How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice. So goes the joke most often attributed to Mischa Elman, and I think it has a lot to teach us. I started this blog as a way to give back, based on my own experiences, some of the great advice that I had taken to heart to help me on my own journey. And, sometimes, the best advice is also the simplest. You don’t need to be destined for Carnegie Hall to take advantage of Mischa’s advice: practice is how you get good at anything (running, playing, and writing RPGs included).
It just wouldn’t be me if I left well enough alone, though. I’ve learned a lot about what makes for effective practice, and I think that there’s not enough material out there that explains how to practice effectively.
Not All Practice is Created Equal
You can play a game for a thousand hours or more and never wind up even remotely near the top. If you don’t believe me, check out any competitive game with a leaderboard and look at the hours or games played of people in the middle and bottom of the pack: lots of them have played thousands of matches, often amounting to a thousand hours or more of what might widely be considered “practice”. RPGs don’t (generally) have leaderboards, but the principle is the same. You can play a lot and still be bad. I won’t have any of that “you can’t be bad at RPGs” nonsense, either, because I’ve seen enough threads about “that guy” and “railroading GMs” and “chaotic stupid players who kill every NPC on sight” to know not only that it’s a lie, but that everyone ought to know it’s a lie already.
The takeaway? Getting your hours in is necessary, but not sufficient, to become better.
To get better you need not just to play, but to play seriously. You need targeted practice, with a set of good rules and (dare I say it) practices (argh puns) behind it.
Sidebar: Why Serious Play?
You, the rhetorical reader, may attempt setting my premise up for failure right off the bat here by simply asking me “I play to have fun. Why should I need to practice?” The short answer is: if you think playing with Chris Perkins, or Ed Greenwood, or the designer of your favorite game system or setting would be better than playing with your own group, do I have a deal for you! You too can be Chris Perkins et al. through the power of serious play.
These giants of gaming did not become great through natural talent alone. The best RPG players – like the greatest Olympian athletes, Chess or StarCraft champions, or our friend Mischa – are not born (though natural disposition certainly helps), they are made. The tool of that making? Serious play. Practicing your RPG skills is no less fun than simply playing RPGs – in fact it consists largely of doing just that – so there’s no reason to fear improving your game playing and running skills when the cost is so low and the benefits so high.
The Seven Tenets of Serious Play
1. Hours are Necessary, not Sufficient.
You can’t do the rest of these if you aren’t playing in the first place. Some studies have shown that intense visualization is sufficient to mimic an activity as practice, but that still involves seriously devoting your time to doing that thing and that thing only. You can’t play candy crush and seriously play an RPG at the same time. If you don’t put serious hours in, you won’t get anything serious out. If you don’t put ANY hours in, you won’t get ANYTHING out. It’s that simple.
2. Have a Specific Goal.
Trying to get better at everything is a recipe for getting better at nothing. Paying particular attention to a certain skill that needs improving (for instance, speaking character dialog in first person, something I’m working on right now myself) means you’ll be sure to specifically expose yourself to situations in which you can practice that skill. It’ll also mean that you have a target for your performance reviews (see the next point). Finally, it’ll mean that you can have a sense of accomplishment by reaching the goal – nothing feels more ambiguous and more difficult than trying to “just get better in general,” since you won’t know when you’re finished or where you’re going in particular.
Be careful not to overdo this step, however. Tunnel vision is harmful – make sure to recognize opportunities to improve as they arise, make a note of them, and only then feel free to dismiss them for later if they aren’t within your current goal. And, of course, nobody likes a game heavily railroaded towards that thing you really want to improve to the detriment of everything else unless that’s the game they know they signed up for. Having a practice partner or two or three who are all trying to dedicate themselves to improving at RPGs can help here, since you can all set up contrived scenarios with each other in order to focus on your improvement goals specifically.
3. Use multiple kinds of performance reviews, and use them consistently.
A pre-emptive note about reviews of your performance: try to get one done as soon as you can after the game, then wait a while (days, or even weeks or months) and do another one. Your perspective will shift over time, and what remains memorable is an important clue in and of itself about what really mattered in a given game session or campaign. Stuff that still matters a year after a campaign ends is the stuff you’re going to be very concerned about regardless of whether they’re remembered fondly or with dismay. Each of these three kinds of evaluations can benefit from both short and long perspectives. Each of them can also be tailored to fit your specific goal (for instance, in my case I might ask about my best and worst performances in first person dialog in particular).
Self review. Ask yourself what went well, what went poorly, how you might improve what went poorly, how you might make the stuff you thought you did well even better than it already was, and what you should focus on next time.
Peer review. Try to get these individually if you can (the wisdom of crowds relies on independent data – review by a committee of four is a lot less powerful than review by four individuals). I like to ask what people liked most and what they liked least, since that’s only two items (it’s fast, and players hate nothing more than doing work between games – that’s the GM’s job :p) and clearly subjective (what they liked most or least, in opposition to what was done best and worst) so you avoid the risk of a social catastrophe.
Replay review. If you possibly can, it is critically helpful to record yourself. Your memory can clue you in to what you think was important during the game, but there’s going to be a lot of things you simply end up missing in the heat of the game, or don’t remember (or remember differently) afterwards. The sound of your own voice is a grating price to pay, I admit, but the dividends are huge. This also has the advantage of being able to be paused, re-winded, and re-watched at your leisure.
