image Trap:
2 a : something by which one is caught or stopped unawares; also : a position or situation from which it is difficult or impossible to escape

One of my recent personal goals has been to focus on the types of Game Mastering that I don’t normally do. To that end, I started thinking about what traps I might be falling into as a Game Master. What sort of things do I do because they are comfortable, because I’m lazy, or just because I don’t know any better.

The Traps I Tend To Fall Into:

  • Making the BBEG an organization instead of a monsters or other non-intrigue based enemy.
    I love me some intrigue in my games. Generally, my players know that I am going to be running the BBEG as an organization that they have to oppose. This gives me a lot of ground to work with. Rarely do I style the BBEG as a single rogue wizard who controls a legion of minions, or a great dragon that terrifies the populace and must be destroyed. While this often works for my group, diversity wouldn’t hurt.
  • Not giving out enough money or loot.
    I love the idea of 4e wishlists, cause I never think to give out enough "loot". This is partially because the games I tend to run don’t require it, but also because I like to run games "realistically". I can’t ever bring myself to think that a non-intelligent creature would have much gold on it.  When the characters defeat a squad of soldiers or guards, I can’t justify them carrying all their money on them for patrol, more likely they are bringing creature comforts and other necessary items – but not random, sellable loot. When I realize that my players don’t have a good deal of cash on hand, I usually overcompensate.
  • Forgetting that no matter what system you are playing in, people tend to make their characters unique.
    While this isn’t a trap of my Game Mastering, it is a trap of my thinking. I’m always open to trying new systems and games. I like ones that emphasize new thinking about certain elements or do things in new ways. I often fail to remember that established systems aren’t really subject to the stereotypes that first spring to mind about them. Sure all editions of D&D are fairly combat heavy and rely on the class structure, however, when it gets to a group’s table multiple modifications are made in story, detail, and system. I’ve rarely seen anyone play a "standard" character, but when I think about D&D “Standard” is how I imagine it. 
  • I spend less time than I should on prep.
    I improvise my games a lot and tend to react to what the players throw at me. This works well for my play group and style. In fact I would emphasize my belief that more Game Masters should focus on running improvised games. That doesn’t mean I don’t realize the necessity of good adventure prep. To that end, I try to prepare generic enough elements that I can throw in at any time. I don’t always cover everything I should. I usually end up making up NPC stats on the fly and jotting them down as notes. While it works, it would be better to have them set up beforehand. 

How To Get Over Traps:
Knowing what your traps are is just the first step in getting past them.

  1. Figure out your traps.
    Write out a list of at least 3 traps you fall into and think about them. Knowing what you need to focus on is the best way to start getting past it.
  2. Play a game that forces you to think in a different way.
    I recently attended a gaming retreat that focused primarily on boardgames. It was awesome. I could feel the little visited places of my brain spinning up like motors and shaking off the thin layer of dust. If you are primarily a hack and slash Game Master, seek out some indie games with interesting narrative components. If you are primarily a narrative heavy Game Master, go get some crunch in your life. Whatever your personal style is, break it for a game or two.
  3. Be a player.
    This is one of the biggest things that helps me out when I’m in a Game Mastering funk or close to burnout. When I get back into the player’s seat, at first I spend most of my time watching the Game Master and his/her style. Once I get into the game a bit, I realize what it is like to be a player again. In either mindset, I’m always listening and trying to learn new things.
  4. Run a published adventure, if possible.
    Running a published adventure can force you to mold yourself to the adventure format or to tear it apart to make it what you want. Either way, it will help you think in different ways. Take an adventure that is written for a different genre or game system and try to adapt it. While it will take a lot of work to mold some elements, it will also make you work in the areas you aren’t comfortable with, but it will give you a good structure to do so with.
  5. Steal, Steal, Steal.
    Martin had a great article about grabbing ideas for your game from all sorts of areas. Doing this is a great way to get over your GMing traps, so long as you steal elements that are against your type. For me this means stealing the plot of Hawk: The Destroyer of Conan rather than Maltese Falcon.  With a pre-established source to look to for inspiration and style, I can keep myself from falling back into familiar ground.

Changing Your Ideas Is Like Swinging A Pendulum
The moral of this article is simply this: We all fall into traps and ruts of thinking. Making ourselves think differently helps us overcome those. I’ve always thought about the way we think, as people and a society, as being a pendulum stuck to one side. When forcibly pulled to the other side it starts swinging again. Eventually, it comes to a good middle ground that compromises between two extremes. Finding whatever direction our Game Mastering pendulums seem to be stuck in and giving them a swift kick in the opposite direction will definitely help us improve as GMs.

So what are some of your Game Mastering traps? What sort of things do you easily fall into? What sort of things do you often ignore in a game?

(Image: Original here. )

About  John Arcadian

John Arcadian is the head of Silvervine Games, a freelance writer and art director, a website developer, a builder of sonic screwdrivers, and a purveyor of kilted mayhem. When he isn't out causing trouble in his kilt... Well, no, that is pretty much what he does when he isn't running RPGs or or trying to take over the world.



7 Responses to GMing Traps

  1. “I can’t ever bring myself to think that a non-intelligent creature would have much gold on it.”

    Very likely it doesn’t. However, the bits and pieces of non-intelligent creatures (and intelligent nonhumanoid creatures) are often worth a great deal of money. Heck, sometimes the whole corpse is — one of my recent monetary rewards for my PCs was the sale of the stuffed corpse of a beholder they’d slain. A local inn wanted it for their trophy wall, and with the PCs’ names under it they gained not only cash, but renown. Even something simple like teeth – things that a fighter can harvest – can often be worth a lot, or can be barterable.

    Alternatively, if your party is killing a big nasty creature in its den… well, what are the odds that they’re the first to try? The old, discarded, armor-clad bones in the corner of a lair, with a treasure worthless to the monster but valuable to the PCs, is a great way to put wishlist items into a fight with (as you stated) a monster who wouldn’t have the slightest use for the thing. And if all else fails, semi-intelligent creatures might just like the shine on a valuable art piece.

    “When the characters defeat a squad of soldiers or guards, I can’t justify them carrying all their money on them for patrol, more likely they are bringing creature comforts and other necessary items – but not random, sellable loot. When I realize that my players don’t have a good deal of cash on hand, I usually overcompensate.”

    You’re right about them not carrying cash – usually. However, if the patrol is traveling about the countryside and not returning to a base camp or garrison each night, they may well have a strongbox of cash to buy provisions and lodging as needed on their route. And if they don’t have that, maybe they do have something even more valuable – information. Selling information to “the right people” can be just as lucrative for PCs as raiding ancient tombs.

  2. Selling information to “the right people” can be just as lucrative for PCs as raiding ancient tombs.

    I usually fall into the trap of not using information as a valuable commodity. Thanks for the reminder. Perfect for the next adventure I’m GMing.

  3. Kurt "Telas" Schneider

    My trap: Forgetting that the players will figure out more ways out of the box they’re in than I can.

    I usually make things too easy on my players; I need to crank it up a notch occasionally. After all, only pressure produces diamonds.

  4. A big trap I suffer: Providing what’s “logical” not “fun”. If I have to throw in easy fights, I need to remember to whittle them down to a roll and a description, not lengthy but unchallenging combat.

  5. One GM trap I see a lot is trying to make an encounter “hard” and then the party gets wiped out. If you let the dice do their job, some encounters will work out easy and some hard. The easy ones go by fast, bringing up a hard one.

  6. my trap: being too damn awesome. MEGA BUTTER!

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