282 Practice Playing RPG's

Sometimes, there’s no shortcut for experience. We talked with Tim D about this a bit when we had him on to talk AS&SH. We need to try and do and keep trying and doing to get good at something. It’s been said you need 10,000 hours to be proficient at a skill. Does this apply to RPGs? GMs and Players?

1 Like

I think a lot of good points were made here. Practice helps, but I agree it’s a lot more like a writer or a painter practicing, than a carpenter.


You can learn the mechanics but but only by doing can you actually gain experience.
It reminds me of when @sean was pondering over a way to teach new DMs how to easily handle the chaos of a complex encounter. Sometimes no matter how many tools you have in your box, if you haven’t use them you’ll probably have to fiddle with them a bit to get’em work the way you want. Or maybe to know if they fit the job or not.


Interesting episode @sean and @Fafhrd. I haven’t completely finished it so I may come back and add to what I’m writing here. But I’m mostly writing to give a little more context to the “10,000 hours” estimate. I’m a cognitive psychologist and the research on expertise comes out of cognitive psych and artificial intelligence. I haven’t read any of Malcolm Gladwell books but as far as I know he made a big splash about 15 years ago distilling a lot of psychology (much of it cognitive psychology) in popular press books. Looking at his Wikipedia entries for his books, I see a number of psychologists have criticized his conclusions (the problem with pop psych is that it wants to distill messy research findings into overly simplistic sound bites).

So, I don’t know where he gets the 10,000 hours estimate. I’m more familiar with the 10 years estimate to become an expert. I checked one of my cognitive psych textbooks to find out if there was a direct reference, but I couldn’t find one, and the textbook author, Margaret Matlin, states that most researchers in this area have moved away from the 10 years estimate because it’s too simplistic a statement–people show different rates of obtaining expertise depending on the field.

Nonetheless, experts on experts (ha!) emphasize that to become an expert you need to practice deliberately on a daily basis for a large chunk of time. Most of the research on expertise has focused on chess masters, physics professors, and memorists (those who can perform exceptional feats of memory). Usually these studies are in comparison to novices.

Compared to novices, experts:

  1. have more extensive knowledge/memory of the area (i.e., frees up cognitive resources),

  2. can easily cross-reference their knowledge,

  3. can recognize deep structure of problem, whereas novices focus on the surface structure,

  4. use means-end analysis (i.e., solving by subproblems),

  5. use analogical reasoning (i.e., use solutions from past problems to guide current problems if they share deep structure),

  6. and better monitor their problem solving (i.e., have better meta-cognition).

Expertise is very much domain-specific, meaning having expertise in one area doesn’t make an expert knowledgeable in all areas. For example, Chao Lu set the world-record for reciting the first 67,890 digits of pi in 2005 (his record has since been surpassed by Rajveer Meena who has recited 70k–the unofficial record is over 100k!). When memory researchers tested his memory for random digits, his span was in the normal range, not different from you or I. What Chao Lu (and I assume Meena) learned to do was rapidly convert digits into words and then string the words together to make a story. When he set the record he had to reconvert the story/words back to digits. I think he had hoped to set the record at over 100k, but made a mistake at the almost 68k mark–his record stood for just 10 years. Chao Lu estimates he spent about 7-10 years practicing to set the record, the last year intensively because he was unemployed. The research on expertise strongly points to learning and practice over innate skill.

Although, I haven’t finished listening to the episode, I think I’m more in line with @Fafhrd. I think this becomes a prickly topic because people get sensitive regarding the discussion of experience with RPGs and interpreting any discussion of such as gatekeeping. I think a lot of that thinking comes from an illicit conversion in conditional reasoning. Conditional reasoning takes the form “If p, then q.” So, for instance, “if a person has a lot of experience with RPGs, then they will be a better GM/Referee.” People who grouse at that statement, I believe, do so because they make the illicit conversion of “If q, then p.” Therefore, “If a person is a better GM/Referee, then they have a lot of experience with RPGs.” That would be a logical fallacy. People learn at different rates, and some people are quick to take to various skills.


I don’t know if I’m going to be able to recover from the term, “Jeff Deep.”

Regarding the discussion on pregens, I’ve said it before elsewhere on the site, but Mike Shea’s pregen characters in his Sly Flourish adventures are great–they have choices like race, ability scores, and class all determined, but with a few choices, like backgrounds and traits, left open for customization.

Digging in to the 10,000 hours of practice angle–I think one of the advantages of GM advice and the discussion of best practices is not that you will never make mistakes after hearing that advice, but you may be more likely to recognize when you are making the mistake in the moment, because something about the situation sounds familiar, based on GM advice you have heard.

In other words, good instruction and advice probably cuts down on how many of those 10,000 hours you really need to participate in for the development of skills.

