Four Common Pitfalls for New GMs

From Kit Reshawn

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0369

A Brief Word From Johnn

Welcome to New E-Zine Sponsor Turn Watcher

I’d like to offer a warm welcome to a new sponsor, Turn Watcher, which is an initiative and effect tracker application created by Made To Order Software. The program is easy to use and can help a lot with things like managing initiative during hectic battles, tracking spell and ability effects, performing sense checks, managing hit points, and more.

The software is available for Windows and Linux. Hit their website for screenshots, information, and a free demo.

Help support this e-zine by checking out TurnWatcher for yourself. It could save you a lot of combat management hassles.

Preparing a Great Game in Less Than 30 Minutes

The following blog post has a few good tips in it for cutting down on prep time. My favourite tips from it were starting with a map, and picking a theme to infuse encounters with during the session.

Start A Campaign – Part 4: How to prepare a great game in less than 30 minutes

Have a game-full week.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

Four Common Pitfalls for New GMs

Although this article is aimed at people who want to get into GMing, the tips are something any GM should keep in mind. I have seen experienced GMs make these mistakes as well, it just happens to be more common in people who are just starting out.

Everything I touch on in here has really happened. In each of these instances the gaming group either fell apart, or nearly did.

That is the reason I am writing this, because that is what is at stake. These four pitfalls have the potential to ruin a gaming group. Hopefully the tips will point out some of what I consider to be the worst errors a GM can make and help you to either avoid ever doing them, or start changing your ways if you spot a particular flaw in yourself.

Pitfall 1: Cooler Than Thou Syndrome

One thing that commonly happens is GMs will have a pet NPC or two, even if it’s just a character they feel particularly attached to. Some GMs I know even consider it their avatar inside the game world.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but problems start when two factors are in place:

  1. The NPC travels with the PCs, or otherwise is around them a lot when they are doing PC stuff.
  2. The NPC is more powerful than the PCs – perhaps more powerful than the whole party.

The problem is pretty obvious, yet you would be surprised how often it happens. A campaign should be focused on the PCs and put them in the spotlight. Having an NPC follow the party around is fine, and often useful (he makes a good plot hook, or can provide some safety net for the party), but when the NPC is powerful then he starts to steal the spotlight.

A GM rarely intends to steal the spotlight from his players, but whenever the two factors I have mentioned are in place, it will inevitably happen before long. It happens even more easily because GMs are only human, and there is always some wish to make the NPCs we like very cool. That is fine, until you continually rub the coolness into your players’ faces.

Keep NPCs more powerful than the PCs from spending too much time with the party. A good litmus test is determining if it is reasonable for a person of the NPC’s power level to deal with the problems the PCs face. If the tasks are trivial compared to an NPC’s skills, then he will probably choose to find something more worthy of his talents.

Pitfall 2: Let Each Player Shine

This is a common mistake among new GMs, but is easy to fix. The problem is someone gets left out of the action for the campaign, and ends up feeling useless. Ultimately, this will cause you to lose that player if it goes on for long enough.

Think of how a player would feel if they decided to play a thief, only to later run through a campaign where there is never a need for stealth or their ability to detect/disable traps, or pick locks. What about the mage who finds that every foe has magic and elemental resistances? Picture the fighter who finds himself in the middle of a political campaign where there is nothing to fight or kill. In each case the player starts to feel useless.

One of the best remedies is to give your players an idea of what to expect from a campaign or quest before they generate their characters. If you plan on running something with a lot of combat, then tell them, but also tell them what you do not expect to have a lot of. When players know they are going up against magic resistant foes, they will be less likely to take that mage, and will instead opt for something else.

A second fix is to design a way for every character to shine. Have a fighter in a political setting get involved in a duel of honor. Combat intensive campaign with a thief? Let the rogue sneak into the enemy camp and slip them some poison. Magic resistant monsters with a mage? Put in a quest where the mage finds out the trick to the magic resistance so he can get around it.

Your goal should be to let every PC shine in some way at least once a session. You will not be able to meet that goal every single time, but it is a worthy thing to strive for. The people playing in your world are doing so because they want to actually do something, not sit around and watch everyone else all session.

Pitfall 3: The Clue Bat

One thing new GMs often have problems with is how to give out hints to players, and how much of a hint is required. It is a balancing act. Too much of a hint, or too many too often, and you are railroading your players along the path you want to take.

By the same token, sometimes you have dropped a problem into the laps of your players that they might honestly not know how to handle (perhaps they are tired that day, or might lack the background for it). In that case, if you don’t help them then frustration sets in, which is just as bad.

This is especially difficult with new players. For a new person, roleplaying is hard. Coming up with new ideas on cool ways around a problem or acting in character is actually a chore until they get comfortable with it.

How much help should you give your players? Experienced players might just need a single small clue to jumpstart their imagination. Less experienced players will need more complete clues to get their mind into the flow of things.

It is best to err on the conservative side. Give a small clue and see how they do with that. The point of a problem is for the players solve it, so you want them to do as much of it on their own as possible. You can always give out additional information, but it is impossible to take it back again. If you do need to give out more than one clue, however, try to give them to different players. This encourages roleplaying.

You should also reward innovative ideas your players come up with. For example, if my PCs are trying to infiltrate a castle and they come up with a neat idea I did not think of, usually I just rule that it will work. After all, I was not prepared for it, so why would the castle staff be? This is fun, because it encourages you to come up with more details for how your baddies will protect themselves, which in turn will encourage your players to get even more creative.

