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Long Version

I got a friend into Pathfinder less than a year ago. She had lots of fun. She had so much fun she decided to become a DM/GM. I was very excited about it.

Her grasp of the rules is terrible, but I told her I'd let her know if she got too far off course. That's not the problem. The problem is she is an awful GM.

I'm pretty sure she takes it personally when we solve her material any way other than how she plans.

She targets people that challenge the logic (or lack of most of the time) of her world:

  • Last week, another player kept asking why the population of a city we had just visited dropped by 20,000, yet no mass exodus or plague had happened to cause it. Not even 5 minutes later, a red dragon at least 10 CR above us swooped down, ate the player, then proceeded to kill the other half of the party (we ran away obviously).

  • Another time I questioned why something barely larger than a lake was an ocean when it wasn't even salty. She killed me with a shark immediately after.

    (At that point I was no longer emotionally invested in my character, so it was pretty funny at the time. I think laughing when I got killed just made her angrier. :P )

I've tried to teach her the best I can (I've done 2 sandbox style campaigns to the end with no complaints) and she won't listen or even try to fix what's wrong. I'm trying really hard to keep the campaign alive by stepping and putting it back on the rails every so often, but it's obvious she doesn't care.

Short Version

Should I leave or try to teach the DM/GM what she's doing wrong? Do I share responsibility for this awful campaign because I encouraged her to start it?


The group as a whole is unhappy, this isn't just me ranting. I have been upfront with her the whole time, and she gets upset/more defensive when I point out larger mistakes. I've already upset her a lot by saying straight-up what all the problems are in private. I'm contemplating just leaving and letting the campaign deteriorate on it's own, to preserve the friendship.

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There are plenty of questions on here that link to the Same-Page tool, offer advice for conflict resolution, and advice related to GMs who abuse power... While these types of questions can never be exact duplicates, I suggest searching for those questions and reading their answers. I don't see much here to make this a truly unique question. –  Jason_c_o Aug 20 at 15:33
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@Jason_c_o I don't think this one can be solved by the Same-Page tool, as it isn't to do with a clash of gaming styles. As such, although there are a number of related and useful questions, I wouldn't say it is a duplicate –  Phil Aug 20 at 15:38
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Just out of curiosity, do the syntax mix-up and population drop actually have any relevance to the campaign? Or were they just examples of your group having to walk on eggshells to avoid being GM-killed? And for the record (unless Pathfinder has a different playstyle than I'm familiar with) any time a GM arbitrarily kills a PC is grounds for the whole group to just walk away! –  thanby Aug 20 at 19:07
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Just out of curiosity, may I ask the age of this GM and the players in general? –  link64 Aug 20 at 22:14
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I am curious how the subject was broached with the GM. Some people react very poorly to being told they are "wrong" or when others point out "larger mistakes". I'm not saying you ought to sugar-coat anything or slip on your kid gloves, but perhaps taking a less blame-oriented approach might help? Instead of saying "You should have X" or "You shouldn't ever Y", perhaps phrase it like "When X happened, I got really frustrated for Y reasons. Why did you choose to do X?" and have more of an open discussion. –  heathenJesus Aug 21 at 1:00

9 Answers 9

up vote 49 down vote accepted

There's a common phrase: "Vote with your feet." She's entrenched and defensive, to the point that she is vindictively killing PCs to punish players. That is never acceptable, and a very strong sign that this is beyond fixing without breaking it a bit more and starting over. You can talk to her outside the game, and that might help and is always worth trying first, but you've tried and at this point more words are unlikely to get through.

Your instinct to leave to avoid more strife, and continued unhappiness in a pastime that is supposed to be fulfilling, is right. You always have to be willing and ready to walk, else you're a willingly-captive audience. Words are hollow if you're going to stay no matter what she does. If you're going to stay, she doesn't need to change, right?

Leaving doesn't need to be hard for you or unpleasant for her

Be ready to walk, but don't try to use the idea of leaving to convince her to change, since threats aren't going to bring a defensive person out of their emotional bomb shelter. If there is no change, and it sounds like there won't be, walk.

When you leave the game, communicate clearly and without venom that this game isn't for you and that you won't be participating anymore. You don't need to justify or explain (which will just invite argument), just inform that you're not going to play. If she tries to argue with you, don't try to convince her (her permission isn't needed!), just respond by gently repeating that the game isn't for you and you won't be playing anymore, then remove yourself physically from the conversation.

