2 Ways I Fail as a GM

No GM is perfect (except one chap I know who is amazing and has nothing left to learn, but strangely sometimes finds himself without a group). All of us fail, from time to time.


As a GM, I don’t joyfully rush toward failure with open arms—I save that kind of thing for when I’m a player. That said, failure is part of my (gaming) life. It’s important to learn from my failures as it helps me become a better GM (and I’m keen to be as good at GMing as possible).

I’ve been running games for 35 years give or take. During that time, I’ve developed a pretty good feel for my GMing style. I know what I like and don’t like in a game and I’ve learnt how best to set myself up for a successful session behind the screen.

I still fail, though, and—annoyingly—I still fail at the same things.

Improvisation vs. Preparation

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time—or purchased any of Raging Swan Press’s books—it should be blindingly obvious I’m a huge fan of preparation and detail. When I’m prepared, I’m happy. When I’m not, I’m nervous. After all, Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.

I don’t mean by this that I’m incapable of improvising. I can ad-lib area descriptions, random minor NPCs, treasure descriptions and so on with the best of them. When I game, I excrete verisimilitude. (There’s a mental image for you!)

However, I like to know the “ground” the PCs will likely explore. For example, if the PCs are in a dungeon I want to have prepared all the areas they are likely to visit. That means, I’ve read the area descriptions, prepared all necessary stat blocks and so on. I don’t like to go into an adventure in a half-arsed, unprepared fashion. (This makes running urban adventures a particular nightmare for me as the PCs can go literally anywhere).

Part of the problem, of course, is Pathfinder—ad-libbing stat blocks on the fly is tricky unless you are pulling something directly from a Bestiary or suchlike. (And anyway, I don’t really want a stack of books behind my screen just in case). At the time of writing, we’ve just started a sporadic 2nd Edition AD&D campaign and I expect it will be much easier to add spur-of-the-moment encounters into the game. I’m looking forward to the relative simplicity.

Patience with My Players

As the GM, I’m naturally more invested in the game than the players—mainly because it’s my baby and I have to spend many extra hours between sessions preparing. Sometimes, I spend more hours preparing than playing.

I, therefore, get frustrated when players haven’t managed—for example—to knock up a rudimentary background, level their character or buy mundane equipment and so on between sessions. I mean, how long do these things take? If the game is important to them, surely they can find the time to get them done?

I think failing to do your “game homework” is particularly bad show because when you don’t do these things between sessions it inconveniences everyone else who has found the time.

Obviously, I acknowledge that sometimes people can be just too busy—they’ve just moved house, had a baby and so on (I’m not a complete swine). That said, generally, even the busiest person can find 30 spare minutes in any seven-day period.

As a player and a GM I just do so love watching someone else level their character or agonise over what mundane equipment to purchase while I sit around doing nothing. Of course, this frustration can bleed over into the game, which is less than ideal as we are all chums and gaming is meant to be fun.

What About You?

How do you fail as a GM? Let me know, in the comments below.


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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

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16 thoughts on “2 Ways I Fail as a GM

  1. I run a longstanding 2e game and definitely share both of these frustrations from time to time.

    Regarding Improv vs. Prep, there definitely needs to be a balance. The difficulty, as you said, comes from the fact that the more detail you prep for a specific encounter, location, etc., the more likely you are to be tempted to railroad the game that way. I try not to prep too far in advance and pay attention to any interest the players show in terms of direction / story.

    One thing I always need to work on is getting the details down for the next adventure based on what just transpired. After running a session, I am tired and the last thing I want to do is write a recap, but it’s incredible how easy it is to forget import, but unplanned turns of event and details, especially player generated ones.

    As for the second part – Patience with Players – well, yeah of course they are going to drive you nuts doing things like going way off topic, goofing around, not remembering the names of the most important NPCs or other PCs for that matter. Sometimes they even forget their own character sheet!

    But also remember that you’re probably the one running the game for a reason. Prepping can be a stressful time-crunch, especially if you have work, family and other obligations – but I’d rather do that and run a dynamic and interesting game for others than show up and get bored for six hours by a DM who thinks D&D is just a retrograde video game. Never forget that everyone is there to have fun and it is a social experience, it’s not supposed to be so serious that anyone gets upset, including you.

