Bad DM'GM'ing

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    Bad DM'GM'ing

    Yesterday I played the second game of a new campaign. It seemed to go well. I've very out of practise as a DM. Thoughts so far:

    • I'm running off what the players suggest and do, answering everything with a result rather than a 'no'

    • I am avoiding railroading the story at all costs. Right from the first game the players interaction messed up the series of events I had plotted and I was happy with letting them go for it, the world I had set out took it on the chin.

    • I'm not sure my table management is great. I'm trying to maintain discipline, but off-topic conversation and referencing of rules is a little more frequent than I reckon it should be.

    Bad DM'ing as I've experienced it involves a DM writing my characters background for me, assuming control of my character and railroading to the extreme.

    Give me some examples of 'bad DM'ing'. What should be avoided, what are the total pitholes and what are just slightly forgiveable DM sins?


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    Bad DMing in my mind is the DM doing something that gets in the way of the players fun. There are things like railraoding, and DM PCs that are usually bad DMing but not always. The most important thing is to know your group and know what works or not with them. Some groups can't handle the more freeflowing games and need a railroad to guide them along. So aside from just making the players uncomfortable and not have fun there is not one thing I can really think of that is not extreme that I would say is 100% always bad DMing.

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    Railroading can be good. Specifically, when it allows you to skip over boring things, or when the players are out of interesting ideas and basically flailing around like lost kittens in the rain.

    The bad kind of railroading is when you skip over (or negate) interesting things, or when the players try to take the initiative and you snatch it back from them.

    - Leading the lost = good.
    - Getting on with the action = good.
    - Making them guess the one and only true solution to your puzzle = bad.
    - Taking away their victory = bad.

    - - -

    My usual session-prep is to come up with enough stuff to fill the session if the players look to me for direction, but then to ignore that prep work if the players do decide to take the initiative. I usually have one or two things to spring on them anyway -- often the consequences of their previous actions coming home to roost -- but for the most part, my prepared "script" exists only as a fallback.

    Cheers, -- N

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    Worst example I ever saw of bad GMing came from a guy that actually showed a lot of promise at the start (when he put a lot of thought and effort in his campaign).

    It involved our 3 PCs (a spellthief, a monk, and a cleric, if memory serves) meeting up with four NPCs of 6th level (we were 4th). And then following these NPCs on a quest to stop an ogre war force. So far, so good.

    Except after the first fight, where the GM ran about a dozen villains, plus his DMNPCs. Mostly, we sat back and watched him run a fight. Later, I suggested we take over the DMNPCs to help speed things up. I didn't like the idea of being saddled with DMNPCs, but whatever.

    Then we hit the ogres. Who one-hit killed two of the 6th level DMNPCs, and were obviously outmatching the others. And when he one-hit killed both the monk and the cleric, he laughed at us... in such a way of "hey, look, I'm winning... I'm a better player than you!".

    And then he was confused as to why my spellthief tried to run (grabbing his companion as he fled) and bent things to block that course of action, forcing me to fight. Where I was killed in one round.


    Other awful things this bad GM did:

    * At first, he tailored encounters for our group, which was good. We enjoyed that, and this became the suggested playstyle (I even asked him "if I play a spellthief, will I get a chance to actually be a spellthief?") We did our respective roles - the monk snuck around, I stole spells, and the cleric got a chance to be an awesome caster. And then the GM decided it was his duty to nerf our powers. Again. And again. My spellthief no longer had people to steal spells from (or anything else), turning him into a gimped rogue. The monk couldn't really sneak around because everything had high spot checks... and they all used direct damage, so his evasion meant nothing. As for the cleric... he got to spend a lot of time healing us... and doing little else.

    * The GM didn't read our player cues. Without going into super detail, he played out our PCs coming across some bandits 'violating' a village girl. Which he presented almost as a comedic encounter. This is something I am not okay with, at all, and it made me super uncomfortable... but the rest of the group was enjoying the chance to be "heroes", and I had my PC play a secondary role before handing him off to my friend and leaving the room "to get some food and air". I tried to make it clear to the GM later that I really don't like this sort of play... which was not listened to, or even really addressed (except for an apology when I first spoke up, but nothing later).

    * The GM slowly began to see it as his goal to "beat" us, turning the game from what was originally a very fun campaign (1st and 2nd level were awesome, and really well put together) into a grind of "us vs. them".

