I love it when a new GM steps up to the plate! Good GMs are what keep our hobby going and expanding our ranks is a real benefit to tabletop RPGs across the board. Yet I’ve noticed that there are some common mistakes made amongst new GMs that veteran GMs tend to avoid due to their years of acquired wisdom and experience (i.e. – we have already made these mistakes). I present to you, dear reader, the five mistakes of the new GM:
Mistake #1 — You build a railroad.
We’ve all been there. You have a great plot. You have prepped every detail imaginable. You have fleshed out the NPCs and know exactly how they will react to the players’ every move. Yep, you have everything covered!
Or do you? Most likely what you have really done is imagined how the session will play out. Players have a habit of bringing their own plans to the table though, and their characters will do and say things that you can never be prepared for. That is not a mistake on the GM’s part.
The mistake though is when you as a GM force the players to stick to your vision of the game and force their actions to fit with your preconceived ideas. This is better known amongst gamers as “railroading”. Instead of letting the players find their own way through the adventure you force them onto the tracks of a route that you want them to take.
The end result? Your players will probably leave the game. Who wants to play a role playing game where their decisions are trumped by the GM’s plot? When the players go in an unexpected direction do not force them to play according to your plot. Instead move things around behind the scenes and let the players’ decisions matter. If they find a way around your incredibly cool combat scene shelve it and save it for a later date.
But what about all of that wonderful prep work that you did? Well that leads us to mistake number two…
Mistake #2 — You build a world.
The thrill of running your first game session can be intoxicating! New GMs have tons of wonderful ideas that they will spend hours upon hours fleshing out in order to share them with others. Maps are drawn, pantheons populated, local customs elaborated upon, and much, much more!
Save yourself the disappointment. The players will not notice a detail unless you make it a point to draw their attention to it. They will however ask about something that you are not prepared for.
It is better to prep for only the major scenarios in your plot and to flesh out critical NPCs than it is to have the entire world mapped out and completely populated. Why make up stats for the evil tyrant who rules the lands West of the mountains if your scenario takes place thousands of miles away in the underwater city of a lost kingdom?
Remember that the players will not play the game exactly as you envisioned it. Having notes on only the most important details of your game makes it easy to quickly adapt your material to the current situation. Not only will you save yourself from unnecessary work, but your game will be more fun to play as you will be reacting to your players’ input and decisions instead of dictating the game’s events.
Mistake #3 — You introduce a pet NPC.
The power of the GM! You can introduce into the game any character that you are capable of conceiving! Why, you may have always wanted to play a supernatural cyborg with psionic abilities and now you can by designing that character as an NPC. The party will surely sing songs in honor of the brave champion that you will have join their epic quest!
I don’t care how cool the concept is. I don’t care why the character is essential to your plot. I definitely don’t care that you may have played the same character for years in your best friend’s campaign. You are looking to introduce a pet NPC into the game. Don’t do it.
The PCs are the main characters of the story that you are telling. If you introduce an NPC that intentionally takes the focus away from the PCs then you have introduced a pet NPC. The pet NPC is sometimes the “fellow hero” that has the most glorious moments in the game, the villain that can never be defeated because you as the GM just won’t allow it, or any character in your story that routinely steals the spotlight away from the PCs.
Don’t have pet NPCs in your game! The PCs should be the focus of your story. Surround them with NPCs that reinforce that focus. If your NPC concept is really that cool save it for when you yourself are a player. You’ll be glad that you did.
Mistake #4 — You build the solution.
You conceive of this wonderful dilemma and/or challenge for the PCs to face. It is so brilliant, because it requires some very precise steps to be taken in order to solve, disarm, or circumvent it in some way. Your players will have to do the exact steps that you envisioned in order to overcome this amazing obstacle.
Ever notice how in the genre of action adventure movies that the main character solves complex puzzles and disarms traps in a timely manner and always on the first attempt? That is because good writers know that an hour of watching the main character attempt to solve the puzzle would put the audience to sleep.
Yet RPGs have no script so the main characters in the story will take plenty of wrong turns, trigger lots of dangerous traps, and may not discover the secret solution to every obstacle. The PCs may not succeed if you predefine the exact solutions to these obstacles for them.
A much better approach is to merely design the obstacle and understand how it works. Then let the players use their creativity to find their own way around the problem. Take your players’ ideas and run with them. Give the players a sense of progress and eventually let them overcome the obstacle with their own solution.
If you sense that the players are stuck help them by giving them more details in a way that suggests that you forgot a critical detail (“Did I mention that the pulley connects to an odd looking statue?”). This way the players don’t feel like you are giving them the solution.
Mistake #5 — You fail to lead.
You’ve heeded my warnings. You are prepared to let the players do their own thing. You are expecting the players to abandon your plot and are ready to roll with the punches. You’ll just sit back and let the players determine how the scenario will play out.
That is a very good approach in general to being a GM, but being the GM is a double edged sword. Yes, you should be willing to allow and encourage the players to do their own thing. Yet you also have to lead the players at the same time.
You are going to be responsible for making sure each player is getting those cool moments that make the game fun to play. You have to silence the Monty Python jokes when they take away from the game. You may let the PCs wander wherever they feel like going, and yet somehow you have to make sure that their wandering always leads back to your plot.
Leading your group is the most important task that you have as a GM. Leading the group does not mean telling them what to do, but it does mean taking it upon yourself to ensure that everyone at the table is having a good time and enjoying the game. It is tough at times, but if you make it your number one goal to lead your group through a night of fun game play then you will not be disappointed.
One last note about leadership and being a GM. At some point during the game some of the players may challenge your authority as the GM. They’ll cite rules. They’ll mention other GMs that they have played with and how those GMs handled similar situations. They’ll start telling the other players what is “really” happening in the scene.
Very politely, and very quickly, tell these players that they are not the GM and that your decision stands. If they argue with you let them make their case, and then repeat what you said previously. Rinse and repeat. You are the GM, and you always have the final say because of that title. This isn’t by accident, but by design. Games are more fun for everyone when someone takes the responsibility for running the game well.
Well that is my opinion on the matter, so what is yours? Leave your comments for others to read and share your own experiences with me and other members of the Gnome Stew community. And no matter what happens, don’t forget that the GM is a player too! Have fun with it!