The 7 Deadly Sins of Gamemastering

martin_john_-_satan_presiding_at_the_infernal_council_-_1824

In an effort to consolidate 1’s and 0’s we’ve decided to let Statbonus (our sister site) go the way of the dodo. Mostly because it’s pointless to post the exact same content in two separate places every Monday. So for the next few weeks please enjoy a re-visit of some of our favorite Statbonus-exclusive articles by regular commentor/contributor J.


I can’t confirm that there is an everlasting punishment that awaits us in the afterlife for committing these sins, never the less I implore you to take heed. I’m giving you the opportunity to avoid suffering an eternity of Candy Land. Here then are the 7 Deadly Sins of Gamemastering. Commit them at your own peril!

1.Stealing the limelight.

300 roae

Source: 300 Rise of an Empire

She’s NOT here as a witness!

Meet Mary Sue. She’s all that. Drop dead gorgeous, invincible in battle, and smarter than a Nobel Prize winning nuclear physicist on Ritalin. She solves the mystery, rescues the hostages, and defeats the bad guys with style. Which would be great except for one tiny little detail: she’s an NPC.

Now don’t get me wrong, interesting, even powerful NPCs are not a problem. And it’s OK for your NPCs to play a vital role in your campaign. But the PCs are the protagonists of your story, and if you’ve got your players sitting there watching your NPC do all the cool stuff then you should be writing graphic novels instead of GMing.

2. Railroading the players.

railroad_tracks414

Source: Google Imagines

Railroading, or more simply put, making the player’s choices for them over their objection is a GM sin worthy of the 7th level of GameMaster Hell. At its heart, a role play game is just a series of choices made by the players. If you as the GM are making those choices for them, especially when the players want their characters to do something else, you’re railroading, and you deserve your eternity in the flames of Tartarus.

3. Preaching at the table.

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Source: CTRL+ALT+DEL

This one is a particular pet peeve of mine- and one that I, myself, am guilty of.

It doesn’t matter if it’s religion, politics, or that they cancelled Firefly, the table is not a captive audience for your grievance. Even if cancelling Firefly is commensurate to burning a Leonardo da Vinci painting.

4. Impaired Game-Mastering.

Source: Google Imagines

Pictured: How to kill you game

Now let’s be clear. I’m not speaking about the legality, morality, or health aspects of recreational drug or alcohol use. That is a separate issue. But just as you wouldn’t pilot a commercial jetliner after downing a fifth of Jack Daniels, you shouldn’t try playing, much less Game-Mastering an RPG session intoxicated. And speaking from experience here, you shouldn’t try it while ill either. The simple fact of the matter is Game-Mastering takes a lot of brainpower to pull off and if you’re not at your best the game is going to suffer. It’s hard enough to get everyone together for a few hours on a regular basis as it is. You do not need your players skipping sessions because “they’re just gonna sit around getting stoned anyways.”

Some people will insist that their performance is not impaired when under the influence. In my experience those are the same people that can’t manage to abstain for a day. Which means they’ve got bigger problems than whether or not the game suffers.

5. Failing to inflict consequences / allowing multiple rolls for the same task.

So the PCs have come against a challenge and failed. The rogue bombed his lock-picking roll. The Street Samurai blew her intimidate attempt. If you’re letting the rogue try again, or the Street Sam’s teammate roll for the same thing she just failed, then you’ve basically just negated the point of the roll. Failure is a part of the game by design. It’s your job to make that failure interesting and entertaining. You can’t do that by preventing them from failing.

6. Rolling for the sake of rolling.

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This sin comes in two varieties. The first is any skill check without any reasonable possibility of failure. Like having your players roll a charisma check if they ask a local where the tattoo parlor is, or forcing a knowledge skill check to know who the current reigning monarch is. With few exceptions asking people where a local business is should not require anything more than common politeness to get an answer and demanding a knowledge skill check for common knowledge is like insisting on a strength check to lift a pencil.

The second, and more damning, is the “pass this check or fail the adventure” type. Did the PCs bomb their 19th century architecture roll? Well I guess they don’t find the secret door in the library that leads to the temple of the bleeding god.

At no time should you require the players to pass a roll to continue or complete the adventure. This can very easily lead one to commit #5 above. But it is your job to design and run the campaign. If you lead your players into a dead end (plot wise) then you’ve failed as a GM.

7. Disallowing PC death.

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Source: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

As GM you are not in competition with the players. If you’re measuring you success by how many characters died in your adventure then you’ve got a problem. And most people know that trying for the TPK (Total Player Kill) is bad. But what they generally overlook is the other side of that coin. If you’re bending the rules, fudging the dice, or in any other way ensuring that a character survives, including resurrection, in spite of the choices the player has made, then you are doing your table a disservice.

Again, when reduced to it’s most basic level a role play game is just a series of choices made by the player. The plot, the physics engine, the dice rolling, all of it is to facilitate adjudication of the player’s decisions. Do away with any, or even all of them, and you can still have a role-play game. Take away the players’ choices and you no longer do.

Now I understand that most game systems don’t allow a player to outright choose to have their character die, but all RPGs allow the players to make choices that could get their characters killed. If you’re getting in the way of that then you’re depriving the players of the opportunity risk and lose their character lives. And if there is no possibility for loss then what chance for heroics is there?


Check back Wednesday for another best-of revisit written by J.

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2 thoughts on “The 7 Deadly Sins of Gamemastering

  1. Sorry, I bombed out on you and didn’t complete my Statbonus article. You are a great writer and I am honored by your offer of a spce to write.

    Your 7 deadly sins of gamemastering are on point. I agree with them all.

    • Thank you Gregory. Anytime you want to feature a piece on here, let me know. As for 7 Deadly Sins of GM, I wish I could take credit but this is another featured piece by J (whom you can find at our soon-to-be-dissolved sister site Statbonus.com, or in the comment sections of this blog.)

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