    Thanks for the all the content you put out there!

  2. Oh, man, that second one gets me, too. I’m surprised you say “sometimes” you spend more time preparing than playing. I’d say I always do. Though I may be doing something wrong.

    But I get it. It’s so frustrating that no one gives the game a second thought between sessions when you’re spending your equally valuable time getting everything ready. I’ve gotten to where I just don’t send in-game emails out anymore because I can’t stand the frustration of the non-response. Related to this, is when a player bails on the session at the last minute. I definitely get that real life happens and that takes priority, but sometimes the reason given is fairly capricious and I wonder if they have a clue how much work goes into prepping a game. And my response carries and additional -1 to my Diplomacy check if I’ve written their character in for a good bit of focus in the coming session.

    Again, the rational side of me says it’s all ok, it’s only a game, life happens, etc. But taken too far and I start resenting the time it takes for me to GM and players that seem to have little regard for my investment. So that is probably my biggest failing.

    I’m pretty lousy on the reward distribution, as well. I keep a copy of All the Glimmers and the Mother of All Treasure Tables close at hand because, invariably, I’ve forgotten to add an amount of treasure commensurate to the challenge they just overcame…

  3. I have similar frustrations/challenges. In my last session the players took a route I was totally not expecting. It took me longer to create the lizard man raiding party they decided to ambush than I would have preferred. I think I’ve got a plan to avoid that in the future.

    For the second one, I had a discussion of time limitations. (Guys, I can only run until 9p. If we spend 2 hours leveling and buying stuff that means we only have 2 hours to adventure.) I presented some suggestions on ways to handle that type of stuff pre-session. It has helped some.

    (I have avoided the problem of people forgetting their sheets by keeping a GM copy I print each time we play.)

  4. DM burn out… when you’ve spent hours designing and at the last moment you have to cancel your game. Like a Halloween themed special game session. I find it hard to get motivated to get back in the saddle sometimes.

  5. This is great, and spot on! I havnt GMed in years, but I had the same Issues. Keeping things organized, researched, and prepared makes for an enjoyable and productive session. The fact that balancing scheduals and logistics can be so difficult underlines the respect a Gm has for the players (And vice versa), plus keeping things enjoyable. May I also mention this site and these blogs are very informative and HELLA useful! “Excrete Verisimilitude.” Priceless!

  6. The first failure of mine that comes to mind is power creep. I’ve allowed the current group of PC’s to become so powerful that it makes most encounters seem trivial. To counter that, I’ve had to make the NPC’s they’ve been battling (a thieves guild under the new leadership of a notorious and dastardly pirate lord) smarter and less reactive. Since the’ve failed every time to challenge the party with a direct approach, they have had to adjust their tactics. Work smarter, live longer!

    My second failure, and one that I’ve come to terms with, is being disappointed by the players. These guys seem to enjoy going off in crazy directions, and there was a time when I’d get frustrated when they would go out of their way to NOT explore the dungeon I’ve planned and plotted for hours upon hours. How dare they? Now, though, I’ve learned to roll with it. My improvisational skills have improved, my prep is less specific and covers a wider range of possibilities, and it really doesn’t bother me much at all anymore when my group makes DM’ing for them as simple as herding feral cats.

  7. My biggest fail as a DM is dealing with players who are not prepared. As an example, I had a player a couple of weeks ago who is a 1st level spellcaster, and did not know all of the spells on her spell sheet. She went out and bought the spell deck from WOtC, but “never had the time” to look at and understand her spells. Her lack of knowledge slowed down the game as she looked at her cards to figure out if a spell was right.
    I told her to hang back after the session and I would go over it with her and make sure she had everything figured out and was set but she “didn’t have time”.
    Last week, she faltered again. I stsarted counting backwards from 5 and, when I hit “zwro”, I moived on and she lost her turn. She complained and I unloaded on her.

    Maybe it was a bit of an over reaction….

