The most important skill for starting your group

One thing I get asked a lot for is advice on starting your applied RPG group. A solid start can spell the difference between a group that lasts a quarter, and a group that lasts for years, so it's very important to be incredibly intentional with how you start the group- both in planning and receptiveness.

I've written about things you should think about before starting your group, including session 0, choosing a game, and table rules. But all of that pales in comparison to your intentionality as a facilitator.

Many people coming into the field of therapeutic and intentional or applied gaming think that if they make it, it will happen, whatever it is. I see this with a lot of use of video games as well. The result is that the passive benefits of the game occur, but little else: Games work as a great way to build rapport, create fun escapism, and make friends. If this is your goal for your group, then you don't need much planning, as a lot of this stuff happens organically. And it's great- there's no problem with those things, and they serve an incredible purpose, especially with social distancing making it harder to find quality time together.

But what separates an intentional games facilitator from any other GM is that the games they run go beyond those basic passive benefits, and hit those intentional goals. And to do that, you need to understand this simple concept: The goals of the group outweigh the game at every level. This is not to say that the game isn't important- it absolutely is, but the goals always take precident. In my six years of running applied and intentional groups, this has been the most important lesson I've learned.

To illustrate the point, let me point to two sessions, one from my early days as a DM, and one from more recently.

In my early days running social skills groups, I was still learning, and had this idea that if I created a fun session, the students would automatically learn social skills. And there's some truth to that, but I was not being intentional. I was fixated on the idea of creating a cool system, an interesting world, and using my skills as a storyteller to tell a fun story. The session in question involved a page of a spellbook being stolen, and the players had to run through the city, encountering all kinds of obstacles, and eventually capturing the thief. Overall, the group enjoyed it, but I realized, reflecting on what had just happened, that there was no actual direction to build social skills. Instead, they just got to try out this cool chase system I designed. It was fun, but not intentional.

Since starting to take a goals based approach, I've been a lot more focused on the group goals. This does not mean sacrificing the cool story ideas you have in your head (although this does happen, I've cut NPCs who I love because they serve no real purpose). What it means is that you are focused on the group's objectives above your ideas. So, in practice, this looked like a series of sessions surrounding a WWE style cage match. The students all took different roles- spreading rumors before the match, setting up special effects, or taking on the role of wrestlers. Then they had the match, with the entire party working together to put on the most flashy, entertaining show they could manage. The goal here was to build communication skill and teach the value of teamwork, and it was incredibly effective, with the students seeing the results of their actions and strategic teamwork play out in real time, and electing to support each other to make the show a success. And it was. Every student had their moment in the spotlight, and many of the students who had struggled with making friends in the group suddenly had the support of the entire party, encouraging them and afterwards telling them how awesome they were. I felt a lot more positive about my role as a social skills facilitator after that session than the one I mentioned earlier.

The most important skill for new GMs in this field is to get outside your own head, and look at the group. The group goals should be the basis on which you build the entire campaign, and the group itself should inform what changes you make to the campaign to make it more accessible to the group. Being a GM makes it very easy to get lost in the stories and worlds inside your head, but the most important part of being an intentional GM is being able to put that to the side, and focus on the group, and build the world from that framework, rather than applying the group goals to your world.

Hope this helps you start your own groups. Feel free to hit me up on twitter @rollforkindness any time to chat about intentional gaming!