Theoretically I was going to do some posts for a friend about how to be a good, or at least average, GM. Beginner-GM advice and all that. Seeing as how he’s gone slightly mad, my incentive to start off that train of thought diminished, so instead, I’ll start with a list of five generally stupid things you shouldn’t do when you’re the GM. They may sound like fantastic ideas as a newb, but trust me, they all suck. Almost always.
And yes, I have seen or played in these games, heard these ideas batted around, and made characters for several of them. All of these are, sadly, real-life examples.
1. – Rolling on Random Charts
I figured to start off with this one, because it’s one of the dopier, stupidly minor, more extreme examples. One time during a Magic tourney, one of the gaming club’s hangers-on showed up with a couple of female compatriots, offering to run a session of D&D. He was a hardcore Magic player, and had wanted to hone his roleplaying talents , having just started gaming with the only guy who ran 3.x on campus. Since everybody still in the room had already bought in to the Magic tournament, he didn’t get any takers, but he ran the game anyways for his two friends.
I ended up sitting about five feet from the guy for the first tourney round, and listening to his game was painful: the players were crawling through endless rooms of 1d4 kobolds or 2d6 orcs. Yep, the guy was running everything right out of the 3.5 DMG, with the “beginner’s dungeon” random encounter tables. That wouldn’t have been so bad, but for one (two) flaws: he also rolled on the random treasure tables, so the players ended up with ridiculous magic items after the first room. Why the kobolds wouldn’t have been wearing the ring of protection +4 is beyond me. Having just two players meant the random-generated challenges were usually too high, but after a few rooms, they were taking out groups of ogres with their overpowered loot.
Nothing against random charts and all, but you have to know how to use them. This is how not to use them. D&D in particular is all about the “you must be this tall to ride” equipment and classes, and things like loot are meant to be doled out at specific power levels… getting a +1 longsword at first level makes sense in the highest of high magic game, but beyond that, the suggestion is to find one around level 3-4. Probably the funniest part was the looks his two players gave him, like they knew full well they shouldn’t end up with +3 icy burst vorpal bastard swords. Needless to say, the self-inflicted Monty Haul didn’t sell him or his players on roleplaying; I think the characters died when he rolled an ancient red dragon on the random charts, and the PCs were only level three.
2. – Play Yourself
This one is an actual GMing sin: having, or letting, the characters play themselves. It’s a common occurance for new players to want to do this, under the guise of simplification, and there’s no reason a GM should allow it. There’s a couple of great reasons why this is a terrible idea.
First off, everyone—particularly younger, newer players—has a higher opinion of their abilities than other people do. If the players have the freedom to assign their own ability scores, sans-dice rolling or point-buy, this can easily devolve into pointless bitching and infighting. (As if pointless shopping wasn’t enough.) Second, what happens when the game-self dies? Is that the GM taking it out on them? Have they been slighted? Thirdly, and most important, roleplaying is a device to approach fictional situations with fictional characters, with story/game elements as boundaries and rules. Just playing yourself can take the fantastic/fictional element away. It may be just as horrible, but trying to play another character—Conan, Jack Sparrow, Drizzt—is at least a step up from playing yourself.
Lastly… no matter what your character is like, your personality is already going to have a huge influence on the character already. You may not be playing Yourself, Bob the Fifth-level Stockbroker, but part of Bob is going to come through in how you handle the situations and approach challenges. Bob may be female, or a sociopath, or talk in a funny accent, but there’ll always be parts of Bob in there.
3. – Use Riddles
Riddles are meant to be some kind of major challenge to players, but they fall into two categories: super-easy and mind-bogglingly difficult. If it’s fairly straightforward, the players will get it in a heartbeat, so why bother using it in the first place? More likely, there’ll be a lot of thought put into it, and it’ll become a major challenge, and the players will all fail. By simple virtue of not being you, the players are already at a disadvantage—they don’t think like you, and thus won’t always come to the same conclusions. I have never seen riddles pan out in a game, and they’re generally just there to frustrate both players (“This is hard!”) and GMs (“You should have gotten it by now!”).
Hey, who knows, your group may love sitting around for an hour trying to think up the answer to a complex equation. But until you know for a fact that they do, avoid riddles like the plague. Riddles ruin friendships. True story.
4. – Start the characters in prison
Or otherwise start off on an “Okay, you’re stuck someplace with no equipment and no supplies and have to work your way free somehow” situation. To be fair, it can be a fantastic plot device, when done right; that said, it’s often… not done right. It’s a favorite trope of mine, but the challenge has to be incremental: if the PCs are beaten unconscious every time they fail to pick the key out of the guard’s pocket, you’re not doing it right. When done right, the players will have at least the illusion of free will, or better, are challenged but have enough agency to quickly improve their lot in life. Honestly I’d just say lay off it until you know three things like the back of your hand: how your group would handle it, and how you’d react to it, and if that reaction will be something enjoyable or something tedious.
5. – GMPCs
Frequently, players who foray into the realms of running games have this idea that they should include some powerful NPC to follow the party around, or back them up in combat, or otherwise be a major helpful patron. I see the logic of the idea, but it crops up far too much, particularly with new GMs. And it’s an awful trope. Always awful. It almost never works like you want it, and the party will resent you for it.
Stop and think for a sec. Who’s story is the game about? If story isn’t your thing, then who is the game focused on? If either answer wasn’t “the party,” you may as well not bother running games and just focus on writing self-aggrandizing fanfics. As a social event, gaming is focused more-or-less equally on both the players and the GM. To boil it down, it’s the GM’s job to think up the plot, and design the challenges, and describe the world, and it’s the players’ job to prevent the apocalypse.
It’s the players’ job to have fun from the encounters and challenges, and if they’re not being allowed to use those without a giant neon safety net, they’re going to feel slighted. They’ll feel like either you’re marginalizing them for the sake of your Mary Sue character, or that you’re trying to focus the game squarely on yourself, or that you don’t trust them enough to be able to overcome the challenges. (Or, to add into the latter, that you are setting them up for more of a challenge than they deserve or are otherwise being more adversarial than necessary.)
The only thing worse than a GMPC is a dragon GMPC. If you’re thinking of having a dragon, of any kind, shapeshifted or not, or a deity, or a major supernatural entity, or anything else that’s more powerful than Corky, the simpleminded lad who empties out the piss buckets… then don’t add in a GMPC. Yes, NPCs are important; they can be valuable allies, contacts, sources of information, and potential roleplaying outlets. But in most cases, it’s better to earn their friendship or develop them in play rather than saddling the PCs with them from day one. And whatever you do, don’t make them more powerful than the least powerful PC.
6. – Bonus! The Adversarial GM
The one, main, serious comment here: don’t run games like you’re the adversary, or like you’re playing a character (or characters) against the party. The GM is indeed supposed to come up with challenges, and pit the party against all manner of foes, but killing off the players eventually ends the game—people get tired of it and stop showing up, because quite frankly, it isn’t fun. There’s no badge of honor for killing the most PCs, or out-thinking them, or screwing them over because you wear the biggest and most numerous hats at the table. RPGs are actual games, and have plenty of defined boundaries and mechanics and rules, but that doesn’t mean you win when your dick-waving GMPC is the last one standing. At that point, it’s a crude mockery, a parody of actual roleplaying.