I love it when a new GM steps up to the plate! Good GMs are what keep our hobby going and expanding our ranks is a real benefit to tabletop RPGs across the board. Yet I’ve noticed that there are some common mistakes made amongst new GMs that veteran GMs tend to avoid due to their years of acquired wisdom and experience (i.e. – we have already made these mistakes). I present to you, dear reader, the five mistakes of the new GM:

Mistake #1 – You build a railroad.

We’ve all been there. You have a great plot. You have prepped every detail imaginable. You have fleshed out the NPCs and know exactly how they will react to the players’ every move. Yep, you have everything covered!

Or do you? Most likely what you have really done is imagined how the session will play out. Players have a habit of bringing their own plans to the table though, and their characters will do and say things that you can never be prepared for. That is not a mistake on the GM’s part.

The mistake though is when you as a GM force the players to stick to your vision of the game and force their actions to fit with your preconceived ideas. This is better known amongst gamers as “railroading”. Instead of letting the players find their own way through the adventure you force them onto the tracks of a route that you want them to take.

The end result? Your players will probably leave the game. Who wants to play a role playing game where their decisions are trumped by the GM’s plot? When the players go in an unexpected direction do not force them to play according to your plot. Instead move things around behind the scenes and let the players’ decisions matter. If they find a way around your incredibly cool combat scene shelve it and save it for a later date.

But what about all of that wonderful prep work that you did? Well that leads us to mistake number two…

Mistake #2 – You build a world.

The thrill of running your first game session can be intoxicating! New GMs have tons of wonderful ideas that they will spend hours upon hours fleshing out in order to share them with others. Maps are drawn, pantheons populated, local customs elaborated upon, and much, much more!

Save yourself the disappointment. The players will not notice a detail unless you make it a point to draw their attention to it. They will however ask about something that you are not prepared for.

It is better to prep for only the major scenarios in your plot and to flesh out critical NPCs than it is to have the entire world mapped out and completely populated. Why make up stats for the evil tyrant who rules the lands West of the mountains if your scenario takes place thousands of miles away in the underwater city of a lost kingdom?

Remember that the players will not play the game exactly as you envisioned it. Having notes on only the most important details of your game makes it easy to quickly adapt your material to the current situation. Not only will you save yourself from unnecessary work, but your game will be more fun to play as you will be reacting to your players’ input and decisions instead of dictating the game’s events.

Mistake #3 – You introduce a pet NPC.

The power of the GM! You can introduce into the game any character that you are capable of conceiving! Why, you may have always wanted to play a supernatural cyborg with psionic abilities and now you can by designing that character as an NPC. The party will surely sing songs in honor of the brave champion that you will have join their epic quest!

I don’t care how cool the concept is. I don’t care why the character is essential to your plot. I definitely don’t care that you may have played the same character for years in your best friend’s campaign. You are looking to introduce a pet NPC into the game. Don’t do it.

The PCs are the main characters of the story that you are telling. If you introduce an NPC that intentionally takes the focus away from the PCs then you have introduced a pet NPC. The pet NPC is sometimes the “fellow hero” that has the most glorious moments in the game, the villain that can never be defeated because you as the GM just won’t allow it, or any character in your story that routinely steals the spotlight away from the PCs.

Don’t have pet NPCs in your game! The PCs should be the focus of your story. Surround them with NPCs that reinforce that focus. If your NPC concept is really that cool save it for when you yourself are a player. You’ll be glad that you did.

Mistake #4 – You build the solution.

You conceive of this wonderful dilemma and/or challenge for the PCs to face. It is so brilliant, because it requires some very precise steps to be taken in order to solve, disarm, or circumvent it in some way. Your players will have to do the exact steps that you envisioned in order to overcome this amazing obstacle.

Ever notice how in the genre of action adventure movies that the main character solves complex puzzles and disarms traps in a timely manner and always on the first attempt? That is because good writers know that an hour of watching the main character attempt to solve the puzzle would put the audience to sleep.

Yet RPGs have no script so the main characters in the story will take plenty of wrong turns, trigger lots of dangerous traps, and may not discover the secret solution to every obstacle. The PCs may not succeed if you predefine the exact solutions to these obstacles for them.

