Happiness and Growth in GMing
(Picture source: https://twitter.com/DungeonInABox/status/1256972629505912833/)
Before I say anything, let me make it clear that I’m no expert on mental health, psychology, or brain function. I’m mostly reflecting on my experiences as a GM through the lens of some ideas I’ve learned in a beginner’s study of parts of those fields. Many studies indicate that people have poor instincts when it comes to what will bring them happiness. People tend towards material desires or quantifiable advances from their current situation (like having more income, a spouse, or a bigger house). While those can bring some bump in happiness, it’s generally small and short-lived. The things that bring greater increases in overall happiness tend to be qualitative positive experiences/memories, social connections, acts of kindness, focused mental attention, time affluence, and habits that promote healthy body chemistry (particularly exercise and sleep). Amazingly, a number of those come up inherently for a GM. As the player who sets the stage for everyone else, the GM has to be involved in everything that happens during the game. Fun experiences in play lead to positive memories that can’t be measured against each other and/or against some independent standard in an objective way. Whether running for a large group or in a DM+1 game, a one-shot convention game or a long-running campaign, the act of GMing forces development of social connections. Playing any TTRPG entirely by yourself is impossible (even solo modules or solo procedural generation games require someone to have prepared the content for the player), and being a GM requires having at least one other person to play with. In TTRPGs (as opposed to story-telling games), the GM has the vast majority of narrative control by default. For other players to do anything of impact requires the GM to surrender some control to empower their characters. Even though nothing of external value is being exchanged in that, there is a natural undercurrent of generosity in doing so. Furthermore, spending any length of time as a GM requires running games that other will want to play in, so there’s a very strong incentive to prepare content that other people will find fun (particularly for a consistent group), which is again inherently a kind and generous thing to do. Running a game tends to require juggling many things, both in the game and in a greater social context. How much of the burden is on the GM will vary from system to system, table to table (or call to call these days), game to game, and even session to session, but at least in my experience, it’s pretty rare to have opportunities for wandering thoughts while running a session. I have to shift between trains of thought very often, but I’m focused on whatever has my attention at any given moment. That mindset of being in the moment more or less throughout the session is not only good for happiness in a general sense (similar to a sort of active meditation), but it also lends itself to retaining more intense, and hopefully positive, memories afterwards. Time affluence isn’t something that I’d associate with GMing; the closest it gets might be seeing the results of smarter preparation or well-constructed procedural tables/methods, and that’s still a stretch. Healthy body chemistry isn’t, either, though at least it is becoming more common to have healthier snack options than just chips and pop. Still, even without those, having four out of six major sources of increased overall happiness just by the nature of the role is impressive. In other words, not only does being a GM touch on almost all of the aesthetics of fun, but it also features many elements in practice that lead to increased happiness even outside of the game. While each individual person will have different get levels of enjoyment out of being a GM, I think it’s worthwhile for all TTRPG players to at least give it a try. It’s fun, it’ll make you happier, and having at least some degree of experience will help you introduce other people to the hobby, since the natural follow-up to “would you like to do this thing?” is for the newcomer to ask for a sample. But that’s not all! Not only does GMing have multiple natural connections with improving happiness, but those effects can be strengthened even more in the process of working on getting better at it. Depending on your opinion of your current skill level at a task and the degree of challenge that the task is presenting, your mind will tend to react with one of nine emotional signals. Now, people tend to be bad at judging their own skill level at any task until they actually achieve a high skill level, thanks to the Dunning-Kruger effect. Fortunately, since GMing is done in a generally-collaborative social context (and ideally with non-toxic people), the other players will have usually a natural tendency to adjust how much demand they’re putting on the GM in tune with the skill level that the GM actually demonstrates. What this means is that, as long as the players have freedom to exercise agency, they will usually have a subconscious inclination to put pressure on the GM in line with a medium-to-high challenge level for the GM’s current actual skill (again, assuming they aren’t the type of people who’ll seek to exploit shortcomings in a selfish way; getting one over on the GM is fine if it’s done in a way that ends up being fun for everyone). Thus, the GM’s natural emotional state will tend to be “control”, “arousal”, or “flow”, once they have the confidence and practice to generally avoid “worry” territory. These are naturally pleasing and energizing states. Even better, since the players will tend to adjust their demands dynamically as the GM’s skill develops, these states will tend to be sustained, whereas a static challenge would feel relatively lower as the person’s skill develops. And even better on top of that, being pushed by medium-to-high challenges will spur growth. Thus, on a macro scale, the result is a loop of players present challenges, GM develops skill, players present greater challenges, GM develops more skill, players present greater challenges, etc. I’d suggest trying to consciously push yourself to do more, too, whenever you feel that periods of “control” are more common than other states. The more time you spend in “flow”, the better the play experience will be for everyone involved, because that’s when you’re really putting out your maximum skill (with the added benefit of that being the most pleasing state for you personally). Thus, GMing is a hobby that both provides great natural support for promoting lasting happiness and has a natural tendency to encourage if not reinforce emotional states that enhance happiness further. I think it’s no coincidence that, even with a messy situation that ended one particular campaign, I’ve been happier overall since I got back into GMing actively. I do still have other hobbies (variety of experience is also a key component of maximizing happiness feedback, though GMing has a natural tendency to do that by default as well if you let the players direct where the game goes), but it’s hard to top the personal rewards that come from running a masterful TTRPG session. And that’ll just help prepare you do even better the next time.