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Lessons From a Bad GM: Success, Unbeatable Situations, and Effort Versus Reward

Some GMs approach the players as their rivals in the game. This is not to say that they are hostile to the players, but that the GM believes that he or she must meet or surpass the players through the game’s mechanics. This approach may result in preparation decisions that are not inspired by the game’s storyline but are instead born of meta-knowledge of the players and the game itself. Examples include:

Each of these examples if used sparingly for a limited duration might be very effective for running a memorable game. When used excessively and in combination though these same tactics may result in player dissatisfaction with the game and the GM.

My personal experience as a player was with an older and experienced GM. His tactic of choice was to dangle treasure in front of the PCs that they would never acquire. The first time this tactic was used a large gemstone was trapped and the party thief (this was back in the 80s when a rogue was a thief whose guild was trying to kill him or her for abandoning them) triggered the trap by removing the gemstone and an explosion killed half of the party. This was a fun thing to have happen in the game despite new characters needing to be rolled up. It added a great feel to the game that danger was everywhere and that the PCs should never let their guards down.

Later in the game a chest of gold was discovered. Traps were checked for and found, and after successfully disarming the trap in the chest a second trap was activated once the PCs lifted the chest. Again PCs were killed, but this second occasion was not as much fun since we the players were actively trying to avoid all traps and believed that we had done so. The tactic did not seem to be nearly as fresh and as entertaining the second time around. It felt more akin to being a punishment for not catching all of the obscure clues present in the scene.

More characters were rolled up and later in the game another treasure was discovered. This time it was a necklace on a podium by itself in the middle of an otherwise empty room. We the players decided not to pursue it, and our PCs moved forward into other parts of the dungeon.

You probably can surmise what happened next, but in the interest of completing the story I shall describe the ending to what had started as a fun game.

A locked stone door was discovered that had a carving that was obviously an impression of the necklace. The PCs returned to the room to retrieve the necklace. Yes it was trapped, and yes the trap was triggered. The PCs returned to the door and placed the necklace in the impression and activated another trap, but by this time the players were no longer caring if the traps were activated or not. The door did not open, so a brave PC put on the necklace and placed it in the impression while wearing it and the door opened without any traps being activated. But that brave PC then learned that the necklace was a cursed item that could not be removed without venturing deeper into the dungeon and that the curse would impact all of his attacks negatively.

The game just fizzled out at that point. None of us who were playing felt like continuing, but I can remember that the GM wanted to keep going. In fact, I clearly remember him gleefully saying “I just can’t let you guys take the victory from me! That wouldn’t be any fun at all!”

It was that night that I learned that a GM should never play to “win”. Any “victory” a GM has of that nature is always a hollow one, since you probably rigged the game to begin with.

There are all kinds of problems with the event that I shared with you. The GM had lousy pacing by using the same tactic several times in a row. The traps were more akin to being inevitable consequences instead of being challenges that the PCs might have overcome. The treasure in the game was not actually treasure at all, but bait for more traps and eventually another type of trap unto itself. Although there were other options to be pursued in the game, it began to feel like a railroad with each predetermined destination being some sort of trap to humiliate the players with.

The GM did reveal the methods by which each trap could have been avoided in an attempt to salvage the game when it was clear that the players had lost all interest in playing. It did not matter by that point. The amount of player (not PC) effort it would have taken to overcome the traps successfully in the form of questions to be asked of the GM was not worth the perceived reward being offered in the game.

As a player I felt that I was being tested to see if I could read the GM’s mind instead of playing a game, and for what? So that I could write down “1 large gemstone” in pencil on a character sheet? Alas, I am no mind reader. If I was I would have retrieved his bank account information instead.

That GM “won” each and every encounter. He beat his rivals the players at every turn. He also inevitably cost himself his own game, and therefore lost his role as the GM. No players means no game, and no game means no Game Master.

