What I Need to Improve on as a Game Master

Captain N The Game Master DVD Cover - worst GM ever, amirite?
DVD cover for the Captain N: The Game Master collection.

I work hard to be the best game master that I can, and if I do say so myself, I’m not too bad at it. My groups always seem to have a lot of fun, or at least enough fun that they’re willing to return to my table. Plus there’s the few hundred people who seem to think I’m interesting enough to warrant reading this site, so I figure I can’t be failing completely. Unless a lot of you are just google bots and image wranglers.

…damnit, that’s exactly what you are, isn’t it?

Regardless, I believe that a person should always look for ways to improve, and I need to improve as a GM in more ways than I’m comfortable admitting. I rarely come away from a game session without feeling as though there’s something I could have done much better. I am honestly embarrassed to admit to some of these flaws, and I questioned whether or not I even wanted to share this post. But I also believe that the best kind of writer is one who is brutally honest. Especially regarding themselves. So here we go;

I wet the bed into my teen years.

There. Everything after that should be easy, right?

Consistency is a big personal battle for me, and my failure to be consistent has often affected my GMing in numerous ways. The extent of my preparations, for example, varies wildly. Occasionally I’ll come to a game with ten or twenty pages worth of notes, but more often I’ve got maybe a page of sloppily assembled chicken-scratches. I have a terrible habit of letting other concerns get in the way of my game mastering responsibilities.

Fortunately, or not, my greatest strength as a GM is improvisation. I can pull a varied and interesting game out of thin air without too much effort. But I think this ability can become more of a crutch than a boon. Even the best improvisations are rarely consistent with games I’ve run in the past. Players start to notice little oddities: “If half of the villagers have disappeared, shouldn’t there be empty houses we can stay in? Why do we need to stay in the mayor’s spare room?”

Perhaps my worst inconsistency is in my scheduling of games. I often put off arranging the next game session, because I find social situations so draining. It’s strange that someone like myself, who always feels exhausted after spending an extended amount of time with people, would be so attracted to a game that is inherently social. I’m a walking contradiction, apparently.

Overland Travel has been a weakness of mine for years. The way I handle it did vastly improve when I began mapping my overworlds with hexes. But drastically improved does not mean good enough. I still truggle with basic elements of presentation. I currently have my players indicate how they’d like to travel on a hex grid, and I fill in the blanks as they do so. Not only is it a waste of time to have me filling in hexes, but I hate that my current method has players interacting with a grid, rather than using their imaginations to create the environment for themselves.

I’ve been reading a series of posts written by The Alexandrian on this subject, which address many of the issues I’ve had with running hex crawls. Hopefully after tinkering with it, and trying to run a hex map according to his guidelines, I’ll have a firmer grasp of how a game like that should function. I would like overland travel to be one of the highlights of my games, where adventure hooks lurk behind every hex, and players can spend an entire session being entertained by a lengthy journey. I’ve been able to capture some element of that in my games so far, but I want more.

Economies in my games never make much sense. Going back to the problem with consistency, there’s rarely a set buying power for a gold piece, or any real gauge on how common it is. When my players approach their wizard friend and ask for a completely reasonable magic device that they should be able to acquire (but for which there is no precedent),  I come up with a price that ‘seems right.’ Only later do I realize that I’ve significantly over or underestimated the item’s value. I also have a bad habit of being a great deal more generous with treasure than I ought to be, because I’m worried about keeping my players engaged in the adventure if they don’t feel suitably rewarded.

Yes, I know that’s ridiculous.

Focus isn’t something I even realized I was failing at until recently. I started making audio recordings of my games, and realized that my group and I spend a lot of time chit-chatting during game sessions. Worse: more often than not those tangents originate with me. Time for a big surprise: I like the sound of my own voice. You could make the argument that so long as everyone is having fun, it’s not really a problem. But, having played in Brendan’s OD&D game, I’ve seen how much better the game is when everyone keeps their attention on the game. Brendan does a great job of gently guiding everyone’s focus back to the game when it strays. In that way he’s provided a model for me to learn from.

Traps are my weakness when it comes to dungeon crawls. Otherwise, I think I do a pretty decent job of making dungeons work in my games. But when it comes to traps, I’ve never been able to pull them off satisfactorily. Either they’re so non-threatening as to be boring, or they’re so deadly as to be cheap. In part, I blame the game systems I’ve GMed for this one: D&D 3.X and Pathfinder. Skill checks are not a very fun way for a player to search for traps, nor are disable device checks a fun way to get rid of them. I covered this a bit in my skills analyses of both perception and disable device. However, having now played in Brendan’s OD&D game where traps are handled properly, I feel as though I have a better understanding of what makes them fun, and why I’ve only had limited success with them in the past. I guess here, again, Brendan has provided a model to help me improve my own GMing. Thanks!

