Are You A Successful GM?

At this point, I’m reminded of that bit from a Life of Brian where someone asks Brian’s mum, “Can I ask you a personal question?”


I mean, how much more personal can you get?

Sure, I’ve asked myself before whether I’m a good GM (or not). But being a good GM and being a successful GM isn’t necessarily the same thing. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever really stopped to ask myself whether I’m a successful GM.

Measuring your success as a GM is a tricky business. GMing is—hopefully—something you enjoy immensely and something which gives you a tremendous amount of satisfaction. Ultimately, measuring your success as a GM is a personal affair. People GM for many different reasons (good and bad) and it, therefore, stands to reason different people will have different criteria for success.

At this point, sadly, I have to reveal I can’t tell you whether you are a successful GM or not. Hell, I can’t even tell you if you are a good GM or not! However, I can share with you some of the ways in which I measure my own success (or lack thereof). Questions, I ask myself include:

  • Am I running the kind of game and/or adventure I want to run?
  • Am I running the kind of game and/or adventure my players want to play?
  • Do my players actually turn up to the game? Do other commitments come up suspiciously often on game night?
  • Do I have space at my table? Is it hard to recruit and retain players?
  • What’s the mood like at the table? Are people—including me—having fun? Are they frustrated?
  • Is everyone engaged in the session? (Obviously, everyone can’t be engaged all the time—sometime the spotlight is on you and sometimes it isn’t—but essentially everyone should be paying attention and engaged.)

Of course, you can’t measure everything. Here are some of the things I don’t think are worth the effort:

  • The players level up or get other tangible, character-based rewards.
  • The players get exactly the shiny treasure their hearts’ desire.
  • The players complete the adventure/defeated the villain (it’s perfectly possible to have fun while failing) or make demonstrable progress toward doing so.
  • Did a certain number of PC die or get knocked unconscious. (Was the level of challenge “just right”). As an aside, I once played with a GM who thought the challenge level was just right when one or two PCs died every session; this is not a view to which I subscribe.
  • Did I know and follow the rules “properly”. The rules are important—I’m a bit of a closet rules lawyer I think—but what’s more important is the play experience. I’ve realized in the course of writing this post that the subject of rules vs. fun is a tricky one and one worthy of an entire blog post. I suspect I’ll write more on this in the future.

Of course, the fatal flaw in my new genius plan to measure my success is that essentially I’m an optimist and also prone to my accursed (and fallible) human nature. I’m much more pre-disposed to look at the positive aspects of my performance and not focus on the negatives too much. I suspect this affects the results of my tremendously unscientific approach.

Essentially, though, I think it’s a good idea to ask such fundamental questions as, “AM I a successful GM?” If I don’t, I’m limiting my opportunity to improve and to have more fun. And that’s a bad thing both for me and my players.

How Do You Do It?

Do you measure your success as a GM? If you do, how do you do it? Let me know, in the comments below and help me be more successful at measuring my success!

Published by


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 “Are You A Successful GM?”

  1. I find lots of GMs assume they’re doing a good job because the players come back. But that’s not really enough for me.

    I want to create a game that players MISS when they can’t show up. Not just “yeah yeah we’re playing on Tuesday . . . .” I want “Darnit I can’t believe I have to work. Let me see if someone else can take my shift.” When the players are that engaged, their enthusiasm for the world buoys my confidence.

    I want enough trust that I never have to use a GM screen again, and that my players can try the really weird stuff because they know I’ll judge fairly.

    I am always learning more about the principles of design (not just dungeon design, but product design), because my players have to interact with my world, so my world is produced for them. I work on my presentation skills because I am the window into my world, dispensing the characters’ knowledge for the players’ decisions. I need to understand enough psychology to know when to take a break or ratchet up the tension in an effective manner.

    So am I successful? I hope so. And I hope to be even more successful as I go forward!

  2. My success as a GM is determined by two criteria:

    1) Am I creating content of which I am proud?

    2) Am I facilitating Player Agency?

    These are my personal goals as a GM. I find that, if the answers to these questions are “Yes”, everyone is having fun, and I am successful.

  3. For me, two of the most important questions I ask myself after a session are: “Did I offer my players ample choices to steer the story in a direction they wish to pursue?” And: “Did I provide them with enough information to make these choices in an informed way?” That, to me, is the essence of a good rpg session.