4. Always Have a Reason.
If you don’t know why you did something, you cannot improve at that thing except by luck or natural ability – and chances are your natural aptitude is as good as it’s going to get, while luck is notoriously unreliable (remember those people who played thousands of games and never got much better? They relied on luck). Reasoning precedes action, and understanding your own reasoning means you will understand your own action. Even if the reasoning is “it’s the first thing that came to mind and I didn’t want to disrupt the game to stop and think,” it’s super important to have that reasoning on hand so you can examine whether it was good or bad in retrospect.
Feel free to openly admit when you aren’t sure whether your reasoning is good or not, or even when you aren’t sure what your reasoning at the time was. In fact, don’t just feel free, it’s super important. That’s the first step in improving your thinking.
5. Everything is Your Fault.
Ask a room full of people who do a certain activity (for instance, driving) whether they think they are above average at that activity. Turns out, most people think they’re above average. It doesn’t take a statistician to point out that this is, obviously, a problem.
This attitude – that you are already good at something – is toxic to improving yourself. If you think you’re good already, you have no reason to improve. You can make a good counterweight to this tendency for yourself by adopting a tweaked Socratic ignorance as your mantra: you are bad, and everything that happens is completely 100% your fault and in no way the fault of any other player at the table.
That may sound harsh, but now you’ve got your motivation (you are bad), and you’ve got an automatic insight into which problems to fix (anything that goes wrong is on you, so you are going to try to fix all of them – just remember to Have a Specific Goal and tackle them one at a time). Just remember to lighten up once in a while – and don’t be afraid of thinking you did something well so long as you recognize it’s still imperfect – so you don’t drive yourself crazy and you’re all set.
6. Adjust Incrementally
When something doesn’t work very well, people have a tendency to throw everything out and start fresh or to make other wide, sweeping changes. This is a mistake, generally speaking. There’s often something good hidden in the bad that you can safely extract for re-use later, and it’s very important that you find it. In my case, while I may have failed at first person dialog once or twice, it would be a huge mistake to throw it away as a concept and just use 3rd person narration from this point on.
Just as important as not throwing overboard an entire premise just because it seems flawed is to only change one variable at a time if you can help it. This is a normal process of scientific experimentation – by only changing a single variable at a time you can determine the effect that variable has on your experiment. While it’s basically impossible to modify only a single variable at a time in a social situation like tabletop RPGs, you can still do your best to minimize your own multi-variable changes so that you can get a clearer picture of how your latest changes performed.
7. Be Very Specific and Aim for Perfect.
As you use these other principles to ascend out of the realm of mediocrity, there’s a problem you’re going to run into. When you actually, really, truly are above-average – you’ve got all the normal stuff covered, and even a few of the corner cases to boot – you’re going to hit diminishing returns. Going from bad to OK is fast, going from OK to great is slow. This is why Everything is Your Fault is so important: it’s easy to give up once you reach “OK” status and just float along. You shouldn’t, because you can still improve, and here’s how.
You need to be super specific, super nitpicky, and aim to be perfect. You won’t actually become perfect, but actual perfection isn’t the point – recognizing what perfect would be, and then heading in that direction with a purpose, is the point.
As you get better, the obvious holes in your skill will start to close. You’ll gain mastery of the system rules (no more accidental total party kills, hooray) and speed in administration, for instance. You won’t be at a total loss for what to do with a newly introduced NPC, or how to structure a dungeon, or what stats baddies should have. You won’t actually be bad anymore (though, remember, Everything is Your Fault – your attitude shouldn’t change). From here, you need to start nailing down corner cases and turning “good” to “better”. This is going to involve a lot of “I liked it, but was it as good as it could be?” and dealing with things that come up rarely so that you won’t be tripped up when they actually do arise (*cough 3rd edition grappling rules cough cough*).
It’s a slow road from “the good” to “the best”, but don’t give up on it. You’ll be better for it, and – to repurpose a quote famously put in Socrates’ mouth by Plato – your game, the examined game, will be worth playing.
Get out there and Play More, Seriously.
A New Year’s resolution – or a resolution at any time really – to play more games is one I can get behind. But remember this: Hours are Necessary, not Sufficient. I hope you’ll remember to take the time to advance your gamecraft if you haven’t been already, and if you have been I hope you’ve found some helpful ideas to take things a step further still.
Get out there and become the best you can be – your game will thank you for it.
Post-Script: Annotated Further Reading
I’d be remiss not to include some of the foundational works that inform my current method of targeted practice. I’ll give two specifics, and a general one for brevity (brevity? Hah, too late…).
This text is probably among the most instructive I’ve read about how to learn well from practice. The author is an eight time youth National Chess Champion and a master and world champion of Tai Chi Chuan.
While I had always been naturally good at games, and naturally drawn to improving myself, this series was my first exposure with serious competitive gaming. I loved it from moment one. Earlier episodes focus more on education, while later episodes focus more on entertainment, but I recommend it regardless of period. The author of this series is a winner of the Brood War WCG USA championship, WCG Pan-American Championship, and top-16 player in the Brood War WCG Grand Finals. He’s since gone on to become a professional eSports shoutcaster and runs his own eSports company and brand centered around the Daily web-show.
I also recommend becoming engaged with various works of philosophy, since the type of thinking employed in that field is the exact sort of thinking you must employ in order to practice most effectively. The branches of science, with their equal appeal to logic, are similarly helpful. The recommendations that may be made within such large and diverse fields are too numerous to do justice in such a brief post-script.
Until Next Time,
The Hydra DM