You can use this calm repetition again later if she seeks you out to try to start an argument. Feel free to talk with her otherwise; she's your friend, after all. If she wants to talk about the game and you feel like it's an honest attempt to communicate, feel free to. If it becomes an argument, of it becomes an attempt to convince you to stay/return without actually changing anything, the best you can do is express your preference to not talk about that:

I prefer not to discuss returning to the game right now. How about we talk about something else?

You can repeat that as necessary when the conversation is going in unproductive directions. Also feel free to back it up with "You're my friend, but I don't want to have this conversation now" calm repetition+leaving response.

Leaving is the best thing that could happen to her as GM

She does need your help, and leaving is probably the biggest help you can give her. She can't continue like this if she ever wants to GM again. She needs to stop if she doesn't want to ruin friendships. You're doing her a favour by leaving, because leaving works.

Why does walking work? Actions speak louder than words and don't invite argument. She can't fight a person who isn't there and make them "stop being absent!" by flexing her GM muscles. You can't fight an absence, and absences don't provoke the fight/flight reflex that arguments do, but absence is very loud. And if she's not fighting, she has a chance of hearing the message sitting in that empty chair.

Walking also discharges any responsibility you might feel for the other players: you've broken the illusion that the gathering is socially OK, and shown them a way out. You've also shown the GM that the remaining players have a way out, and maybe they can now get through to her with words. But regardless, they're their own people and responsible for their own happiness and choices, so leaving also discharges your perceived responsibility: by trusting them to use their own words/actions to take care of their own needs.

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This is really good advice...but I wonder, what about dealing with that same person after you've walked away? Presumably this group doesn't exist in a vaccume, and she may in the future decide she'd like to DM and do things differently, or just to interact with her on a daily basis without this hanging over the player's head. –  Zibbobz Aug 20 at 19:37
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@Zibbobz The game and the friend are different things—leaving the game is not the same as never speaking together again. The point of leaving is to being to salvage the relationship by stopping the ongoing damage with as little extra damage possible. It's like cleaning an infected wound: you have to cut away some tissue if you want a chance to save the limb. –  SevenSidedDie Aug 20 at 20:25

Short Answer
No, you share no responsibility for this situation. Yes, you should leave.

Long Answer
Many, many years ago, I was in a similar situation, although the roles were slightly shuffled. The problem DM (let's call him John) was who'd got me into RPing, playing under a different DM (let's call him Bob), who encouraged John to run a game of his own when Bob's game ended. John used many of the same heavy-handed tactics as you describe, and we the players were miserable. The situation ended when first I, then Bob, then the rest of the players quit in disgust. The group never really recovered from that, which was unfortunate, and hopefully something you can avoid.

The reason for your DM's behavior is likely twofold: first, she has a story she wants to tell, and gets frustrated when you the PCs don't "cooperate". This is a common fallacy of new DMs (there are many related questions on this site), and a frustrating one for the PCs who play under them. However, if she's not open to constructive feedback, then there's nothing you can do about it. (Although you should also take a good look at how you're providing feedback: is it truly constructive, gentle, and helpful; or are you tearing her down, being harsh, or otherwise making her feel attacked?)

The second reason is likely that she feels she has to impose her power over the group to maintain order or otherwise ensure everyone understands she's in charge. It's hard to guess what's causing this - for some people, DMing is a flat-out power trip; for others, they feel that the group doesn't listen to or respect them. You mentioned she's defensive when you tell her what's wrong, meaning she probably falls into the latter group.

This is why I say you should leave. You said the DM is your friend, and unless Pathfinder is more important than your friendship, staying in this miserable situation is not worth it. Tell her that while you're glad that she's enjoying the game enough to DM, you don't think her DMing style is a fit for your playstyle. You can reference the Same Page Tool if she asks what you mean, but absolutely do not cite things like "I hate when you kill us off arbitrarily for asking reasonable questions". You can also say - if it's true - that you'd love to game with her again sometime when she's a PC, not a DM. Otherwise, stick to, "You're my friend, we just have different playstyles."

Your leaving is likely to cause a mass exodus (based on my own experience), as often no one wants to be the first to admit defeat or look rude by leaving, but will follow if someone else does. This may hurt her, but if she complains to you, again repeat the line about different playstyles. Do not try to explain what she's doing wrong or how she can improve, unless she asks you for honest feedback and you believe she'll be open to hearing it.

