I like to think myself an expert on GM mistakes. I might be more qualified than anyone else when it comes to the screw ups of running an entire world. This is probably due to the fact that I’ve screwed up so many times it’s kind of weird that my group keeps coming back. I’m going to put out there some of the things that have been a problem for me in the past and what I’m doing to avoid those pitfalls again.
Dragging a Fight On
This is something I struggle with still. I like to see a fight to the end, and to me the end is when all bad guys are at 0 hp. Don’t do this. Always have another out. A fight doesn’t have to end in death of one side or the other. There are plenty of other ways one can end a fight. Retreating and surrendering are two ways that the bad guys can lose that doesn’t require a fight to drag on a few more rounds because you need to hit the magic hp number of 0. Honestly a fight can be more epic if the players can come up with a way to end the fight quickly by being clever.
I once played in a Pathfinder game where I played a very strong monk. I took Improved Grapple as one of my feats. We got to the big bad evil guy. He was some sort of spell caster that needed to wiggle his fingers to blow us up. He was also on an elevated platform. We never dealt direct damage to the BBEG. The fighter and cleric ran a distraction while the wizard made me hard to notice. I was able to ninja climb to the mage and then grappled him. He couldn’t get free so I asked the GM if I could break a few fingers to prevent his use of somatic components. He agreed and with a satisfying crunch the mage was powerless. We took a few good hits but we defeated him in three rounds and it was awesome. The GM could have forced us to keep punching and hitting the mage till he was down to zero hp but since the mage was pretty screwed as is the GM let us have an early out.
Running a Time Travel Game
I say this as a warning. These are hard. You need to decide how time travel works in your game. I’ve ran one time travel game in my life that worked out well. The system was nWoD and the two characters were mortals. They ended up in between a feud between two mages that were targeting them for some reason. Turns out the two mages were the two PCs from the future. It was pretty long and convoluted but in the end to stop the blood shed one of the PCs let herself die in hopes that it would make the evil version of herself disappear. That didn’t work and the evil future mage was just royally pissed that now she couldn’t use herself against her enemy, the other PC. Finally after the dust settled the two future selves were killed and the remaining PC became a mage of time and traveled back in time again to stop all of this from happening.
What I’m trying to say is I got lucky that everything worked out like it did. I had to really ad lib and bs my way through a lot of it and it worked out ok. Just be sure that if you do run a time travel game you talk to your players about how time travel works in your game. Otherwise you’ll end up with that one guy that will try to dictate how time travel should work because of that one movie, etc, etc. This leads into my next point.
Communicate With Your Group
This should be the first lesson every GMing book should have. Right after the table of contents. This is something so important to any group to function that without this you’ll end up with games like my first game.
My first character ever was a were-bear barbarian from D&D 3.0. None of us really knew the rules very well just yet so we didn’t understand level adjustments and the fact that I was about five levels above everyone else when I hulked out. I didn’t have control over it for most of the game so all in all I was more so a human that the GM could use to break random stuff when he wanted. Another player in the group decided he wanted to be a barbarian as well. He knew more about the game than I did and made a much more efficient PC. We also rolled randomly for our stats and he ended up with an 18 in STR and CON while I was a bit lower. So basically everything I did, he did better. I wished I would have talked to him about it cause it sucked that my character didn’t get a lot of spotlight because if something needing breaking he would do it. The saving grace was my ability to hulk out. Turning into a bear made me all sorts of awesome. Eventually (like 13 levels in) I learned to control it and could do it when I wanted to. It was amazing the kind of numbers I put out. When I did change I was quite a bit stronger than my barbarian brother. Eventually the GM figured out that something was up and reread the rules. He discovered the mistake we made by letting me be a were-bear. He decided to remove that part of me within the story. I was basically killed, and the only NPC healer that they could find to save me said he could save me but there would be a cost. We agreed and he brought me back, without my bear form. I was really bummed about that. I now went back to playing second chair to the other barbarian. I was about ready to move on to a different character. I was pretty young so I didn’t handle it maturely. Eventually he explained it to me why he did it (balance issues). If he had explained to me why he was thinking of doing what he did I would have handled it much better.
