A few weeks back, I looked at some of the most common mistakes game masters make. Turns out that list wasn’t complete, not by a long shot. Many more errors lurked just within my own experiences, so I plumbed the depths to produce another list. When the goal is to improve one’s GMing skills, there is no mistake too grievous, no gaffe too embarrassing to learn from.
1. Not Reading the Rules
GMs are busy people, and roleplaying books are thick!* Surely you can get by without reading through the whole thing. You’re more into narrative than rules crunch anyway, so why waste time reading rules you’re going to ignore?
Strange as it may sound, a lot of GMs run systems they haven’t fully read. The results are often messy. Rules provide support. They exist to do some of the heavy lifting so the GM can focus on the more creative aspects, such as crafting a dramatic narrative or fine-tuning the perfect dungeon. When GMs don’t read the rules, they lose out on that support and have to work much harder. Mouse Guard’s turn system, for example, gives an excellent structure on which to craft an adventure. Without understanding that system, you’d have to build everything by hand.
Game masters act as referees when players do something questionable. Is allowing this new class/feat combination a good idea? Do automatic weapons really work that way? If GMs aren’t well versed in the rules, they won’t know which way to jump in this kind of situation. At best, they’ll say no to perfectly reasonable player suggestions. At worst, they’ll let monstrously powerful combinations slip through, ruining the game for everyone.
Even if you’re like me and house-rule a system until it’s barely recognizable, you’ve got to read the rules. Otherwise, you won’t know what rules to ignore or how adding one will affect the game’s balance and play dynamic.
How to Avoid It
Obviously, if you can, read the rules. To save time, skip the flavor material. Setting and flavor are great, but you can make up your own if need be. What’s important is understanding the underlying mechanics. Skim until you see a mention of a die roll or difficulty number. That’s when you need to buckle down and read.
If you’re still short on time, limit the available material. For games like Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, or World of Darkness, disallow anything outside the core books. This way you won’t need to read a bunch of expansion books because the players want special prestige classes.
As a last resort, you can employ a trusted player to be your subcontracted rules lawyer. You’re giving this player a lot of power, so be absolutely sure they’re responsible. Before each session, review your plans with that player to make sure you haven’t accidentally created a no-win scenario. When a rules question comes up, direct it to your new assistant. With the basics covered, you’ll have more time to focus on big-picture planning between sessions. Remember: players willing to shoulder this much burden are rare. If no one in your group fits the bill, don’t try to force it.
2. Treating Rules as Dogma
OK, so now you’ve read the rules, and that was a lot of work, which means you’ve got to follow them exactly. Obviously the designers knew their system better than you ever could. No one at your table shall question their sacred edicts!
Despite the passage in nearly every roleplaying book that says you don’t have to follow the rules if you don’t want to, GMs can still be hesitant to go off-book. For some, it’s because they don’t know the system in question very well, so they don’t feel comfortable modifying the rules. Others really do believe the rules are sacrosanct. After all, they must have been written that way for a reason, even if it’s not apparent right now.
I’ll let you in on a secret: game designers are not gods. They make mistakes all the time, and the results are obvious. 3.5 D&D’s Bard wasn’t meant to be underpowered—the designers didn’t balance it correctly. World of Darkness didn’t make the Retainer Merit overpowered on purpose. If you see a problem in the rules, chances are it actually is a problem and not some mistake on your part. It’s also possible the rule in question works fine for most groups but clashes with your unique play style.
Forcing your players to use a rule they don’t like makes them resent the system. It’s a constant irritant they can’t escape. Over time, their frustration will build until they never want to play that system again. This can happen even over very small issues. How many people would still play D&D if their GM required them to keep track of every spell component?
More specifically, refusing to house-rule means trapping some players with underpowered characters. They didn’t know that the Beast Master Ranger was the weakest class in D&D’s fifth edition, and now their only option is to start a character from scratch. The same is true of overpowered characters. If you never house-rule the fifth edition Druid, it will completely dominate your game.
How to Avoid It
First, keep a tally of any rules you have a problem with at the table. That way you aren’t trying to tackle the whole system at once. When you have the problem areas in sight, imagine them from a player’s perspective. Would you enjoy playing a class that’s so clearly underpowered? This step is important, because sometimes players complain about a rule even when it’s perfectly fine.
If something is potentially overpowered, imagine having to play alongside it. Would your PC feel marginalized if someone else in your group could gain endless health by transforming into a different monster each round?
When you have the process down, check in with your players between sessions. See if anything bothers them, and get an explanation. This information will further hone your targeting parameters and allow you to pinpoint problems in need of correction.
3. Making Players Uncomfortable
Good stories are applauded for pushing audiences outside of their comfort zone, so it’s not hard to imagine roleplaying games can do the same. Anyone who objects must be part of this new “PC Generation,”* always wanting to be sheltered from the world and what have you, right?
Not quite. While it is possible to approach difficult subjects through roleplaying, you have to be really careful. Reading a book that might be triggering isn’t so bad, because it can be put down. However, it’s awkward to walk away from the campaign table, and many players will sit through sequences that make their skin crawl so as not to appear rude.
Roleplaying is more personal than any other storytelling medium. Fewer barriers exist between audience and character. In fact, in many ways the audience and character are the same. When something happens to a character, it can feel like it’s happening to the player as well. That’s bad enough when the player is only brooding about a failed sword roll. If it’s something that truly upsets them, things can get so much worse.