If she's not open to constructive criticism, then there's nothing you can do except leave in order to preserve your sanity, your friendship, and your group.

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+1 for suggesting how to save the friendship: "You're my friend, we just have different playstyles" over "you did it completely wrong" and invitation to continue playing as a PC. –  Pavel Aug 20 at 19:13
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+1 for "Although you should also take a good look at how you're providing feedback: is it truly constructive, gentle, and helpful; or are you tearing her down, being harsh, or otherwise making her feel attacked?" A DM whim-killing PCs is wrong, but the language in the question sounds like this could be a group-wide communication problem rather than just the mistakes of the DM –  mao47 Aug 20 at 20:17
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I actually think this answer is better than mine in general, apart from which the OP considers the most helpful in particular. Soon as it's eligible, I'm going to put a bounty on it for an exemplary answer. :) –  SevenSidedDie Aug 20 at 20:28
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@mao47 I agree - often people think they're being helpful when in fact they're coming across as bossy or demanding. It's why I recommended stopping altogether with the feedback, and sticking to the "different playstyles" line. –  thatgirldm Aug 20 at 20:32

No, you share no responsibility for the situation. The fact you got someone else enthusiastic enough to try the difficult job of GMing is to be congratulated, and it sounds like you've tried really hard to get them off on the right foot. As far as I am concerned, anything that happens after that point is not your responsibility at all.

The question you have to ask yourself is how you could help recover it given that the GM is unable/unwilling to listen to your advice and guidance. With the best will in the world and a million and one ideas as to how to improve things, if she is unwilling to listen then you simply aren't going to get anywhere with it.

Having said that, a couple of things.....

Have you explicitly told her that the group is really unhappy? Is she aware that if she continues, the group is almost certainly going to collapse with people leaving? This might sound like a harsh approach, but once you've established that subtle doesn't work, this has to be the next thing to try. As ludicrous as it sounds, she might not be fully aware of the impact of what she is doing, particularly if she has adopted a permanent defensive posture and feels threatened in her role.

Another risky approach that might work is to talk to her as a group, but given her actions so far I suspect that all this is likely to do is put her even more on the defensive.

The whole situation sounds like it is made more complicated by the fact that she is a friend of yours, and another thing you will have to weigh up is the impact of any approach on your relationship.

At the end of the day though, sitting there and not enjoying yourself is the worst thing you can do. Only you know the extent to which persevering with trying to fix things is likely to damage the friendship you have.

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I'm contemplating just leaving and letting the campaign deteriorate on it's own, to preserve the friendship. I've already upset her a lot by saying straight-up what all the problems are in private. –  Julia Aug 20 at 15:45
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@Julia that comment is probably worth editing into your question, as it gives more detail as to what you've tried so far. –  Phil Aug 20 at 15:49
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@Julia I was going to leave an answer but it is much easier to type it as a comment. Is it possible for her to run an adventure path? This way you are still letting her GM/DM, she is gaining the experience she needs, and instead of watching how others GM she follows the adventure paths guidelines and experiences the differences first hand. You could approach it like "Hey we have recently came across an adventure path that we are all interested in. Because the current campaign is more frustrating then fun, and because we still think you have the potential to be a good DM would you like to DM? –  DanceSC Aug 20 at 16:03
    
@Julia I've seen DM's do this before, where they get questioned and their immediate reaction is to exert their DM powers by killing all those who question them. Rather than giving her those powers (because Adventure Paths do not have them) you are still letting her control the game while also providing all the information she needs ahead of time. She won't have to explain why the population dropped, or if the water is salty or not because the book will do that for her. –  DanceSC Aug 20 at 16:08
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@DanceSC Comments are not meant to be permanent, and answers in comments are very likely to get deleted. What you've written would make a really good answer. I'd strongly encourage you to turn it into one –  Phil Aug 20 at 16:19

Unlike other answers, I am in favour of giving her a few more opportunities, as no one is a good GM when he starts, and I think it helps her more to teach her and to let her get the experience to be better.

First talk to her

Let her know, very diplomatically, what she does wrong. If she does a lot of things wrong, focus on a few, the most important, rather than giving a long rant and letting her feel she is very bad. Also, highlight parts of the adventure that were actually cool. It's better to be more encouraging even if it's less direct, as that way she will better receive the critiques and may try to improve, instead of being mad because you told her she is a horrible GM.

