I've been GMing for 20 years and have recently started to question if I need a GM-makeover. We are still having fun but could the game be more fun if I shed some bad, and well ingrained habits? I cannot see the wood for the trees and am looking for suggestions that I can be wary of.

This cannot be system specific because our group only play free RPGs.

Please keep the answers for experienced GMs only. If your answer is also useful for Newbie GMs, then please put it in the Biggest GM pitfalls for new GMs question that this is aimed to be a counter point to.

(As many pitfalls per post as you like!)


7 Answers 7


A few things that are still true after role playing for longer than I care to count:

  • Whatever you have planned will take longer than you are planning for it. This applies recursively. The only thing you can do on this is to have patience. It shall take as long as it takes. Plan for it especially if you intend to have a long break.
  • Players get all information with the same face value: the critically plot relevant and what you just make up on the spot. Make sure that the critical information is re-enforced. This is the only way to deal with this. Otherwise, you can have an "idea" roll succeed and let a characters remember the information. That works if you have a brainy character but will lead some players to ignore notes since the GM will telly you the important stuff -- note on the latter, find better friend.
  • Good party cohesion is a function of the players, not something the GM can do anything about. Make sure the players decide why their characters get and stay together. Situations will not dictate that characters stay together. Ask yourself: Why would I stay and deal with $plot instead of going to $fun_place?
  • Atmosphere is created by the GM and destroyed by wise-arse players' jokes. Do I really need to expend this?...
  • All systems suck. Some suck less. All systems model reality badly. Some do it very badly. If you like systems, you are stuck with house rules, rule stupidities and unrealistic elements. If you run systemless, players and GM must know a lot about the world to be able to make snap calls. I favour the latter and make it work.
  • Run with the players' story whenever possible instead of telling your story. This is tricky. You have a story to tell (otherwise why are you running this game?) and the players are going to modify it. Go with it. Let the characters have a real impact on the game world, on NPCs, on events -- even if that means that your cool scene idea will not happen. Something cooler will happen. This does not mean changing your plot, just adapting it to your players' reactions.

And finally:

  • If you are not all having fun, you should not be doing it... 'nuff said.
  • \$\begingroup\$ I personally support the last two bullet points here. Whenever possible, players are the key and it needs to be fun. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 8, 2011 at 16:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ The second point seems more important the less you railroad. My 2nd level party just wasted several hours wandering into an area that was way over our heads because our GM offhandedly mentioned something unsettling was going on in a town in our "sandbox" campaign. \$\endgroup\$
    – dlras2
    Commented Dec 18, 2011 at 21:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ "Run with the players' story whenever possible instead of telling your story." Amen. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 19, 2012 at 5:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ I felt this was the most helpful answer and had some pointers I can take away - thank you! \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 11, 2012 at 12:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ @RobLang: You are most welcome. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 11, 2012 at 13:16

My own biggest pitfall has been assuming that because I'm experienced I know what I'm doing. Until my most recent campaign I was sticking with assumptions I made when I first started, just because they'd been working for me all along. In that last campaign I actually made a point of going back and breaking all those old rules that were set arbitrarily, just to see what would happen. Some things worked and some things didn't, but the game stayed fresh and kept me on my toes.


As requested in the comments, here's a list of what worked and what didn't:

  1. Ditching the GM screen. Turns out that when I used a screen I fudged dice to normalize them. This meant throwing out all those weird results, like when I roll 5 20s in a row, just because I thought the players would assume I was cheating. Now I can make weird die rolls and include them.
  2. Dungeons. I didn't like them before and I still don't. I run plot heavy games. Putting the players in a hole in the ground for several months means the plot goes on without them. At least now I know why I don't like dungeons instead of avoiding them for the heck of it.
  3. Iconic NPCs. When I first started gaming I read an example of a Middle Earth RPG in which Gandalf showed up and saved the PCs from trouble. I thought it was horribly contrived and decided to never use a setting NPC. In this game the players happened to wander into Shadowdale. I didn't know anything about the place and looked it up. Turns out that's where ELminster resides. It would be easy to say that he was off saving the world from some other threat, but I figured I'd try something new and included him in the game. It worked fantastically and I'd do it again in a heartbeat. This exemplified what I like about a campaign setting, which is that it's not up to me to choose what the PCs encounter. Some things just show up and you improvise around them.
  4. Travel. I usually keep games to a single city. I like building momentum with plots and NPCs and that's hard to do when the players are always leaving. Unlike the other new things I tried, I can't decide if travel was good or bad. I think it's something I'll use more, but carefully. Because the players were always on the move, they rarely got to return home. They felt like nothing was ever completed since they just kept wandering. If I do have the players travel they need a home base they can come back to between quests. I'd also want to find a way to forgo travel time so I can keep the plot moving back home without leaving the players behind.
  • \$\begingroup\$ What things worked? What things did not work? ... \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 8, 2011 at 15:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ In re travel: you might consider systems of gates for travel time nullification - this works well in both fantasy and certain forms of sci-fi... but travel time really can be a fun thing itself, if GM'd right. My last mini-campaign was almost exclusively a travel story. \$\endgroup\$
    – aramis
    Commented Dec 10, 2011 at 19:09

For me, the biggest pitfalls I've seen show up when you add a new player to an existing group of long-together players...