I wish I could say that was the only time that I had ever encountered such a GM. It was not. I am sure that some you readers have faced similar GMs (maybe even worse ones).  The sad thing is that this GM was talented. He was a great role player who developed an intriguing and compelling story. His combat encounters were fun, and he knew the rules like the back of his hand. This GM could have been a great person to learn how to run an RPG from (ironically he was that, but not in a good way).

Should you challenge your players? Yes, at times. Sometimes you should not. Should you be a rival to your players? Yes, at times. Sometimes you should not. Should you be devious with what you prepare for your games? Yes, at times. Sometimes you should not.

But you should never create an unbeatable situation for your players to be trapped within. If you see your players growing frustrated and losing interest in your game because they keep “failing” in the game, take a moment to ask yourself “Is success actually possible?”

Even better, ask yourself “Would succeeding be fun?”

Agree? Disagree? This one is pretty subjective, but I believe that there is a line here and that good GMs stop themselves from crossing it. Leave a comment below and let everyone know what you think about this matter.

21 Comments (Open | Close)

21 Comments To "Lessons From a Bad GM: Success, Unbeatable Situations, and Effort Versus Reward"

#1 Comment By Razjah On July 15, 2011 @ 7:59 am

I agree. Often times people are gaming with thier friends. Why do some GMs feel the need to beat them to have a good time or tell a good story? Especially in a cooperative game.

#2 Comment By Roxysteve On July 15, 2011 @ 8:19 am

Perhaps the real story here is that the “older and experienced GM” was expecting more old-school play and less die-rolling? That old chest trap trick was a cliche before White Box D&D went out of print.

The way I read this from what was written (which is of course not the whole story) is that there was a fundamental difference in the approach to the game between the “older and experienced GM” and the (presumably younger) players.

To pick on the chest trap as the example: it might be argued that in a world where exploding traps can be magically set it would be child’s play to arrange such a trap that was completely invisible (to a non-mage) until triggered, and therefore fundamentally not susceptible to “disarm trap” rolls – which are usually described in terms of mechanical traps and would require one to be able to interact with the trap in some way in order to disable it.

I don’t say this is a universal argument, just a reasonable one. Of course, a mage should be able to spot the aura of the trap by using Detect Magic/Arcana/Aura/Whatever, and there are a number of ways the trap can be sprung with little risk to the player characters. Perhaps the GM was looking for more creative solutions than a die roll but the players expected such rolls to be a valid, if abstract, universal solution, as it would seem to be from the later editions of D&D?

But I wasn’t there and this isn’t the full story, so it might just as validly be the GM was an idiot (though the phrase “experienced GM” would seem to be operative and is very suggestive that the guy had no problem scaring up a game).

I think the obvious problem from what you describe is that the expectations of the GM and the players were wildly at odds, and that never ends well.

#3 Comment By Roxysteve On July 15, 2011 @ 8:36 am

Question for you, Patrick.

Modern day investigative game.

PCs have raided a farm in which every single openable mechanism, from the front and back doors to a roll-top of a desk, are rigged with trip wire/C4 traps by someone who clearly knows his craft. They discover one of those gear-driven freight elevators in the floor of a barn, clearly a way to some underground lair.

As the PCs, how many people do you load on the small, square metal platform out of the seven you have on hand before hitting the “down” button?

Now, as the GM, what do you do when the players, who’ve apparently put their brains in park for the day, cram their entire party on the thing and descend towards the very simple arrangement of wires, battery, microswitch and fused C4 arranged around the first stop by Mr Villain?

Yes the trap was intended to be something of a puzzler, but all it required was thought, equipment and time to defuse, and the budget was effectively unlimited for equipment and time.

The entire point was to provide the careful players that they were on the right track to this guy’s mindset and give them some well-deserved kudos for Good Thinking when they (say) dismantled the elevator with the tools that were nearby and rappelled down the shaft to find the Trap of Death and disarm the thing (with a die roll).

But you had to be thinking “this guy likes his traps to go BANG” before using anything he left for you especially if you couldn’t see behind it.