Example: "Look, X, the thing is that the adventure was cool, the story appealing and we were having fun, but killing half the party was a turn off. We need to be able to question what we don't understand and what we don't agree on, without being killed in retaliation. Otherwise, people can't be comfortable at the table."

Don't get stuck in discussions

Of course I wasn't there, but I can't hardly imagine this dialogue:

  • GM: The population dropped by 20,000, but there was no plague nor mass exodus.
  • Player: And how was that?
  • GM: BLAM! A dragon comes and eats you! And now is trying to kill the rest of the party!

More possibly, the player and the GM were engaged in a discussion, and the GM, mad, ended it with Rocks Fall Down, Everybody Dies.

It's not a good thing that she kills the dissidents, but you should ask yourself, "what is challenging her logic really getting us, anyway?" Once something sounds like a plot hole, why continue questioning it? You are just making her feel bad. If she insists that a small mass of sweet water is an ocean, let it be an ocean. What do you win by correcting her terms?

Rotate GM

Experience makes the master, but looking at other people's successes and mistakes can teach you a lot. To give her the opportunity to learn from others, and to give you a break from her mistakes, you may want to suggest that the group rotate GMs sometimes.

Be sure, however, that you don't make her feel that you want to rotate because she is a bad GM, but because others want also to be GM; Let her be sure you will return to her campaign.

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It sounds as though your relationship is mutually antagonistic. You address her in terms of her faults / failings / mistakes, and attempt to "put her campaign back on the rails" for her. Let's not say you're acting superior and patronising her, but I think we can reasonably suppose it feels that way to her. She is defensive about her mistakes, and she abuses her position as DM to express her displeasure, and this makes her game far more of a nonsense than it would be just from her initial mistakes alone.

She's probably quite anxious about her failings. She's probably even more anxious about the way you and the other players respond to them, so she's not going to admit either to her anxiety or her failings until that changes.

If she actually is your friend then you should certainly remove this source of antagonism from your relationship. Trying to fix her campaign will not do that. Walking away from her campaign and carrying on telling her she's failed will also not do that.

There are a few things you can consider:

  • Do the players actually need to propose possible in-game events to rationalise what appears to be a case of her losing track of or retconning the previously stated population of the city?
  • Does it matter if the DM refers to a freshwater lake as an ocean? Does it actually, really matter more than the game? Than your friendship?
  • Are you always right about DMing? Does the fact that you ran a couple of campaigns without complaints mean that you need to DM this game from the back seat?
  • Knowing her (which I don't), what are the contexts in which she will accept criticism of her DMing, and who are the people she'll accept it from? (hint based on the evidence: not the players in the middle of a session).
  • How long do you both need to cool off before talking about this constructively and without bad feelings?

I would actually advise that you don't leave and you also don't try to teach her. Be the bigger person, STFU, and do your friend a favour by doing your best to enjoy her game for a few sessions without getting into an argument. Then maybe you can talk to her about what you like or don't like about the game (hint: not what she's doing right and wrong, not how she should develop as a DM under your tutelage). Ideally, get the other players on board with this, but even if you can't I think you could make some progress by being the only player not carping on at her every session.

Failing that: leave, never criticise her game again in her presence unless she specifically asks you for advice, and hope for the best as regards the friendship. However good you are at DMing, you are demonstrably not good at teaching her, because she is demonstrably not learning from you, in this way.

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This is definitely a tough situation, and without knowing how you approached talking to her privately, it's hard to say whether or not she would be open to learning from someone else who might only know her as GM (not as friend too).

That said, if you like playing with this group in general, and want to stay with them it seems like you should try and salvage the group by changing GMs. There's several ways you can do that without causing a fight:

Start an AP

Starting an adventure path (or other published adventure) is a great time to have a new GM step in. Suggest to the group that you really want to try out this AP because of _______, and offer to run it for them.

Change game systems

Similar idea, but more drastic. Try a different game system in a different genre for a while, and get a different person to run it. My group generally plays Shadowrun or World of Darkness for a few months whenever we get tired of high fantasy.

Switch game types

Go even further, and switch to board games or the Pathfinder ACG. This is easy to suggest if someone's missing one week, and can grow from there. It's also great if someone is going to be randomly missing sessions for a while.


