What’s Your Greatest GMing Challenge?

GMing is an immensely challenging, but (hopefully) rewarding, thing to do. You get to bring a game to life, immerse your players in the world and tell stories with your friends. What could be better?


That said, GMing isn’t a doddle. At a minimum, you’ve got:

  • A world to design (or read if you are using a publishing setting).
  • An adventure to design or prepare.
  • Player desires and expectations to meet.
  • Game sessions to run/oversee/guide.

I love GM, but it can be time-consuming and sometimes mentally exhausting. It’s a challenge.

Sometimes, we forget that like any challenge we can make GMing easier, more fun and less time-consuming. To do that, though, we need to understand the challenges and pitfalls inherent in GMing. And here’s the kicker: every GM has their own (game-based) challenges and problems.

My Main GMing Challenge

I know what my main GMing challenge is—beyond finding the time to prepare for the session: mainly it’s an obsession with being prepared “enough”. And when I say “enough” I mean—of course—mega-prepared for virtually any eventuality. I think this is a driving force behind a lot of Raging Swan Press’s products (mainly the various Dungeon Dressing, Wilderness Dressing and Urban Dressing Books as well as the (free) 20 Things articles we put out on a weekly basis.

What’s Yours?

So I’ve shown you mine—what’s your greatest GMing challenge? 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.

18 thoughts on “What’s Your Greatest GMing Challenge?”

  1. Well, my main problem is prepping npcs with lots of abilities and spells. Especially, when it’s a class I am not familiar with. For example, non of my players own Occult Adventures, and nobody plays one of the classes out of this book, so I never bothered reading them. But if you have a high-level npc of one of those classes, you, as a dm, have a lot of work to do.
    So, again: high-level npcs (especially with spells) AND monsters, whos stats are not included in the adventure. This sucks!

    Another thing I realized is, that I habe more than enough handouts/pics for npcs and monsters, but locations are always missing…

  2. Like yourself I have an obsession with prepping stuff, this has manifested at the moment at a desire to drawn maps for my *Lamentations of the Flame Princess* chronicle 🙂

  3. My primary challenge is staying on task. I like new things and am easily distracted. I find a new game system or pick up a new module and suddenly I want to run it. Problem is that I’ve got a game already running that isn’t compatible with the new stuff. Basically I suffer from Gamer ADD that is probably related to my standard ADD. I’ve learned over the years to not spin around screaming, “Squirrel!” every time a shiny new thing catches my eye.

  4. Very much like you I have an obsession to always over-prepare. After a game session, my players often ask “Did we get as far as you expected?” and the answer is “No” 99 times out of 100. I know this, and yet I always have to have more maps drawn, NPCs ready, even music playlists prepared for points in the campaign that deep down I know my players won’t reach for several sessions yet, but I can’t help myself. I have to have it all, JUST IN CASE. This over-preparedness is often very farsighted and combines with my attention shifting to other things I want to run. I’ll start preparing the NEXT campaign before we’re halfway through the current campaign. For example, we recently started a new Pathfinder Adventure Path and are about halfway through Book 1. I’ve already started planning the from-scratch homebrew campaign with new characters that I’ll run once we complete Book 6.

    A lot of the time though this doesn’t feel like a challenge, it feels great and presumably that’s why I can’t help myself!

  5. For me it’s walking that fine line between being too difficult and too easy. I want the last fight of the session to bring out creativity in the fight, and feel like “WoW! That thing could have eaten us!”, without it being frustratingly too difficult. I want to create heroic boss monster fights.

  6. My greatest GM’ing challenge is “open world” areas where the PC’s have little focus so there’s no “likely” places they are going to go to. In massive cities like Bard’s Gate I can’t possibly remember all of the city. How do I run such a massive area and not grind play to a halt trying to look up the building/area the PC’s have chosen to go to next?

    1. I struggle with this as well.
      I used to make lists for what the pcs may want to visit, like:

      Food (name; proprietor; mapkey; page)
      Weapons (n; p; mapkey; page)

      This way I only habe to look up this list. Normally I note a cheap and a more expensive location.

