1. Telling Your Novel
Because roleplaying is a form of storytelling, it’s no surprise that many GMs are also writers.* The problem is when the walls between novel and campaign start to break down. Roleplaying games and long form prose are very different mediums. They can’t be told the same way, but that doesn’t stop some GMs from trying.
This mistake manifests in GMs that have planned out every last detail of the narrative. They aren’t interested in player input because the story is already finished. The players will never succeed in their siege of Castle Plot Shield, because the GM has already planned a different fate for it. Typically, the novelist GM will have a stable of super important NPCs around to do the job of main character, leaving the PCs in a supporting role at best. Worse than railroading, this makes the players watch while someone else saves the day.
Novel telling also crops up in GMs who have a theme or message they want to communicate and don’t know when to stop. Yes, it’s great to have a campaign about the futility of war, but you can’t force that message on the PCs by having your super protagonist NPC turn all their weapons into candy canes.
This kind of game alienates players fast. What might have been an interesting story is now ruined because they have no input. If they don’t like where the game is going, too bad. They’ve got to tough it out, knowing they are mere observers in these grand events. Or they might just not come back next week.
How to Avoid It
If you’ve got a campaign idea that might work better as a novel or short story, write it. Writing is fun!* Once the story is written, you’ll always have it. No matter in what weird direction the PCs take your game, the original will be safe on your hard drive or submitted to a publisher. Then you can use Sapphire Castle as the setting for your campaign without it being ruined by meddling PCs and their dog.
When you find yourself crafting an epic campaign in which everything must turn out just so, stop and replace the NPC protagonists with PCs. If your story depends on a genetically engineered team of super soldiers, tell the players to roll up some genetically engineered super soldiers. Now your grand story turns on what the PCs do. It will be way less tempting to override their actions when you don’t have a team of backup NPCs to take over.
GMs worth their screen know railroading is bad, and sometimes they overcompensate. They stick their players in the middle of a setting with no direction and ask, “What do you do?” Some GMs do this because they didn’t have time to plan a story. Others, because they want to give the PCs absolute freedom. Either way, the results are the same.
Unless you have extremely active players, they’ll stand around wondering what to do. On the first session, they don’t know the setting or their characters. They have no basis from which to formulate a plan. Instead, they suffer analysis paralysis and do nothing. Even with a few sessions under their belts, players often desire guidance from the GM. If they wanted to think of the whole story themselves, they’d be sitting behind the screen.
Sometimes players will seize on the absolute freedom they’re offered, but without a guiding voice, they’ll all take that freedom in different directions. Each player will pick something important to their character and pursue it exclusively. The PCs drift apart, rarely interacting with each other from their cloistered corners. Therein lies the peril of meandering.
How to Avoid It
Give your players a direction, and see how they respond. Describe the setting, their place in it, and then something important happening, something out of the ordinary that affects them all. They’re wealthy merchants in the city of Plotopia, and a dragon attacks! Or the neighboring kingdom’s army is at the door. Or the princess is marrying her three husbands, and everyone in the city is required to attend. Then ask what they do.
You aren’t dictating your PCs’ actions; you’re giving them a push. Whether they go with the push or fight against it is up to them. With that foundation to build on, most players will have some idea of how to react. Then you can fill in the rest based on their actions. Do they choose to fight the dragon? Then it’s a dragon slaying game. Do they refuse to attend the Princess’s wedding? Then it’s a game about fleeing an angry monarch.
The PCs still have freedom, and you can get by with a minimum of planning by letting their choices guide the story.
3. Overdeveloping the World
Storytellers get weird about worldbuilding. Many guides advocate planning as much of your world as possible, mapping everything from equator to pole and back again. You must understand every facet of your fictional society, they insist. What trade goods do airships carry above the Quiet Gap? What crops are grown in the Screaming Fields? This is all essential information that will make your story a richer one.
Not really, it turns out. Even in very long-running campaigns, the players will only explore a tiny fraction of your world. If something doesn’t show up in a session, it doesn’t matter. All the work you put into mapping the Obsidian Peaks is wasted if the players never go there. When you put your time into this kind of nonfunctional work, it means less time for what matters. Your villains will be less lifelike, your combats not as well planned. It also means less time for sleep, and we could all use more of that.
Worse, overdeveloping your world reduces your story’s flexibility. Everything’s already written down, and without meaning to, you’ll close the door on great possibilities. If the PCs are searching for a dragon, they might speculate that it has taken refuge in the next valley over. Too bad you’ve already put a heavily defended fortress in that valley. Throwing that fortress out so the players can pursue their ideas means letting a lot of work go to waste, and many GMs will hesitate to do it.