A lot of the problems I faced in that game would have never even come up as a problem if I had learned to communicate better. It’s funny how when we were in school teachers were always trying to teach us communication skills, but as soon as I got into the game room that part of my brain took a holiday. My advice would be, “When in doubt, be open.” It’s better to be transparent about your decisions and upfront with them than to surprise your group with the fact that you’re unhappy about a decision that was made a few months ago.
Randomness During Character Creation
I mentioned above that our stats were rolled randomly, but I forgot to mention that our races were handed out at random as well. I’ve played games where randomness is a part of the game. Gamma World and Lost Souls are two off the top of my head that fully embrace random character generation. The system is actually built around it due to the fact that it’s hard to build a “bad” character. When I say bad I speak of characters that aren’t min/maxed. Games that don’t require or allow for PCs to be at different power levels are great for randomness, but for games like D&D and Pathfinder where one needs to worry about getting his bonuses as high as possible, randomness can run the risk of some characters being better than others just due to chance.
I highly suggest that when playing games like Pathfinder, D&D, or Dungeon World all players should be on the same power scale. Randomness can be awesome for the guy that rolls a few 18s for his stats but woe to the player that gets mostly 12s and 10s. Use point buy or a standard array for your stats. This way the players can all be on the same level and if a PC is not performing well you take away the excuse that it was dumb luck that caused the bad PC.
I used to play once a week for at least eight hours straight. Usually we played for twelve. That was ten years ago. I can’t do that anymore. Last time I tried it about two hours in I burned out and couldn’t come up with anything. Now for you youngsters that can still play for that long congrats, but allow me to share some wisdom. Take a break. As a player it’s really easy for you to just keep wanting to play. You’re only worried about one person and what she wants. Now as a GM you have a few more things to worry about. The GM will be doing at least twice as much as a player. GMs will burn out faster than players just because their workload is so much bigger. Solution: take a break.
Take one after a long fight. Take one after the players discover something amazing. The best time to take one though, is when you get stumped. It happens. The player asks you about that race of whatever living near the thingy by the castle and you can’t come up with a darn thing. Tell the players you need a few minutes. Take five. Get food. Use the bathroom. It will help and if you get back and you’re still stumped ask the player what he thinks that race is all about. Knowing your limits is another thing. If you know that after about 5 hours you get burned out, don’t plan a 10 hour session that you’re going to run. The first few hours will go fine but when those burned out hours roll in that’s all the players are going to remember.
Coming Up With Everything All By Yourself
I use to play in games where the GM came up with everything. Players would just show up with their PC and go. This worked great in high school due to the sheer amount of time we all had to do nothing, but today I don’t have time to come up with all of these details ahead of time. I’m pretty good at improv, but after a while I’ll burn out. Share the load with your players. Dungeon World is great for that. They use prompts at the beginning of a game to help establish the world. The GM would ask the group a question like “Why did you kill the King’s favorite nephew out in the swamp?” Then the players would come up with a reason. The question is open ended (as in you can’t answer it with a yes/no) and points the group in the direction that the GM wants to go. It’s fine if you want to keep the world your own, but be sure to talk to your group about that. Remember to communicate to the group.
I Can’t Do It
This is one problem I’ve seen with some of my fellow players. They have these great ideas that they’d like to run but then they chicken out. One reason that I’ve seen is that they are afraid that they won’t be good enough. They’ll make mistakes. The people who will be playing have played much longer than you. All I can say to that is I’ve been there. When I first sat behind a DM screen I was worried about all those things, but then I realized something. A GM isn’t against his players. You’re working with them to tell an epic story. The players don’t want you to fail and a good group will help the GM any way they can. Don’t be afraid of running a game. It’s not for everyone, but you will never know if it’s for you unless you try it. I really hope that there are some players out there that decide to try GMing now. The world can’t wait to see what you got.
Don’t drag a fight on just because you want all bad guys to be at 0 hp.
Avoid time travel.
Take a break.
Share the load.
Thanks for reading and I want to thank all the people I’ve gamed with over the years. Thanks for making me realize that there are people out there that want me to succeed as much as I do, and for that one player that always makes me pie and cake, be brave! You’ll be awesome.