  4. I find it quite difficult to judge how successful I am as a GM. Players often say thanks for a game on reflex or don’t comment at all (and then there are those players who always find something to criticise). I feel games where I’ve helped steer the game to a suitable break or finale, with ample risks and rewards and plenty of fun along the way are successful, but you can’t please everyone all the time or compensate completely for when the dice suck. If we all had a good time and want to do it again, it’s a win, although not everyone can make every session these days when there are so many other commitments. Play nice, be fair and let the players (appear to) control the story are good watchwords.

  5. I have been DMing in some form or another for over 30 years… I base my success in the ability to tell a great story…READ ALOT, and then READ ALOT more. I rob ruthlessly from movies, novels, even choose your own adventure books. I use things that strike a familiar cord with my players, then twist it just enough to change the expected outcome. Most people who have played in my games, come back again and again, when time and life allow… Many are great story tellers in their own right, creating novels of background over our playing history together. I based an entire 5 year (real time) weekly campaign entirely around one sentence in a book…Players, I find want to be a part of an epic tale, something larger than life…Who doesn’t want to save the world? Run with that, and make your players do the ground work…They will love you for it…Best advice I can give…Prepare lots of encounters, ahead of time, just to fall back on when the group needs something to fall back on….Peace!!!

  6. My measurement: how far are players willing to go to ensure they can still shop up for your game and how much are they investing in actually playing? I’m playing online, so I run into other types of problems than other GM’s maybe. When a fanatic WoW-player doesn’t sign up for raids so he can join my game -> I consider that a sign he really enjoys playing. There’s always stuff that can show up. Like IRL-issues that end up making a player leave because she decides she’d rather commit 100% than show up and only be able to commit 50%, and miss sessions. In a case like that, I don’t see the player leaving as a sign I’m a bad GM. And in some cases, when your player’s PC gets an epic exit the player absolutely loves… he or she might have an easier time asking to return, when RL-stuff has been sorted out.

    I found out how succesful I am as a GM when one of my players had to move to another continent, which created a 7-hour time difference between us. Both other players decided to reschedule some IRL-stuff so we could keep playing and keep the distant-player in the group. That’s what I call commitment.

  7. I like to believe that I am a successful GM. I have had more than one player my gamer leave my game, because they left the area, only to return and tell that I ruined them for other GMs’ games. The other games just weren’t as compelling, as mine. That certainly gives me a swelled head.

    I like my present games. My players seem to like them, too. That is success enough for me.


  8. For me, I consider my sessions successful when my players can’t stop talking about it. When the session is over and the group lingers for an extra half hour, rehashing everything and wondering what’s next… well, my work is done. Same when they always ask when the next session is (as we are bi-weekly due to schedule conflicts). It’s very gratifying.

  9. On the mentioned topic of the relative importance of rules and fun: I think that fudging rules is just fine – as long as the players DON’T know you’re fudging. It’s very disappointing to know, for a fact, that your GM fudged a rule to save you – or, worse, to kill you!

    Back to the main point, I have three criteria for measuring my success as a GM.
    1. Are my PC’s finding the adventure interesting, a little surprising, and just within their ability to beat?
    2. Does the process of preparing the adventure leave me excited to play it?
    3. Did my preparation hold up well enough for me to enjoy roleplaying the NPC’s in an immersive fashion?

  10. Do the players all feel like they contributing?
    Is there game related laughter?
    Do the players remember the previous sessions activities? Do they come to the current session with revelations/plans/reactions to the previous session?
    Did someone come up with something interesting that you’d not thought of that you were able to add into the game?
    Do players draw pictures or build models of things in the world? Do they write things based on your world?
    Were quotes added to the quote book?
    Am I looking forward to the next session?

  11. I ask my players!

    I know them very well, so I ask, and they tell me that they’re enjoying it, and what they liked/disliked.

    I have campaigns and adventures that, even when not very serious, are character driven and quickly develop stories, so far, my players never want to miss even a single session, because they want to be there and see what happens, etc..