      Also, let the pcs be approached by a small child who offers his service as a guide for 2sp/day. This way you can only work with locations you’ve prepared and you don’t have to prepare all locations at once.

  7. My greatest challenge as a GM is that I always over-prepare and overestimate how much the PCs will be able to get through in one game night. I prepare for finishing whatever scene they left off in, then I prepare for whatever places I think they might go next, and then I prepare whatever battles might happen depending on whether they go here or there… And then on game night they barely even make it through half of that – not due to wasting time, just due to me underestimating how long each scene will take. When I was first starting out, this was very frustrating. I have been learning NOT to think of it like we need to try to get to a certain point, but instead that the only thing that matters is whether we had fun with the few scenes we did play through.

  8. Not railroading…

    I have a world I’ve designed and a story to tell and I really want to tell said story. I’ve done all this prep and have all the info I need for the session and I’ve worked hours to get my NPC accents right and I want my players to actually go through all I’ve prepped.

    It’s worse when I run a module as you kind of need to go through said module if that’s what you setup. I’ve tried to prepare my players for the type of game I plan on running (dungeons vs. travel vs. mystery) but so often they go a route I have not planned or is definitely not in the module.

    That’s why your lists/materials are so helpful to me. If things do not go as planned, your lists give me ideas and I can quickly find an NPC or location if needed.

    But it bums we out when we don’t advance the story. It’s the most frustrating thing for me for sure.

  9. I agree. Being prepared enough is a huge challenge.

    Ever been in a class or course where there was a substitute instructor? Or an instructor that got tossed the course two weeks before school started? And it’s not even a subject in their speciality?


    That is what makes my palms sweat and my throat choke a little. So much so, I have a canned “chick-chick-whrrr”, “processing” or “accessing” response when asked a question and the information is not already dripping from my tongue in anticipation.

    But my lust for knowledge and the desire to share it is oft supplanted by the quest for power. And power can corrupt adventures in the worst of ways.

    Too many times I’ve seen games broken by those who would twist and bend the rules to tell their personal story of power. This breaks the Social Covenant of the party. Rules mongers have to be reined in early. No punishments, no TPK revenge, just a firm hand, and the subtle (sometimes not so subtle) reminder that guards exist in this world; the “rule of law” is in effect. And if that fails, the “big picture” gets uncovered just a bit… as a warning to the party; despite their power or personal desires they truly, undeniably are just small fish in the pond of the Universe.

    We all come together to lead, teach, follow, learn and tell epic stories worthy of our ancestors! Not fondly reminisce about that time you argued with the GM for 30 minutes about how you thought critical hits should work. 😉

    Happy Gaming!!

  10. I, like others, have concerns about “not railroading”, too much/not enough preparations (which amounts to, apparently, preparing the wrong things), rules bloat, and such.

    I have been looking at the several issues more as “How do I prepare with the most meaningful flexibility?”

    I’ve started to answer that in five ways:

    1) Draft more. I write. Adventure creation is a creative process. The journaling, sketching, free writing and drafts which lie behind good, creative writing are becoming more valuable to me than exhaustive detail of settings that are not visited. Being clear in my own mind as to the lay of the land — literally (game map) and figuratively (factions, NPCs, etc.) — is more valuable when the party takes the inevitable “left turn” off the map. A half hour “day dreaming on paper” about the fell nomads to the far south so I have their culture, common weapons, beliefs and habits in hand is the “deep background” that helps me improvise an encounter. This still has a place with a prepared setting as it encourages me to think through how my interpretation of that setting will work.

    2) Develop more themes. I like your lists of “things found in …” Much inspiration. I also find it helpful to have themes and motifs for places, cultures, races and more. What is the sign of the near orc tribe and their rival? What is the common pattern in the architecture of the long lost culture? What is the most common profanity or oath of a place’s people? What is an important but rather different custom of this region? Themes and motifs give cohesiveness to things, help players remember, and as “templates” help me improvise.

    3) Permission to improvise. This is something that I tell myself it’s OK to do, and my tendency anymore to be up front with my players that I am doing this. I have discovered the culture of the game has shifted from 1E where it was more accepted to a culture influenced by AL and computers where some expect adventures to be from published material, closely followed with very consistent and predictable incidents and progressions.