Low Magic eludes me. I dislike fantasy settings where magic serves as technology. It can be fun now and again, but the world is much more interesting when magic is rare. Yet I always seem to end up in high-magic games. I’m not quite sure how it happens. One minute there’s only one wizard in the area, and he’s a crusty old curmudgeon. The next moment I’ve offhandedly mentioned to my players that there’s a wizard’s college in the capitol city. Fuck! Butter luck next campaign.

There you have it. My biggest failings as a GM. Hopefully I can get them sorted out soon and move on to more minor issues with my style.

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12 thoughts on “What I Need to Improve on as a Game Master”

  1. On that last point, a “wizard’s college” might just be three dudes who are all level 4 or less…

    Interesting read. I’ve been analyzing and fretting over my own DMing abilities lately. Maybe I should also do a post like this just to get it out of my system.

  2. I think running NPCs are my biggest weakness, personally. I am terrible at them. I’m bad at voices, I’m good at deciding motivations, but bad at communicating personalities. I’m bad at it even if I have time to prepare the NPC, but absolutely wretched if I have to improv.

    Economies. Remember that markets only make sense in aggregate. The process of price discovery, even in the real world, is necessarily littered with people paying “too much” or “too little” for things, and a single price need never be considered a precedent.

    I find Justin’s hexcrawl procedure to be too heavy, though it’s still an interesting series to read. For counterpoint, check this out:


    Though I think totally eliding movement cost by terrain is probably too much simplification, Alex’s method seems much more manageable at the table.

  3. It’s always edifying when someone leaves a comment on something you wrote. It’s nice to know that someone’s actually reading it. So here’s my gift to you, a comment. I should comment more often.

    My biggest weakness is also consistency. Part of it stems from an unending need to tinker with things; a fundamental inability to leave shit alone, no matter how well it’s working. I’ve learned to say yes to my players as often as possible, but this often leads me to think that maybe I could make this thing work just a little bit better…and I tinker again.

    I don’t have a problem with economies; the game (Pathfinder) does. By setting the gold piece as the basic unit of money, but making pay rates so miserably low, the economy does little to justify the existence of all that gold in the dungeons. Where did it come from? Who made it? Why was so much coinage needed when the actual cost of living and doing things doesn’t justify that much coinage? Aren’t most economies of this type barter economies? Why wouldn’t an entire village of people become adventurers for just long enough to go kill the local whatever and take its pile of cash? And let’s not forget that 100gp is a metric fuckton of money to the average person, representing 10 months of the ‘average’ standard of living. Adventurers go right from the poorhouse to the ranks of the fabulously wealthy with only one or two successful adventures. At what point does the risk outweigh the reward? Adventurers have to be a little bit crazy, but risking your life against increasingly potent threats for cash bypasses Kookytown and goes straight into BatshitCrazyBurg. It needs work, I guess. Maybe I should tinker with it.

    I love low magic play, it’s my players who don’t. Ah well, I do try occasionally. The game isn’t really set up for low magic; it’s implicit in the lifespans listed that there’s enough magic to substitute for medical technology, at least. It’s all tied up in what magic is available at low levels and the amazing power of magic at high levels. Once you have someone who can raise the dead, how do monarchs die of anything but old age? And once you get rid of the risk of infection (CLW), how do peasants die young? There’s more to it than that, a lot more, but the game as a whole is far more suited to high magic play. Old school play is better for low magic in this regard (as well as for many others.)

    This post has given me lots of ideas. Please accept our encouragement and write more.

    1. Here is how I handle some of these issues. Just one man’s approach of course.

      Why wouldn’t an entire village of people become adventurers for just long enough to go kill the local whatever and take its pile of cash?

      Because the Underworld is freakin’ scary and not amenable to such systematic approach.

      It’s all tied up in what magic is available at low levels and the amazing power of magic at high levels. Once you have someone who can raise the dead, how do monarchs die of anything but old age?

      A simple way to modify the game to explain this without changing too much is to give spells a chance of fumble (perhaps not for PCs, if your players don’t like it, but for the world as a whole). If 5% of raise dead spells result in revenants, people are not going to treat it like medical technology. Also, if you assume that something like the rule of three is a cosmic law, then the more magic people put into the world, the more chaos comes back. This need not manifest mechanically if you don’t want it to, but it could explain within the setting why societies don’t become magitech: Atlantis tried that, and it was reclaimed by the waves (or whatever, you get the idea).

      1. These are all good methods, though I view them as workarounds. Of course, you’re right in that every DM has to add their own spice to the world, to make a good goulash out of what they want and what is written. What I was railing against, though, were some implicit assumptions about how things would work given the basic written rules (of Pathfinder, but also of older editions of the game). The rules themselves set up a wonky economy. Without spell failure, the rules themselves basically tell the players that death need not be permanent, if you have the cash. The first edition spell does have a survival roll, which is good for control but no fucking fun at all if you fail it (which is a decent argument against such a thing, but not necessarily a winning one). And it does not mention death by old age (although that should be obvious, but then again, immortals have to come from somewhere, and there’s always Ras al Ghul, yeah?).