  8. I’ve been told not so much that I’m a failure at being a GM/DM, but rather I’ve been told that I’ve “overstocked” the dungeon so to speak or have to much treasure. I put the latter off to inexperience myself. I’ve even been accused of putting to much magic into various scenarios of mine. The interesting part of that though is that the town or small cities where the magic is is mainly cantrips and zero level spells because the town or small city in question is run by a mageocracy..

  9. I probably rely too much on improv – I am more of an ‘inspiration of desperation’ personality and am usually pretty good at winging it but sometime – esp. when dealing w/ a new game system that the players are more familiar with than I am – can underestimate how much the actual rules matter.

    For prep I stick to having a pretty firm picture of the area in my head and a 1 – 2 page short summary of the monsters. I worked up a MS word file that puts all the needed combat stats into a simple chart for several monsters – I can usually fit 5 – 10 monsters / page depending on how many special abilities they have and how much detail I need to go into – and that is with a couple lines of description. But that is all I do for actual game mechanic prep. I do spend about a couple hours out of game for every hour in game mulling over the world, the major NPCs, their plans, etc. figuring out how the world moves when the players are off on some quest and what they find when they come home.

    I have some pretty intimidating homebrew rules re: character creation and that scares off a lot of players that are likely to push my buttons or are not willing to invest some reasonable amount of out of game time dealing with things they need to (like knowing their spells).

    I think some of my players are annoyed when I tell them that I’m there to create the world and facilitate their stories rather than provide a module like experience – they are not used to having an entire world to wander around in w/o much guidance. If they don’t have strong backstories or interests to pursue then my games can bog down while the players try to figure out what they want to do.

  10. I’ve been DMing off and on since around 1980. My current group has been playing for over a decade and has revealed to me my weaknesses as a GM.

    1. Time management. Every year just before Halloween I plan a one-off spooky adventure I can work into the current campaign. While I do my best to make it a one-off, it invariably runs into two, or often more, sessions than I’d planned. It’s indicative of my struggle with moving the adventure along at a reasonable pace. I still worry about not having enough material worked out for the current week’s session, but it rarely happens that we get anywhere near as far as I thought we would. Partly this is the nature of our group, but I must take the blame, too, for not encouraging a quicker flow to game play.

    2. I still have trouble tailoring my games to the desires of my players. I’m an old school D&D DM in that I like to put in clever puzzles, but my group gets easily frustrated if I make them take more than ten minutes or so in solving one of my puzzles. I know now that my current group mostly likes participating in an interesting story line in which their characters interact, but this requires me to be almost the entire force behind driving the story line. They’re not big on, “what do you want to do now?” They’d much rather have me make it clear what they should be doing and let them do it. I struggle with this as it’s fairly alien to my own style of gaming, but I recognize that providing an experience that is enjoyable to everyone at the table is my primary goal.

  11. I’m finding the comments here on preparation vs improv interesting. I’ve learned over the years that, while extreme preparation can be entertaining for the GM, it rarely pays off for the players unless the GM forces them into each location/encounter he/she has so painstakingly worked out in advance. I might enjoy writing page after page of details on a city halfway around the world, but it does no one any good if the campaign never even reaches that locale or I have little cause for them to encounter NPCs or plot lines involving the locale. Time management being necessary, what I find works best for me is to paint things with broad strokes, going in for more detail only when it is apparent it will be needed for an upcoming session. I’ve learned to keep plotting somewhat loose, meaning I have general ideas of what forces are in play, and where the story line is heading, but I don’t worry about working out all the details until I need to, largely because I want the actions of the party to influence those details. I am most relaxed before a weekly session not when I have every detail worked out, but more when I have some interesting things in play that I trust myself to be able to work into an interesting session regardless of what the party does or does not do. Case in point, the session before last ended with the party split into 3 groups. One group was trapped on a small island by a tentacled horror in the water, another group was facing an attack by gardener robots repurposed to kill intruders, and the last group consisted of one PC carried off by a large bird while another PC wizard flew off to rescue him. As I prepared for the next session, I felt confident that all three plot points would add up to an entertaining session. Yes, it meant I would have to improvise some – how could I not unless I shoot down everything the PCs try that doesn’t fit my carefully crafted plot? Which is the surest way to piss them off and make them lose interest in playing. I knew the first group would be tied up figuring out how to get off the island, the second group would be engaged in battling the gardener bots, and I worked out what was happening with the PC carried off by the giant bird. Did I know exactly what the outcomes would be? Nope. But I knew I had enough in play to make for an interesting session, and I’ve come to trust my own ability to work various details into something engaging on the spot. As for the campaign as a whole, having the entire thing planned from beginning to end prevents those amazing Aha moments when you suddenly realize how one insignificant plot point or NPC from earlier suddenly dovetails perfectly into the plot at its current, or an upcoming point. To the players, it feels like genius plotting, but they have no idea the twist and connection to older plot lines hadn’t even occurred to me until just before the current session.

