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I have recently found myself at a convention, playing a one-time game, with a GM who had a lot of good intentions, but was new, and struggling. She was saying things like: "you walk into the forest, and you see a rock. Do you want to inspect the rock?" nudge nudge. The main problems were serious lack of any kind of details, very little room for interaction between characters, and heavy railroading, made more obvious by the other problems.

I'm sure you can imagine the situation: bored players reaching for their phones, the GM getting nervous and flustered, and the one player for whom this was a first role-playing experience not getting a good experience at all. (The GM did her best to involve this new player, that part she was actually doing very well, but still...)

I stayed afterwards to give the GM some feedback, (she asked for feedback, and I made sure not to do it in front of everyone,) but I was left wondering: is there anything useful I could have done during the game, to make it a better experience for everyone?

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This answer is written from a slightly different angle, but I think the advice works out to roughly the same. I also just realized the question is system agnostic; my answer is strictly from a D&D perspective as that's what I have experience in.

I DM'd for a group of four friends a couple weeks ago. I have roughly 90 hours of DMing under my belt, so I'm green but not brand new, and three of the friends have never touched D&D or anything like it in their lives. I specifically tapped a forth friend who's played with me before to be in this game and help guide the other players. Here's what I asked her to do to keep the game on track.

Draw attention where it's needed

The biggest worry I had going in was that my players, inexperienced as they were to the concept of a tabletop RPG, wouldn't pick up on any of the context clues you or I might otherwise notice. I couldn't trust this group to know that skulls around a cave entrance meant "here (probably) lies a big scary monster", or that yelling insults at an NPC wouldn't make them want to help you out.

I told the player to be vocal about picking up on and extrapolating from things I described. She could draw attention places my DMing couldn't spell out without making things too obvious.

In the context of your game, I'd show this behavior by playing with and expanding on the (very blatant) clues your DM was throwing in your face. Clearly she was concerned you would miss out on important story elements and didn't feel comfortable enough in her own skills to improvise around them. Totally fine, and pretty normal for a first time. By making it obvious to your group and to her that you were paying attention to her clues, over the course of a session she might feel less compelled to shove them down your throat.

Model good behavior

Like any group of video-game-playing nerds, my players were all a bit used to being the most important person in any given scene. I asked my friend to model good character behavior. She was polite to NPCs, told me what she wanted to do in great detail rather than just yelling "I go kill everything!", and made it a point to interact with the other characters.

They picked up on her cues, probably more or less subconsciously, and within a half hour of starting the game I had a moderately well behaved group on my hands instead of a screeching pile of monkeys.

In your case, this is your moment to shine. Become the leader of the group and model good behavior, partially for the other players (although they may not need it) and mostly for your DM. She may not have understood how much DMing is a give-and-take with your players; you may set the stage, but it's their job to act on it.

I generally would never argue for the pushy or rude approach, but it might not be out of line to gently interrupt her to say something like "Hang on, I just want to ask Bob about this" or "Wait before we keep moving, can I pull Alice aside?" The idea is to make it clear that you are enjoying the roleplay aspect of the game and want more of it, and that it's okay for her to step back occasionally and let the table do what it will.

Give me feedback

As a DM I often find myself separated from my players by a barrier of knowledge. I've planned this room or forest or conversation out in my head and I know what the point is, but my players don't. Sometimes I focus too much on the details I think are important and forget to elaborate on something my players find more interesting.

I told my friend to ask questions and get involved in the narrative. This kind of goes hand in hand with the previous section because the end goal is the same, but the method is a bit different. I wanted her to show the other players that they have a hand in my story telling, and that they can help shape the world.

Part of player agency and what makes D&D so compelling is that although your DM has ultimate decision making power over a game, the players can also help change and influence what's happening. She was good about calling out things she needed to see in the environment "there's probably a tree nearby, right? I'm going to climb it" and showing the other players where the line is between just enough and too much "We're in the middle of a thick, unsettled, un-roaded forest Susan, do you really think there's going to be a horse and carriage passing by?"

Your DM hasn't yet understood how this power shift is intended to work, and was possibly too focused on spinning the entire narrative herself. It can't hurt to gently push back against this by challenging her descriptions if they don't make sense or are too constricting, or asking for more detail if you need it.

Intent over action

I ask my players "Why?" a lot. Like, a lot. I homebrew a lot of my own content and I'm always down for Rule of Cool if my players can justify themselves. My experienced player knows this about me, and so I asked her to model the ideal behavior for the others.

Where they would tell me things like "I'm climbing the tree" she knew to give me something like "I want to get up in that tree so I can leap down on the guy as he walks by." There's a subtle difference there that nevertheless makes all the difference for me; she tells me why she wants to do something, which helps me tailor my reactions.