    * The GM had the worst sort of railroad - the one that appears to be a sandbox, but is actually a railroad. And what I mean by that is, there is a specific path you must follow, but there are little clues as to what that path actually is... and if you stray from this invisible path, there will very heavy-handed ways to push you into things that take you from the game ("You can't cross the river... the bridge is closed" "Oh, um, can I swim across the river?" "No, there are sharks" "Well, um, what should we do now?" "Hey, it's an open world, feel free to explore...")
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    "Bad Dming" depends a lot on who the players are. Some things a DM does will appear bad to certain players, but other players might not think it is bad at all. I can list a dozen traits that people might think are bad about my DMing...but I don't think they are bad at all for the style of game I like to run and there are plenty of players that would not have a problem with my DMing.

    But if there is one trait that we can all agree on being bad, it's DMing with no shirt on. No pants would be ok as long as you don't stand up. But I wouldn't dare to DM with no shirt on, that's torture. Some of you guys are lucky though. You can DM with no shirt on, and with all that hair, it'll still look like you're wearing a shirt. I envy you guys!
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    Quote Originally Posted by Nifft View Post
    Railroading can be good. Specifically, when it allows you to skip over boring things, or when the players are out of interesting ideas and basically flailing around like lost kittens in the rain.
    I don't use the term "railroad" to describe anything good. There are definitely times when it is useful to limit player choice, use illusionary techniques, or narrate events the PCs cannot realistically affect ("You flail around in the rain like lost kittens for a few days and make it back to town").

    In general, GMing can be summarized as doing something too much or too little, failing to respect your players as human beings, or not delivering on what you offered.

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    Quote Originally Posted by lightgun_suicide View Post
    Give me some examples of 'bad DM'ing'. What should be avoided, what are the total pitholes and what are just slightly forgiveable DM sins?
    Really bad DMing, is the DM running things in an extremely dictatorial "Darth Vader" manner.

    In one 3.5E Forgotten Realms game I played in, the DM had absolutely zero tolerance for anybody questioning his authority when it came to canon and rules issues. (The game had several FR "canon lawyers" playing). Every time a player questioned the DM on FR canon or rules, the DM would force the player to roll a d20 which was subtracted from the player's primary stat. If the player refused to do that d20 roll, the DM would do the d20 roll and force the player to subtract double that roll from the primary stat. At the end of that game session, the fighter had a strength of 3, the cleric had a wisdom of 3, etc ...

    Not surprisingly, the game ended up in a fist fight towards the end of the session.

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    Let's see, mistakes I have made...

    As noted above, railroading is bad (m'key?). Things are a little different if you're explicitly running an Adventure Path, although even there you should maintain at least some flexibility. When not running an AP, you certainly shouldn't be forcing the PCs to follow your "one true path", and neither should you secretly have an "invisible path" for them to walk. If your story is compelling enough, most players will walk it most of the time without you even trying anyway - but if you try to force the issue they are likely to rebel.

    At the same time, you really should be providing some guidance to the players about what they can do. Even in a true sandbox game, you essentially have to present them with the 'menu' of interesting things to see and to do, to give them some basis for making decisions.

    Players really hate it when you take something away from them. If you give them the "Artifact of Ultimate Doom", find it breaks your game, and are forced to either take it away or heavily nerf its powers, your players will hate you for it. They will not, however, have a problem if you never give them the "Artifact of Ultimate Doom" in the first place. (My suggestion with something like this would be to usually give them the de-powered item, and then gradually add powers as they are discovered. Gradually give, and you'll never need to take away.)

    (Incidentally, the same applies to the use of rust monsters, level-draining undead, and even just dropping heavily armoured characters in large bodies of water. Use any of the above with care.)

    I once created an NPC villain with a fatal weakness which meant that one particular player was able to defeat him with the application of a couple of low-level powers (and one part of that weakness made the NPC unable to recognise this problem and retreat). This turned what should have been a big, showpiece encounter into a major anti-climax. Oops! (The lesson there: build your encounters with your PCs in mind, not some platonic ideal of what a party should be.)

    Conversely, I once had a major NPC suffer a massive critical hit from a player, turning another major showpiece encounter into an anticlimax due to three lucky rolls in succession. I let the result stand, and am going to claim that as good DMing. Basically, I would always have another BBEG to use, and my group still talk about that incident with fondness.