    They even ask for 1 on 1 sessions in between group sessions, for interludes or for side characters, to have fun, develop the world, advance some story elements.
    And the other players get excited reading the chronicles/summaries of these interlude sessions and are often envious and want to do it too.

    So yea, I can reasonably say that they love it. So i’m successfull, but I can’t know if i’m “good” 😉

  12. I consider myself a successful DM. Not the best or fanciest – I know a lot of fantastic DM’s and play with them (pretty much all online). However, I have run my first campaign all the way through to the end of the story arc and, though I am not highly skilled, we all had a good time and my players showed up regularly over the year or so it took. Then, when we started our next campaign, two more friends joined in! 🙂 I don’t know the rules very well, but one player helps me out there, I never remember what I’m doing, but I let my players help me there too!

    While skills are nice and being able to be part of telling a story is nice, I think just being able to enjoy getting together and to come up with some sort of plot to give it some cohesiveness is enough to “succeed”. The whole thing is a social activity first and foremost. Good friends, good times, put some obstacles out there and let the dice roll!

    Maybe my players just like outsmarting me… not so hard to do with an old grandma running the show! hehe

  13. I’ve only had a player stop playing one of my games in 17yrs of GMing, and I never got any feedback from him when he stopped showing up. He said it was from work schedule, so I took that as something outside my control. But there was always something in my mind asking if it was game related. My personal goal as a GM is to weave a compelling story with the players as grand creative exercise that will be reminisced about for years to come, and we have done that. But I am always striving to do better and always judging myself on my performance and effort put in to the campaigns. I prefer GMing to playing, for he limitless possibilities of creative outlet offers.

  14. I GM over 30 years by now and boy, did I change, but some basics still proved good and I still use them as I did on day 1 on my GM-career. To understand what is counting for me you need to know that I run so called open landscape campaigns (thee at the same time actually) aka sandbox campaigns with my own ruleset that I have developped over the last 30 years. Heck no other really convinced me and belief me I tried out a lot in French, German and English!

    What is a good GM in my eyes?
    1. All feel satisfied after the session, GM included.
    2. All can’t wait for the next session to start, GM included.
    3. Players can play what they really like to play, only restriction is the world and the setting (you can’t have supers in a fantasy setting though some have hinted to me that my Qhwemaani are supers in a sort).
    4. Be attentive to what they players say – not only during the session but also in casual conversations. Use what you overhear to surprise them!
    5. Try to give each PC his spotlight, if possible in each session (I don’t achieve this yet in each session).
    6. Allow players to create little scenes during the sessions (our house-rule “build on it” demands that the player involves as many of the other PCs in this scene as possible)
    7. Show the players trough NPCs what you expect from them (after the motto “show don’t tell”)
    8. Keep track on the PCs goals and give each session opportunities to reach this goal.
    9. Create Encounters and Events so that the PCs can develop new goals (the fuel for any open landscape campaign) and be creative on the spot (it helps that I read a lot and have a VAST library).
    10. Don’t forget or confound the names of the PCs, especially when they have aliases…

    To keep up to this 10 points is more than enough me thinks. I grow each day and strive to become an even better GM each session I play as GM but I also pay attention when I have the chance to be a player.

    This are my two cents to the discussion.

    Cheers to you all!

  15. I actually have an issue not focusing on the mistakes I make, and I think my constant worry about failure detracts from the game.

  16. I think that I am a successful GM overall. I run 3 different game groups all within the same world where their actions affect the others. I run a self revamped version of ‘Hero Kids’ for over 20 students throughout the week. I make sure that team effort and quick thinking are valued over slaying hoards of monsters as well as having meaningful conversations with the NPC’s. This teaches them all sorts of social skills and builds self confidence when voicing their opinions as they work together as a team. I bend the rules (which are fairly lax to begin with) when they think of a unique way to solve a problem, and allow them to create the story with their choices. Where I fail is when I start running out of steam with ideas or when I railroad a moral narrative in where it may not have naturally fit which then defeats the purpose of having it there in the first place. I need to work on shaking up the turns so those who are waiting can still be engaged ( I sometimes have groups of 10+ so this can be challenging for a group of kiddos who already have a hard time paying attention) and walking that fine line of teaching without being preachy. Overall they love it,relish coming back to play and typically stay engrossed which helps fuel my fire and keep going.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.