You hear it all the time: “Don’t make promises you can’t keep.” You know it’s good advice; what you may not realize is that it applies to your GMing, as well as to your life.
“But I haven’t promised anything!” you protest.
Think again. We make promises to our players all the time without realizing it. Do you ask your players to provide a character background? Your players are going to expect you to use things from their background in the game. Do you provide your players with detailed information about weapons? They’re going to expect a lot of combat. Do you ask them to provide a miniature of their character? They’re going to expect the use of a battlemat (at the least) and a more tactical approach to combat.
In his information to the Game Lifestyle Program, Johnn Four of Campaign Mastery and Roleplaying Tips recommends that designers notice whenever they use the word “will” — there’s usually a promise attached to that. The same goes for you and your players. Johnn’s suggestion–and it’s a good one–is to write down every time you say “will” as a to-do item. For example, if you say “I’ll look up that rule after the game session,” write down “look up rule about [situation here].” Then review these items regularly and do them.
It’s helpful to put a list of game-related “to-dos” in the front of your campaign notebook. Then scan your to-do list at the beginning of each preparation session; find the things that are important to complete to be ready (including all those rules lookups) for your next session and do those first. Then find one or two other “to dos” and do them, as well. That will help keep them from piling up until your back’s agains the wall and you suddenly need that stuff right now.
You’ll need to break larger items into a series of smaller “to-dos”. Write down each of these steps on your list as separate items. For example, if you’ve said you’ll provide painted minis for your game, don’t write “Make minis” on your list. Instead, write “order minis,” “clean minis,” “prime minis,” etc. That helps keep you from becoming overwhelmed by the enormity of a task. Make steady progress on the small items and, before you know it, you’ll have the whole project completed.
Mostly, it’s a matter of paying attention to what you say. Try not to say you’ll do something, if you’re not absolutely sure you can carry through on it. And watch what you ask of your players–they may see a promise you don’t know you’ve made.