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Guest House: Writers Write

The Ten Deadly Sins of GMs

by Nadin Brzezinski
January 23, 2002

About the author: Nadin is a freelance writer who has done with the RPGA and with "Haven: City of Violence".  

In our Role-Playing Careers we have all met different kinds of GMs and players, that goes without saying. Some we meet leave us baffled, sometimes they leave us angry. Moreover, we have also seen the ever-so-famous "how to run a Role Playing Game" article. These are pervasive in any RPG system, in trying to this little beast to the uninitiated.

Heck, I think we all have written one at one time or another, or tried to explain what an RPG is to a concerned parent, or a potential gamer.

Here is a different spin on this. Instead of the how to run a game, prepare yourself for the Ten deadly sins of GMs.


1. - Run a very easy game.

Wherein the game is so easy that the party is able to walk over a cave full of Trolls without breaking a sweat. The chronic lack of challenge will lead players to make severe mistakes, that they would not do otherwise. I mean, why take any risk in this game seriously? Famous last words, "You mean I survived a Nuclear Explosion!?!" (And yes, I have seen this happen.) It happened to my brother in law in a game of MechWarrior. He was more than just bemused. His last famous action was to tear the Character Sheet.

2.- I am the GM, I am God.

Well yes, that is true. The GM's word has ultimate standing in any game. That said, this leads to a very strange trust between the GM and his players. The GMs have no right to do as they please with Player Characters. That is an essential breach of player / GM trust. Once it occurs, players tend to leave games in droves.

3.- Make the game so difficult that it looks to all that the GM is doing his best to "defeat" the players.

Yes, I too love the image of the Knights of the Dinner Table, with GM and Players being virtual enemies. Though that image is fun, it is not entirely accurate. In fact, this is a very easy mistake to make. After all, we want to give the players a challenge, and making the game easy leads to a lack of challenge. In an effort to make that game challenging the GM places insurmountable odds in front of the party. Why? The GM is trying to "win," forgetting that in RPGs nobody truly wins or loses. In the end players leave in frustration.

4.- Not giving enough detail.

Okay, this is fully open to interpretation, and likely GMs of any and all stripes will make this mistake. When detailing a situation, the GM forgets to give out a piece of very critical information. This information is basic to solve the puzzle, as it were. In the end something bad happens to the party. The GM sometimes is convinced she gave all that was needed. Players know the truth, at least from their point of view. This leads to recrimination and sometimes to a group falling apart. Learning to admit a mistake will usually solve this problem.

5.- Giving too much detail.

Ironic I know, but sometimes you can give too much detail. If you start describing lets say, a dinner, gauge your players. They might get bored and lose track of what is going on. Why? Too much is going on that they do not care for. Granted, usually this is most often a problem with the Hack and Slash crowd, but still be aware of your level of detail. You can indeed give too much detail.

6.- Sticking to a story regardless of player actions.

When GMs stick to a given story arc, regardless of player actions, that will be maddening to players. In the end, the players will realize that whatever they do is futile and move on to other greener pastures. Players are a fickle kind and they do like to interact in significant ways with their world. When they feel they cannot, then they pull up stakes and look for greener pastures. Even those who designed Everquest[tm] knew that.

Even though the game might be a tad directed at constant questing, players still feel they can advance their characters and interact with the world. Paper and pencil GMs should beware of trying the old "you shall do as I say-- it is cheaper than a computer game"! Players just move on to the next game.

7.- Leading players to water

Similar to the above. When players reach a certain point in the story they feel that they have achieved something, only to learn that they have not. The reason for this is the illusion that player actions count, when they truly do not. This is a harder illusion to maintain, but once it is clear, players again do leave in frustration.

8.- Giving players all they want

Monty Haul GMs, we know them and we love them. They are the butt of many a joke. These are the GMs who subscribe to the following school of thought: Give the player all they desire, and that will keep them happy. Indeed they are the best kind for the Munchkin player since she will give them all they want in the name of "fun." At the same time, this leads directly to the first deadly sin, making it way to easy. Most Monty Haul GMs I know also have an intense fear of killing Player Characters.

9.- Players do not get what they want.

The other extreme of the Monty Haul GM, what I would like to call the stingy GM. This leads to frustrated players, who will not be able to accomplish their missions. In the end the satisfaction of running a party in a game becomes so frustrating that the players throw their hands off and leave in frustration. I might add, some of these GMs also love to kill player characters.

10.- The biggest sin, and I have seen it only twice in my gaming career!

When a player walks away from a game in disgust, for whatever reason, the Player Characters become the GMs toy. When a player wants to kill a character it should be let stand, regardless of story arcs they are involved in or any other silliness. Characters are very personal things that players create. Hence those wishes should be respected.


I hope this list helps all of you to become better GMs. I am sure the list is far from complete, but a good starting point.

Of course there are exceptions to these sins. When running a demo in a convention you do need to lead people to water. That is one way to assure that you do show mechanics. In that special case, it is acceptable to lead the party down a very narrow trail. TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

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All Guest du Jour columns

  • The Ten-Minute Guide To Becoming a RPG Transvestite by Shanya Almafeta, 02sep03
  • Gamers Who Rock by Jason Sartin, 03jul03
  • Play is Political by Johan Soderberg, 01jul03
  • Darren MacLennan provides The Ten Deadly Sins of GMs, January 23, 2002
  • Darren MacLennan provides Marching Goes Johnny Home, December 14, 2001, an adventure
  • Darren MacLennan provides a Wild Weekend at Turner's Junction, October 30, 2001-- our first adventure!
  • Kyle Voltti on Would I Be Gaming This Week? September 14, 2001 [about 9/11]
  • Eric Nail with Emotion in Role-Play July 31, 2001
  • JT Scott's gaming Renaissance June 1, 2001
  • Todd Downing on The RPG Player's Checklist May 2, 2001
  • The Hitchhiker, Head: the Floating April 1, 2000
  • Mark Strecker on Accurate Arthurian Gaming January 4, 2000
  • Joanne Ellem on From the Trenches- chicks in roleplaying and other stuff August 3, 1999
  • Bailey Watts on Portrait of Goob June 29, 1999
  • Eva on Eye of a She-Gamer May 11, 1999
  • Darnit Jim, I'm an Adventurer, Not an Exterminator! January 12, 1999
  • Paul Franklin on So You Want To Do Reviews for RPG.net? December 22, 1998
  • Shadow Sprite on The Economics of Gaming December 23, 1997 (or, "How to Dissuade Those Pesky Non-Gamers")
  • Mike Montesa on being an expatriate in Japan October 21, 1997
  • Lise Mendel on Coming of Age An insightful and personal look into what it means to be a gamer. September 30, 1997

    Other columns at RPGnet

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