Confessions of a terrible GM

Ok, I am probably not that bad, but sometimes I feel that way. I’ve run games that were terribly boring, extremely formulaic, and I made every mistake at least twice. I remember game sessions were I actively tried to piss off my players, there were times I railroaded adventures that hard you could almost smell the smoke from a steam engine. I have been a bad game master many, many times.

In some cases I was bad because of lack of experience, but more often because of fear: the fear of getting the rules wrong, the fear of being boring, the fear of not entertaining my players, the fear of making a fool of myself. In my case fear either leaves me so paralyzed that I can’t even bear the idea to actually run a game, or it leads me to drop all of my good ideas and replace it with formulaic crap. I have asked players for dice rolls just in order to stall time. At times I was terrible.

Of course I also had brilliant games with NPCs my players remember to this day, where everyone was in the “flow”, where rolling the dice became less important, where everyone was fully immersed and the excitement was palpable. But over the years I feel things haven’t improved but rather got worse. I am probably too hard on myself. My friends keep asking me to run games for them. So it can’t be all bad. But as a GM I feel I could do better, and I am definitely suffering from serious burn-out.

In order to change things around I first need to find out what I really want. I want games where my players have more freedom, where drama is more important than combat, where it’s not about rolling the dice all the time. I want players to be fully immersed in the game. A game, where their decisions really matter, where there are dire consequences. I want a roleplaying experience that doesn’t feel like you just played another computer games but with pen & paper.

The game that recently came pretty close to that ideal is the Mutant Year Zero campaign my friend Matthias runs. In this game I had some extremely intense experiences and there were a couple of totally epic situations. And not because someone rolled high in a combat roll, but because of player-NPC interactions. I still remember the talk my character had with his arch-enemy in the middle of the night because said enemy thought my character was the closest she had to a friend. She asked for advice and it was a real struggle between taking advantage of this situation or to be the friend she needed in the situation right now. I am pretty sure I was literally shaking and my heart pounded in my chest. It was awesome.

I also enjoy the discussions we have around the game table about which direction our Ark (the place where the Mutants in MY0 live) should take. Which projects to tackle next, which alliance to form, which fights to begin – or to end. And we’re not always on the same page. Usually in-game conflicts are avoided, but in MY0 it’s what helps to drive the story. The game’s sandbox structure definitely helps to support player freedom. It’s lethality and the fact that the mutants are slowly dying out if they don’t find a way to treat their infertility puts constant pressure on the player characters. The game also has a mechanic to generate random threats for the Ark. The result is drama galore. It’s a wholly different experience to – let’s say – adventurers stomping through a dungeon, killing monsters and taking their stuff.

Unfortunately not every game is like this. More often than not, you just don’t feel that invested in the characters. My friend also ran a Shadowrun campaign. In that campaign he used commercial adventures that unfortunately were pretty bad. They made too many assumptions about the characters and their motivations. In general they were futuristic dungeon romps, while the Shadowrunners were just mercenaries. We got a lot of fun out of planning the runs though. Sometimes we even managed to get some drama going by letting our characters’ morality clash with what we were supposed to do. And there were definitely a few hard decisions to make that actually had consequences but not because of the adventures but because of our GM, who I can’t praise enough here.

Of course it’s hard to compare the games I run with games I’ve played in. Perhaps my players feel about some of my games as strongly as I feel about that MY0 campaign. I also think that my depression and anxiety issues play a large role in my perspective on my skills as a GM. Often I just feel I suck. Period. And in those cases not even facts can convince me that I am not a bumbling idiot who is boring his players out of their minds.

One thing I realized over the years is that things work much better if I don’t have to struggle with the rules. The simpler a game is the better. Especially Numenera worked like a charm. Coming up with stats for a NPC you just made up is as easy as picking a number (there’s really not much more to it). You also don’t roll any dice. All die rolls are done by the players so there’s not even the temptation of fudging the dice. I have to admit that I’ve done so in the past in order to make things easier for the players, but I eventually realized that failing is part of the fun. Heck, often failing is more exciting than succeeding.

