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Is There Hope for the Worst GMs?

Posted By Martin Ralya On July 21, 2010 @ 1:13 am In Crock Pot | 15 Comments

Asking “How does a bad GM get better?” isn’t a very interesting question, because the answer is simple: Keep at it, be willing to learn, and try to get better.

But what about really, really shitty GMs? Not just bad, but so bad that after gritting your teeth and clenching your sphincter for four hours in one of their games, you just want to scrape your face off with a fork — is there any hope for them?

If you play a session with a GM like this, are you obliged to help out the greater gaming community by giving them some constructive criticism? Should you tell them how much they suck? Give them a link to the Stew?

Or should you, as I suspect most of us would, just never play with them again — leaving them out there like an unexploded land mine waiting to trap the next unsuspecting schlub who comes along looking for a game?

I’m certainly guilty of that. Life is too short to waste on crappy games, and in my experience GMs this bad — not merely so-so, cocky, or otherwise less skilled than is ideal — are reasonably likely to be chock full of personal issues that give me the howling fantods. I usually flee, never to return, and if the real issue is that I think the GM in question is just a creepy and unpleasant person, I don’t feel the least bit guilty about that.

But I’ve also gamed with my share of awful GMs who seemed like nice folks, and that’s murkier territory. Fleeing is no longer clearly the correct approach, and my greater-gaming-community spidey sense starts tingling a bit. I wonder if I should have stuck my neck out and tried to help, but I also wonder whether my “help” would have been welcome.

Things get murkier still if said GM is one of your friends, as opposed to, say, someone running an event at a con who you’ll likely never see again. (Note to friends who read the Stew: No, this article isn’t inspired by anything that’s happened or is happening in our games! It’s just something that hit me while I was in the car.)

There are blueprints for kicking out a player, but I’ve never seen one for dealing with a godawful GM.

Do you have a responsibility to try to help them improve? Can you abandon them guilt-free? Is there a certain approach to providing constructive criticism that’s more likely to work in this situation?

I don’t have the answers, but having thought of the question I’m now deeply curious to hear what others think about this topic — it’s a real head-scratcher, at least for me!

About  Martin Ralya

A father, husband, writer, small-press publisher, former RPG industry freelancer, and lifelong geek, Martin has been gaming since 1987 and GMing since 1989. He lives in Utah with his amazing wife Alysia and their awesome daughter Lark in a house full of books and games.




15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "Is There Hope for the Worst GMs?"

#1 Comment By dizman On July 21, 2010 @ 7:14 am

Well to me there are no bad gm’s there are different game leading styles and that is “GMs aditude”. Reason no one herars of bad gms because there are a lot less of them than players, and player can play with who ever he wants. Gms are different they have to asemble a group of players that they feel comfortable with. So, bad gms in my opinion are those who have very closed gaming groups in my situation i had spoken to a player about a “BAD GM” and reason he was bad because he wouldnt let him in his group and GMs group is with 8 players. If he is bad then why so menu players like his seasions. I have very small campaigns each group 3-4 players right now i have 2 active campaigns. Am I a bad gm? “Maybe” but i place fun factor in game i don’t use books ignore 50% rules that i don’t like, change them to best suite my games. This in eyes of players makes me look “bad” but my players are happy.

So my conclusion is GM chooses players.

But sign of a good gm for me is the one who can make playes have fun and those who cant make it happen dont GM

#2 Comment By llondra On July 21, 2010 @ 9:20 am

So, we’re not talking about crummy people we don’t want to play with, but nice, normal people who honestly want to work with players and are just “crummy GMs”.

I agree with dizman that there are no bad GMs per se, but there are GMs with different styles that I don’t enjoy playing under. For me, whether I work with that GM or just abandon play depends on 1) how disparate our differing play styles are and 2) how experienced the GM is. Those are the two factors that I think tell how much effort it’s going to take to get to a game that we both enjoy.

