionally have to put up with you throwing your Star Realms deck in the air or sweeping all the Takenoko tiles off the table while screaming about how you always host and always make the buffalo dip and could someone just answer that phone already?

And you’re right to feel that way. It sucks being the guy in charge all the time. Sharing responsibility is a great way to keep the pressure off. (And make sure you’re not a limb short when it’s time to Zord up.) But what if you could never quit? What if, by virtue of the context in which you hold your games, there’s no hope of ever passing the buck and taking a breath?

Welcome to my Wednesday.

To be fair, it’s not like I’m tearing my hair out. Like I said, best damn job. I’m not running this thing every day, just once a month. Twice a month, even, if my budget gets approved. But it wears on you, knowing that without you the whole thing falls apart. You’re the final arbiter for every rules dispute. Whenever a piece goes missing or a card has vanished, it’s up to you to find or replace it. Every game is there because of you, and if one isn’t, it’s also because of you.

It’s mitigated by some stuff, though, right? Once you get a good group going, they’ll be so taken in by the concept that the gaming league will practically run itself.

About that…

Your Players Are Different Every Time

You can’t count on anyone being there. Kids are busier these days than ever before. The school system has them believing that they can’t get into college without a minimum two intramural sports and four after school clubs. What, do they think they could get away with putting some kind of “gaming league” on their college resume or writing an essay about their D&D game? The admissions people will think they’re gamblers at best and satanic at worst.

It’s true, there are a handful of regulars. I’ve gotten to know them quite well by now, and if I’m wondering what kind of game they’ll be into, I have a pretty good idea. But there’s a constantly rotating cast all around them, and the only way to get those kids into a Pathfinder game is with a pile of pre-gens. And even the regulars graduate or get into new hobbies all the time. They’re teenagers, after all: they try on new personalities like clothes.

There’s overlap here, too, if you’re not ordinarily gaming with a bunch of students. Sometimes we get bold and invite a complete stranger to game night, simply by virtue of the hilarious t-shirt they were wearing when we caught them looking at the latest Munchkin release. Later, when our anxieties get the better of us, we have the inevitable “My God, what have I done?” moment. The new guy’s an unknown variable. Will your friends like him? Will he like your friends? Are you all going to have a good time, or will you be a headline about stranger danger in the morning?

I’m not the most confident person. The morning before league, when I’m putting games on tables and going over what happened last in our sporadic dragon-hunting campaign, I second guess myself and all my life decisions that led me to this point.

But hey, that’s no big deal. The hardest part of any group is getting it going with good people. Once you work out the good and deal with the bad, it’s smooth sailing all the way.

Except…

They’re Not Your Kids

I’m told that playing games with your children can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. It can also be hell, but you’re their parent and can enforce your will with an iron fist, according to Dr. Doom’s Guide to Child Rearing and Crushing Reed Richards.

If playing with your own kids is magical wish fulfillment, playing with somebody else’s kids is nerve-wracking terror. Some kids are still developing the social skills to resolve interpersonal issues and might not have the vocabulary to describe what’s upsetting them about a game. On top of that, you don’t know them well enough to guess what’s bothering them. Maybe a few don’t even recognize the need for rules, let alone why they should be enforced.

In that situation, the best way is to just let the kids play how they want to play. But sometimes that creates more friction between the kid who’s free-wheeling and the ones that are actually trying to follow the rules. What are you to do?

We’re used to a certain degree of authority in our regular game groups, and as a GM it’s also your job to resolve player disputes. Usually it involves letting a player know he’s causing a problem and letting him make the necessary steps. Maybe you have to mediate a little. There’s also the nuclear option: asking a player to leave the game. It ranges from “Look, this isn’t working out” to “Get the hell out of my house,” but there’s a reasonable assumption that your word on the matter will be respected.

Not so if you’re a public GM. The player you ask to leave isn’t leaving the room, just the table. And now he’s pissed at you for not understanding him, and he’s just as likely to be looking to cause you some pain in return as he is willing to accept your wisdom on the matter. In that scenario, I would have the authority to remove a kid entirely from gaming league, but I need to be able to back up my decision in front of my boss, the kid’s parents, and possibly a review board. “He wasn’t fitting in with the group dynamic” isn’t a convincing reason. “He ate the dice out of spite” is a better one, but it implies a tragic end that I don’t want to see.

Metaphorically or literally.

So What the Hell Are You Doing Here?

That seems to be the question. Am I building you up to the twist answer of “don’t ever do this, you have to be crazy”?

Actually, I’m not. I mentioned earlier these are all things you’ve likely had to deal with yourself, and so you know the way to deal with them: press on.

Most kids, like most gamers, aren’t looking to start fights. They just want to play some games. They’ll come around when you explain the rules or point out that they’re making it not fun for other people. Sure, there’s the kid who wants to do cartwheels instead of sit at the table, but so what? Let the kid do cartwheels. If it’s fun for him and at least not distracting to everybody else, there’s no harm.

And at the end of the day, it’s damn rewarding. I’ve seen kids play their first roleplaying game at my tables, and I can tell in an instant that they’re hooked for life. It’s worth every grey hair that pops up, and I would do it every day if I could. It’s the best damn job in the world.

Though I’d trade it all away in a heartbeat for a morpher.

Written by James

A paralibrarian by trade, James "Captain Raspberry" Taber studied story theory at UMass Amherst. His obsessive personality serves him well in gaming. If he approaches you, do not panic. Hold your ground and make noise. If all else fails, use your emergency banana.

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