  12. I guess the first one maybe not putting enough thought into world building I kind of build the world as it goes. I do some world building but perhaps I don’t detail enough of the societies NPC’s, whether or not a war is going on and so on. I kind of flesh it out as the story develops and the characters reveal the world around them.

    The second I have patience with the players but they can sometimes get off topic pretty quick. I have had to exercise more patience since my friend brought his 8 year old daughter to the table which is great but it is a challenge holding her attention for a while

  13. I’m very impatient. I sit for three weeks between sessions, and usually, have a whole host of things that run through my head between sessions. I usually get my group to talk to me on Voxer, so between table time, we do have a back-and-forth going on the whole time. I had to learn to keep my butt planted at the table, to keep my players at the table.

    I stopped running at the local store, because I have vape-smokers. I can’t build tension when half the group is outside googling customers or product, or they’re laughing about a movie on the sidewalk with lungfuls of smoke rolling out of their pieholes. I don’t do a lot of food-prep because when I get up, the players think it’s okay to get up.

    I have to keep the words, “Sit the f**k down,” deep in the gut. I run a game I feel is potentially organic. Once I get everyone seated, I feel like it’s a small victory.

    The second problem I have is keeping their butts not going back to town every thirty minutes. “I fought a kolbold, I need to restock.” Holy crap, you lousy logistical nightmare, buy a cart. I’m trying to get you your requisite eighth-of-the-way to your next level, if you’d keep your yap shut and not be so concerned about things that are a bit out of your league, Clarence.

    Granted, my players are goal setters. The problem is, I telegraph a lot of what I would like to happen. Any set of sticks I produce for the donkey to follow, they immediately try to go back to civilization, and try to not be involved too much in things out of the kiddie pool. Eventually, their house of cards might fall, but they are sometimes happy to chat up every shop keeper before the Sheppard yanks them out to Pasture of Death. “Yes, indeed, I love the smell of the old books from the Fordewaithe Empire. Have you ever found their ancient ruins along the Maker’s Trail?”

    “You see that cloud of acid in the sky? Under that is Tsar, an ancient city full of mystery and evil.” /Bruce has the book, The Slumbering Tsar Saga, a tome three inches thick, under his arm. Eight pages at the back of said book are empty with the header, “Obituaries.”

    I exaggerate, but I think my players are happy to have a light campaign not so riddled with potential death and destruction. I appreciate having a game that requires good play, role-play and otherwise, but sometimes I get a little too happy when I smell blood in the water.

    I know it’s a fun game, or the goal is to socialize, and have a game in the process. I probably take it personally when I shouldn’t, when there’s supposed to be a challenge, but oh, lookie-there, you rolled an amazing forty-plus on your skill check. Here’s the spell that you need to defeat said-monster of party snacking. I want everyone to have a fun time at the table, but if I feel like I’m running Shattered Star (the least challenging adventure path, and the AP that caused me to flee to Frog God Games’s pasture), I feel like I’m just running a game in tutorial mode. “And there’s enough experience points for your miserable character to get to second level. I’m so happy that this is a measured campaign with little ramp-up and no reason for a referee to have a reason to live.”

    Everyone has their issue. Creighton, I would love to hear a podcast of your game, if you ever recorded it. I’m more than willing to take notes on what you do, to keep your players in the seats, and to keep them going session after session.