For example on play styles, I love roleplaying and character interaction – I don’t just love it, it’s a requirement for any game that I’m going to enjoy playing or GMing. There are other GMs who hate that stuff and could care less about characters as the story, and see both PCs and NPCs as nothing more than another plot vehicle to get their story from Point A to Point B. 9 times out of 10, I think trying to bring those two play styles in line is just not going to happen – it’s going to be too much push/pull and too much effort. So, I don’t see any issue with both parties acknowledging that the group mix just isn’t a good fit and walking away from the table. I think experienced GMs and players respect differences and realize that you can’t always fit a round peg into a square hole.

For new GMs who may still be finding what they enjoy, it comes back to if they’re willing to work with me, I’ll work with them until we figure out whether it’ll work. Which does sorta stink when the new GM is a friend who decided to give it a shot and then you find out that the styles don’t mesh….

Do I feel a responsibility to speak up with my input? Yes, because we all sat down in good faith to try and build a game that’s fun for everyone. If I don’t speak up, I’m not keeping to my part of the agreement. How do I do that constructively? Umm… well, I don’t know if it’s constructive, but I think the only thing I can say for sure is what I enjoy so I try to approach from that perspective (“it’s not you, it’s me”). And then we’ll either find a happy place together or we won’t.

There are my somewhat rambling thoughts on the matter :)

#3 Comment By jr37 On July 21, 2010 @ 9:35 am

As silly as it may sound in retrospect, I’ve lost friends over “Crappy GM/Crappy Players” disputes. Some GMs are open to constructive criticism (so long as it IS constructive) and that’s easy to deal with. But if your GM is an a***ole and refuses to acknowledge that he has a problem, then it’s time to go. In general, I think a polite “I’m sorry, your campaign isn’t what I’m looking for in a game” is probably the optimal response to a crappy game master, I’ve also handled it in other, less optimal, ways. In one, our entire party of four players killed their characters by attacking a group of NPCs we were told we had no chance to defeat. He couldn’t believe that we were going to attack anyway. Once we were dead, he looked at us and said, “Time to roll up new characters” and we all responded, “No it isn’t. We’re done.”
Come to think of it, character suicide is just about the most damning indictment of a GM I know of. Gamers tend to want to keep gaming, no matter how bad things get… we’re like junkies that way. If a player just stops attending the games, there might be some question of real life interfering with gaming or some other problem. But if you kill your character and leave, that pretty much says “There’s no hope for this GM in my opinion.”
So yeah, there’s hope for the worst GMs, but they have to be able to acknowledge that they need help.

#4 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 21, 2010 @ 10:05 am

Great topic, and one that should probably be revisited regularly.

Where a BGMIQ (Bad GM In Question) falls on the “Mediocre Godawful” spectrum, and whether or not it’s worth it to step out on that limb and offer advice, is definitely a judgement call.

Some comments, unsolicited of course:
– It’s far better to clean up public trash than to leave it stinking up your community.
– You don’t have to fix someone, especially if they don’t want fixing. But feedback may start them on that road…
– Ask first. “Can I offer some advice?”
– Use the “I feel” statement. “When my character keeps getting raped, I feel…”
– A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. (“You’ve obviously worked on the campaign, but I feel FATAL is a poor choice of system.”)
– Tell the GM why you’re leaving. Be nice, but put it out there. “I’m not comfortable with the level of perversion in your game.”
– You may trigger an emotional reaction. That’s fine; you got your point across. After the adrenaline peters out, he or she may start to consider what you actually said.
– Finally: “Break the wrist; walk away. It’s just that simple.”

#5 Comment By Roxysteve On July 21, 2010 @ 10:14 am

I think there *are* “bad” GMs, and top of that list would be the “creepy” ones, a breed I never knew existed until recently, having assumed all the stories of them were apocryphal hand-me-downs doing the rounds. But I met one of my own, and while that wasn’t what caused us to part company, it didn’t help.

That said I think that most accusations of “Bad GM” or “Bad Player” are really just extreme cases of “bad fit” in that game, usually because expectations on one side of the screen or the other were wrong from the start.