Such dimwit play can bring on homicidal 10th level NPC assassin teams in even the most gentle GM’s games if it is done for long enough. 8o)

#4 Comment By Patrick Benson On July 15, 2011 @ 4:08 pm

[1] – Yes, it is that “I must win the game!” approach that does not work IMO. No RPG can be “won”. It can only be played. The play itself is the potential reward.

[2] – I mentioned that the GM was older and more experienced so that readers would not assume that this was a rookie mistake. The GM was not the oldest, nor the most experienced GM in the group. There were other members of the group who were older, more experienced and eventually uninterested in the game as well.

Were there expectations that could have been communicated beforehand that would have improved the experience and avoided the failure? Sure. Good GMs do not rely on just prior communications though. A good GM adjusts on the fly.

As to your example, well I would have had the elevator blow up and let a TPK happen. But I would have used what I call a “pre-emptive retcon”. It would have gone something like this:

“I am retconning the adventure. We are going to keep playing here unless the group decides to let the potential TPK stand. The elevator was trapped, and your PCs’ actions triggered the trap. The retcon is that there was no trap. I can roll for damage if you like, but between the explosion and the fall your PCs would have most likely died. If you don’t want the retcon, I will roll for damage and we will let the dice decide the fate of the PCs. Please take a moment as a group to decide if you would like for the retcon to stand or not.”

I’ve done this only once, but it worked out incredibly well.

As for describing the actions of the players as
“dimwit play” that makes me wonder why you would describe it as such. Not ignoring your emoticon at the end of the statement, but this is one of those situations where my interpretation of the text may not be conveying what you meant accurately. The way you describe the scene reminds me of two articles Martin wrote for Treasure Tables:



These are the challenges that make being a GM interesting. 🙂

#5 Comment By EranW On July 15, 2011 @ 5:07 pm

The main Issue here as I see it, it that the GM should *never* him/herslef as the other players rival. Sure, the GM should challenge the other players, but roleplaying is a collaborative activity. There are no rivals around the table.

Also, as the most authorative person around the table, the GM’s most important role is to make sure that everyone is having fun. In this case, the GM clearly failed to make srure other people are having fun.

As a side note, challenges should be gennerally overcomable unless explicitly stated otherwise. This is the common player expectation, and if not met will surely cause grief.

#6 Comment By Necrognomicon On July 15, 2011 @ 6:58 pm

Failure shouldn’t always equal death, and failure should be as fun as succeeding, especially catastrophic, fatal failure.

#7 Comment By Chris On July 15, 2011 @ 7:30 pm

It continually surprises me how often good lessons for GMs and players alike boil down to “Don’t be a jerk to your friends.”

#8 Comment By recursive.faults On July 15, 2011 @ 8:17 pm

I play with a GM or two that ride a very fine line to what has been described. One is out to prove he is very clever and so most combat encounters run like a chess match. It’s exhausting and not fun.

The other sees those combinations of mechanics to make incredible builds. I know there are terms for them, but he is usually very good about not letting the number game get out of hand. That being said, he does consider combat as a game of his guys against us, and he’d much rather have them flee than let us say that we killed it. Again, that’s fine, I actually don’t like games where murder is the standard solution, but when the DM says that we failed because we didn’t kill, or we don’t get XP because we didn’t kill, etc I get a little peeved.

It’s gotten bad enough that one player quit. When we started another doomed campaign, the DM said that if we wrote a background for him he’d give us something special. Half of us didn’t. Simply because it wasn’t worth whatever gift he would give to invest in a character whose backstory doesn’t matter at all in the game.

It’s easy for me to criticize them. I know my list of failures as a DM would be much longer than theirs if it came down to it. My philosophy is that if the players are making an effort, then, more often then not, things should go in their favor some. Maybe a bonus to a roll, maybe the NPCs are a little less aware or competent, maybe everything changes because the PCs deserve their chance.