A much better approach is to merely design the obstacle and understand how it works. Then let the players use their creativity to find their own way around the problem. Take your players’ ideas and run with them. Give the players a sense of progress and eventually let them overcome the obstacle with their own solution.

If you sense that the players are stuck help them by giving them more details in a way that suggests that you forgot a critical detail (“Did I mention that the pulley connects to an odd looking statue?”). This way the players don’t feel like you are giving them the solution.

Mistake #5 – You fail to lead.

You’ve heeded my warnings. You are prepared to let the players do their own thing. You are expecting the players to abandon your plot and are ready to roll with the punches. You’ll just sit back and let the players determine how the scenario will play out.

That is a very good approach in general to being a GM, but being the GM is a double edged sword. Yes, you should be willing to allow and encourage the players to do their own thing. Yet you also have to lead the players at the same time.

You are going to be responsible for making sure each player is getting those cool moments that make the game fun to play. You have to silence the Monty Python jokes when they take away from the game. You may let the PCs wander wherever they feel like going, and yet somehow you have to make sure that their wandering always leads back to your plot.

Leading your group is the most important task that you have as a GM. Leading the group does not mean telling them what to do, but it does mean taking it upon yourself to ensure that everyone at the table is having a good time and enjoying the game. It is tough at times, but if you make it your number one goal to lead your group through a night of fun game play then you will not be disappointed.

One last note about leadership and being a GM. At some point during the game some of the players may challenge your authority as the GM. They’ll cite rules. They’ll mention other GMs that they have played with and how those GMs handled similar situations. They’ll start telling the other players what is “really” happening in the scene.

Very politely, and very quickly, tell these players that they are not the GM and that your decision stands. If they argue with you let them make their case, and then repeat what you said previously. Rinse and repeat. You are the GM, and you always have the final say because of that title. This isn’t by accident, but by design. Games are more fun for everyone when someone takes the responsibility for running the game well.

Well that is my opinion on the matter, so what is yours? Leave your comments for others to read and share your own experiences with me and other members of the Gnome Stew community. And no matter what happens, don’t forget that the GM is a player too! Have fun with it!

About  Patrick Benson

Patrick was born in 1975, and is more or less your typical American male for someone of his age. Except he is a tabletop RPG gamer and a damn fine game master! What else matters?



27 Responses to 5 Mistakes of the New GM

  1. Oh Man! Reminds me how hard it is to DM a first game! The great thing is: if you play with friends it is easy to have lots of fun when DMing a first game.

    There’s no way everything will go right when first undertaking the game master vocation but nobody expects or cares to see everything go as planned.

    It’s all about enthusiasm and open-mindedness.

  2. Don’t forget under-preparedness. It sort of goes along with the world-building approach. The new GM spends so much time building the world that they forget to build an adventure. Sure, they can tell you about all the religions of the world, but they have no task or challenge for you to accomplish.

    Finally, when in doubt – throw in some direwolves! They make any adventure scary and probably lethal!

  3. What a great first article to kick this blog off. I think one thing worth adding would possibly a rule about setting all rules before the game begins, or waiting until after the game ends. In my experience, I’ve found that almost nothing ruins a good game so much as people arguing about who’s right in a particular rules interpretation. Unless it was detrimental to the game in some way, I’ve usually gone ahead and let the players do what they want to do, under the notice that after the game, we will discuss the rule in full detail and it may not turn out the same way as in the game, and usually the players are content with that.
    -Ish

  4. Matthew J. Neagley

    In line with what Ishmayl says above:
    Remember that being the GM gives you FINAL SAY in GMing disputes. While it CAN mean that yours is the only position that gets considered, it doesn’t HAVE to mean that. Feel free to open a discussion on rule interpretation with your players. That said, mid-game isn’t usually the best time to open rule debates. Usually this is best reserved for post-game or during break. If you want to discuss a ruling, just not right now, make sure you make this clear to your players. Most rules lawyers will be just as happy to nit-pick in a few hours as right now. I know I am. :p

  5. Hey, just wanted to say great job on the site launch, and I’ll be adding you to my blogroll.

    On topic, I think this advice is good for experienced GMs to go over every once in a while. Just last month I was scheduled to run a game and thought I had everything in hand, until the day before I looked at the material I had prepared and realized it was going to require significant adjustment because of the actions and habits of the party. That was a newbie mistake I never should have made, and it cost us the game session. (We ended up playing Vegas Showdown.)