When it comes to playing games I don’t mind something a bit more crunchy. Shadowrun 3rd Edition is way out of my comfort zone as a GM but as a player it was fine. But as a GM I was totally overwhelmed by something as easy as D&D 5th Edition. But to be fair, a main problem I had stemmed from the fact that a lot of this games’ mechanics look a lot like 3rd Edition but are in fact quite different. I am a bit enamored with FFG’s Genesys at the moment, but I am not sure if it’s the right thing to run at the moment. I am still not feeling confident running anything at all and Genesys is a game I have never run before, has definitely some level of crunch, and requires a lot of preparation by the GM (mostly because there are not many setting available for purchase right now).

I think I need to find some time to decide which system I feel most confident using, what kind of game I’d like to run, and then overcome my current block and do some serious prep work. I am pretty good at improvisation, but when I am not at the top of my game, my improv skills will not save me, if I am totally unprepared. Talking about these issues have helped me deal with them in the past, so expect to read more about my quest to become a better and more confident game master. Don’t be surprised if I throw out some ideas and plans in further posts. My mind is sometimes quite fickle and new input might change my perspective quite quickly. It has happened before, and it will happen again. I know that much.

I hope you found my ramblings at least somewhat interesting, but if you got that far, it probably wasn’t because you were bored to tears. If you have any advice, please share it in the comments below.

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

5 thoughts on “Confessions of a terrible GM”

  1. I once had similar feelings like you are experiencing at the moment.
    I had comparable demands esp. towards myself.
    I even took a year-long hiatus because of lack of desire to run gams – I wouldn’d call it a burn-out.
    The things I changed: I had to trim my group. In fact, I stopped playing with them altogether and picked it up with some of them 6 months later because of desire to run games again. The main reason for the cut were 2 munchkins: one power-player who cared 0 about the setting and another one who cared not much about the other players. My current group is all drama / storytelling – lucky me.

    I (and the group) struggeled with rule systems and now lean towards rules-light stuff like “World of Dungeons”-style and “Blood of Pangea”. Our latest installment is “Beyond the Wall” whose ruleset I do not like much (but it is somewhat ok) but which I play for its low-prep approach that nonetheless leads to interesting stories.

    As for your requirement of “player immersion”: this is not your choice to make. The player is responsible for his/her immersion into the game. Let them play the way they want to run. If they have no idea of the rules, bear with them. If they are distracted easily, so be it. Not your fault.
    You are to run a decent game. Not a brilliant one because that requires a lot of investment also on the players’ side and this choice is not yours.
    And the only measurement, I repeat: ONLY, is whether the players want you to run another session. If they do, they had fun and want to repeat that experience. Every other measurement exists only in your head. You railroaded them? So what? You did bad improvisation? So what? You screwed up a session? Do it better next time. Was it fun?

    I came to the conclusion that fun is the only indicator that counts. Was it fun for me? Was it fun for them? Then repeat. If not: talk and act upon the results. To us P&P is a social event, not a competition or a fight.

    1. I know that it’s not my job to make them immersed. The players have a responsibility as well. It just more often than not feels as if I am doing a bad job. Yes, a lot of this is just in my head. What I want is to provide an enviroment where players can be immersed, where they can shine. It often feels as if I am not providing that enviroment. And because of that I feel bad, and I don’t have any fun.

  2. It often feels as if I am not providing that enviroment.

    Ask your players. If they liked it, you did a good job. If you nevertheless don’t feel like it, work on your feelings.
    Yes, this is a terribly easy advice. But if everything is fine but your perception, there is no need to change everything … 😉

  3. I do get the impression that you are exceptionally hard on yourself. If you players are having fun and want to keep coming back then you must be doing a good job.

    It would be interesting to see a list of your players favourite games to play and you list of favourite games to run. Where those lists intersect would hopefully give you a selection of games you can play about with. I found that some games lend themselves to particular gaming styles or genres. Also some games need less prep than others. If you had a few systems to choose from that you know that your players are into you can choose your weapon to fit how you feel.

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