Uncomfortable players don’t enjoy the game. They might put up with it for a few sessions, but eventually they’ll either leave the game or start lashing out from all the pent up negativity. The bad blood can seep into real life as well. You don’t want to become known as the GM whose games creep players out. You’ll have a hard time finding new faces at the gaming table, and you might find yourself bereft of friends.
How to Avoid It
Start with a few cultural norms.* Explicit sex and extremely graphic descriptions of violence should be off the table unless you know the whole party is OK with them. Describing a few errant kisses or a mortal sword-strike is fine, but don’t get more anatomically descriptive without checking if it’s acceptable.
You should also leave out any prejudice that a player likely deals with in real life. People who experience sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, etc., every day may not want to deal with it in their roleplaying games. If they’re interested in those issues as part of their character’s story, they’ll let you know. And please, don’t use your game to hit on people. Most GMs know this, but there’s always someone who tries it.
Beyond that, every person has different personal boundaries. If you suspect something you did made a player uncomfortable, ask them about it away from the table, where they won’t feel pressured to go with the flow. If they tell you that something in your game creeped them out, don’t get defensive about it. Just remember not to do it next time.
4. Not Concluding When They Should
Sometimes, a game goes so well that you want to keep playing it forever. So, you do. Why plan an ending that would just ruin all the fun? Keep the game going because it can only get better. Never mind that the characters are getting stale, and that other games gaze longingly at you from their place on the shelf. That’s quitter talk.
The truth is that all games must come to an end. The question is, will it be an awesome ending to tell stories about or a sad whimper no one brings up? When a campaign runs past its natural endpoint, signs appear fast. Character arcs are resolved, and nothing steps up to take their place. PCs stop developing because their journeys are complete. The best villains are all defeated or no longer seem worth fighting. Boss fights lose their zest because their emotional core is gone.
Even the best game can fall victim to this mistake; in fact, they’re the most likely to do so. Only the best games tempt you to keep playing them for ever and ever. Unfortunately, no matter how awesome the campaign, players will eventually get bored. They’ll start making excuses that they can’t make it this week, or the next, until eventually the game fades away. That’s no way to end your epic story!
In a strange twist, really bad games suffer from this mistake as well. These games are clearly doomed from the start, but the GM insists on staying with them in the vain hope that things will get better. Eventually, the players’ tolerance runs out, and they become far less likely to return the next time that GM wants to run something.
How to Avoid It
Knowing when to end is tricky. You don’t want to accidentally cut a good thing short, after all. If you’re having trouble, set yourself some long-term goals for what you’d like to accomplish. If possible, tie them to one or more PCs. First goal, put Sir Miko on the throne. Second goal, reveal the secret of dragon sorcery. Third goal, make Elchor the Wise head of the mage guild, etc. Five or six is usually enough, but your mileage may vary. When most of the goals have been met, you know it’s time to wrap things up.
If that’s not enough, set yourself a session limit. You have to accomplish each goal in a specific amount of time. The exact number of sessions will depend on how long you want a campaign to go, but for beginners I recommend no more than two or three sessions per goal. That’ll keep you focused and not tempted to launch a tangential story whenever something strikes your fancy.
You can also use your PCs’ character arcs as a measuring stick. Keep track of where they are after each session. When they’re all finished, or nearly finished, it’s time for the finale.
For a game that’s in the dumps, knowing when to stop is a lot more subjective. Some games do get better after they’ve had a few sessions to grow, while others will only get worse. My advice is to wait three sessions, then think about how the game makes you feel. If it’s something you only do out of a sense of obligation, then put a stop to it. Roleplaying is too time consuming to do if you aren’t enjoying it.
5. Not Planning the Finale
Approaching your game with a concrete plan for how things will go is a bad idea. We covered that last time while discussing GMs who try to tell their novel at the table. As such, it’s reasonable to start the campaign with a very open story plan. Just don’t make it too open.
While railroading is bad, not planning the ending at all can be worse. If you only run from session to session, never considering the eventual finale, your story will become a confused mess. An ending is supposed to satisfy previously established foreshadowing and buildup. Without a plan, you won’t be able to do that, and your ending will be hollow.
Roleplaying is storytelling in real time. The session can go to all kinds of bizarre places if the PCs take it there. You might start a session having tea with an alien president and end in an arena sword fight. Now multiply that unpredictability over multiple sessions. There’s no way to bring all that randomness into an ending that makes it all click together.
No matter how much bang you put into the final boss fight, it won’t hit home if it comes out of nowhere. Without proper setup, even a well-executed finale won’t have the punch you need to be truly memorable.
How to Avoid It
Planning the finale ahead of time is difficult, no doubt, but you should do it anyway. Keep your ideas general. Instead of plotting out exactly who will do what, keep it abstract. Create a theme but not specific actors or circumstances. If your PCs are warriors of the River Clan, don’t plan every detail of a massive invasion from the Imperial capital. Just remember that the River Clan will have to deal with a threat to its sovereignty. You’ll create the threat later.
Once you know where you’re going, you can shape events in the campaign to get you there. Fill in the specifics as you go. If one morning you decide it would be really cool for your PCs to fight a crew of sapient rats, make said rats the heralds of a larger army that will eventually threaten the River Clan’s sovereignty.
Keep the plan open to change. By the time you reach the final session, it may not look anything like your original vision. That’s OK. Roleplaying games can and should be spontaneous. What’s important is that the game as a whole is aimed at a single point, even if that point moves around.
All GMs make mistakes, and unlike other storytelling mediums, we can’t use editing to hide them. The goal is not perfection – that’s impossible – but to constantly improve. If you find yourself making one of the errors on this list, don’t beat yourself up. You’re in good company. Focus your energy on doing better next time.