As I've mentioned in this column, years ago I used to jock a blues radio show. Being a disk jockey is a type of performance art, like being a DM, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised when I see similarities between the two.
One of the things I used to experience as an on-air jock was the oft-disappointing difference between planning and reality—that is, what I hoped for my show versus how the show actually went. Because the station was small, I used to do my own engineering—cue up music, set levels, run sound beds, talk with listeners, record calls, etc.—and it made for a crazy show. I used to arrive with a grand idea in my head of a perfect show: perfect song transitions, no dead air, good recordings, yada yada, but as you might expect, things rarely went according to plan. The reality was that I might have 7 minutes and 43 seconds before the top of the hour ID and needed to find two songs to perfectly fill that time slot, that went together, the first from the 80s and the second one current, picked from the limited rotation list, and I needed to do this while taking a listener request call and making hand gestures to the news talent through a window. My ratings were good and the listeners seemed happy, but I often left a touch disappointed that things didn't go exactly as planned.
Well and good, you say, but what does this have to do with RPGs, Rick? Well, you can probably see were this is going. My DMing has turned out similar in practice to the radio show. Feverishly written notes, scribbled directions, drawn maps, Post-It reminders ... but in the end it comes down to what direction the players go, what they do, and how well I go with the flow. A part of good DMing is ad-lib and performance in the face of the unexpected. Sometimes I'm good, and can even make lemons from lemonade, but other times... In a recent session, a dreaded city session, the players asked about some folks in town and I needed a name and simply came up blank. That naming part off my brain, after spinning out a lot of names already that session, now had a BACK IN 10 MINUTES sign hanging where a nifty NPC name should have been. Most embarrassing, to say the least. I want every session to be killer, and it's damned hard to settle for less, especially when the responsibility is 95% mine.
I'm now finally coming to terms with the reality of game performance. Those NPCs probably won't be voiced perfectly. I may not have a great name or new townsperson waiting in the wings for every occasion (though now I keep a list of names at the ready). But I've learned to be happy with my best effort, even if it doesn't live up to those pre-game aspirations. Keep your aspirations, honor them in play if you can, but if at the end of the day your players are raring for more and you had a good time, that's reward enough.