GMs who overdevelop their worlds are tempted to over-exposit as well. They’ve done so much work creating a unique hierarchy for the city’s criminal underworld, and they really want to share it. Never mind that the PCs aren’t interested in organized crime.
How to Avoid It
If your campaign is based in a single location, imagine the world radiating out from it. The area closest to the PCs, where they spend the most time, should be as well-developed as possible. If they’re union workers, the area is the factory where they’re employed. For royal guards, it’s the king’s castle. The world gets more abstract the further from home you get. How far away is the nearest neighboring city? A few days. What does that city do? Trade. What do its people look like? They wear funny hats. If the PCs ever become interested in something outside their home turf, then you can fully define it.
If your campaign moves from place to place, this becomes a bit more challenging. Don’t build all the places they might potentially go—that way lies madness. Instead, create a few potential destinations, but keep the details vague: a mountain town, an underwater ruin, a foreboding castle. Once you’ve completed the broad swaths, you can slot them in wherever your PCs go. “You travel west for three days? Yes, let me tell you about the abandoned keep you find on the way.”
You don’t need detailed descriptions of these places, because the players have only just arrived. They don’t know anything about the area, so they won’t notice that you haven’t fully mapped out all the sewer lines and air ducts. If they like it enough to stick around, then you can go into greater detail.
4. Making the Game About You
Some GMs like being a player so much, they do it in their own games. How does that work, you ask? Poorly. These game masters create a special NPC and plant it in the party’s midst. Soon that NPC is taking the spotlight at every opportunity and rushing in to save the day before anyone else gets the chance.
Players serve as advocates for their characters. When a character’s advocate has a GM’s power and authority, abuse follows. The GM’s character has no limits and no one to reign it in when things get out of hand. No PC can equal the GM, because regular players are bound by rules that don’t apply to the GM.
The natural reaction is resentment. Players don’t take hours out of their day to hear how awesome the GM’s character is. Every time the special NPC solves a problem or shows up the other characters, that resentment grows. Eventually it turns into anger. Nothing’s more frustrating than being told your character can’t do something because the GM’s beautiful and unique snowflake already did it.
How to Avoid It
If you’re running a game and one of your NPCs looks like player-character material, make a note of it for the next time someone else is running a game. The character might be as cool as you imagined, or they might not, but either way you’ll get to find out without ruining your players’ fun.
If you still find yourself tempted by a particularly cool NPC, give them some traits you don’t enjoy playing. Make them greedy, or rude, or cowardly, whatever turns you off. If that’s not enough, make them less powerful or weak enough that they can never outshine your players. The key is to remove temptation by any means necessary.
5. Assuming Success
Player characters tend to be good at what they do, so it’s a surprise when they fail a roll. Some GMs take this to heart, assuming the dice will always go in the PCs favor and treating rolls as a mere formality. This assumption is reinforced by system upon system in which failure is a rare beast. However, no matter how rare, failures do happen. Unwary GMs can find themselves in a pickle when the dice don’t return the expected results.
Sometimes GMs will announce consequences for failures that they aren’t prepared to follow through with. If the PC fails a roll to save the young heir from certain death, it messes up the arc of putting that child back on the rightful throne. The GM is left wondering where to take the story next. Some can roll with the punches, but others will flounder.
Just as common, GMs will often call for a roll that has no interesting consequences for failure. “Roll to climb the tree. You fail? I guess the tree is angry now.” When that happens, the GM must either conjure consequences out of thin air or sheepishly admit that the roll didn’t actually matter. This often comes up in mystery games, when the PCs must discover a vital clue but keep failing their investigation rolls. Eventually, the GM will find a way to just give them the clue.
How to Avoid It
At the start of a story arc, make a list of the various elements you need for a satisfactory conclusion. They can include NPCs, items, locations, anything vital to the story. Usually, the player characters will be on the list as well. Armed with this list, you’ll know what can’t be wagered on the outcome on a random roll. Make sure to update it occasionally as your story evolves.
To address rolls without failure consequences, don’t roll when their are no consequences for failure. This is a tough habit to break; it’s been drilled into us by years of 3.5 D&D. But it can be done. Whenever you call for a roll, say the consequences for failure out loud. If you can’t think of anything to say, just describe the character getting what they want in a cool manner.
In either situation, remember that it’s OK to tell the group you made a mistake and rewind a little. They’ll forgive you if it means a better game.
GMing is a skill, and like any other it improves with practice. Most GMs will make all of these mistakes at some point in their career; what’s important is to recognize them. Once you’ve done this, you will continue to improve until players tremble at the sound of your dice. Or maybe they’ll be banging down the door to play.