    That game is at the other shop or with a different GM.

    4) Seek out and design more modular and template encounters. I’ve downsized what I do, I use broader strokes in detail and description, and I seek out ideas and encounters which have “open edges”. It’s the same concept as “modular programming”. Encounters as “subroutines”. Some are still very unique and crafted with more care and investment. I keep those few. I put time into developing a stock of situations which can take place in broader regions of my map and have some potential repeatability. They need not need total flexibility. They are not totally bland and flavorless. But they need the open edges, or sockets, so that they can be “plugged in” to several locations. Robin Hood is a significant NPC in Nottinghamshire together with his several Merry Men. All together, subsets of the group, as rumor, perpetrating an ambush, stumbling into a siege, providing a rescue in the nick of time, flexible uses for one “encounter” in a broad swath of my Merry Ynglonde campaign.

    5) Delegate more to players. One of the best things I started doing was delegating. I can’t keep track of all the new classes, races, options and don’t particularly care to. When a player says “I just read about race X and class option Y and build a character I like …” I don’t flat deny it. And I started saying “I’ve only been communicating with this country or region, not the rest of the world. You’ve got access to my setting document. Tell me about where that race is in the larger world and how your character got to this place and such. Suggest how to make that fit.”

    What I have found is that if they are really enthralled by the new option they will with a great deal of respect for my creation do a lot of work to make it work.

    My greatest bane beyond all that? Occasionally I am dumb enough to create a three way fight with casters of different types in the two NPC factions ….

  11. Oh man, my greatest challenge is the opposite of yours! 😛 I struggle so hard to prepare at all! It’s really ridiculous. I’ve gone into plenty of sessions with zero notes, flew the whole thing by the seat of my pants! It was fun, but also stressful, and I struggle to find that line between all-improv and light planning.

  12. Mine is that I compare myself to better GMs and get down about it instead of getting inspired. Instead of just envying Matthew Mercer, I need to learn from him. Okay, that’s more of a personal problem than a GMing one.

  13. I have a devil of a time making sure that all PC’s and NPC’s in the party take their turn each combat round. Player’s keep forgetting their hirelings/pets and NPC allies and “suddenly’ remember in the round following that they forgot to take their actions. I am a cold GM who says, not my problem, you keep track of those things, I don’t have time to do them for you while handling the other 24 opponents. But, I would like to have a usable Combat Round workable system that doesn’t take up too much real-estate on the physical game table to make sure each “toon” has taken or passed on their action for the round. Any suggestions?

  14. Well, my players only know, and only want to play Pathfinder. Which is fine, it’s a great game. The problems arise when I incorporate something that I think is cool from other systems. There are sometimes too many rules in Pathfinder. Something’s don’t actually work like you’d think they should, and I work full time. My players are 16-21 years old, and have nothing better to do than read the rules. Another thing is player death. Introducing a new character is tough. And, my players new characters are tailored exactly for the story we are playing, which is probably unlikely. For example, in numeria there’s an alien language of Androffan. In the beginning of the game, noone knew that as a language. Now every new character knows it. I think it’s more in MY favor not to kill the PCs, heh. Because the new characters are always made to game the game. My new rule is, you start at level 1 when you die.

  15. My players wont engage in anything outside of combat. They won’t roleplay, they wont interact, one even named his character after himself. They are used to videogames, and apparently they are bad at those too. They simply want to kill. Everything. Literally everything. There’s an npc with a quest? They want to kill it. There’s a tree? They want to kill it. Oh, and they want loot. Because they read the rulebooks, and decided that they are entitled to everything, and clearly the only way to get it is to kill everyone and everything. They also think I’m running the game wrong. Me, the person who has been playing for around twenty years, compared to them, who started playing with me this year, who haven’t played the game except with me.

    .. So to summarize, my biggest problem is that I want to knock sense into them with the nearest hammer, but laws say I can’t :p

  16. My biggest problem is balancing the amount of encounters I currently run a group with a max of 7 players right now. I have found myself wondering about the level progression.

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