10 Tips to help you become a better Applied RPG GM

Wearing a robe and a bald cap are not on this list, but never a bad idea.

Being a GM for applied RPGs is very different than being a GM for traditional RPGs, and there's a number of skills that you need to master to be able to meet the goals of your group and ensure your players are getting their needs met. One of the biggest mistakes I see new GMs making is approaching their skill development from the perspective of a typical RPG player, rather than thinking of applied RPG GMing as a separate, although very similar skill. As such, here's a list of some of 10 things I've found in my 7+ years of being a GM across a broad context of applied games that are the most helpful in enhancing my skill as an applied RPG GM. This list is by no means exhaustive, but hopefully it gives new GMs some guidance for professional development as they grow in the field.

  1. Use a goal system

The biggest difference between an applied game and a traditional game is that the applied game has it's own external goals, and it is the role of the GM to help the players meet these goals. Unlike traditional games, where the goal is just to have fun with friends, the GM is tasked with helping clients develop specific social skills, learn type of subject matter, or achieve some other specific task. As such, it's important to set these goals as first and foremost in your mind when session planning. Everything else should support achieving these goals, although not to the extent where it is no longer fun- instead, identify ways to utilize the game in a way that makes those goals fun to meet. I've outlined the system I use here, but feel free to design your own goal system to make sure you never stray, and that you can point to it when others ask about how your game is helping the client.

2. Find a mentor/coach a new GM

I've been fortunate enough to have a mentor for several years as I was starting, and he taught me everything I needed to know about becoming a successful applied RPG facilitator (Thank you, Dr B.) If possible, find someone who can mentor you, and if you're able to, find a game that you can shadow or co-facilitate as you learn the skillset. On the flip side, after you have become established and comfortable running applied games, get a mentee, and work towards helping them get comfortable running applied games. One of the best ways to become accutely aware of your own practices and why you do them is to train someone else in them, and that self reflection will help both of you improve. I've been fortunate enough to have a former student working as my co-facilitator, and helping her grow into a skilled applied RPG GM has taught me so much about my own style and things I could improve on, while also helping me realize what I'm doing well. Furthermore, the addition of a skilled applied RPG GM helps enrich the community, and the more great applied GMs we have, the more the use of applied RPG will be normalized and accepted as good practice.

3. Use a specialized RPG system

Just because Dungeons and Dragons is popular doesn't mean you need to use it. There are a lot of games that are designed for kids, or even social skills development. I've been building The Caravan Endures, which was a modified D&D system I used with my social skills group for a quarter and found it to be very effective. There's also Critical Core from Game to Grow, which has it's own methodologies included. But ultimately, it's important for  you to shop around and think about the goals of your group. If you want your group to focus on nonviolent conflict resolution, D&D isn't going to be the best game for that- better to see what exists, and go with a game that is designed around meeting those goals. If you're looking for a specific game, don't hesitate to reach out to me personally, and I'll at least be able to find someone who can point you in a right direction for what you're looking for.

4. Co-facilitate

Having a co-GM is one of the most helpful things you can do as an applied RPG facilitator. They can help coach students one on one as needed, attend to a student if they need a break, troubleshoot various issues, and assess behaviors while you focus on running the game. This can be particularly helpful with more therapeutically oriented groups, where your co-GM can play as a NPC to help encourage specific paths within the game to help clients meet their goals. Your co-GM can also be your mentor/mentee, so that can work very well as well. Furthermore, being able to get input on things you've noticed and reflect on how game went with a co-GM can really help identify if things need to change in how you are running game, and what that might look like.

5. Call parents frequently

As an applied GM, you are often working with youth who are in your group because their parents are willing to pay for your services. As such, it's important to keep lines of communication open so they can reach out to you as needed. Understanding a youth's needs from the parent's perspective can also help design the gameplay experiences better, and in turn, your ability to use the parent's input and then later report on how you were able to utilize their insight to help create a better experience for the youth (and their response) can really increase a parent's appreciation and respect for your group. Applied RPGs require enthusiastic participants and parents to thrive and grow, and it's important to remember to keep them in the loop as much as possible. I personally like to collect stories about each kid I work with, so when a parent calls, I can tell them about the time their child reached out to another youth who was struggling in a scene, and showed a lot of kindness and empathy. By helping parents understand, you're giving them insight into the black box that is your applied RPG group, and gives them shared language to use with their child to share in their joy and passion for the game.

6. Sidebar with youth

Each quarter, during session 0, I like to have a sidebar with each youth, and check in with them (often times, especially now that things are online, I do sidebar check ins more frequently). This helps them understand that your door is always open to talk, and gives them a space to voice any concerns, thoughts, or anxieties. I also like to ask them, apart from the group, what they want to experience in this quarter, and use that to help build investment and a sense of agency. If I can give the player who wants a pet dragon a quest to get said dragon, they're more likely to engage with a lot of the other material, and by modeling high levels of engagement, they promote that in other players (although it's important to not let one player steal the spotlight constantly, but that's an entirely different post altogether.)

7. Let the kids run game

When possible, have the students guest GM. I believe that the best way to learn something is to do it, and by GMing, students can learn some very important social skills, as well as any applied skills as they become emergent though the game. It can also serve as a great way to build community and let the players support each other, and also highlight players that may have a promising future as an applied GM. (The reason I was willing to hire my former student was she had run a few guest sessions when she was a student, and based on my assessment of her skills, I was willing to advocate for her being hired.)

8. Use a wiki

While this is a good thing to do for traditional RPG groups, it can be very helpful in giving players the ability to document and look up things as needed. A lot of players may struggle with remembering things, but if the material is present in the wiki, that allows them to search for it and find  it without being stressed out that they have forgotten. Furthermore, a lot of youth want to contribute to the group in their own way, and helping organize and document things in the wiki can be a great way for them to accomplish that and feel a sense of agency and belonging.

9. Create an online community

While this is a given during the pandemic, creating  a discord channel for my groups was one of the best things I ever did. By giving the students a space online to communicate outside of group, they formed friendships, planned for game, helped each other build characters, and more recently, found a space for sharing self advocacy tips. The latter was surprising, but when the students began sharing horror stories about bad teachers, one of the students chimed in and outlined the best way to deal with that situation, and how to tell an adult so they could approach school leadership. I was amazed that this had organically grown from a discord group devoted to helping build characters and discuss game, but I couldn't be more proud. The other fun benefit is creating an in-character channel for the kids to converse as their characters, and having a few NPCs thrown in there can mix things up during the downtime and make things really interesting!

10. Network!

Sadly, with cons still closed due to the pandemic, Twitter is the best way to network with other applied GMs, but by checking out the hashtags and looking at who people follow, you can find some amazing people doing all kinds of cool work in the applied RPG scene. Once conventions open up again, this will only increase, with applied GMs being able to go out for lunch and talk shop, which helps you both learn new skills and find new supports. I for one desperately miss hanging out with my favorite applied RPG people, and once cons are back in action, there's going to be a lot of long overdue lunch dates where we discuss the future of applied RPGs, and how we're going to make that happen.

Hope you found these helpful! If you have any other tips, reach out to me at @rollforkindness on Twitter! Thanks for reading!