What makes a bad GM?


It was one of the gnomes articles that got me thinking about this. I haven’t encountered many GMs, I could count them on my fingers probably. And I certainly haven’t encountered any myself, though I have heard a bit about them.

So here’s my rather inexperienced list on what makes a bad GM, a lot of it based on what makes a bad teacher as the roles are strangely similar. (Note to self, blog about that one of these days)

1. Does Not Listen to Players

I have commented before about the trust that needs to exists between players and GMs, and listening is a big part of it. GMs need to listen to their players and the players need to know that their input is valued, even if it is not getting used. A GM who does not listen to their players effectively works in a vacuum, effectively railroading their players until they revolt to play with another group. As a GM I do want things to go my way most of the time as I need to control what is going on. But if I want to control everything under the sun I’ll just go and write a story.

Paying attention also counts as listening. Such as when the players need a break, or the current system or campaign is not something they want to be doing. Don’t make them just because you have that power. And this comes into my next point…

2. Does Not Compromise

Even though I’m effectively in charge of the story, I am not the only one responsible for how it will be executed. Most of the very good campaigns that I have run have come out of player ideas. Such as where we currently are in the Star Wars universe as well as my player-run planning with Mr Bond. And how do these come about? Because I am willing to say “Yes” and just roll with it.

It’s even in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, to never say “No” when you could say “Yes”. Saying “Yes” takes you into unfamiliar territory to be sure, but it’s fun exploring it. A GM saying “No” effectively shuts down a possibility to make their campaign even better than it is. They’re being a rather lousy stick in the mud and not listening to their players.

This extends to the GM who is rigid on their own interpretation of the rules/story. Such as saying that natural 20 that the player just rolled in Thievery does not mean the pants were stolen. What harm is there in stealing a guy’s pants unless he happened to be the king? Rule of Fun and Rule of Cool are always ahead of the regular Rules as Written in my book.

Of course, this does not mean that a GM has to be a doormat. There are limits for players who want to play Half-Orc/Half-Drow Ninja-Pirate-Zombies.

3. Does Not Adapt

The more you GM a game, the better you are at it for you see what you can do better and change your methods. This also means that you recognise where you went wrong with basic mistakes (GMPCs, railroading) as well as what your players like doing.

We all make amateurish mistakes the first time around, and having experienced people there means these can be avoided. But if you rigidly follow the same pattern and not change it, it sounds as if you’re in the wrong job.

Pinging back to the Gnome article, I think this is a very good reason to kick out a GM. If they’re still being same-old-same-old after you have raised this with them, it may be time to part.

4. Does Not Have Direction

I was considering calling this “Does Not Plan”, but not all GMs plan. All GMs should have a goal though, Whether it’s ten minutes ahead in game time in a sandbox campaign or the final encounter for the ultimate battle versus good and evil. Travelling along the campaign path is much easier if you know where it is all headed.

If you don’t have direction, you tend to flounder about and go all sorts of strange places without consequence. Or even spend all night in the tavern.

5. Does Not Even Care

Yes, I admit it, all GMs have that side of us that wants to make our players die horrible deaths, that’s one of the reasons I have Tomb of Horrors on order. But the Killer GM who just wants to throw whatever he fancies at the players for the evulz…there’s something wrong with that.

This is the GM who cares only about their own fun and not about the players, and probably the one who you should really think of booting off if you can withstand his hissy fits that will no doubt come.

I’m interested in hearing your feedback in case there is anything I missed. What do you think makes a bad GM?

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~ by katanageldar on July 24, 2010.

2 Responses to “What makes a bad GM?”

  1. Great topic. And thanks for the Gnome Stew link for added depth. It seems like you’ve got a solid grasp on what I consider the big three (your top three). As a GM I compromise and adapt (sometimes too much for the players that know the rules better than I do.) Some people might call me a bad DM specifically because I ad-lib some rulings. I always tell a player who clarifies a rule for me, “that sounds like a great solution, we’ll use that going forward.” If it makes sense, I might even apply the clarification in the moment, but mostly I just encourage players to move on to their next action.

    Listening to players is not just about hearing what they say, but also what is unsaid. What kind of player are they? I’ve been guilty as a natural storyteller, of trying to get my players to be “part of the story”, when it turns out they just wanted to “kill monsters and take their stuff” that night. Some people might call me a bad DM for being so deaf to my players’ style of play. (I once ran a multi-year campaign that largely ignored the players. Lesson learned.)

    Anyway, there is a lot to be learned from the habits of bad DMs. Thanks for posting!

  2. Very true, a good analysis. Luckily, I have not played under a bad GM in many a year.

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