#9 Comment By fmitchell On July 16, 2011 @ 12:09 am

One technique I’ve used when I’ve GMed is to put myself in the place of the villain. The goblin chief use simple mechanical traps to guard his small cache of gold, whereas an archmage would rely on complicated magical traps to guard a magnificent collection of magic items gathered over one or more lifetimes. Mid-level foes have limited resources, so they design defenses based on the enemies they expect, not the PCs who stumble upon them. Also, Big Bad Evil Guys tend to have blind spots: the goblin chief is dumb as a box of rocks, the archmage thinks only in terms of hostile magic and intellectual puzzles, a demon might not consider that mortals cooperate to solve problems, etc.

Meta-game concerns arise when selecting opponents, naturally; first-level characters probably shouldn’t take on a baby-eating demigod. Nevertheless, so many dungeons, even for first-level characters, feel like its builder had a god’s omnipotence and omniscience. An underground complex that feels like it has a history, a purpose, and plausible flaws rewards thoughtful players, and makes the game players vs. monsters/masterminds, not players vs. GM.

#10 Comment By fmitchell On July 16, 2011 @ 12:16 am

[5] – I’m continuously amazed that writers need to say “don’t be a jerk” … repeatedly.

#11 Comment By Tsenn On July 16, 2011 @ 3:20 am

@Roxysteve: sounds like the players were metagaming, and assuming the lack of an obvious trap to mean an obvious route. Or they misread the NPC’s motivations and expected him to face them in a more appropriate environment.

@Necro: I totally agree with your point about failure should be interesting.

#12 Comment By Patrick Benson On July 16, 2011 @ 9:58 am

Thanks to everyone who is commenting on this article. I want to make something clear – I do not consider the GM who ran the game to have been acting as a jerk towards the group. He was a nice guy. He was nice while he ran the game. He had good GMing skills. But he had this hubris, and it overshadowed every good quality that he brought to the table. It is as if he had baked a delicious cake with the highest quality ingredients, but it inadvertently looked like a dirty joke and that is all that people saw (and remembered).

You know, like this baby butt cake:



Sometimes you can do everything right except for one particular thing, and that one thing that done poorly is what you will be remembered for.


#13 Comment By Starvosk On July 18, 2011 @ 10:48 am

There’s really no point in adversarial GM vs PC relationships. The GM is going to win, every time. At that point, you only win when he wants you to win. The only point in which you ‘win’ is when you force him to tip his hand in such an obvious manner that he destroys you. What’s the point of that?

As a player, it’s not fun playing an adversarial game where everything is balanced against you, so at that point you might as well quit.

#14 Comment By Redcrow On July 19, 2011 @ 12:55 am

The above scenario is difficult to judge without more info. While I don’t really see the GM as making a terrible mistake necessarily, if the player’s aren’t enjoying the game then there is definitely a problem. From what was described I’m leaning towards it merely being a disconnect between the type of game the GM wanted to run and what the players wanted to play. Thats happened to me before from both sides of the table, so I can certainly see both sides of the situation.

I’ve been GMing for over 30 years and have only really had 1 TPK. It was the final act of long Shadowrun campaign and I left the ending somewhat ambiguous rather than playing it out, but it was obvious to everyone involved there wasn’t a good ending. At best the group went out in a blaze of glory in a standoff with LoneStar and at worst they would all end up in prison for a Dragon’s lifetime.

At the time the group wasn’t pleased with the ending, but once I explained the setup and what was happening behind the scenes they ALL agreed there was really no other way it could have ended. Not because I had railroaded them there, but because they finally realized how their character’s own actions (and sometimes inactions) were continually pushing them toward that outcome.

Over the years I’ve found myself ‘dumbing-down’ my villains a lot. Its all too easy for me to create an unstoppable villain whom the PCs have no hope of defeating and placing him in a labyrinth laden with traps the PCs have no hope of surviving. I can do that in my sleep. The real challenge, in my experience, is creating a villain who isn’t too tough and isn’t a big wimp but is just ‘enough’ to push the PCs to their limits in order to defeat Him/Her/It.