    –Prop

  6. When a rules discussion doesn’t seem to be resolving in a couple of minutes I usually make a ruling with the caveat that we are going to go with this for now, but I’d be happy continue the discussion offline (which usually mean online).

    It gets to the core of the idea that we need to get back to the game and we have to do it some way, but I’m not ignoring your arguments. I’d be happy to discuss them when I’m a little less busy.

  7. Good advice. I particularly like the juxtaposition of points 1 and 5… it’s so easy to steer towards one extreme or another.

    Though, as Yax mentions above, if you’re trying it out among friends, enthusiasm carries the day. A GM who’s excited by their attempt can wobble quite a bit and still lead a fun session. Your friends are all eager to see you succeed… especially your current GM, who might be looking for a break.

  8. Point #2 is – as are all the others, obviously – a good point, but it makes me wonder why all the prebuilt campaign settings and adventure paths are so popular and – allow me to say – successful?

    Okay, these published adventures don’t actually force a GM to railroad his/her players, but at the same time, they do assume players to follow along nicely for the most part.

    Is it because players tend to play ‘nice’ when they are promised a professional adventure? Or perhaps those rebel-players are not ones to enjoy published material anyway? Or am I still just a beginner after those 15 years, and do the veteran GM’s never buy their material (then again, where do the veteran GM’s find the time to build it all from scratch)?

  9. Thanks for all of the comments so far. It is great to get feedback that shows where your idea needs refinement. There are 2 items that I should clarify my views on after having read these comments.

    1) Enthusiasm – I agree that enthusiasm can help a new GM get past the training wheels and onto the open road. I would much rather see new GMs use that energy more efficiently and that is point of this article. Take that new GM enthusiasm and use it to run a fun game for your players, don’t use it to populate a world with useless details.

    I’m not saying that you shouldn’t bother with world building at all, but that your world should not be totally completed for that first game session. Build just enough of it for the players to react with it in character, and then grow it from there using the players’ actions as input and guidance.

    2) Final Say – Being open to player suggestions is a crucial trait for every GM. Being willing to discuss such things after the game session is a great idea. If a player makes a good point that you agree with in the middle of the game feel free to adopt it immediately.

    Just realize that you have final say in all matters for the purpose of moving the game forward. When the arguments take away from the game use that power. Don’t get suckered into having an argument at the table. Make a declaration to resolve the issue and move on. That final say may even be to take a short break so that you can discuss the issue with the player(s) involved, but give the rest of the group a chance to use the bathroom and grab a drink so that they aren’t bored by an argument.

    Again, thanks for the comments. They are all great points!

  10. Amen, Brother Benson. I really wish I’d read numbers 2, 4 and 5 twenty years ago, as it would have saved me and my players a whole heap of heartache. ;)

    I know we didn’t plan our post order for launch day, but this really is a perfect kickoff post. You’ve distilled years of trial and error and experience into five straightforward points, and done so better than the GMing sections of many books I’ve read. Rock.

  11. Thanks Martin!

    BTW – That whole first post thing was by accident. I was frustrated by how my next article in the works refuses to come out perfect, and really didn’t pay attention to what I was doing as I posted this one. Therefore it was fate intervening on our behalf! ;)

  12. Walt Ciechanowski

    Patrick,

    Great post!

    One thing that I’d add under Mistake #3 is that Newbie GMs, especially “DMs,” often cut their teeth on running an adventure for his established gaming group. This set-up comes with a built-in pet NPC (the old PC). This is especially difficult in “rotating chair” campaigns where many DMs are also PCs and it’s S.O.P. to keep the PC/pet NPC in the game when the chair rotates.