        Please understand, I’m not calling your methods into question; I’m only pointing out that RAW has some interesting effects if they’re logically extended, and I’m pretty sure that those concerns are not really addressed as such by what is written.

        The Underworld is a scary place, though. You’d have to be some kind of suicidal nitwit to go there.

  4. The last point (about low magic) and the one about hex crawls are a real sticking point for me. I have a Chessex battlemap which I’m sure is all hexes on one side, and I have access to a printer that could produce hex paper easily enough for me to put a world on it.

    Currently I’m running a group of eight (!) through Rise of the Runelords, so I don’t think there’s entirely a huge demand for overland travel just yet, but I want to look into getting something better than “Roll four times per day on d%. If under 10% roll on appropriate terrain encounter table and see what the PCs do about it. If they pursue it, cobble together a short adventure as I go.”

    The low magic point is something I really want to try that likely won’t work with who I’m working with. I love the low-tech low-magic survival type games, where you’re in earlier times (think stereotypical caveman days) and thus don’t have much in the way of magic to back you up. I suppose one could limit it to certain classes/archetypes that aren’t so refined as they are now.

    Keeping it localized to the ‘tribe’ and area, perhaps several rival tribes of other kinds of creatures as well as the local monsters and harsh environment, combined with a hex crawl, would be a game I’d consider interesting. I’m a big believer in having fun without having the overarching story goal of “Beat the BBEG and save the world!” but I haven’t found players who agree with me.

    I mean, when I say “Okay let’s go! [Short Campaign Introduction, augmented by a handout describing key stuff]!” I don’t think I should be met with blank stares until I sigh internally and make something up about how the Dark Lord Whatsisnutts has been threatening Chief Somesuchdude with Token Blackmail Device and it’s up to you to stop it.

    1. If I may be so bold, it sounds like your problem may be that you’re not providing any hooks for your players?

      Your players don’t need to be told that there’s a Dark Lord Whatshisnut. But if you just say “This is the game world, here is a town, lets go!” then the players are going to be a little lost. Too many options leads to paralysis.

      I find it helpful to start by saying “This is the game world, here is a town. You came here because you heard that the dungeon 3 miles north was filled with riches, but now that you’re here you’ve learned that local authorities recently posted a bounty for a group of bandits that have been harassing caravans, and that strange creatures have been sighted by the lake at night.”

      By giving the players short term goals to pursue, you give them choices to make. And eventually they may choose to make their own choices based on what they learn about the world.

      Then again maybe you’re doing that, but you didn’t mention it, so I thought it might be helpful. =P

      1. You may be so bold, but it’s mostly my fault for not clarifying. In the initial handout/introduction phase of the campaign I would have provided a number of hooks to pursue with the idea in mind that my PCs are, if nothing else, adventurers. To me that means ‘crazy murderous hobos willing to dive into caves and halt entire ecologies for the promises of shiny metal discs.’ as much as it means wandering heroes or stealthy assassin types.

        I wasn’t entirely clear on it, in any given campaign I try to open with a little bit of history and intrigue, a local legend or something else that might be worth pursuing as well as more clear threats. For example something like the following;

        “Landstead is a small farming community in Applewalk Valley that specializes in fruit trees and related goods. You have come to the rural town as part of a merchant’s caravan which will be stopping for a week or so before making the rounds back toward Olddale in the south. On the way in you heard rumours about an abnormally large number of attacks upon townsfolk by wild beasts, as well as increased bandit activity in the east toward the Eskalon mountain range. Even so, for some of you it was stories about Applewalk Vale, a thick old forest surrounding an ancient lake that drew you in, tales of wondrous Fey workings and thrilling adventure plucking at even your weathered sensibilities.”

        Along with a little bit of detail surrounding Landstead (which in this case I’d hope the PCs use as a Base of Operations, though to keep their agency intact I wouldn’t force it so much as make it convenient and meaningful for them.).

        It was helpful to get the perspective and response, because sometimes perhaps I’m not exactly as clear as I think I am.

        As an aside, I ran the first leg of Rise of the Runelords for my eight person party tonight and I have to say, it went better than I expected it to. Index card initiative (and party tracking) along with easy encumbrance had people smoothly rolling through their turns. I had the players roll dice for the monsters (I didn’t even touch a die tonight, interestingly), and ultimately asked them questions about the game at the end. Players who could give me an answer in character that made sense got an extra experience point. All told, the lowest got 3XP tonight, and the highest got 5XP. In the end they all claimed to have had a lot of fun, and said that I hadn’t left them out or bored them at all. The little goblin freaks in the beginning even had them worried, according to one girl! I was using dice for the goblins to represent them while setting up the field and heard something along the lines of “Good lord, how many of the little bastards -are- there?!”.

        (Also, my comments seem to be small essays. Sorry about that! :p)

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