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How to Be a Bad GM: A Primer

Before the game begins, help the players out by telling them how to create the party you need for the game. Include a more powerful NPC in the party so that you can enjoy being a player as well.

Create an adventure that involves as few choices as possible. The closer you can get to reading the scenario to your players, the better (you don’t want them mucking up your story). And don’t worry if the PCs don’t have the skills or talents that they need to enjoy the scenario. That’s what your powerful NPC is for, after all.

The first battle should be stacked against the PCs — you don’t want them to think they’re all-powerful. Skewed odds are more realistic, and they’ll give your NPC a chance to really shine.

If by chance the party looks like they’ll be able to win without your NPC’s help, you have two options. Either fudge rolls liberally to ensure that the baddies never miss (and always do maximum damage), or simply have more of them show up. Remember: Nothing builds character like losing every fight.

Clever ideas are your enemy. You can’t tell your story if the players keep screwing it up, so make sure that whenever someone has a “good” idea you’re ready to shoot it down. They’ll learn to keep quiet quickly enough. Another option is to have your NPC explain why the idea won’t work, and come up with a better one yourself.

Just like in the real world, bad things should happen to the party without warning. And just like the real world, the PCs shouldn’t have a chance to avoid them. Having someone break into their home base and steal all of their stuff is a great example — much like dropping a deuce in the urinal, this is fun for everyone.

You’ll know it’s time to wrap up the adventure when your NPC has had enough time in the limelight. Narrate what the PCs do during the climactic battle, and don’t be afraid to kill one of them off — that’ll provide some great fuel for your next adventure.

After the session, don’t forget to ask the players for feedback. They probably won’t say much (players aren’t usually very motivated), so you’ll have a chance to go over the highlights of your story again. In fact, you’ll probably need to do that next week, too — players tend to be pretty forgetful.

And next week? Best. Story. Ever. Remind them to bring blank character sheets, because only the most skilled players will be able to survive this adventure.

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "How to Be a Bad GM: A Primer"

#1 Comment By robustyoungsoul On October 26, 2006 @ 9:47 am

Absolutely superb post. Any budding GM should read this.

#2 Comment By tdr On October 26, 2006 @ 10:38 am

Ah, good. You do remember some of my campaigns. 😛


#3 Comment By John Arcadian On October 26, 2006 @ 11:52 am

This is a great post, it’s all the stuff starting GM’s might try to do at one point or another thinking “THIS WILL BE THE COOLEST THING EVER!!!!”

It’s great to see it in a kind of reverse psychology like this. Saying here is how to be a Good GM doesn’t get through to some people, saying here are things bad GMs do is like holding a mirror up to our worst parts. We can’t hide them from ourselves.

#4 Comment By Gospog On October 26, 2006 @ 12:41 pm

Another piece of advice in the same vein is to make sure that other NPCs are impressed with your GMPCs above all others.

Sure the Player Characters want to be heroes, but honestly, what have they accomplished so far? Not much. Your GMPC has 7 pages of back-story that proves that all the other NPCs love him.

#5 Comment By Rick the Wonder Algae On October 26, 2006 @ 1:05 pm

Don’t forget to completely and arbitrarily change the fundamental rules on which the game is based without notification.

Also, be sure that one of your players is “The Great One”, immortal and more powerful than the other PCs (only slightly less powerful than your NPC) and that the majority of the plot and action revolves around that one player. Whichever player is related to you or that you have a crush on will do nicely.

#6 Comment By Rick the Wonder Algae On October 26, 2006 @ 1:10 pm

Ooh! Don’t foget to deal with offensive and delicate subject material in the most juvenile morally objectional way possible, such as a brothel for monsters in which the enslaved workers are repeatedly abused and whose bastard children are served to the clientelle for dinner. Players dig being exposed to abominations of man and nature on a regular vomit-inducing basis.

#7 Comment By Patrick On October 26, 2006 @ 1:13 pm

This is how I was taught to GM, and I’m glad that finally quality guides like this are making a comeback.

#8 Comment By Dylan Zimmerman On October 26, 2006 @ 2:42 pm

Hahaha…it’s scary that I remember DMing like this. *shudders* Never again, I promise!

#9 Comment By VV_GM On October 26, 2006 @ 2:52 pm

The funny thing is that I don’t see these types of mistakes being made by beginning GMs as often as I see them being made by a veteran GM who don’t consider it his or her job to serve the players. I personally think that is what the role of the GM is: a storyteller who only has final authority for the purpose of entertaining his or her audience. Lose the audience and your authority is pointless.

#10 Comment By Heather On October 27, 2006 @ 9:47 am

Hah… I remember reviewing a module once in which there were several instances where the characters would die (or grow old, or get ported instantly to another dimension) if they did the “wrong” thing, and there was no real warning as to what that wrong thing might be. That same module had the characters being passed off from NPC to NPC as though they were tourists. The basis for the story was gorgeous, and I saw the module praised merely on that basis at various sites, but I just couldn’t give it high marks with problems like that.

#11 Comment By Dave Chalker On October 27, 2006 @ 10:33 am

You forgot the clever pop culture references. Nothing makes players more excited than realizing your GMPC is really a Jedi (but in D&D!!!!) and the King is Jean-Luc Picard (but in D&D!!!!)

#12 Comment By Telas On October 27, 2006 @ 3:20 pm

Don’t forget – DM is nerdish for Authority Figure. Act the way you think authority figures should act – spoil the party rotten with +5 vorpals at first level, or just kill them off for your amusement. Hell, do both, and leave them really amazed!

Another great way to be a memorable DM is to bury one useful hint in your fifty-odd pages of homebrew background information. Hide it well enough, and the PC will be sure to tell everyone exactly how much they enjoyed your riddles and puzzles!

Finally, there is a direct correlation between the Explosion Dog and becoming editor of a major gaming magazine…

#13 Comment By Martin On October 27, 2006 @ 7:45 pm

Two observations from writing this post:

1. It was difficult for me to write “the players,” not “your players.” That’s a good thing. 😉

2. I recognize some of these behaviors from my own GMing career. Not all of them, and not always to the level that I took them to here, but nonetheless: I’ve done some of this.

I suspect many GMs have. The key is not continuing to do them, but using them as learning experiences. Probably self-evident, but it seemed worth mentioning. 😉

#14 Comment By Martin On October 31, 2006 @ 7:34 am

I love that story, longcoat. It was actually the subject of a TT post awhile back, and I’m sure it informed my thinking.