At some point during a player’s life, they may feel the itch to take on the mantle of Game Master and run their own game, and as someone who could easily have become a “forever GM” if it weren’t for our wonderful community, I love these people. Being a GM is a challenging but rewarding role within TTRPGs but it takes time to find your footing when you first start out. A lot of would-be GMs get intimidated by the thought that they’re not going to be great straight away, but the truth is you don’t have to be. Like any new skill or hobby there is a learning curve, but if you stick with it, you’ll find the end result very satisfying. All that being said there are some common mistakes that I have noticed new GMs frequently make, including mistakes that I made myself when I first started, so here are 5 mistakes for new GMs and how to avoid them.
Okay so anyone who’s played TTRPGs for a decent amount of time will have heard this term before, but what exactly does it mean? Railroading is when the GM tries to take complete control of the story. Rather than asking a player what they want to do or where they want to go in any given circumstance, they tell the player what their character does in an attempt to get the characters to the next plot point. For almost every player of the game, this is not a fun experience.
One of the biggest misconceptions about being a GM is that YOU tell the story, but TTRPGs are a communal storytelling experience and everyone at the table has a hand on the wheel. The role of the GM is to set up the story, providing hooks that’ll make the players want to keep progressing through the story, but the players decide how they progress.
As the GM, you are given control over the world around the party. You know who the main villain is and what their plans are, you know the history of the world and its significant locations, and you know the wants and desires of those valuable tools we call NPCs. Whilst leaving clues to help guide the party towards their final destination your role as the GM is to decide how the world reacts to what the players say and do along their journey. As the joke goes “The GM decides that there’s going to be a heist, the players decide whether that heist happens to the theme from Mission Impossible or to the theme from Benny Hill”.
So how do you avoid falling into this trap? The one thing that every GM has to accept about their games is that they do not have control over what happens. With experience you can become good at predicting what players might do in a given situation, but someone will always throw a curveball your way and you have to be ready. Improvisation is a key skill to develop, and you need to trust in your ability to keep things going, even when they go wildly different to what you had planned. And always remember that if you need to take a few minutes to work out what to do next, that is absolutely okay.
2. Starting Too Big
This is something I’ve seen from so many new GMs. It’s your first time running a campaign, you’re really excited, you create this awesome and massive homebrew world with cool pieces of hidden lore, an original pantheon of awesome gods, a bunch of cool magical artifacts, homebrew monsters that lurk in specific locations, and you just CAN’T wait to show off all this work to your players. So, you fast track everything and move your players around the map as quickly as possible so they can see all these cool places as soon as possible. Every plot point happens in a different location, you’re on a creation showcase high whilst your players are unable to form any meaningful connections to the places and people in your world.
Sadly, this happens all too often. When we put in all this work to make something big and cool, we don’t want to have to wait to show it all off. The problem is that it takes time for us as humans to form connections to things. How are your players supposed to fall in love with the super amazing NPC if they can’t spend time with them? How are the players supposed to become engrossed in the culture of this awesome city if they don’t spend enough time there? If you are insistent on creating the entirety of your homebrew world in advance of starting your campaign then you just have to accept that either it will take a long time before the players see even a good fraction of what you’ve created, or that the players won’t feel a connection to the world you’ve built for them.
How do you avoid this mistake? Well, the easiest way is to hold back from creating too much too soon. Start by creating a single location; a town or a city for example. Allow the players to spend time in that location doing quests, finding clues towards the main story, going to the same tavern each evening, and getting to know the locals. When the time comes that they will have to leave that location to continue the story, make their departure significant and then start to expand your world building. When the party leave you should know where it is they’ve decided to travel to, so you can create what you need to for the journey and the destination. So long as you have a place for the party to start their journey, and some things for them to do there, then there is no reason why you can’t take the time to build your world whilst you are running the game.
3. Being Too Precious
This one catches a lot of people off, myself included. You create something you’re really proud of. The players decide to go somewhere else, or do something else and you don’t get to use the thing you’ve created. I’ve even seen GMs who turned to railroading just to make sure this thing they created happens, and I’ve had this happen to me as a player. It sucked. Another example of this is creating a cool piece of homebrew mechanics, for example creating a dice game to use for when your players want to gamble. You’ve worked out how the game works and are ready to run it in game when one of your players says, “I want to cheat,” and it throws out all the mechanics you’ve spent all that time working on.
