Recently, I discussed how to handle troublesome players, but players aren’t the only ones who can be difficult. Whether out of stubbornness, inexperience, or a difference in play style, some GMs make campaigns difficult for players to enjoy. Problematic GMs are harder to deal with than players because they have more control, but with luck, you can still save your game. Here’s five types of problem GMs and how to handle them.
What they are: A railroader won’t give players any say in the direction of a story. They might enforce their carefully-planned events through an NPC party leader, or just make sure any action they disapprove of fails. Either way, they’re trying to run the game as though they were writing a novel.
Why they’re troublesome: There are few things more frustrating than finding yourself helpless in the face of unpleasant events, whether it’s a terrifying monster attack, or another day listening to negotiations. Without the ability to make real choices in the game, it’s difficult to keep yourself entertained and invested in the outcome.
How to deal with them: Don’t try to derail the train; you’ll just end up in an exhausting tug-of-war with the GM. Instead, you need to create something you can amuse yourself with that falls inside the parameters of what the GM commands. Now’s the time to begin your character’s quest to recruit NPCs to the worship of toilet paper, or to search for the chosen one, who has a beard and a hotdog tattoo:
You: Does the senator have a beard?
GM: No, she doesn’t.
You: I’m going to inquire whether her father has a beard, and if so, whether he is nearby.
That’s right, you’re going to become the Joker. Your GM won’t like it because it’ll ruin the mood of the game, but they gave up all rights to a serious game when they decided to cut players out of the storytelling.
What they are: The Twiddler occupies the other end of the character agency spectrum: they plop characters into a setting without any conflict, then leave them to do whatever they want. They don’t realize that if you wanted to come up with the story yourself, you would be writing a book.
Why they’re troublesome: GM prompts such as “you’re in the city, what do you do?” rarely spark the imagination. They are especially difficult to work with near the beginning of a campaign, when you’re still getting a feel for your character, and haven’t established any quests or goals. Regardless of the timing, without intervention, Twiddler-run campaigns will be slow at best, incredibly boring at worst.
How to deal with them: To save the game, you have to take the lead. Now’s the time to come up with a random goal for you and your party to work toward. This goal should require thwarting dozens of unsuspecting NPCs. That will keep it challenging. If your campaign still feels slow, make your plan crazier.
You: I’m going to kidnap the natives and convince them I’m a god.
GM: Okay, but they’re a tribe of atheists.
You: I put together a disguise to make myself resemble Atheia, goddess of atheism.
Twiddlers are generally laid back; there’s a good chance your GM will happily go along with whatever you decide. However, it’s also possible that your GM is taking a long time to establish a plot arc they’ve already planned. If they start to bring on the action and intrigue, work with them to transition from your crazy plan to their sane one.
What they are: Grinders provide plenty of conflicts – but all of those conflicts are hack-and-slash dungeon crawling, with only the barest excuse from some terrorized village to be fighting in the first place. Whether they aren’t interested in telling stories or just don’t know how to make their stories compelling, the game mechanics are all the players are left with.
Why they’re troublesome: These days, most roleplayers are interested in storytelling – otherwise they’d just play a video game. It’s hard to get excited about a roleplaying game without a story, and it’s even worse if your character is built for diplomacy or other non-violent tactics. The time invested in a unique character is wasted without an opportunity to put their skills to use.
How to deal with them: It’s time to put your roleplaying into high gear. Whenever you can, encourage the other party members to roleplay along with you. By going all out with your roleplaying, you can add the story back into the game.
You: Because I fear for my life in this dark tunnel, I’m going to stop and write my last will and testament on the wall.
GM: You’ve already defeated the end boss.
You: But my character doesn’t know that, and he’s very concerned about who will look after his pet kobold once he’s gone.
Your GM shouldn’t have an issue with your devotion to roleplaying, so long as it doesn’t hold up the action.
What they are: The enabler forgets they are the GM during the character-creation stage of the game preparation. Instead of encouraging players to make interesting and balanced characters, they coach them on creating broken power combos. After taking a few pointers from an Enabler, you’ll end up with a character that can defeat the mightiest NPC.
Why they’re troublesome: Playing with a broken character will feel great – at first. Pretty soon the game will start to get boring, because none of the conflicts will feel challenging. Even worse, it’s very unlikely everyone in your party will have characters that are equally powerful, which means one or more people will feel useless during a fight.
How to deal with them: This is the one case where you shouldn’t try to make up for GM error. Step aside when necessary to make sure other players get their time to shine, but otherwise, use your character to its full potential. Have fun with it. Once your GM watches you defeat all their villains, they will learn from their mistake – fast.
GM: Umm… I might need to nerf you.
Just be prepared for the inevitable downsizing of your character, and be gracious when it happens.
What they are: The Executioner is a power player who thinks you and the other players are their opponent. They look for opportunities to kill off characters – often in a pointless manner.
Why they’re troublesome: The first several times the GM kills you or takes away something important, you’ll probably feel frustrated or even angry. After a couple more deaths, you’ll stop putting any effort into your characters – or the game altogether. At that point you might as well quit.
How to deal with them: Most players don’t have the time and know-how to power play at the level of the GM. If you’re one of the many, there’s only one alternative: embrace death. This can be more fun than it sounds. Do a little research to see if your system contains any powerful spells or abilities that are activated on death, or plan a string of characters that play off of one another.
You: My new character is my old’s character’s twin. He’s going to show up to avenge his brother’s death.
GM: Your last character was already a twin, remember?
You: Sorry, I forgot to mention they’re technically triplets. Wait, did I say triplets? I mean sixteen-tuplets.
Once your GM realizes your play strategy includes the death of your character, they’ll realize there’s no way to win against you.
Whenever you get frustrated with a campaign you’re in, remember that your GM has put a lot of time and effort into it. Be nice about their weak points. At the same time, a lot of GMs welcome constructive feedback about their campaigns. Communicating to them in a clear and positive manner will help make each session better than the last.
Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.