So 35 years of Game Mastering has taught me many things. The most prominent lessons learned over that time (and one that definitely has spanned that entire time frame) are all the mistakes I have made as I honed my craft. Many conversations with other Game Masters has enlightened me to the fact that many (if not all) of us have made many of the same common mistakes, and that almost all of us did not know any better when we first began. Now I know that there are other posts or blogs out there, discussing this, but I wanted to chime in and give my 2 cents on the topic, mostly because I get asked to give advice regarding many of these points frequently. These are not in any particular order, but these are the most common mistakes I see among Game Masters and many of them I have made myself in the past.
Not knowing the game mechanics well enough.
You do not need to know every mechanic (rule), but you should know them well enough to run a basic game. You can “wing” a lot of things at the table (especially if you are experienced) but if you do not know the basic game play mechanics you are going to have a clunky awkward game that will not be enjoyable for the players. Also, typically the players look to you (the Dungeon Master) to know these things and be able to answer their questions. Before and after the game you have your manuals to reference, but during the game session you want to limit the need to refer to these as much as possible to avoid slowing down the game session, and breaking immersion.
Over (or under) preparing.
A very common mistake is made in the amount or preparation a DM does, prior to his game session. It is necessary to prepare your session in advance, so that you are ready to handle whatever the players throw at you, as well as run a smooth and effective game. I have played with many DMs who come to the table ill prepared and just think they can improvise the entire session. While a good and very experienced DM can do this, most will fail and deliver a sub par game. On the flip side over preparing can also have a detriment. If you spend too much effort in trying to plan every little detail, there are some negatives to think about. Firstly players will be players, and much of what you prepare may be completely ignored or circumnavigated by them during play. The more work you put into creating something, the more likely you are to want to force your players to interact with it. While on occasion (where crucial plot lines exist) this may be necessary, a good DM doesn’t force his players to routinely do anything they do not wish to do. Finding a good balance is the key. Another negative is increased possibility of burning out as a DM. If your prep takes up to much of your free time, you run the risk of damaging the fun of running the game for yourself.
I will say that in regards to over preparing, if you are the kind of DM that likes to have EVERY little thing detailed, that’s fine. Just be willing to accept that much of your work may never see the light of day at the gaming table, and do not try to force it upon your players.
Not balance your time fairly between your players.
It is common at a gaming table, to have one or more players who take the lead. It is easy to interact with these players, as they are providing you with the most stimuli as a DM. This being said, it is important to engage everyone around the table, and allow them equal time as a player. If the party splits, many DMs focus on those that they feel are “doing the adventure”, and those that seem to be doing something not crucial to the plot can get pushed aside. As a DM you should break up your attentions and distribute them among the players in a fair way. A shy player will not come out of their shell if they are not given an opportunity to do so, and a good player will lose interest if she sits to long with no interaction.
Not knowing when to say yes and no.
So their is a general contention as DMs we are encouraged to say YES to our players. I agree with this (for the most part) but of course their are times when saying NO is necessary. As I mentioned before in a previous post, as a general rule, if a player wants to do something I have three points of criteria I consider.
- If I say yes will it alter the adventure in a negative way?
- If I say yes will the action give the player an unfair advantage?
- If I say yes will it have significant consequences later?
As long as I can answer no to these three criteria, I generally will answer YES to the player. I have played with some players that want to do outlandish or broken things from time to time, or perform actions that are just plain impossible. Even then I usually do not say “NO you can’t do that”, but instead describe what happens when they try. Mostly when you find yourself needing to say NO, it should be in regards to the game mechanics and not the actions of a character. Describing how something fails, is different than telling a player they can not try something in the first place. For example. If a player wants his low strength wizard to try and physically carry a five ton gold statue out of a dungeon, instead of saying NO you can’t do that, say “Ok you try in vain to lift the colossal statue, clearly it is beyond the ability of any man to lift”.
forgetting you are there to serve the players.
Some DMs seem to think that the players are their audience. This is not the case. They are part of the storytelling team around the table, and it is the job of the DM to facilitate that story. Good communication with your players outside of the game session is important to ensure everyone is having fun at the table. No matter what adventure you have planned, and no matter how great you think it is, if the subject matter is not something your players will enjoy, then you are missing your mark as the DM. I ask my players things like “What did you like about the last adventure?” or “Was their any part of the last campaign you did not enjoy?” Do not let your desire to tell a specific story, overstep the desires of your players.
Failure to know your player base.
I run several different types of games and use several different styles to run games, depending on who is at my gaming table. Some players love completely open world campaigns, others like focused more linear adventures. Some like a balance between the too. It is important to know what your players want, and what is reasonable to expect from them. It is pointless trying to run a structured linear style adventure if your players want something totally sandbox. This does not mean you can not try, but you are going to have to be ready to improvise and go out of the lines a lot. I know most DM’s have a preference to how they run their games (as do I). Some will even say derogatory things about a style that differs from their preference. I say the correct method is the method that suits both the DM AND the players at the table. There is no right or wrong as long as all agree to it.
It is also important to know the experience level of your players, and not present them with adventures that are either too basic or too advanced for them. Ensuring the adventure is inline with their play level is important if all are to have the most fun at the table.
Failure to be consistent.
One thing that almost all players universally dislike is a DM who changes his rulings session to session and lacks consistency. The players need to trust the DM, so it is important that they learn what to expect from you. If you are inconsistent, it makes it hard for them to trust, and as such will make your life much harder.
Allowing the rules to stifle creativity.
As I have said many times, the “rules” of a role playing game should be referred to as mechanics and not rules. Rule implies it is to be obeyed and followed, where as in role playing games they are their to help with the story and game play and provide a mechanics system to determine outcome and set perimeters. never be afraid to change a rule, BUT always make sure your players know about it, and agree with it. If a rule in anyway spoils the fun for those at the table, change it or throw it out.
This one is simple. DO NOT PLAY FAVORITES! as a DM you are expected to be impartial, and not play favorites. It does not matter if one of the players is your best friend, brother, child or significant other, you must remain fair and impartial to all players at your table. many a gaming group has broken apart due to a DM playing favorites!
Trying to win the game.
This seems like it should be a no brainier, but with all the forums and groups I am active with I still see DMs bragging about defeating or killing their players. As a DM you can kill your players characters at any moment, so what accomplishment is their in doing so? How you win the game as a DM is having your players “LOVE” playing with you. Your job is not and never has been to defeat your player base.
This is by no means a concise list of mistakes, it is however a start and something a new DM or GM could do well to understand prior to running their game sessions. Happy Gaming.