  13. Yup.
    Yup.
    Sometimes.
    ooooh yep.
    Oh, definitely yep.

    I’ve hit all of those, I’ve listened to new Game Masters detail their cool worlds, cool NPCs, exactly how the PCs will go, exactly what clues will lead them there, and then change course to let them do what they want. These are definitely the big ones that every GM hits.

  14. Kurt "Telas" Schneider

    Been there, done that. On all 5 counts.

    Damn, but I wish I had a resource like this when I was starting out…

    Telas

  15. *looks hard at the list* I think that the main trap that I’m falling into so far on this list would be #5. I’ve been trying incredibly hard to avoid the first four, especially #1, and that seems to lead inevitably to me not providing enough leadership.

    If I had to name my own top mistake, though, I’d say that it’s failing to challenge the players, especially in combat. Sometimes I’m so nervous that I’m going to mess something up in my planning fights and then end up killing everyone that I go too far in the other direction and make things way too easy. My next session is going to start out with a big fight, and I’m still debating with myself over how to balance it. (Combat in general is tough for me; I’m still trying to figure out a good way to streamline it in my SR4 games, since it seems to drag on forever.)

  16. Wallwalker, you just described my situation ;).

    I have the same issue: too afraid to kill off any PC, or too nervous to mess it up (especially when there at 10-some enemies to fight in one encounter) and as a result my fights tend to be easy and boring.

    I’ve come up with a plan, though, that I will try out on my next session: I’m compiling a sort of combat tactics list, ranging from easy ones (for d20: use sunder and disarm more often, try to flank as much as possible, …) to more complicated ones (again, for d20: paralyze/blind/silence magic users first, and try to keep away the melee-types, …). The tactics cover a number of situations, from combat preparations, over aggressive fighting and defensive fighting, to abandoning combat safely. It’s got personal tactics, group tactics, terrain tactics, …

    I plan to print out this list, and stick it to my screen. Hopefully that will boost my confidence and give me some inspiration to perform memorable tricks against the players. There’s one caveat, though: keeping the list short and consise for quick peeks, but at the same time extensive enough.

  17. I dunno about everyone else, but personally I much prefer a more open-minded approach to DM challenges. If the players challenge the DM, obviously there is something they are not happy with, and if your only response is ‘I’m the DM, and my word is law’, you’re leaving them with only two choices; swallow their pride and accept whatever is bothering them, or pack up and go home. I hardly see how that’s conducive to fun.

    By far the healthiest approach to take to being DM is to accept that yourself have taken the responsibility for creating a fun experience for everyone else. All of the joy you derive from being DM should come from your players’ having fun with the thing that you created. If you harbour a spirit of competition or confrontation with your players, sooner or later it’s going to result in a not-fun argument.

    If players dispute my ruling, I never say ‘I’m the DM and what I say goes’ or politely smile and nod while they speak, and then simply repeat that I’m the DM and what I say goes. I simply ask them for their solution. Who knows? Maybe they have a more reasonable solution in mind than you did. And, if their solution is somehow unreasonable, politely pointing out to them where their reasoning is flawed is far more likely to satisfy them than simply stonewalling them. Remember that playing an RPG is meant to be a game, not a court of law, and that your only goal as DM is to make the players happy. If they want to fudge the rule book to give their characters an edge, let them, if it makes them happy. If another player objects, or feels that somebody is abusing the system to give their own character unfair advantages at the expense of other players, then you have a reasonable counter-argument to the disputer.

  18. “The new GM spends so much time building the world that they forget to build an adventure. Sure, they can tell you about all the religions of the world, but they have no task or challenge for you to accomplish.”

    I definitely think this is one of those double-edged swords. It’s great to have those details to make the world seem believable, but as the quote above suggests, too much can mean you miss the story! Perhaps known as the “Sandbox” error.

  19. Great read, and all very true, except that in my experience it unfortunately doesn’t only apply for new Game Masters. I’ve had seasoned veterns that couldn’t shake some of those bad habits.

