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I wish that the GM I am talking about was really horrible since, then, leaving the group would be a viable option. No, this falls in the category 'luxury problems' which are never done out of malice. But he isn't just a good GM when he's on a roll, he's usually splendid. A lot of thought goes into the adventures he writes, he prepares several hours before sessions, he loves what he is doing, he encourages creative choices. However...

1. He plays favourites

It's plain and simple. When he likes a character, the spotlight is solely on that one. It also happens when the players are particularly outgoing or vocal. The GM doesn't do this on purpose; he just gives this character an unholy amount of screentime and rewrites his campaign around the character. I understand being a cheerleader is sometimes necessary and I wholeheartedly endorse it; in fact, I think it's necessary to sometimes sit back and let character arcs play out. However, it is now usual that players (me among them) sit around for hours without having anything to contribute to the plot and being delegated to watching somebody else's story.

2. He plays favourites against his own judgement or comfort

In a current One Ring-Campaign, he's starting again to fall into this pattern. Two young characters clearly overestimated their chances and attacked a Troll (retreat is never an option for them), an encounter they wouldn't have survived if not for his intervention — he threw NPCs in the Troll's path, which the troll magically targeted. The adventure ended with the two of them being hailed as heroes. This is a pattern — he refuses to let characters die, rescues them with in-game methods and then lets them have all the in-game glory for misbehaving. There are never any consequences to killing NPCs willy-nilly, teleporting into the middle of an enemy army or insulting a noble in a setting that punishes lack of courtly manners with death. Quite the contrary. The GM is clearly frustrated by this behaviour in one particular player, but never does anything about it and devotes all the positive attention to him.

3. Oh, the rules-mongering

There is no point in getting acquainted with the rules, because he will rewrite them and set house-rules without getting the players' consent. In one five-year-campaign, he had three folders for just his house rules. Three! Not one of them was discussed with the players beforehand, and were just dumped on them. So much micromanaging.

4. When any of these problems are brought up privately and calmly, he dismisses them

Oftentimes, he even lashes out. When told about favouritism, he usually accuses the person of personal problems with whoever is currently favoured. When asked about his micromanaging and rules-lawyering, he will clamp down. He will just spam in-game reasons for some questionable decision until any complaint ceases.

As I said, it would all be so much easier if he was bad at his craft, but he is not. I will admit that I am really not the most diplomatic person around and I am probably still miffed that in one Fate campaign, I waited three years for the big reveal of a Fallen Angel on my characters shoulder, only to be treated at the end of a campaign as a two-minute-afterthought. (And spending one year in patient anticipation, while waiting around several hours in every session. You know, out of consideration. Hours and hours of preparation and private consulting with the GM, and it came to that.) This was two years ago, but it's my go-to example of what is wrong with this GM, and this pattern is coming back in style. When I brought it up, he complained about everybody and everything else (me being too patient, the other players not taking subtle hints, mysterious characters are a pain, etc.). But he never acknowledges fault. Other players have occasionally complained, only to be brushed off in a similar manner.

Short version: GM is great in general, but he refuses to let anybody die, plays favourites, rewards bad behaviour and dismisses any criticism to the point of lashing out. Any amount of diplomacy has failed. The only time he took it to heart was when a player passionately declared their frustration in an open WhatsApp discussion, after which things improved. That improvement is gone now.

Are there any in-game strategies to be recommended? Any ways to approach him, to reason or to express frustration, without outright leaving or sabotaging his carefully planned campaigns?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you talk to the other players about this? \$\endgroup\$ – Rob Rose Jul 2 '17 at 20:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ You ask about in-game strategies, but you haven't specified which game(s) you're playing. Could you clarify? Issues like the ethics of GM introducing house rules without prior discussion can also vary in nature depending on the game, since each carries its own culture and mandates. You have scenarios in here that differ oppositely in acceptability between, say, D&D vs Dungeon World. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jul 2 '17 at 23:48
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I am going to preface this with an observation: if you all have been gaming together for over five years, I assume that you are friends. You have a friendship, a relationship, with this person that goes beyond the table. If that assumption is false, and after five years of gaming together you aren't friends, then your frustration with GM "at table" style is sufficient to recommend the following: walk away0. This person will not change for you based on what some stranger on the internet (me) has to say2.

Otherwise, if your GM is your friend, read on ...

Four actionable items

But he isn't just a good GM when he's on a roll, he's usually splendid. A lot of thought goes into the adventures he writes, he prepares several hours before sessions, he loves what he is doing, he encourages creative choices.

Mostly fun. So far so good.

1. He plays favourites

You need to let the GM know that playing favorites is making the game less fun for the non-favorites. Do not sugar coat this, but be tactful. Arrange a non-verbal signal -- double wink, two twitches of the shoulders, something distinctive -- so that you can signal during play that you think it's happening again. GM will either act on that or won't, but at least you've offered a means to identify when "it's happening again."

2. Oh, the rules-mongering

This isn't over the line, unless the GM surprises you with house rules. If that's a habit, you need to spell out in clear terms, as above, how this damages fun. As long as the house rules are above board and known, a GM is well within the generic GM role to do this. It is important to present your distress with the in-character references: the characters would mostly know how the world works; it is only through the GM that you know what's new, and what's changed. To use a crude example: if gravity in our world only worked sometimes, the world would be a very a different place so we'd make different decisions.

