Over on Abulia Savant, my friend Don Mappin has an excellent post up about gaming regrets. It’s in the same vein as one of his earlier posts, Greatest Hits (discussed on TT in Ranking Your Favorite Campaigns: What Makes You Tick?) — examining your history as a gamer can reveal some surprising insights about how you game, and why.
Let’s repurpose this one a bit, and specifically look at game mastering. Looking back on your GMing career so far, what do you regret?
I gave Don’s exercise a shot myself, because I was very curious what would crop up. And as with writing my naughty list, it was a bumpy road. If you’d like to do the same, check out Don’s simple guidelines in his original post.
For me, this exercise is about becoming a better GM by learning from your mistakes — which is the whole philosophy behind the naughty list. It’s not about beating yourself up: every GM makes mistakes.
I’ve learned from mine (specific lessons are below, after the regrets), and one thing’s for certain: I’ll make more of them in the future…
My Top 5 GMing Regrets
Here are my top five GMing regrets, in order from “I regret this the most” to “This wasn’t so bad.” (To put the dates in context, I’ve been pGMing since 1989, and playing since ’87.)
1. Abortive AD&D campaign after college (2000 or 2001). This one was so awful that all I remember about it was my complete and utter failure to run a good session — and yep, this “campaign” lasted only one session.
I did hardly any prep, waiting for the last minute and then pretty much phoning things in. The adventure (and I use the term loosely) started out on rails, and hinged on the party — which didn’t include anyone with tracking abilities — tracking down the bad guys to continue the story. I actually expected them to hire an NPC ranger, which was some pretty weak sauce. Couple that with shoddy backstory, no discernable plot and plenty of fumbling, and you have my worst GMing by far.
This was a major confidence-shaker for me. I felt like I’d let my friends down (and rightly so), and I called off the game after the session ended. I didn’t GM for several months after that.
2. Airship Privateers (D&D 3.5, 2005). With this game, I tried to balance not having a lot of spare time with a desire for a character-driven campaign. To that end, I did a good amount of prep before the first session, asked my players to write extensive, hook-laden backstories and planned to tweak Dungeon Magazine adventures to fit the theme (airship pirates) and incorporate the PCs’ backgrounds.
Two of my players said that they weren’t interested in writing lengthy backgrounds, and preferred to develop their characters in play. They’re both excellent roleplayers, and would certainly have done so, but I refused to compromise on this “issue” (which shouldn’t have been an issue at all) for much too long. Eventually, I gave in.
After asking for all that character info, in the handful of sessions that this campaign lasted, I never used any of it. Fitting it into published modules was tougher than I expected, and I coasted on the rationalization that I’d “get to it later on.”
To make matters worse, one of my players was so attached to his character — who he barely got to play, and whose marvelous background I completely ignored — that he framed his character sheet and hung it over the fireplace.
3. Selgaunt campaign (D&D 3.5, 2003-2004). This was a pretty good game, with plenty of highlights and a lot of enjoyable sessions (and indirectly, it also led me to launch Treasure Tables). But I made two big mistakes — things that, had I gotten them right, would have made for a much better campaign.
I didn’t lead with the cool stuff, and consequently after 18 months we didn’t get to what I considered the meat of the campaign; and I focused too much on extras (campaign website, bonus XP, etc.) and not enough on the game itself.
I also made two of the biggest single mistakes I’ve made as a GM, both born out of my natural stubbornness.
4. Call of Cthulhu PBeM (1995 or 1996). Wanting to stay connected with my high school gaming group (many of whom are still among my best friends), I decided to run a CoC play-by-email (PBeM) game shortly after starting college.
I opted for pregenerated characters and had a pretty fun initial hook: the PCs were all convicts in a maximum security prison that was under attack by Mythos creatures. What I didn’t have was any experience running PBeMs, and I didn’t know how important it is to set reasonable expectations for turn deadlines.
When several players were non-responsive, I threw up my hands and gave up on the game. I was kind of a dick about it, too, sending out a really petulant email to the whole group blaming them for the game’s failure.
5. Random college AD&D game (1995). I volunteered to run a game for a handful of friends and FLGS acquaintances, and then developed noodle-spine and allowed the group to balloon to something like 12 people.
I came up with a half-assed murder mystery scenario, flailed around for a little while as I tried to manage such a huge group, and then let the loudest player wreck the session. Needless to say, we never played this one again.
If this game had had a bigger impact on anyone involved, it’d be higher up on the list. As it was, I kept gaming with my friends, the acquaintances moved on and I learned some useful things about GMing a large group.
So, What’d I Learn?
Distilling these lessons from my GMing regrets was interesting — I actually learned quite a bit. Some of them are smack-my-forehead obvious to me now, others I’m definitely still working on.
Here they are, in more or less the same order as my five regrets.
- Don’t start a campaign you don’t intend to run well. And if you need more time to prepare (up to a point), take it.
- When designing adventures, build them around the PCs’ (and players’) strengths.
- Mistakes, especially big ones, will shake your confidence. Taking a little time off is okay, but don’t wait to long to get back in the saddle.
- If you ask your players to put a lot of work into their characters (or any other aspect of the game), make the most of their efforts.
- Players like to develop their characters in different ways. Your way might not be their way, and that’s just fine.
- If you advertise your game as involving X (whatever X might be), don’t dawdle: make sure it involves X from the get-go.
- Decide what’s important to you, find out what’s important to your players and then make the game about those things.
- Extras like maintaining a campaign website are just that: extras. Running a fun game comes first.
- Sticking to your guns is all well and good, right up to the point where it makes the game less fun for the whole group. Don’t take it that far.
- If you’re trying something new (like a PBeM), do a bit of research before diving in.
- Don’t take apparent lack of player interest personally, as it probably isn’t personal.
- When something goes wrong (and in nearly every campaign, something will go wrong), don’t end the game over it unless it’s something really bad.
- When you have as many players as you’re comfortable with, politely decline requests to join your group.
- Game prep is one of my biggest weaknesses as a GM.
- If no one cares whether a game continues (including you), it’s time to walk away.
What does your list look like? And what have you learned from your mistakes?