    Another that I would add to that list is this: As a GM you are there for the players; to paint the scene that the players take center stage in. You are the unsung hero who lets the players take all the glory. I have seen too often a GM who for some reason thinks it’s him VS the players. This ia the GM’s who takes joy when the monsters are kicking the snot out of the PC’s. They sit there and giggle like school girls cause they are “winning” and they are taking great joy in the situation. Then suddenly, the bad guys become useless, and the PC’s manage to win by what seems like a miracle. This is NOT fun as a player, or anyone even watching the game for that matter.

    As a GM you need to fill in the rest of the story that the players cannot. You should make it fun and challenging for them and provide them with an enjoyable game session. That is how a GM “wins” – when the players have had a good time playing the game and want to come back for more.

    Another Mistake is a spin off of Mistake #1&2. I had a GM who wanted to create a dynamic world where there were multiple storylines floating around and the PC’s had free roam (this GM HATED railroading). The problem with this is that the players had no idea which leads were for which “plots”. They would think that they were on the right track when really they were spinning in circles. At one time this group had unknowingly started 4 separate possible adventure paths. To the GM this was frustrating. To the players it was even more so. I can understand his motives for wanting to create a world where the players could choose thier own destiny, but sometimes a little guidance goes a long way.

    As a GM I try not to railroad my players. I let them make choices and go their own way. They don’t need to know that any way they choose to take will lead to where they need to go. For example if they needed to go take to Guy A at Tavern A, but decided to avoid that place and go to taverns B,C and D, then Guy A would just happen to be in one of those places instead. That’s not railroading, that improvising that allows the players the ability to have control over their destiny and yet keeps the plot moving in the right direction. Having all the other taverns be closed down and the only place the players could go is tavern A is railroading.

  20. Hautamaki – I see your point and it is a very good one. I did not mean to suggest that the GM is always right, or that you shouldn’t accept player feedback and react to it. I should elaborate on what I mean by “some of the players may challenge your authority as the GM”.

    A player questioning your decision is not challenging the GM’s authority. That player is either trying to keep the game fair and balanced, or may need the details of the situation explained in more detail. Such a player may be a real benefit for any GM to have at the table.

    A player who tries to make the ruling for the GM, or in spite of the GM already making the decision is trying to usurp the GM’s authority and take control of the game.

    For example, I once ran a game where the players were characters trying to escape a city in the middle of a zombie outbreak. The PCs found an abandon military complex and in the motor pool was a Humvee. The PCs got in the Humvee and head off onto the open road.

    This game was a zombie flick. Some NPCs were along for the ride and were there to cause turbulence. Some were paranoid and accused a PC of being the “cause” of the zombies when the PC displayed his psychic powers. Needless to say there was an eventual firefight that broke out in the Humvee itself.

    Once the firefight was over I asked a player to roll to see if the Humvee would start up again as during the firefight 2 NPCs fired weapons at the PC driver. Another player immediately said “No. Humvees are heavily reinforced. There is no need to roll. The engine will start again just fine.”

    I disagreed, and asked for the roll. The arguing player then explained that he constantly researched military publications and that I was wrong. He was blatantly challenging my authority as a GM under the claim that I was not being “realistic”.

    Here were the numerous problems:

    1) The PCs and NPCs were firing M16s at each other at point blank range in a Humvee. The realistic resolution would have been that many PCs and NPCs would have died from the firing of those weapons. That would have been a much crappier game though.

    2) The arguing player did not serve in the military. 1 other player was in the military and had driven Humvees. The player who ahd firsthand knowledge of what it was like to be in and drive a Humvee thought that the dice roll was a valid call. The arguing player would not acknowledge this.

    3) There were zombies and psychic powers. Nobody else at the table cared if the rest of the game was realistic. It was clear from the beginning that we were not running a highly realistic game and I know that this player understood that from before he even joined the game.

    The problem here was that this player wanted to play a different type of game. He made it clear that he was a fan of military operations type games. He wanted the zombie game to turn into a military operations game. He didn’t care about the fact that the rest of the group did not want to play a military operations game. The player was actively trying to take the game out of my hands and turn it into the game that he wanted to play.

    I as the GM did not allow it. I know that I made the right decision because the rest of the group had a lot of fun playing that game.