I’m always clear when I run games like Call of Cthulhu on the style of game I’m running. If a player cannot “find the groove” I am most unwilling to change the game content to cater for him or her.

Of course, I always check after a session to see if everyone is having fun. Changes in presentation are not forbidden, but don’t happen on the whim of a single person is all.

I’m also open to the idea of running an additional session more along the lines of whatever the disaffected player(s) seem to want from a game, which is why in addition to standard Call of Cthulhu games featuring a pace that starts glacially and revs up over the course of the game to Roger Rabbit on Ten Year Old Scotch as the menace grows, I’m running a pulpy Delta Green campaign, an occasional Sword and Sorcery game and I’m about to start going all Deadlands on everyone (I know, I know, you could have knocked me down with a feather but I found out on Sunday that against all long-standing personal prejudice, not only is Weird West fun, Deadlands Reloaded is the most fun you can have with other people and still have your clothes on, pardner).

The expectations of a player or group of players can certainly be used as a basis for discussion with a GM, but if that GM is unresponsive that is hardly them “not listening” as much as them not wanting to run the sort of game the player(s) want to play in.

I, for example, would hate to run the “Doom/Quake kick-in the door treasurfest” kind of D&D game so many players seem to think is the only game in town. It would make toothache look interesting by comparison.

Then there’s the “bad fit between player and GM” issue, one that comes up often and sometimes isn’t handled well. I am always careful as a GM to raise the possibility that new players may not enjoy the sort of games I run, and that there’s no problem if they simply want to walk away after the first session, though I would like to know if there were specific issues they had that I might be made aware of. Better they walk away and find a better-for-them game than they become disaffected players in one of mine and spend time simply hating it all. That never ends well.

Interesting article.

#6 Comment By dizman On July 21, 2010 @ 10:17 am

Only bad GM i have ever seen was me starting as GM for the first time. I started with ADnD 2nd edition in 1998. I read the books and started a sesion only with starting box i got at store. I never seen a singe RPG ether on PC or Read any of books (hobit, LOTR…) so i run same dungeon over and over each week until i saw all posibilities (all my players then started rpg with me in same setting). Today there are so meny books, movies bogs… it seems to me that today info is so easy and back then was hard to find any gaming comunities in my town. Today in my tow there are 4 gaming clubs so chances are its imposible to find gm that is this bad… :)

#7 Comment By Scott Martin On July 21, 2010 @ 10:47 am

It is tricky. I like Kurt’s approaches above, particularly remembering to ask “Would you like advice?”. Similarly, taking a moment out for self reflection: “Is this a bad GM, or just a game that doesn’t fit my play style?”, is an important moment of reflection before you wade in.

That said, it can be difficult to get anywhere quickly– particularly if you’re dashing off to another event, or if your ride is impatiently tapping his feet.

If the only drawback is their GMing (not personality), you could offer to get together for coffee or something another day, when the pressures of running a game are past and you both have a little more time to reflect.

If their personality is part of the problem, again, look to make sure it’s not just a personality conflict. Assuming so, offer an email exchange or other commentary at a remove. Use lots of “I” statements, and if there’s any part of the game that you can honestly praise, lead with that.

#8 Comment By unwinder On July 21, 2010 @ 12:15 pm

I’ve played with some really bad GMs, and I personally don’t believe that they were just “wrong for me,” and not actually bad.

I mean, here are some of the things that I’ve seen happen:

-One GM I played with spent an entire session looking up all the treasure we had found in the previous session, and adding up the value. This was the second session we played with him, and we spend the entire three hours watching him do math.

-One GM stripped us of all choices, and would do anything he could to stop us going off the rails he had for us in his mind. We got randomly attacked by pirates at one point, and it wasn’t in his plans for us to investigate why, so when we tried to interrogate them, their tongues had been cut off, and when we tried to follow them, they didn’t know where their ship was, and when we tried to track them backwards to the ship, the forest was too dense to move through.