As I mentioned before being a DM can be kind of isolating, and it's difficult to keep track of what every player is doing if you're new and not used to the mental gymnastics. That little verbal change from "I am" to "I want to" can be the difference between me misunderstanding the epic shot you're composing in your head.

In your case your DM was probably overwhelmed and afraid of letting any of you do too much off script in case you broke her carefully plotted story. By letting her know what your intentions are your motions go from a complete black-out mystery to puzzle pieces she can start fitting together into a narrative both of you are working towards.

In conclusion

I think giving her feedback in private after the session was a great call. As for what you can do during the session, I would focus on telegraphing your moves and becoming a model player. Playing any tabletop RPG is a social contract between people, and like any social contract it helps if your behavior is friendly and predictable so the other party knows what to do with you.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for asking the why question \$\endgroup\$ – FrancisJohn Jun 29 '18 at 3:55
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Ask open ended questions

you walk into the forest, and you see a rock. Do you want to inspect the rock?

  • Why do we notice this particular rock? How is it different from all the other rocks?
  • I stand well back and look at the rock - what does it look like?
  • Can you give me some more detail? Is the rock a pebble or a boulder?
  • OK, I'll get back to the rock - what else can I see in this forest? Are we talking jungle or temperate rain forest or Australian bushland or Californian redwoods here?
  • Are we on a road or path here or are we going cross-country?
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You're on a Railroad

The main problems were serious lack of any kind of details, very little room for interaction between characters, and heavy railroading, made more obvious by the other problems.

It sounds like the core problem here is railroading, which led to the other problems. New GMs often become concerned that if the session doesn't go as they expect it to, they won't be able to manage it. This fear leads to an over-emphasis on making sure players "find" the appropriate clues and don't spend too much time talking amongst themselves and making choices that will derail the planned outcome.

New GMs are also often wary of talking about the game during the game, fearing that will break immersion and open them up to criticism at a time when they feel most vulnerable.

Ask How the Group is Doing

One approach I've taken with new GMs is to flip the problem and ask the GM how the player group is doing. For example, if there are lots of "hint, hint" situations, it's OK to ask the GM, "It seems like we're not doing enough investigating of our surroundings. Should we be doing more of that throughout the adventure?"

As a younger and far less experienced GM I was always nervous when players would start riffing in character with each other. They were likely to go off my carefully-constructed rails. One way to allay this fear is to agree with the other players (in the presence of the GM) that intraparty interaction is necessary to advance the story, but also to agree that the intent of that interaction is to make the game more interesting, not to derail it. Just coming to that understanding (especially in a convention setting) can calm down an inexperienced GM.

The larger issue of railroading is likely too difficult to tackle during the session, because the GM has already set up the adventure on rails and being asked to loosen it up would likely make her even more flustered. But within the frame you've been given, asking for feedback on player activity and calming her regarding intraparty interaction may help.

Share Your Player's Thoughts

Finally, one approach that works with GMs of any stripe is articulating what your characters are thinking. I actively encourage this as a GM, and I do it as a player, too. "Norbert figures the goblins probably went to a hideout somewhere in the Foggy Thicket." This is above and beyond player-to-player communication, and if you and the other players employ the technique, it will give the GM advance notice of what your player group may do next. The more notice you can give the GM, the easier you make her job, and hopefully the less stressed she'll be. Also, when she knows what the characters are thinking, she (hopefully) won't have to use so many obvious nudges to move the story forward, because she'll be able to come up with alternate routes to keep things moving.

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It's an interesting question with a lot of potential depth, but the number one thing to do here is exactly what you did: Provide feedback afterwards. Having a bad experience GM:ing is OK and can help you to be a better GM, but only if you can ventilate what happened with someone. You gave her that opportunity and it will probably help her a lot in the future.

But the question was about what you can do during gameplay.

The following are all things that I have done at one point or another. You can do these yourself, but getting one or more players in on it helps.

Provide direct feedback

First, flash a carrot whenever the GM does something you enjoy. If there is something the GM provides more or better detail for, say that you liked it as soon as possible. To stop risking the game turning into a GM discussion you should state your actions directly after that. Let's say, for instance, that the GM describes a room in a bit more detail. You could go:

"Nice description. I like that. Anyway, I start going through the dresser since there is where I would have hidden the book."

Be transparent

The above sentence also serves to tell the GM how your character thinks. This is also important. Try to narrate the thought process of your character a bit; make yourself more transparent. Voice the motivation of your actions whenever practical. And naturally, don't overdo it.

