Saturday, August 22, 2015

4 Common DM Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them)

Being a DM isn't easy. The players only have to keep track of one complete character history and roster of actions (two or three at the most), while you have to keep the entire world spinning around them. Everything, from the political intrigues in the Iron Towers, to the raiders encamped in the shadowy depths of the Fangwood, are all under your authority. Not only that, but you need to come up with threats that will challenge your party without turning the game into a slog, or arbitrarily taking away their victories.

It ain't no thing.
It's not an easy balance to keep. However, here's a list of some definite steps you should take to make sure your players have fun, and to make things easier on yourself.

Mistake #1: Taking Away PC Abilities

There's always one player at the table that drives the DM nuts because of his or her character's abilities. Maybe it's the wizard who can charm her way through any fight, or the barbarian who can cleave any enemy in twain with a single blow. Maybe it's the paladin whose smite destroys every demon who comes near him, or the rogue whose masterfully applied poison brings down every foe in mere rounds. Whatever the trick is, you're sick and tired of dealing with it.

Maybe it's Stunning Fist... never mess with Stunning Fist.
No matter how frustrated you get, though, it is a mark of bad storytelling to simply render class abilities null and void. The most obvious form of this faux pas is to drop an anti-magic field down for no reason other than you are tired of the wizard's shit, or suddenly giving every enemy you fight DR 15/- just to make the fighter sweat. These things do exist in the game, and you can use them, but they need to be used sparingly, and only when dramatically appropriate.

What You Should Do Instead

Instead of just throwing down your DM fiat, you should instead do something that challenges the player without totally removing his or her character's abilities. If your rogue is a known poisoner, for example, then enemies should carry antitoxin on them in order to increase their saves. That doesn't render the poisons obsolete, but it means they're less likely to win the day on their own. If your wizard is noted for fire magic, then an enemy should prepare for it with proper protections, or even counterspells. If your fighter is specialized in destroying a single enemy, then provide more enemies than that warrior can dispatch to create an additional challenge.

Do not simply slap your red button and say, "you can't do that thing anymore." Instead, adapt to your players in order to keep up with the challenge their PCs represent.

Mistake #2: Saying "Just Play Whatever You Want"

If you grew up with strict parents, chances are good you always swore that when you had kids you'd let them do what they wanted. Some DMs had similar experiences, and when players ask them, "what should I make?" the DM responds with, "I can roll with whatever!"

No. No you can't.
This scenario never works out well for the DM. Within an arc or two you're going to be posting in your gaming community of choice going, "hey, so I have this party with nothing in common, no reason to work together, and they're all ridiculously overpowered. How do I make this work?"

What You Should Do Instead

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and in this case you can prevent most of your party problems by presenting very clear limits, and making sure everyone is on the same page regarding the tone and feeling of your campaign. Simon Sez covered this in his blog post Making A Character For The Game You're In, but it bears repeating; communicate with your players.

If you want to run a game about noble heroes of the realm fighting a great evil, that's cool. If you don't tell your players that's what's happening, though, you're likely to end up with an antipaladin, a vampire cleric of the goddess of undeath, an assassin, a paladin, and a drunken halfling mercenary along for the ride.

Mistake #3: The Single-Enemy Fight

The "party vs. lone villain" tradition is deeply rooted in RPGs. So deeply rooted, in fact, that most DMs never even think to question it. Instead, they tear their hair out trying to figure out how any lone villain could possibly stand up to the well-oiled machine of the party. Do they add in more hit points so the bad guy lasts longer? Give them DR? Spell resistance? Make the bad guy invisible, or fly, or teleport away at the last moment so the party has to chase him?

I could give him a 52 strength... is that too much for a 5th level party?
Stop. You are overlooking the easiest ways to solve your problem.

What You Should Do Instead

Instead of trying to make that one bad guy so powerful, maybe you should ask why there's only one bad guy in the first place.

For example, if your party is opposing a demonic warlord, why isn't he attended by less-powerful-but-still-threatening guards? If the party is stepping into a necromancer's den, why aren't the dead warriors of ages ready to step to their master's aid? If they're fighting an illusionist, why doesn't that illusionist create false doubles so that it isn't just the party ganging up on one person? You could even fight a ranger in his wooded sanctuary, which he's rigged with traps and hidden weapons in order to make every battlefield maneuver a risk. After all, falling trees and trip-wire crossbows could turn a boring old boss battle into a triumph you'll be telling stories about for years.

While there are situations where the 4-on-1 scenario is appropriate (dragons, giants, huge-sized golems, etc.), they should be a rarity. If you're stressing about how to make a fight more threatening, never be afraid to put a few more carefully chosen minis on the map.

Mistake #4: Purposefully Frustrating Your Players

There is a fine line between a refreshing challenge, and a frustrating slog. Sometimes it's all about how you present something, and sometimes it's about the luck of the dice. Sometimes, though, a DM purposefully sets out to make things as hard on players as possible by waging a war of attrition.

Tie them to the rails... full speed ahead!
Don't. Just don't.

What You Should Do Instead

The easiest way to avoid this mistake is to ask yourself what your reaction would be if you were seated on the other side of the screen. Once you've assessed that, though, you need to ask yourself if your party has the capability of countering this thing you're doing. For example, if you are going to make your bad guy invisible, does the party have a means to find you? If they have access to spells like glitterdust, see invisibility, or even alchemical items like smog pellets (or a familiar with blindsense to point out what square the bad guy is in), then invisibility is a viable option. If, however, there is no way for your party to locate you except by sheer luck, it's likely a bad move.