-One GM had our party get attacked by peasants several times. We tried to reason with them, and it didn’t work. After three or four such encounters, he revealed that one of the PCs was actually evil, and had committed peasant-related atrocities many times in the past. Obviously, this did not fit the player’s vision for the character.

-One GM completely changed the setting and many of the rules of combat for much of the one session that I played with him (he took over as a guest GM for my campaign). He’d have us enter areas with “mysterious auras” that would temporarily change most of the stuff on our character sheets, along with the way attacks were made and damage was dealt. In this scenario, our character builds were completely useless, because everything kept changing anyway (It’s the infamous binary boss! Everyone round all your stats to the nearest base-ten number that contains only zeroes and ones!)

Anyway, I don’t think that any of these guys were so bad that they were irredeemable, and at least one of them improved quite a bit after this, but actions like these pervaded their GM styles at the time, and I think that they were honestly, objectively bad.

#9 Comment By evil On July 21, 2010 @ 2:17 pm

There are most definitely bad GMs out there. It’s not always a question of fit. Sometimes it’s just that there are people out there who aren’t meant to be a GM. It happens. With those people, you just have to man up and tell them. Luckily they’re few and far between.

Most can, and should be, saved from their own suckiness. My favorite way is to put them in contact with a good GM from a different gaming group. This way there is no cross-game conflict, and less feelings getting hurt because information is coming from a third party. The crux, of course, is having a spare good GM around. Much like confronting a bad player, it’s usually a bad idea to gang up on a bad GM. Approach them one at a time, like you’re approaching a crying girl or scared animal, and break it easily.

Also, try asking them the rationale behind certain choices. If your GM won’t let you go off the rails, are they just unprepared and not good at improv? If your GM is neurotic about treasure, is it because they intend for the economic structure to be a major point? Once you know what that GM wants, then you can help them fix the problem. That, or toss them out a window. Both are good.

#10 Comment By BryanB On July 22, 2010 @ 10:07 am

It is my belief that bad GMs can get better. I even believe that good GMs can get better. With experience comes wisdom and refinement. I know that I was a bad GM when I started out. I got better with time and experience. The school of hard knocks so to speak. I still seek to improve some twenty-five years later. I realize that I have weaknesses and I will always try to get better in those areas. There are no perfect GMs.

You might say that bad GMs can get better once they reach a state of self-awareness and introspection. This awareness and the willingness to adapt and improve are the first steps toward becoming a good GM. Taking constructive feedback is an important element of this process.

The Worst GMs are those people that can not do this. For them, there is no hope. Unfortunately, for their players, there is no hope either. :D

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#12 Comment By Martin Ralya On July 23, 2010 @ 8:04 pm

I don’t think bad = GMing style I don’t like — I can usually step back and recognize that a GMing whose style doesn’t suit me is good, just not for me.

@dizman – We were all awful at some point. ;-) I ran solo games for my first few years as a GM, which meant my poor player got subjected to every half-assed idea that passed through my brain.

@BryanB – “You might say that bad GMs can get better once they reach a state of self-awareness and introspection.” really resonates with me. I agree that anyone willing to put in some time and consider their own possible shortcomings can become a better GM — true in life, too.

#13 Comment By Orikes On July 24, 2010 @ 2:33 pm

I completely disagree with the statement that there are ‘no bad GMs’. There are definitely people out there who are not equipped to be good GMs, either through personality, through skills, or some combination thereof. It’s not a matter of “it’s not the game for me”. It’s just an awful game. Sometimes, though, we as players are willing to put up with a lot to get our game on.

From my perspective, if I find a GM to be awful because of personality and they’re someone I find creepy or unnerving, then it’s better to just walk away and avoid them in the future. If they are someone I like, though, it’s a matter of either trying to offer constructive criticism (which I’ve seen work very well) or just avoiding playing in one of their games. Luckily in the last case, the GM really didn’t mind not running – he preferred to play.

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