Hello! Today I’ll be listing the top ten mistakes made by Game Masters and the possible effects of such blunders on the game, the players and the future of the galaxy as we know it. Hopefully, new and future Game Masters will find some useful advice here, and the quality of Game Mastering might improve just a fraction.
10. Revealing Something You Shouldn’t
This is a classic, and more common than you think. For instance, one week, the characters find a mysterious scroll in a dungeon, they don’t know what it is but know it’s magical. The next session, which is actually seven days later in real-time, the Game Master recaps what happened last week, finishing with “… you found a transmogrification scroll.” The player who has it goes “Aha!” and writes it on their character sheet. This isn’t a massive error, in this case, but it could have been a disaster.
9. Not Revealing Something You Should
I’ve been on the receiving end of this one on a few occasions. The party is in a dungeon looking for the lost Slippers of Ree Lak Sin. They’ve opened every door and killed every monster and arrived at what looks like a dead end. With no sign of the slippers, the Player Characters begin to search for secret doors/passages/shoe boxes. Then, the Game Master says “oh, there’s a door here.” and puts down a door on the floor plans. This is very annoying and, like season five of Game of Thrones, a waste of time for all concerned.
8. Forgetting About The Back Door
This could be an actual back door, a rear entrance (careful!), a path or other such physical or metaphorical object that allows the characters to bypass the security/undead hoard/carefully painted and expensive new miniature. The Game Master has laid out the floor plans, the miniatures are psyched up and ready to go, there’s an air of tension, let’s do this! “Or,” says the sharp-eyed player, “we could just go through here and bypass all the bad guys!” Everyone looks and says “oh yeah.” The Game Master says “oh no!” and quickly removes the relevant floor plans, ruining immersion and providing the players with a story they’ll tell at every available opportunity.
7. Leading Characters By The Nose
This is a big no-no, but unfortunately common among novice Game Masters. Running a scenario where the players have limited choices so the Game Master can completely control them isn’t role-playing. A single choice, like socks, is no choice at all. Using verbal clues in a similar manner is also common, like saying “The door to the east is closed, but the door to the west is locked and looks far more interesting!” It builds tension more to let the players find out for themselves, every time they find nothing it cranks up the tension.
6. Giving The Players Something Powerful
Back in my youth, which is a distant and fading memory, I was guilty of such a deed. I gave my players loads of magic items because I like magic. They had a ring of teleporting, an intelligent dagger, and even a baby black dragon as a pet. You’d think the players would be happy, and they were, for a while, but the scenarios lacked challenge and things had to change. With a bit of alteration to the time-space continuumanum, and some restrictions so the items could only be used once a day, we got things back on track and much fun was had by all, but that’s a different story.
5. Making It Up As You Go Along
Sometimes, this can’t be avoided, and sometimes, it works, but mostly, it doesn’t. We’ve all been there when the PCs suddenly head off-map, thinking they’ve seen something or misread a clue or just because. In order to maintain immersion, the best thing to do is go along with it, while subtly returning the players to the hand-crafted scenario they are supposed to be playing. If this involves moving whole buildings, so be it.
4. Killing The Whole Party
This one might seem glaringly obvious, like an orc’s head in your soup, but it happens on a regular basis. The Game Master misjudges the level/ability/common sense of the player characters and suddenly it’s all gone into the shape of a pear and dead characters are spread across the entire scenario like spaghetti at a wedding. This is, of course, entirely the Game Master’s fault, unless you’re the Game Master, in which case it’s entirely the fault of the players. There are a variety of ways to solve this; see this article for advice.
3. Telling Characters What They Do
This one is particularly annoying, and one some rookie Game Masters can’t stop themselves doing. It’s my character, and I should decide if he tries to pick the lock, kick down the door, or stand in a corner and think about the she-elf with the big ears. This one can also go in the opposite direction, with players telling the Game Master their character does things that are down to the Game Master. “I pick the lock and go through the door, killing the zombie on the other side.” You mean that’s what you’ll try and do, the rolling dice of fate will decide if it actually happens.
2. Talking About Other Things
Different people have different levels of tolerance for this, according to such factors as age, immersion, sobriety and whether they’re there to play or because they fancy the Game Master. Let me give you an example. The Game Master says “A swirling vortex appears in the centre of the floor, a figure steps from the vortex and speaks… have you tried these custard-flavour crisps?” And there goes all the tension and immersion you just built up.
1. Not Knowing The Difference Between A Player And A Character
Ok, it’s a fine line, but this one makes me quite cross. Game Masters, particularly new ones, struggle with this all the time. I’ve almost left gaming groups because of it. I’m a human who lives in the real world. I cannot cast spells, shoot a pulsed auto-rifle nor decipher the runes of T’ee -p’ott. I can’t remember what I said ten seconds ago, because that was two weeks ago in the real world. Nor do I recognise the person attacking me, because I’ve never actually seen them before because they don’t actually exist! My character, on the other hand, knows all of those things, but can’t, for instance, hear a fellow player tell me a joke that makes me laugh, but which you take as my character laughing at an inappropriate time and we are thus unable to complete our quest. And yes, this is a true story. (I’m not bitter about it.)