That's how you should assess every tactic you plan to use; is it possible for the party to counter this, without making anyone feel left out? If they'd have to roll a 20 to overcome what you're trying to do, whether it's giving your villainous general an armor class that's impossible to strike, or your infernal queen an SR that can't be penetrated by anyone in the party, then it might be a good idea to either scale it back, or use a different tactic.

Lastly, and this is crucial, the party needs to feel like it's making progress. Whether it's a dungeon crawl, a horde battle, or solving a riddle, the key is to keep players engaged without making them feel like you're punishing them.

Do you have any additional DM mistakes that should be added to the list? If so, toss them in the comments below. If you want to make sure you're up to date on all my latest posts, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then go to my Patreon page to throw a little bread in my jar.


  1. Mistake #5: The stingy DM

    Some DM's feel they have to control every piece of gear, every magic item, and every gold piece the players get... don't.. no one likes a stingy DM.

    What you should do. If your players have a desire for a particular item or other piece of property, discuss with them what they intend to do with it. Fold their play style into the story setting, and if nothing else.. present the party with options to retaining any inventory piece that is frustrating game play.. perhaps it could be donated to the temple to return the bard to life, perhaps the wizard's staff would pay for the new keep they wish to build as a base, or perhaps an item's destruction is the only way to prevent the return of the Dark Lord and save the Shire.

  2. Based on a recent session, I'd say another common GM mistake is being more invested in the game than your players are. If you have to beg them to look up from their phones once in awhile, that's a hint that they're not especially interested in your game. Maybe it's time to play something else?

    1. Or time to find different players.

    2. This is one of the first pieces of advice I give all new GMs. Players are ALWAYS going to be less invested in your game than the GM is. So if you want X level of interest, you have to put in X+1 to get players there. Then pay attention to what they like and don't like about the game and adjust accordingly.

  3. Haven't GMed before, but I've often thought about it. A friend sent me a link here, and this looks like very solid advice. I might stick around.

    1. Pleasure to have you, Bronze Dog!

    2. I certainly hope you do. Finding someone willing to DM is tough. We need more in the hobby.

  4. Great list of tips for GMs. The tips of what to not do are great but better yet you spell out how to solve that problem. This seems to be one thing missing in too many blog posts. Since GMing is so easy in the Fyxt RPG,, we are seeing a lot more players doing it. This is great but they are making some of these mistakes. I will have to send them on over to get some good GM wisdom!

  5. I am suprised that no one has berated the writer of this for being a "babby" GM.

    These are solid pieces of advice. I just think people have had bad DMs for so long they think that is how the game is done. That isn't the case.

  6. Something I have faced is a contorting GM. While having a theme is important, but all you do is control every aspect of the game, then the game can become dry.

    Also, when a GM railroads/the story becomes more important then the players. They are the heroes/main characters. They should do hero-y things and the world/story should evolve around them. Good story and story writing is key as long as one keeps the main cast in the forefront of their story.

  7. Mistake #6 - The Over-Generous GM

    This isn't always about 'generosity'. Sometimes it's about wanting the players to enjoy the game, so the GM 'bribes' them with extra loot. Sometimes the fight seemed *really* hard, so the GM wants to give them an extra reward. Sometimes a player will find a way to gather up some otherwise-meaningless substance in absurd quantities, ask how much he can sell it for per-item, then say 'okay, I sell them all' and the GM feels too committed to his per-item price to say 'uh, no, nobody wants that hundred thousand torches'.

    Fixing this is particularly difficult, as some character types wind up built around their items, and other items become closely associated with particular characters, so taking gear away is tough, and a long enough no-loot dry spell to bring things back in balance is likely to frustrate the players. It's best not to start, or to nip things in the bud by doing low loot encounters for a while when the party begins to creep out of bounds.

    I'm not talking about a *rigid* adherence to the wealth-by-level guidelines, but if the party average gets to more than double the recommended, you're looking at a 'glass sledgehammer' party, where anything that can actually *stand up* to them or *hurt* them can also easily *kill* them without them being able to even hurt it.

  8. just a quick comment about the "it ain't no thing" picture. I found it an interesting choice of pic as it shows how small the world has become. That's one of our performers/jousters from the Sterling Renaissance Faire. He's a member of the Warhorse Productions team.

    1. I knew I'd run into someone who recognized that image eventually. I found it on MorgueFile, and he's become my blog's unofficial mascot of Sir Troll Knight. Didn't know if this would amuse the performer, though I'm certainly willing to discontinue use of the image of it's problematic?

  9. You realize that there is a cadre of players that think the GM having any input whatsoever in any way into the players choice of character is evil incarnate and one of the harbingers of the apocalypse, and that if there are any restrictions in any way whatsoever on their character choice then they aren't able to be creative?

    1. I have a word for those kinds of players: children. A good game is communal, and everyone has to work together. If you insist on having things your way, then you're not going to get anywhere.

  10. Solid advice. I would add as a massive mistake some dms do is the uber npc fpr the dm to feel powerful playing alongside the players-aka dm pc- that heals and deals dmg far better than the rest of the party and handles the front lines easier than the party. While it can be cool for some special event against a super boss where you have a puzzle to solve to pet the uber pc win if the players feel like they will just hang back and let the npc do everything then they aren't really playing the game, they are just reading a fanfic.