    Now if the arguing player had said something like “Hey, you didn’t ask for a roll when situation X occurred that is very similar to this one. What gives?” that would have been different. If the player had pointed out a rule or stat that would have negated my ruling that would have been different. If the player had just said that he wasn’t enjoying the game very much that would have been different. In this case though the player was just trying to take the game over from me, because it wasn’t his type of game.

    Eventually the player left the group on his own, and I can’t say that I miss him. Of that group I’m still running for the rest of the players when we have the time to get together and 2 are now in my new group. When I think about that session I know that in the end my call was right and that not backing down and asserting my authority was the right thing to do.

  21. @:DMDanW

    This is the GM’s who takes joy when the monsters are kicking the snot out of the PC’s. They sit there and giggle like school girls cause they are “winning” and they are taking great joy in the situation.

    This statement reminds me of a book I read a while ago (Caverns of Socrates by Dennis L. McKiernan.) If memory serves, it’s about a group of LARPers who are chosen to playtest a new computer simulation that’ll allow them to play while really *believing* that they are their characters. But the computer, which is semi-autonomous, begins playing against them for real, throwing impossible challenges at them, and also trapping them in the simulation so that it can’t be shut off without killing them in real life.

    What set the computer off? If I remember right, it was an event in which the computer nearly enticed all of the players into a trap that would have killed them. It seemed to become very thoughtful after that, and the technicians asked it why. It’s answer was something like this: “I nearly just won. I’ve never actually won before.” So basically that whole book is an exaggerated example of what happens when the GM decides that the game is actually about winning. And I’m going to stop now, before I make any less sense.

  22. Damn good advice on all counts.

  23. Brilliant stuff.

    As I’ve recently been going over my old campaign notes ready to transfer them over to the blog [/shameless self-promotion], it’s been amusing to compare my earliest sessions – and their excessive amounts of planning, world-building and ‘problem+solution’ missions – with my more recent stuff, which a lot more bare bones.

    A lot of it is confidence and comfort, I think – back in the day, I really wouldn’t have felt safe GMing without copious amounts of notes (most of which were never used, because the PCs headed in a completely different direction to the one I’d planned…); nowadays I know I’m capable of winging things, provided I’ve jotted down the important info (NPC personalities, plot hooks and weird stuff), but it’s the experience – and all those mistakes – that enables that confidence.

  24. One thing I always find amusing of new DMs, if not necessarily bad, is the preponderance of God complexes amongst them. I think you find everyone has a story about how a young DM let his party go ahead and slay even the gods themselves and take their loot (read, for instance, as wielding Mjolnir in one hand, Asmodeus’ sword in the other while riding Sleipnir, Odin’s steed). I remember listening to one enthusiastic youth regale me at a GenCon of the 90′s of how his character sank Waterdeep in the Forgotten Realms game setting, and instantly went from 10th level to 36th. I don’t know if a catch-all rule can cover this, or should, as these campaigns are usually looked back on fondly by their players, while wizened listeners shake their heads ruefully or bemusedly.

  25. Oh god. “Players will go where you never expected them to,” indeed. I built what I thought was a one or two-session scenario. Four sessions later, they haven’t even gotten to the front door.

    And it’s just SOOOO much better than the way I imagined it in my head. I forgot to think of some important details, but my players thought of them for me. And we’ve made some stories that will probably be told (at least by me) forever.

    Notable high points:

    -The mage-college student failing three successive Seduction/Charisma checks against the same waitress, then critting on the fourth shot.

    -The repeated spell failures of said student next day (which were attributed to the mostrous hangover)

    -Some really, really, REALLY awesome marksmanship from the quiet player that took out a bandit in mid-leaping strike

    -Discovering that my friend who I’d always chalked up as a powergamer is actually the best roleplayer in the group underneath it all.

    Acrtually, while the earlier ones were really funny, I think the last one was the most rewarding. A couple of the other members of the group left for pizza while Mom (they’re in high school, I’m in tech school) took their non-gamer friends home (They’d showed up uninvited. Not doing that again…) and he and I did a one-on-one for his interrogation of one of the bandit prisoners. Best. Roleplay. Ever. It really reminded me of why I became a GM in the first place.

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