How GMing made me better at running meetings

🌳 essays 🌟 featured

You might expect tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs) to be an incredible high-fantasy adventure. You get to be anything your heart desires. You get to battle necromancers, slay dragons, save kingdoms, forge alliances! The only limit is your imagination on this epic adventure with friends!

But in reality, it’s just a bunch of goofballs and nerds sitting around a table demanding “I roll to pet the wolf!” The way I tend to play, it’s about having fun and telling a good story.

But who would expect that I’d be able to leverage so many techniques from playing nerdy storytelling games? Who knew they’d come in handy:

  • in the board room
  • in a zoom room
  • in a one-on-one

My experience GMing made me a better meeting facilitator and better communicator, and here’s why. Here’s the spoiler: it’s all about paths to your intended outcome.

A TTRPG primer, for those unfamiliar

(you can skip this section if you’re familiar with TTRPGS already)

There’s a couple terms I want to cover that you might be unfamiliar with. In its basic form, a TTRPG is a group of people who get together for sessions - anywhere from an hour or so to eight hours if you’re into that. You can do a one-off session, or you can have a group of people who get together and meet regularly to play out a long-form story - for years sometimes, if that’s what you choose.

Some terms:

  • Game Master (GM): one person whose responsibility is to “play god”, or in business-speak, “facilitate the adventure”. They’re the person who is creating a world or environment in which the rest of the players are interacting and having an adventure.
  • Player Characters (PCs): everyone else, who create a character - an elven fighter or a dwarven wizard or whomever you want to play. They invent a backstory, and they have certain abilities and statistics that will determine how they can act within the world. Players get to roleplay as their PC throughout the adventure. The group of PCs is called a party.
  • Non-Player Characters (NPCs): anyone in the world who is not played by a player, like the bartender at a tavern your party visits, or the necromancer wizard whom you wind up fighting. The NPCs tend to be invented and roleplayed by the GM.

There’s a constant back-and-forth interaction between the players interacting with the world and creating an adventure that they want to have, and that will tell an interesting story for their characters, and between the GM facilitating that adventure and creating an overarching world and plotline in which that takes place.

And there’s dice involved! You roll dice for various interactions. When you make a move, the GM and the player use the result to determine how the move plays out, if it’s successful, if it has unintended consequences, and how it impacts the story.

How GMing relates to communication skills

It’s not like giving a talk

A talk is a fairly established environment. You have set content that you intend to cover, and you get to do a lot of talking as the audience just listens and absorbs the information. Generally, an audience doesn’t do anything too unexpected that you have to react to. Sure, if someone walked onstage and slapped you in the face, that would be pretty unexpected and you’d have to work with that and think on your feet, but you can also be fairly confident it’s not going to happen.

Think on your feet

When GMing, you are facilitating a world in which all the players are autonomous, decision-making people who have various agendas and various things they want to do with the story. And they’re going to do those things, but you don’t know what they are.

There’s no way to fully prep for a TTRPG session. As a GM, I could have a set of narrative content that I want a party to cover, but as soon as they say something, there’s no way to account for all the possible situations that these independent people might bring to the table. I could have a whole scenario planned for what’s “going to happen”, but as soon as a player says: “Oh, that’s what’s happening? I transform into a bear, jump out the window of this moving vehicle, and start running full speed across the desert.”

As a GM, your reaction is probably: “Oh.” And: “I didn’t see that coming.”

And you have to think in your head, immediately: “Well, there’s this NPC they’re interacting with. What would that character do if someone they’re talking to transformed into a bear and jumped out the window mid-conversation?” Would they chase them? Would they fire an arrow after them? Would they ignore it?

I’m immediately deciding what’s going to happen based on this new set of information that’s been exposed.

This can be valuable as a skill when going into difficult conversations. You can imagine you might want to prep talking points ahead of time, but there’s no possible way you can account for everything that your conversational partner might come back at you with. You need to be ready to improv on your feet with a “that’s what’s going on, how should I best react to this?”

Outcomes over outputs

The technique for thinking on your feet from GMing is to have a goal in mind, and care less about the specifics of the path we take to get there. How can we get to the same outcome?

Say I’ve introduced an NPC who’s supposed to give the players some plot information, and the players decide to stab the NPC instead of talking to them. If you’re thinking in terms of outputs, you’re at a loss. The character has the information, the character is dead, everything is hopeless.

If you’re thinking outcomes, it’s easy to see that the NPC in question was just one way of approaching the goal “give the characters the information they need.” Suddenly, the world opens up with possibilities of achieving that goal. They could find a mysterious book at the library. They could get it from someone else they meet. Your players don’t know that the NPC in question was part of your grand plan. If you get the players to your intended outcome a different way, none’s the wiser.