Ask for more information

Whenever there is detail lacking, ask the GM to provide it. Help the GM to flesh things out if they're having problems with it.

"You arrive at a castle. There are two guards outside. Do you want to try and get in?"

The first thing to do here is to ask for more information. If the GM has a hard time coming up with descriptions or doesn't know what to include, ask more specific questions and provide options. Is the castle large or small? Is there a moat and a drawbridge? Are the gates open to allow for traffic or closed to prevent entry? Are the guards stopping people from entering or are they there to provide security in case of an incident?

The options let the GM know what kind of information you're after. This is key to getting good descriptions.

Ask for motivation

GM: "Do you want to inspect the rock?"

P1: "I'm not really interested in plain rocks. Is there something special that draws my eye to this rock?"

What makes railroading bad for me is when things are dictated for my character without any good reason. If the GM points out something that's out of the ordinary I get the hint and investigate it, but if the GM just decides I investigate something it feels forced. Pointing out something that grabs my attention and giving me a reason for why I find it interesting gives me the feeling of choice, even though I know that it's a plot device.

You can encourage your GM to give you reasons for why the things should be investigated by asking for the motivation behind it and telling them that it's not normally something you would investigate. When the GM starts getting into the habit of providing a reason, the adventure begins to feel a bit less railroaded.

Ask for certain scenes

In a campaign, we were stranded on an island. Our GM wanted to streamline things and fast-forward to the point where we were rescued. Normally this might have been a good move, but there were a lot of things in motion in the group at the moment and we basically stopped him and told him that we needed to RP a bit between ourselves on the island to work through some of the stuff that had just happened.

If you feel that there is a need for interaction between the PCs or there is some other scene you want to do, don't be afraid to tell the GM. As exampled by the situation in our game, this holds true no matter the experience of the GM and it can really help a new GM to learn what kind of scenes to throw in.

Hijack the session

You can be a bit aggressive and basically hijack the action for a little bit if needed. Perhaps you've just finished up a fight, the GM tells you a note found on one of the bodies points you to a certain location and that you go there.

GM: "You're at the entrance of the dungeon. Cale is held prisoner in there and you need to free him."

P1: "Hey Linda, I thought you said you were a bad rider. We made it here pretty fast though."

P2: "I never said I was bad at it, I just said I didn't like it. You see, when I was younger..."

You can also rewind the action a bit:

GM: "You're at the entrance of the dungeon. Cale is held prisoner in there and you need to free him."

P1: "On one of our breaks on the way I take Linda aside. Hey Linda, you look a fair bit grumpier than usual. Is there something going on?"

P2: "It's really nothing, don't worry about it. It's just all this riding that's getting to me. You see, when I was younger..."

The last examples might not be so much asking for scenes as simple doing them anyway, but as long as it's handled well it shouldn't be a problem. It can be a great way to engage a bored player and let them have some screentime.

And while all examples here have been interaction between players, you can just as easily force a scene anywhere.

GM: "The street urchin gives you a map with the location of the dungeon you need to go to. You're at the entrance of the dungeon. Cale is held prisoner in there and you need to free him."

P1: "Before we leave the city I visit a blacksmith. I need to purchase new arrowheads. Do you guys wanna come with me or do you have other stuff you need to do? If you do, we could meet up at..."

Now you've given the other players some free time to do things they want to do. It might not always work well, but it is at least something to help fend off the boredom.

And yes, this can all go horribly wrong if the GM feels like they've been ousted. Make sure you don't do it too often, make sure it's not too blatant and make sure the GM is still in charge of what happens.

In case of emergency; push the red button

Should all else fail and noone seems to be enjoying themselves there are basically two things to do:

  1. Endure it. If it's just a one-time game you can all have a coffee afterwards and talk about how awful it was. It's actually good to be bored once in a while to have something to remind you of how awesome your other sessions are.

  2. Stop the action and tell the GM that this isn't working. Tell them why, tell them how it can be helped, tell them it's OK to not be perfect and tell them that not all GM styles work with all player styles. Discuss how to continue and what you can do to help the GM.

In truth, most of the time I go for option 1 which is the safe way, but option 2 can be a great opportunity for the GM to grow and learn.


Not all sessions and GMs can be saved, but even a trainwreck of a game can be used to help the next one. I've had sessions, both as GM and player, where we've stopped playing because people weren't enjoying themselves. The key to everything, no matter how it turns out, is constructive criticism. No blaming, no pointing fingers. A GM that's struggling and not making it needs help and support. Yes, the flaws need to be pointed out, but always - no matter how bad the GM - encourage and support and never act like you're better.

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