Doing things with intentionality changes the potential outcome. If you put in 10,000 hours playing without thinking much about developing particular skills, you may develop some new tricks and best practices, but thinking about, for example, encounter structure, when an encounter doesn’t work, you are more likely to make that mental checklist of what isn’t working and what is missing.

Getting REALLY good, you don’t just think about what went wrong, but what you can do in the moment to correct.

A lot of all of this boils down to communicating intent. Mechanics can definitely reinforce genre and transform a blah framework of a game into something that is great for doing a very specific thing, but it’s going to be way easier to use those tools if the game designer tells you why they think mechanic A reinforces genre trope B.

It’s one of the things I love about 13th Age. The sidebars aren’t just a factual statement about why mechanics do what they do, but are an ongoing discussion about the designers intent, and where they evolved how the game worked.

The quality of those 10,000 hours is going to vary a lot. 10,000 hours of running only D&D won’t produce the same results as running 10,000 hours of running different RPGs, playing different RPGs, and consuming media from various different soruces from which the genre tropes of games are drawn.

I’m not saying everyone should do this, but me watching Star Wars movies over and over again will lead to me having a better handle on running Star Wars RPGs. But me sitting down and saying, “what are the traits of the the criminal underworld in Star Wars?” and watching the movies while taking notes whenever some criminal element shows up gives me a lot of tropes to drop into an Edge of the Empire game.

On the other hand, cutting down on the gap between having 0 hours and having 10,000 hours would be game designers TELLING US WHAT THEIR INTENT IS. Ahem.

I could never wrap my head around the Keep on the Borderlands, because I don’t know why the PCs hang out with each other and how they get to the Keep. On the other hand, if the adventure had literally said, “don’t worry how they got here, let them fill in the details later,” I would have relaxed and done that.

On the other hand, I “got” The Isle of Dread, because right near the start it says “the PCs should be hanging out here, and there are a handful of ways you can get them on a boat heading for the island with a purpose.”


I posed the question, of what are “rule mechanics that encouraging role playing.” I have been thinking over Brett’s response, and I am paraphrasing, but as I recall it was something like, “I am experienced, so it’s not a problem.” Well, huh?

I am too, but I need help at times. My gaming group goes back decades and tends towards power gaming and D&D.

Systems and rules that would help them role play more and dovetail into power gaming would be nice. Do they exist? Maybe?

We do practice and they are good power gamers. That said, I will still try and loosen them up, but, as the “Rule of Sean” states, “give them what they want” and so I do.

As for practice, it does help, but needs to be coupled to interest to make the most of it.

Experience and practice go a long way of making most anything better which I guess is what Brett was getting at. And I do agree, but it is not an absolute.

If I was to play Cold Shadow’s and I am not well-read on 70’s spy craft, rule mechanics could be helpful with setting a tone and environment for the game. In doing so it could encourage role playing.

That said, practice, practice, practice and everything gets better.

Please excuse the following diatribe, but creativity is an important subject to me.

Does the idea of 10,00 hours of practice apply to creativity? Absolutely! It does, because creativity is a skill.

Just like with any skill practice matters. How do you come up with stories, tavern names or game maps? Easy, you do it. This is not a cop out, because the first time might be difficult. The more you do it the easier it gets. Why? Because you go to the internet, ask friends, listen to podcasts. You gather information and choose what you like. Guess what that is…it’s creativity.

Sean mentioned Apollo 13 and the box of stuff they had to work with to save the astronauts. In art that might be called, “a limited palette.”

The act of limiting choices does not make creativity harder but helps focus thinking and in doing so makes it easier.

People are creative. Hard stop. This podcast is all about creativity. At the beginning of an episode a question is posed and what follows is often fun and creative solutions to it. However, for some reason when we grow up many forget, ignore or chose to believe otherwise, but all of us are creative.


I finished listening to the episode. I don’t think the rest of the podcast changed anything I wrote above. One thing I didn’t address but that matters a lot, probably more than anything, is motivation. People who excel at skills and become experts do so because they are highly motivated to learn something. I think if you are a DM/GM/Judge/Referee that desires to become “better,” you are going to be motivated to learn what works and doesn’t work at the table, depending on your game and your players.

I think it’s hard to judge what “better” would be, because it’s a vague criterion. If you run a game and people had fun, then you were a success. But for me, when I think about being a better GM/Referee, I want people to remember me as being part of one of their best RPG experiences. I’ve played with many competent GMs in games I’ve had fun, but I don’t really remember the games that well. And then there are others that completely stand out to me. And I think in those cases, the system is having some effect and the type of gaming experience to me matters. I’ve found I really prefer older-style descriptive play over “roll” playing, like you see more in modern games.

1 Like