It’s worth driving that home again: focusing on outcomes makes you, the facilitator, look good.

If you’re hopeless because the players killed your important NPC, you’d be driven to thoughts like, “maybe I can resurrect them so that the players can get the information” or “maybe I can retcon something”. It doesn’t make for a good story: doesn’t respect the autonomy of your players.

Whereas, if you think on your feet about other paths to the same outcome, your players think you planned it that way the whole time, and are impressed with how well the whole story came together despite their antics. You get accolades!

Buying time

This technique is more useful in meetings than in one-on-one conversations. Sometimes when I’m GMing, a player will ask a question about a character’s backstory, or the way the fantasy world works. Internally, I’m freaking out. I didn’t prep that; I don’t know the answer to that.

But externally, you buy time. In RPGs, I say the magic words: “let me check my notes.”

And I flip through the notebook. But the secret is, there’s no notes. Literally just taking the time to flip and peruse gives you the time and pause to think quickly on an answer to that question.

You don’t need to know everything right away. But you can use techniques to give yourself the space to get your bearings and know what to say next.

In conversation

A great way to execute this strategy in real conversations where you don’t have a secret GMing notebook to reference is: asking questions.

At one point, a PC was at a situation where they said: “I fake a heart attack to see how the villagers react.”

Internally, I’m stressed. “Oh gosh, how the heck are the villagers going to react to this?!” I had no idea. So I bought time. I asked the player: “What does it look like for your character to fake a heart attack? How do they do this? Describe the scene.”

And as they take the time to describe the details, I had time to think about how everyone was going to react to this. Clarifying, useful questions (that will still provide more color to the arc of the story!) can buy a bit of time to react, get your horses straight, and think about where to go next.

Defensive vs co-creative techniques

The previous two techniques, while useful, are what I would call defensive techniques. These get used as a meeting facilitator when you have an outcome you want to get the room to, and people do something completely unexpected. A wrench was thrown in the gears and you have to get things back on track. This is only productive depending on what type of meeting you’re in.

Good times for defensive techniques:

  • Convincing stakeholders of something
  • Meetings for getting the room to decide on something
  • Reporting status or check-in meetings
  • Any meeting where you have a favorable outcome you want to get

Bad times for defensive techniques:

  • Creative problem-solving meetings
  • Brainstorming
  • Any open-ended meeting structure

I call these out as “bad times” for defensive techniques because if you go into the conversation assuming you already know where it’ll go and where to end up, you’ll close yourself off to better paths. Instead, these are situations where we want to come out of it together with a better understanding of something.

Sometimes, your goal isn’t a specific outcome, the goal is to have a good outcome, whatever your definition of “good” may be.

In TTRPGS, the goal is often to tell a good, interesting, well-structured story, not to lay out a very specific plotline. Accomplishing this goal takes some co-creative techniques for conversation.

Avoid arguing semantics

In a conversation or disagreement, it can be easy to get lost in the semantics of “who said what” or who was “technically correct”. It makes for a less productive conversation because you’re playing the blame game instead of focusing on outcomes.

In TTRPGS, this technique comes up when I choose to ignore the rules when it’s convenient for our goals.

For example, suppose I have a player who says: “I want to pull these magic berries out of my hair and feed them to the entire tavern.”

As a GM, I have a choice here. I could argue: “well, according to the rules you only get 10 berries in your hair per day, and you’ve already used about eight of them, so you definitely don’t have enough berries to feed the whole tavern.”

And maybe they’d argue back: “Actually, several of those times, I said I intended to use a berry but never actually did, so I’ve used fewer than eight today so far.”

And we could go back and forth, and have a whole semantic argument. But what’s the point?

Instead, I can let it happen. Because it’s interesting to see what will happen with the story when the whole tavern of strangers gets fed magic berries, and our goal together is to tell an interesting story. Rules and semantics can help constrain people enough to be cohesive, but they can be discarded when they are no longer in service of our intended outcome.

Before getting hung up on semantics, consider what path is most likely move the conversation forwards.

Conflict as collaboration, not a zero-sum game

When conflict does occur, we have an opportunity to see it as a way to come to a greater understanding together than either of us would individually.

As a GM storyteller, my campaigns would be really boring if it was just playing out the ideas in my head from when we start. The whole thing comes together because of the contributions of six people around a table.

If you wind up bumping heads because two people want to go opposite directions (between players, or between players and the GM), you could see that as a win/lose situation, or a way to bring ideas together into something even more interesting.

When you see potential conflict as a learning experience, you open yourself up to growth and changing your mind.

It’s magic

This last tip is harder to apply to real-life conversations, but when all else fails and your players ask how something works, just tell them “it’s magic” and you’re all set.

Notes mentioning this note