  • houseruleitis: Longstanding players of a single game in a single system often wind up with a long list of houserules and rules interpretations (which are functionally houserules, most of the time). Often, to the point of no longer playing the original game, but something very different.
  • Whadda-ya-mean that's a houserule??? longstanding interpretations, often needed ones due to flaws in the writing, are found to be errata items corrected in the other direction. Now becoming more rare due to ease of obtaining errata files.
  • Inside Jokes From Hell long-standing groups often have long-running inside jokes. As a GM, you need to simply not expect that everyone knows Xen Xanfried showing up is a bad thing except when the power is out...
  • Where is —X— when you need him? Lamenting the loss of certain players in session is a bad thing. I'm prone to it myself. It is especially obnoxious when —X— is not showing up because the rest of the group thinks –X– hogs their screen time and chased –X– off.

And the ones that just show up anytime

  • Insufficient or excessive Detail Players need a certain amount of detail for them to function well. Some need more than others. Some GM's get used to a certain level, but when player mix changes or players age, those levels may no longer fit well. Solution is just asking if the detail level is good or not every few sessions.
  • Excess Setting Effort It's all well and good to develop a setting. But remember: most players won't bother reading it, so don't expect them to know all your nifty details. Now, if, for example, you're running Hârnmaster for players who requested it, you can probably expect them to have skimmed the main rules, but don't expect them to know the details of Nasty, Brutish and Short... The solution is not to write excessive details, and to retain realistic expectations that players won't study for game.
  • Retribution Monsters and Grudge Monsters - long-time GM's often get hooked on predicting how their players will follow a given plot. And it's not uncommon for them to get annoyed when wrong, and try to drive players back onto their prepped plot with nasty monsters. This is usually bad form... and players usually see through it.
  • Rules Jumble GM's who have run a lot of different games often confuse rules from one game as being from another. In some cases this is good - the WFRP1E "flip the to-hit-roll digits to get the hit location" works exquisitely in WFRP2E, GW-JD, DH, RT, SM and BC, and not too bad in MRQ & MRQII. But it's not actually in the rules of all those games, but GM's might forget. The solution is simple: Really reread the rules before making the switch.


It always happens eventually, and is usually marked by me spending less and less time preparing for the game. Winging it once in a while is okay, but after a few sessions of that players definitely start to notice, and it's not like you've got top-notch winging it going on, since the whole reason you're doing it is you're feeling burned out in the first place.

I used to always trudge on anyway when it happened. Never ends well. Now I get pretty good at recognizing it's happening and either call a stop to the game or ask someone else to step in and run something for a few months.

The hard part is that it's difficult to get an old campaign started again once you've found renewed energy... or perhaps that it's hard to get renewed energy for the old campaign, as opposed to starting something fresh. But regardless, I still think it's good to end the campaign yourself when you feel GM fatigue setting in, rather than draw it out over the course of a few months and watch your players interest slowly die as well.

  • \$\begingroup\$ +1, We recently switched back to old school D&D after almost a decade of another system. I hadnt realized how much burnout/fatigue we all were feeling until I noticed the energy the players have now for the new campaign. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 9, 2011 at 20:01

Failure to manage GM and player expectations.

You players aren't engaged. Why? Maybe they're having a bad day. Maybe they don't want to be on a railroaded adventure. Maybe they wanted some element of their backstory to pop up. Maybe they expected a social skills-focused game and now they're murdering zombies in a fight for their lives. Maybe you flubbed a rule. Communicate. Ask questions. At the end of the session, ask what people think about the session, what they think will happen next, if they have any questions about something that happened in the game. Find out what they want out of the game. Change things as needed. Admit fault.


I suppose that the biggest pitfall is not listening players and do not let them play freely, pushing them for any reason.

Nice game can be born only when GM and players will be coordinate their affords.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I disagree. You have to push some player groups to get anything done! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 9, 2011 at 13:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ If GM "pushing somebody for something" it means that GM cannot awake their interest to scene/module/campaign. It is not good for GM - he really fail in this case. Yes, there is an option when players stuck during investigation and only then GM can slightly push them forward, but as i understand you do not speak about such situation. \$\endgroup\$
    – ravnur
    Commented Dec 9, 2011 at 21:20

Get to the fun, right away

Some games are very good at getting to the meat right away - they may have a team/mission dynamic, they may have a set scene structure/scene framing rules, or they might have a specific scene that starts every campaign.

When I move to more traditional games that don't have this, I forget that you actually WANT to get things rolling right off, and you find yourself with a slow session or two before direction happens.

If it's a party-based game, start them as a team. Put clear goals and mission goals right in front of them, right away. Don't waste time with people poking around trying to figure out what they should be doing. There's a reason movies/books try to get to the crux of the conflict early on.

Importing Other Game Habits

A lot of RPGs don't tell you how to structure a session, or a campaign. So it's really easy to become accustomed to taking ideas or methods that work for a different RPG and putting them into any other RPG you run.

Sometimes, that's great - it makes a game work better. Sometimes, though, it works directly against what the new game does. Take some time and think about what support this game needs BEFORE you run it, and make a conscious choice about what you're bringing in or not bringing in so you don't find yourself self-sabotaging the game unknowingly.


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