3. When any of these problems are brought up privately and calmly, he dismisses them

Make a decision. This is on you. If on the balance, you have more fun than you don't, then suck it up and play on, have as much fun as you can. If on the balance this is a deal breaker, then you have to walk. Sometimes, the only thing that speaks to strong willed people is actions rather than words. (trust me here, I walk in those shoes, Type A personality) Make sure he knows (you all have been gaming together for a long time) that it is no longer fun for you. Then walk. See what happens. (And particularly pay attention to how the rest of the group reacts).

Are there any in-game strategies to be recommended?

The bulk of this is out of game interaction. Trying to solve this during the game creates a no-win situation for you, since you are not the GM, and if your response disrupts the flow of play, you may accrue negative responses from the other players.

4. Lastly: show by doing.

When you GM/DM for a session, make sure you do it right as you see it, and as you have described it. Between games explain why you do it differently.

GM's are human beings

GM's can be imperfect. Heck, most are. For the amount of money you are paying him, that's par for the course.

  • Are the shortcomings such that you are no longer having fun? Walk.

  • Can you live with them because there is still a lot of fun? Play.


1 To amplify on "walk away" slightly: it doesn't necessarily mean cut ties with the group, just declining to play that game. With board games, hanging out, or a game with a different group member as GM, no reason not to continue the relationship. (thanks to @fectin for the comment).

2 For a RL point of reference, the best advice I ever got before getting married was: don't assume she'll change. The same is true for friendships: don't presume someone will change for you. Offer advice? Yeah. Make suggestions? Yeah. Demand they change for you? Sometimes they will and sometimes they won't. They decide what they'll do, not you. That's how people are.

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Short version: GM is great in general, but he refuses to let anybody die, plays favourites, rewards bad behaviour and dismisses any criticism to the point of lashing out. Any amount of diplomacy has failed. The only time he took it to heart was when a player passionately declared their frustration in an open WhatsApp discussion, after which things improved. That improvement is gone now.

Politely walk away …

Bear with me and read till the end.

You tried talking to them, diplomacy has failed, and only extreme behaviour seemed to have helped for a little while. This looks like a lost cause. Life is way too short to do things you are not enjoying: find something else to do. Needless to say, you do not have to blame them for this. You can remain their friend and keep on seeing them socially and all that. But avoid games where they GM.

While talking to them about it, make sure you never blame them personally, just criticise their actions. That is tricky to do but possible. Sometimes it is better to not get dragged into specifics instances. Just explains your reasons and leave it at that. Then invite them for board games, to go to movies, or whatever you enjoy doing together outside of RPG.

Any ways to approach him, to reason or to express frustration, without outright leaving or sabotaging his carefully planned campaigns?

No, there are not.

All advise that works has already been exhausted. What is likely to happen if you stay is more frustration, anger, and resentment building into your friendship. This is why, against your own wishes, I advise you to leave. But leave without burning bridges. In the long run, this is the best way to save your friendship.1

It is possible that they will change in the future, people do learn from their mistakes. In that case revisit your decision.


1: This is not my first rodeo. I have seen this same thing played again and again for decades within RPG, work, and social interactions.

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While it's difficult to get a full understanding of this GM from a brief summary, it sounds like he likes to exercise a great deal of control over the games he runs. Sometimes a byproduct of this approach is an unconscious belief that the campaign is the GM's, and the players are there primarily in a supporting role.

The rules-mongering points to this, but I also wonder about the favoritism. In the past I would sometimes overcorrect for my own controlling style as a GM by bending over backwards to let player characters survive even when their players made foolish decisions. It was a way of convincing myself that I wasn't micromanaging the campaign, but in the end it was counter-productive and confusing for players.

It was only through exposure to other GMs (for a long time I was the primary GM in our group) that I moved out of control freak mode. Maybe your GM has been a player in many campaigns, but if he hasn't, it might be time to rotate him into a game run by someone else. Just seeing how other GMs run things might provide him some perspective.

If you can't get him to learn from other GMs (or if he's been a player plenty but just doesn't want to change his approach), taking a break from his campaign might serve as a wake up call. Find another GM and let your existing GM know you want to try out a different game for a while. It's completely reasonable, and taking a breather from his campaign will give you the opportunity to evaluate his style against that of another GM.

Sometimes the long-running GM tends to think of his game as the only one in town. If your GM recognizes that there are other options for you as a player, he may ask you why you want to check out another game, which could give you the opportunity to provide him some feedback at a time when he's actually open to hearing it.

Best of luck to you!

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Stage an Intervention.

I can't speak for anybody else, but from my perspective these seem like some pretty serious problems. Its obvious you've been struggling with this. The fact that you say "years" tells me it is an issue that has been a problem and will likely stay a problem unless something is done about it.

So, the solution would be to stage an intervention. If you do it well and do it right then there shouldn't be any need for outright leaving or sabotaging his campaigns. In the best possible outcome he realizes what he's been doing wrong and works to correct it. In the worst he storms off angry and will need a few days to cool down. If you decide to go through with the intervention then get your entire group together minus him and discuss amongst yourselves exactly what problems you all want to bring up and how to word it. Designate your most eloquent and charming member or the member closest to him to do most of the speaking and bring up the issues with the rest of you adding reassurances, confirming things, etc. Once you have everything worked out either invite him over or have everybody get together somewhere and once you are all present have your speaker tell him that you all have something to discuss with him. Make sure not to make him feel like you are calling him out, angry, accusatory or like you are villainizing him. Be gentle. Be kind. Tell him what he is doing right as well. Discuss solutions and offer to help if he starts to slip up again.

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