The Most Common Mistakes of New Gamemasters

Copyright 2013 Peter Maranci

Let's talk about the most common mistakes that new GMs make.

1. Railroading. All too often, a starting GM tries to force players to follow a plot that they've laid out in advance. This almost never works; players are very sensitive to being forced down a particular path, and resent it. The mistake here is to confuse roleplaying with storytelling. Roleplaying is a cooperative, social experience; although the gamemaster usually "takes point" in maintaining the flow of the game, provides the initial structure and has the primary role in sustaining the campaign, he or she is not simply telling a story while using the players as puppets. Roleplaying is not a play, and the GM is not the author.

Players must believe that they have freedom of choice, that their choices and decisions matter. Now, the truth is that most players don't really have as much freedom as they believe. But they must have enough freedom to sustain their belief.

2. Sandboxing. This is the inverse of railroading, and is usually an overreaction by a new GM who has been badly railroaded as a player. Players are given so much freedom that the campaign turns to mush; lacking structure, the game flounders. In some cases, the players simply refuse to do anything dangerous at all, resulting in a spectacularly boring experience for everyone.

3. Monty Haul. Everyone likes to be liked. And what better way to be liked than to give your friends everything they want? Of such good intentions, a particularly disastrous campaign can result. Players become so loaded down with artifacts and relics that magic loses all capacity to impress. The GM struggles to create ever more ridiculously overpowered items for the players, in a race to the top that can never truly be won by anyone. The reaction is often:

4. Minnie Haul. This is more rare than the inverse for a first campaign, but is not at all rare for a second one. Players struggle through months of play to go up a single level, and treasure of any kind is horrifyingly rare. Even ordinary coins are scarce. Meanwhile merchants demand top prices for wares and training, as if filthy-rich customers were literally knocking down their doors. Living the life of a street-beggar in the Black Hole of Calcutta isn't many people's idea of fun, so such games rarely succeed.

5. The Sock-Puppet. This one is particularly egregious. The GM creates an NPC and treats it as their own PC - a very favored PC. The players discover that anything their characters can do, the GMPC can do better. In fact, the party often discovers that all their efforts are not only a waste of the GMPC's precious time, but actually hamper him in his so-important work. Sane players eventually leave, and the now-friendless GM takes up MMORPGs.

6. Playing favorites. As with the Sock Puppet, but instead of an NPC, the favored character belongs to another player. This could be a best friend, the GM's significant other, or just someone they want to hump. Either way, it's all too obvious and really irritating for everyone else.

There are many other errors that a starting GM can fall into, of course. Feel free to write and tell me about them!

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Copyright 2013 by Peter Maranci. Revised: October 19, 2013. v.1.0