There’s a gulf between GMing theory and actual GMing, and standing in the middle of that gulf is you, the GM. You decide how to bridge what you know about GMing and what you actually do at the gaming table, and for me this is one of the trickiest aspects of GMing.

I know a lot about GMing. I’ve been a GM for over 20 years, published two GMing books with the gnomes, blogged about GMing for five years, and written about GMing as an RPG freelancer. I think about GMing more or less all the time (that’s normal, right?).

…but when the rubber hits the road, sometimes it’s like the part of my brain that’s full of GMing theory just turns off. I make boneheaded calls. I fail to read the table. I write adventures or scenes that suck. I let games get away from me and lose their spark. I devote my prep time to the wrong things.

Granted, I do this stuff less now than I did 20 years ago, five years ago, or even one year ago — but I still do it!

I make mistakes as a GM. We all do. It’s okay to fuck up! That’s how we learn. It’s highly unlikely that anything hangs in the balance except a sliver of your pride — you won’t lose friends by making a GMing mistake, or bring about the apocalypse, or be forced to watch Sandra Bullock movies until you feel sufficiently bad about yourself. As long as you use your mistakes as learning opportunities, mistakes are great.

This article isn’t about that, but it’s still a point worth making. Here’s what it is about: A way to help avoid the problem of making particularly egregious, player-unfriendly mistakes — which is a problem, because as the GM you have the most power to make those kind of mistakes, and they tend to be un-fun for the entire table.

For example:

  • Writing an adventure that the PCs can’t complete without hiring other people to help them, and in which the helper NPCs get to do all the most interesting stuff (I did this once)
  • Not dialing back the toughness of a random monster battle in a “let the dice fall where they may” campaign, and killing a PC in the third session in a really boring, un-dramatic way (I did this, too)
  • Letting one player with a dominant personality ruin the game for everyone else at the table (I’ve done this at least twice)
  • Asking your players for extensive PC background material and then not using that material in the game (I’ve done this more than once, as well)

Those mistakes, while they were great learning opportunities for me as a GM, were also remarkably un-fun for my players — hell, in a couple of cases my mistake more or less single-handedly killed the game. And in hindsight, of course, it’s obvious that they’re mistakes. If I’d seen them written down beforehand, I’d have said, “Well duh, of course I’m not going to do that!”

But in the moment, in the thick of GMing, in the swirl of decisions and reactions and considerations and nervousness and excitement of actually running a game, things are less clear.

With that in mind, here’s a simple signpost you can erect in your brain — or better yet, paperclip to the inside of your GMing screen — to help guard against this class of un-fun mistakes:

When you’re about to make a GMing decision, ask yourself this question: If I were a player in this game, would I hate this decision?

If the answer is yes, pause, reconsider, and make a different decision — one that, were you a player in the game, you would appreciate.

If the answer is no, trust your instincts and make the decision you were planning to make. You might turn out to be wrong, but just by thinking about it you’ve helped reduce the chance of being wrong (and learned something in the process).

This isn’t a panacea, but it is one more tool in your GM’s toolkit of ways to be a better GM. It approaches the problem of making really bad, game-killing mistakes from a different angle — and angle that starts with the most important consideration in any game: Make it fun.

If you flip this question (“Would I hate this as a player?”) around, it looks pretty obvious: Don’t do things your players will hate. But read that way, it’s a lot less useful (at least to me).

I’ve never looked at things from precisely this perspective, and I’m of the opinion that the more angles from which you can consider GMing problems, the better — so hopefully this angle will be useful to you. It’s simple, easy to remember, and broadly applicable to a lot of different aspects of running a game.

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.



6 Responses to Do You Do Things as a GM That You Would Hate as a Player?

  1. I think this is pretty sound advice, but I have a question/concern you may be able to address.

    The question assumes that your player’s and your own tastes match fairly well. “If I were a player, would I hate this?” is fine until it eliminates a type of play that you would hate but one of your players loves. In reality, this SHOULD be “Do my players hate this?” which is the much trickier question. Then the issue arises of one of your players hating it and another loving it.

    So I guess my concern is: Is it safe to assume your taste is close enough to that of your group?

    and my questions are: How do you assure yourself of that with reasonable confidence? and What do you do if it’s not the case?

  2. Good question! I am indeed assuming that my tastes match my players. That’s one of my biases: I’ve been lucky enough to do most of my gaming with stable groups, and my current one has been going for ~7 years (with some comings and goings, of course).

    Running a game for strangers (a new group moreso than, say, a convention game) or for a group with wildly divergent tastes would mean shifting the question: “Would I hate this if I was a player — and do I think most players would hate it, as well?” or “Would I hate this if I was a player — or would more of my players hate this than not?”

    Either way, the question isn’t as tight and the advice (IMO) isn’t as useful.

  3. That leads into another GMing maxim: ” Know your players”.

    While its not always possible, I find that it helps to avoid some of the most glaring GM stuff-ups. Notice I said “helps” to avoid, not “completely” avoids. Even the best of us get caught up in the moment or find ourselves too pressed for time and walking into the same old traps.

  4. I know that in the thick of a session, the same thing too often happens to me. Given time, coming up with a good approach is easy, but years of conditioned instincts and a “let’s get back to the fun” attitude can undermine thoughtful responses.

    “If I were a player in this game, would I hate this decision?” One more defense, and a good one.

  5. Kurt "Telas" Schneider

    In martial arts, we used to joke that a fighter will forget 90% of his training when the bell rings. It’s the same with GMing. Nobody performs optimally under pressure.

    Even if the players have different tastes, there is probably some convergence. And asking this question will give you pause for thought.

    My biggest takeaway (and what I feel should be on the inside cover of every GM’s guide) is “It’s okay to fuck up!”

  6. Bit late to the party on this one, but in short: No.

    I started out playing in a “by the book (mostly)” D&D campaign where (for various reasons) no resurrection magic was available, except via GM fiat.
    While making new characters is fairly entertaining, once you reach a certain limit, it becomes just so much busy-work.

    So, I’m a player who has ended up being a GM for no other reason than other GMs not running the stories I want to tell and create those moments of awesome people remember for years.
    While I’ll make it clear to my players that I’m going to challenge both them and their character again and again, I’m doing what I do so we can all have a fun experience.

    If someones character dying would make for a better story than them living, then I’ll try to make that happen.
    Maybe they realize that they can sacrifice one of their numbers life for the lives of hundreds of civilians and they go out in a blaze of glory.
    Or maybe they do the Doctor Who route and say “Just today, every one lives!” and I’ll do my best to make THAT awesome.

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