Its also incredibly easy for me to create situations that are overly difficult for the PCs to overcome with only one possible solution that won’t result in TPK/HPK. The real challenge for me is to create situations that are challenging enough to keep the party interested without being a cakewalk or without the game grinding to a halt and the player’s losing interest because the solution is completely unfathomable to them.

#15 Comment By Roxysteve On July 19, 2011 @ 10:00 am


“Dimwit Play” was confusing? The players had either triggered (and survived) or spotted and disabled a tripwire/explosive trap on every single moving thing that would grant access to anything. The NPC was known to be expert in explosives and making IEDs. If it opened or moved so that they could see inside something, and if they couldn’t see through it (and even if they could – all the sash windows were spotted as rigged) it was trapped with C4.

Putting the entire party on the elevator and pulling the “down” lever after finding around two dozen traps like this was dimwit play, to put it mildly. Had I been half as unfriendly as some people think I am it would have been a fiasco con carne.

I hate retcons with a passion. I would rather do almost anything else than retcon something because it breaks narrative. Which is why I did what I did and have a wire loop out so it could be broken by the elevator’s passage. I guess Mr Villain was either rushed or had given the job of running the wires to a lackey.

But how much more satisfying would it have been for the players to discover the trap by clever play? I try and provide enough opportunities and equipment for players to get creative in every game I run, just so such scenes can be experienced, by the players *and* me.

Taking my game off its rails is an enjoyable thing for me to watch.

Sorry I didn’t reply earlier. I was running games at a con all weekend (RetCon, ironically) and slept most of Monday as a result. Eight hours of answering questions was exhausting. Two days of that put me down for the count on Monday.

#16 Comment By GiacomoArt On July 19, 2011 @ 10:51 am

The incident that soured me forever on GM/player rivalry was back in school, when the older kid who — after years of bragging about the uber characters he’d leveled up by DMing himself — finally offered to run a one-shot for any obnoxiously high level characters we wished to bring to the game. He then proceeded to come up with really lame reasons why every tactical move I made was useless.

The final straw came during a parlay with a bunch of devils, when a pit fiend spotted my invisible wizard looking on from his invisible flying carpet over 100′ in the air.

Fact 1: The wizard had the DEX bonus to cancel out any normal chance of surprise.

Fact 2: The wizard was sitting there with his brownie familiar who, by the rules, flat out could not be caught by surprise.

Fact 3: The wizard was actively staring straight down at the devils, trying to appraise them and the situation.

Fact 4: The fiend was a massive creature with an incredible wingspan.

Despite these facts, the fiend was able to make a surprise claw attack against my character because, “it flew straight up under the [small and invisible] carpet”.

There was no arguing the point, either. The DM might as well have stuck his fingers in his ears and started shouting, “La la la! I can’t hear you!” the moment I began making my case. I walked away from the game right then, and it never even crossed my mind to play with him again, DM or otherwise.

#17 Comment By Patrick Benson On July 19, 2011 @ 1:20 pm

[9] – Your choice of words is what was confusing. Were you joking about your players being dimwitted for a moment in game, or were you insulting them? I could not tell from the text alone.

How is a wire loop suddenly being cut by the elevator not a retcon? You did not plan for that, so is that not a retcon you did on the fly for the purpose of keeping the game going? The players may not have been aware of it, but you were. In my book that is a retcon. Maybe not for everyone, but it was a retcon for the GM.

The other thing to point out is that why put a trap that if triggered would result in a TPK if you did not want a TPK to be possible? Seems like the adventure that you designed and the adventure that you wanted to have did not match.

[10] – Those are the kinds of games that remind us that a GM is a judge, not a dictator. Poor judgment may lead to bad game, but declaring everything via GM fiat is not even a game to begin with.