Regardless of what you do, the intent is to start something fun and new together, which she would not be GMing. I've had games transition by deciding to alternate weeks (then have everyone prefer the new and have the old one just die), starting up on a new night because the old night didn't work any more, and simply by someone saying "I'd like to try this now". By making it an organic transition within the group, rather than an abrupt leaving, you can salvage the time you spend with them, without directly getting into a conflict with the GM herself.

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You are saying that the majority of the group are not happy with her leadership. This is in no way your responsibility and you and the rest of the group that is not happy should leave and start a new group. You are doing this for fun and enjoyment, so if you are not having fun anymore you need to make the change and not feel guilty.

Good Luck!

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I don't think you need to leave the group, but you should put someone else in the GM seat. Immediately. Start a fresh campaign with a different GM. Also talk about this as a group. A few issues that you need to address:

  • You don't outright kill a PC for doing something you don't like. It's not the GM's job to punish players. It is the GM's job to confront them with the consequences of their actions, but they should be reasonable. Being eaten by a dragon for asking why a town shrunk, is not reasonable.
  • It's okay to make mistakes, and it's okay to correct them. It's not okay to punish your friends for pointing out those mistakes.
  • The GM's primary job, above everything else, is to make sure everybody has fun. This is why it's bad to punish players. As a GM, you need to ask yourself: "Is my campaign fun for everybody?" and "Was this adventure fun for everybody?" You need to ask that a lot. And not just yourself: ask them. Feedback is vital. Especially as a beginning GM, because you're still learning.
  • GMing is a hard skill. You can learn it, but learning it takes time. It takes years, sometimes even decades. I've been roleplaying for about 3/4 of my life now, and I'm still not remotely the GM I want to be. Accept that you can be wrong, and try to learn and improve.
  • Find what kind of game suits you as a GM. Some are better at sandboxes, others at scripted linear campaigns (like adventure paths), others at improvising everything on the spot. Nobody is good at everything. Discover your strengths.
  • And it's also okay to not be the GM. GMing is hard. Not every is good at it. Not everybody likes it. Not everybody who likes it is good at it, and not everybody who is good at it likes it.

Accept that this was an interesting learning experience, and move on.

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What process would you advise they use to remove the GMship and transfer it to someone else? It's not bad advice, I just don't know how it's possible to use. I'm assuming an uncooperative existing GM, and I'm really not sure how it's possible to shift them from GM to player under those circumstances. –  SevenSidedDie Aug 21 at 16:09
    
What process do you need? Someone else runs a game, everybody plays. Maybe say something like: "Hey, I've got this cool thing prepared. Who wants to play it?" And everybody else goes: "Yeah!" It doesn't have to be more than that, although I do recommend discussing the probles with the current campaign so the newbie GM can learn from it. –  mcv Aug 22 at 9:00

A great friend and long time GM/co-player of mine has a saying:

If you would rather spend your time chilling and drinking a beer your friends, than spending it to play an RPG with them, then you should be doing the first.

So, Long Version:

RPGs are not just a thing you get to do to fill your free time. It requires an effort and dedication by both parties to make it a nice, interesting and fun experience. If you and the rest of the party don't enjoy it and the most joy comes from parodizing her temper, then you should break (or at least put on hold) the current game.

Your friend may be the best person in the universe, but apparently you'd rather have her BBQed than continuing to play with her as the GM. Maybe it's her ego, maybe it is just her sense of quantity is not that good, maybe she just lacks the experience.

No matter what the case, you will have a much tougher time trying to explain her what she is doing wrong and how to fix this and actually having her fix this, than simply letting the game be forgotten.

To be clear, I'm not saying NOT to tell her what you think is wrong, I'm just saying that convincing her on that and having her fix it is not a viable solution.

The biggest issue in your question is that somehow you consider yourself to be to blame for the situation. Than is, simply put, a hollow question. Yes, because if you didn't influence her to start the game, she wouldn't, but no, because just was easily she could have turned into the greatest GMs of all times (which she may still turn out to be). This is like asking if Einstein is to be blamed for Hiroshima and Nagasaki...

If after some time, possibly after some other games have taken place, she thinks she would like to run a new game, don't be negative about it, but as it currently stands and from your description, I feel like no one in your group is having a fun when playing these sessions.

Short Version:

Stop the game, tell her that it is just not working out as it is and let it be. Keep playing other games, don't feel bad about it and let her realize by her self what she was doing wrong.

Just a heads up

I was in quite a few similar situations. I am not yet convinced I would playing with most of them again, but at least I have the time to play other more exciting ones.

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