This is all stuff that happens in TTRPGs. The trap that new GMs will fall into when it starts happening is what is sometimes known as blocking. Blocking is when you start saying no to your players because it goes against what you had planned. I’ve both seen and been guilty of putting up magical blocks to prevent against cheating, having doors magically lock so the player has to listen to the fortune teller’s prophecy, and having a character slip on magically appearing ice to fall into the pit where there was a cool thing to find. In all of these cases the decision was not made because it was planned, or because it made sense from a world building perspective, in fact these decisions always seemed to come out of nowhere and make little to no sense. The only reason they happened was because the GM was being too precious about the things they had created and didn’t want the players “messing it up”. The only thing that making choices like this does is annoy and frustrate your players.
How do we avoid this? Understand that part of being a GM means that you will, and I mean absolutely, 100% WILL, create stuff that never gets used or seen by the players. It’s a fact of life. Don’t feel bad about it. Everything we do should be in service to the game, not our own creative egos. Thankfully this is a game which gives you control over a lot of things, and if you don’t get to use something when you planned to, there is nothing stopping you from re-using it somewhere down the line.
4. Energy! Energy! Energy!
This one is short and sweet. A lot of new GMs, either through nerves or self-doubt, will find their first time at the helm feeling a little lack lustre. This is simply down to the fact that as you are figuring things out for the first time and your focus is on how things work, rather than being engaging. This isn’t a bad thing, and if you need to take that time to figure things out then that is absolutely fine. The thing that tends to suffer in this situation however is the energy level at the table, especially in an online game.
TTRPGs are a collaborative storytelling experience and it relies on a lot of back and forth between the GM and the players. It’s like a game of hot potato. As the GM you really want to be able to get in there with quick and snappy responses, but that comes with practice more than anything.
How do you avoid dropping energy as a new GM then? Well preparation is key. Most GMs will tell you not to over prepare, and what they mean by that is to give yourself enough wiggle room when the players inevitably do something you haven’t prepared for. What you can (and should) do to prepare is to know what information the players can obtain from certain places and people, what the stat block for your NPCs and monsters are, and what all your NPCs and monsters’ abilities and spells all do. The less time spent looking things up in game the easier it is to maintain energy.
5. Balancing an Encounter, and Why People Get This Wrong.
Okay, so I’m not here to tell you how to use the CR system in 5th edition because a) that’s not what this blog is about, and b) I value my sanity. With time and experience you will begin to feel out what makes a balanced encounter for a party, especially if you are running for the same group of players and characters each time. Allow yourself that grace period to get familiar with the process of building encounters.
What I’m here to talk about is the fatal mistake I see too many new, and experienced, GMs make when trying to work out the balance of an encounter, and when running the encounter. That mistake is this:
DON’T BE AFRAID TO REDUCE A CHARACTER TO 0 HIT POINTS!
Too many times I have seen GMs under power, or inefficiently run their encounters because they are afraid to knock one of the PCs unconscious. They are worried that if a PC goes unconscious that the player will stop having fun, or will be annoyed at the GM. The ironic thing is that it’s usually the exact opposite. When a PC goes unconscious, that is often the most thrilling and intense moment in a game. That’s the moment the player will be talking about for the next week. The thing is for combat to be exciting there has to actually be the risk of death. I’m not saying every fight needs to be like this, but if there’s never any threat then combat will feel routine and boring pretty quickly. Each GM will feel differently about this topic I’m sure, but for me a good encounter for a party of 5-6 players ends with maybe 2 player characters going unconscious. This will vary wildly from GM to GM, game to game, even encounter to encounter. The key is to make the players feel like there is a present threat and danger to their character.
I think the big issue here is the idea that the GM is meant to be on the same side as the players, which is 100% correct. We are all working together to create the best story and experience possible, but that doesn’t mean the GM lets the players off easy. To quote the fantastic LARPs series from Geek and Sundry:
“The game was never fair… …the game was never supposed to be fair… …don’t you get it? No game I ever run is fair… …Everything I do is for the good of the game… …the reason the game is unfair, is because it is weighted in the player’s favour. As the GM I always lose… …how do you think you get the best stories? You put the players up against the wall. You make the PCs suffer. And you push them beyond limits they never thought they had. And then just when they think everything is darkest, just when they think that success is impossible… they beat the bad guys… they save the world… and I always lose… …When there’s no chance of failure, there’s no excitement.”
If you'd like to try your hand at GM/DM'ing, please come join our discord server (link on the home page) and send Sarah a message there! You can also email her and start the process. We're happy to work with new and old GMs alike, build a table with trusted players if you're nervous, and give you support as you start the journey as a TTRPG Storyteller!
Do you have any tips or see any common pitfalls of new GMs? Leave a comment!