    Choices should be meaningful, and you should give some basis for players to make their choice. "You reach a T-junction, do you go left or right?" sounds like a choice, but it's not really - without any context there's no way for the players to decide.

    Try not to let the players get bored. The scene in Lord of the Rings where the party are camped outside the gates of Moria for hours while Gandalf tries to remember the password is all well and good, but in an RPG it is likely to lead to bored players. If the group must answer the riddle to proceed, then as soon as the players are starting to get restive, you will have to give them the answer. Better by far would be to not put them in the situation in the first place: either have the riddle guard a treasure room that the PCs don't have to find, or have the riddle be only one of several ways to proceed (it can even be the easiest way to proceed if you wish; it just shouldn't be the only one).

    Speaking of enforcing a single solution to problems: don't. A riddle at a door could probably also be bypassed by having the Rogue pick the lock, having the Wizard use magic to open the door, or have the Fighter bash down the door. Even if you think there's only the one answer, there isn't - if your players come up with something you didn't think of, it's usually better to let their result stand. Remember: you will always have another challenge to put before them.

    Don't let the players solve every situation with the same solution. There's a section in the "Munchkin's Guide to Powergamers" that talks about how the skill 'gun' can be used in every situation to achieve victory. It's played for laughs, but there's some truth to it - if you let them, some players will be quite happy to resolve everything by simply bashing it down. (The easiest way to prevent this, incidentally, is to keep mixing up your encounters. Include plenty of monsters, but also deadly traps, social situations, monsters with heavy DR but low spell resistance, and so on and so forth. Doing this also gives every character a chance to shine almost effortlessly - the Cleric may be less help against orcs, but he'll shine against zombies.)

    Two aspects of 'table mastery' to consider:

    As DM, you are the person best placed to ensure that everyone is having a good time. I have found that, at most tables, one or two people will naturally be the most vocal, the quickest to speak, and therefore come to dominate the table. These are often the most experienced roleplayers, and they may well also have the best optimised characters at the table as well. That's all well and good (and a 'player leader' can be a very useful thing), but it may come at the expense of a quieter player, one who is shy, or inexperienced, or whatever.

    Be sure to address this quieter player! Ask him what he thinks in a given situation, ask him what his character does. And strongly resist the possibility of the louder player telling the quieter player what he should do! This may be a natural temptation, and the suggestions may actually be good, but if it comes at the cost of the quieter player being engaged in the game, then it's a bad thing.

    Secondly, you should always try to keep the game moving, and especially when players get distracted you should try to get them involved once more.

    This is particularly noticable in combat situations. At my table we have a rule that when a player's turn comes up, they have thirty seconds to start declaring their first action of the turn, or they lose their turn. (Of course, that action may simply be "Delay".) Bluntly, they should have been paying attention to the situation, so should have a fairly good idea of what they want to do. And, equally bluntly, if they needed to look up the text of one of their spells/powers, they've had at least a couple of minutes since their last turn to do it.

    But this also applies to non-combat situations. As soon as some players start to get bored, it's time for something to happen. (I also have a strong preference that players handle "shopping trips" for their characters between sessions. Obviously, that's not always possible.)

    When in doubt, have a bunch of orcs kick down the door.

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    See the links (if they are working) in my sig for advice...

    One of the worse cases of bad DMing I saw was at GENCON a number of years ago and I took its lesson to heart (1e rules). DM explained why we were surprised, attacked and killed after opening a door. He explained that "light" created a globe around us that penetrated the walls, floor, cealing, and doors before us, letting the monsters know we were coming. It was pointed out to him that the rules showed that you could cast 'light' on an object and place it in a tube to create a flashlight, which showed it did not work as he ruled but that did not matter, we were DEAD!

    What, I took away from this:
    1. House rules - provide your views and take of rules before your game. Better to write and hand them out. Also, find out if players have their own views and questions on things.
    2. Side Bar & Game follow up - Provide a forum for players and you to discuss events from the game. This could be just a follow up, to even helping the player improve their character, answer questions and just get a feeling of the direction of the game.
    3. For every action, there is a reaction - Railroading is bad, but to make a living and interesting game think about what happens after an event. Too many tavern burning down from bar fights with the characters and someone is going to be thinking they are arsonist! See what happens, when a guy comes to them and ask them to take care of a warehouse! Just think about what happens after the party finishes with an adventure, it can be used to provide a connection for the players to the game.
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