#18 Comment By Patrick Benson On July 19, 2011 @ 1:30 pm

[11] – Agreed. In the real world when there is a clear cut winner there usually is no conflict either. Right or wrong, fair or not, the result stands. Of course in the real world there rarely is a clear cut winner to begin with because of limited resources. I think a lot of GMs screw up in challenge designs, because they never cap the resources that they will use in the design of the challenge.

[12] – It is a difficult scenario to judge if you were not there to experience it firsthand. It is difficult to judge even having been there myself, but not having access to the GM’s mind in order to really understand his motivations and ideas surrounding the game. Yet, I just feel that this GM blew it because he just did not assess the situation at the table correctly. He needed to back off on the traps in order to keep the game fun. It was not so much that the challenges were difficult, but that they were difficult and not very interesting after awhile.

#19 Comment By Redcrow On July 19, 2011 @ 11:05 pm

[13] – I can agree that perhaps the GM could have assessed the situation a little better during the events that led up to that situation. I think being a good GM is like being a good poker player in that you have to be able to read the faces of everyone else at the table and make adjustments to keep the pace moving and make things interesting. I know I’m doing a good job when my players are literally sitting on the edge of their seats and I know I’m doing poorly when the only player paying attention is the one whose turn it is to act.

Sometimes as a GM I like the idea of running a game with a different ‘feel’ to it than is typical for the setting. Unfortunately it requires all the players understanding the premise and being willing to adhere to it. For example, last year I wanted to run a Shadowrun game with a more Heist/Con vibe and less run ‘n gun. More like the movie Sneakers and less like the movie Shoot ‘Em Up. My players agreed but it was obvious to me after the first game they wanted Shoot ‘Em Up and not Sneakers. I had to adapt to what the players wanted. No sense in continuing a game that only 1 out of 6 people is interested in. Luckily for me a few months ago I found a few more players willing to give my Heist/Con Shadowrun game a try and everyone thoroughly enjoyed it.

I do know some GMs who are either unwilling to adapt or unable to recognize when maybe they need to and it doesn’t necessarily seem to be something that changes with experience either.

#20 Comment By Roxysteve On July 20, 2011 @ 8:28 am

[14] – I was jokingly insulting them. They are all grown-ups and can take it (and besides, they agree with me – the comment upon discovering the broken trap was “how stupid were we?).

It isn’t a retcon from where I’m standing because (and I feel this is the crucial point) the change didn’t happen inside the players’ mental story-space at any time. No event was rewound and mulliganed.

Plus, I saw disaster about to happen and changed it before it occurred in my inner narrative too. A retcon by definition must change events already experienced in the past narrative. A plot-change isn’t automatically a retcon any more than a goal is automatically a railroad. Your use of the term could have it apply to plot changes in the pre-game notes write-up if taken to extremes.

Yes, I planned a lethal trap, and planned for the possibility that a player-character or two could be killed. It’s that sort of game (with full player approval and buy-in before anyone starts venting). I simply didn’t expect that having given the players such a distinct and obvious look into the villain’s psyche they would ignore it en masse, is all.

#21 Comment By Patrick Benson On July 20, 2011 @ 11:39 am

[15] – Fair enough. For me the retcon took place when you as the GM did not pull the trigger on the trap. At the moment of truth you chose the game over the plan and that is a good thing, but you didn’t change the plan beforehand. You changed the game at the “moment of impact”. Yes, only you were aware of it but you mentally rewound that scenario to have it play differently instead of blowing up the PCs. The retcon was the right move to make IMO.

Given your approach as you described it though I think that we have a very different viewpoint. Your opinion that it was not a retcon suggests to me that you consider the GM to be something separate from the audience. What takes place int he GM’s head did not take place in the game because the players never saw it. Here is where I think we differ. I see the GM as being a part of the audience, so in the scenario that you described a part of the audience did see that explosion happen – the GM.

Regardless, we don’t need to agree here and I am not looking for consensus. I just wanted to answer your question, and I hope that I did.