Pitfall 4: Player Character Death

It is going to happen. One of the PCs in the party will take a lethal hit. The baddie will roll well. Critical hit, maximum damage, down goes the character because of bad luck. What are you going to do?

This is a difficult problem. If you keep saving the PCs, they stop feeling the tension of potential death. Then, when someone does die, they feel cheated. There are also those freak instances where a player will get unlucky and bite the dust without so much as a chance to defend themselves.

What do you do? Well, I have a couple personal guidelines for this grey area, but it is something a GM needs to work out for themselves. I will list my own views on the subject because, hopefully, that will help you determine yours.

I have rarely killed a PC when combat is not involved. Players do not like to see their characters die from the same random events that commonly kill people in the real world. How angry would you be if your mage got flattened by a runaway cart because he failed a reflex save? For random things (and usually even traps) the penalty for failure should rarely be death, but rather damage or some other penalty.

Combat has its own problems. This is especially true of fragile characters. For instance, in D&D, any first level character can be killed with a single hit if the enemy gets a lucky dice roll. How do you deal with that?

The way that I deal with this is simple, but requires a balancing act. I fudge if it looks like a PC is going down too quickly. I have decided no PC should die in the first one or two rounds of combat. This is enough time for them to mount a defense, but nothing more. I make sure mages don’t sling instant death spells early on and I reduce damage from lucky hits the baddies may get. After the first round or two, the players are on their own and their fate rests in the dice rolls.

This does leave the special case of what happens when the bad guys are rolling well and the players are rolling poorly (especially if it is a fight the PCs should be able to handle without trouble). Some GMs will power down the bad guys if this starts to happen, and that is one valid approach if you feel you miscalculated (I have done this). Other GMs will say that it is the PCs’ tough luck and they should retreat if they want to live. That is fine too.

Whatever you decide, be consistent. If you keep a player from dying when something bad happens you should act the same way in any future situation that is the same. Otherwise, there will be hard feelings. You shouldn’t fight at every turn to keep your PCs alive, but letting them die too easily is just as bad.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have some GM advice you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Stranger Than Fiction

From Mike Bourke, Australia

I’m sure everyone has heard the expression “Truth is stranger than fiction.” Many years ago, that saying inspired me to devise a new source of material to help me bring the everyday lives of my PCs (as a player) and campaigns (as a referee) to life. It takes a lot of prep work – years, in fact – but it’s work that a lot of people do anyway.

The Daily Diary

You need a pen and a diary – or better yet, several years of diaries – or even the 21st century equivalent, a blog. In that diary, each day, you note down what you do in generic terms. For the first week, note down your daily routine – the things you do every week.

After that, only record anything unusual that happened, that you did, or that you spent, together with the number of days since the previous entry. This enables you to use every space in the diary. The diary then becomes a template for the life of the characters when suitably reinterpreted. I also like to connect related events with an arrow.

Here is what a set of entries might look like:

  • 1 – luggage broke
  • 1 – ordered pizza & popcorn
  • 2 – bought replacement luggage (linked to “luggage broke”)
  • 1 – dinner with friends – paid 3x usual
  • 1 – watched sporting event, paid phone bill
  • 2 – unusual religious event (fell asleep in front of TV, woke to tele-evangelist)
  • 1 – bought new DVD as gift
  • 2 – tried exotic food (Indian) – too spicy for my tastes
  • 3 – birthday party, gave DVD (linked to “bought DVD”)
  • 3 – water main burst, soaking carpet
  • 1 – cleaned up flood damage, got quote for replacement carpet (linked to “water main burst”)
  • 1 – lodged insurance claim (linked to “cleaned up flood damage”)

Mostly pretty boring and mundane, right? In a more normal diary, the birthday party and burst water main would probably get a mention, while the dinner with friends might or might not. Everything else simply isn’t normally worth noting. I would also add in any unusual distances travelled (either more or less than the usual), any illness or minor ailment, etc.

After you have at least 6 months of notes (the more the better) the fun begins: reinterpreting these items into the social context of the game you happen to be playing.

As a referee, for example, “luggage broke” means some vital but ordinary component of the PCs’ lives breaks down irreparably. It might be a saddle, or perhaps rats have gotten at a saddle bag, or a cloak, or whatever. Look over what they are carrying and use your imagination.

Then look at the consequences – it might be enough to delay their travel plans, they might try to fix it themselves, or perhaps the leather maker/woodworker/craftsman has gone fishing and it will not be until the four days later that they will be able to take possession of a replacement and get back to whatever they were doing. Explaining this delay could be anything from the trivial to a complete mini- scenario.

Using the Diary – Referees

Because these reinterpretations always vary with the circumstances of the PCs, the campaign setting, and by whatever idea presents itself at the time, the diaries can be reused, time after time after time. The one-minute investment of time each day has a massive payoff in the long term.

For example, something breaks and it takes 4 days to fix or replace. That something could be any manner of things – it might not even belong to the PCs, so long as they are delayed repairing it. This calls for 2 different acts of interpretation and roleplay: the breakage, and the reason it takes so long to repair it.

A bridge might collapse. The PCs could probably throw together a replacement in 2 or 3 hours, or even simply ford the stream, but one of the customs of the land is that whoever encounters such a problem has to ensure the replacement is at least as good as the original was when new. When the work is complete, they can then petition the throne for recompense. This interpretation tells the PCs something new about the campaign setting (that the referee would not have otherwise conceived of).

It also has all manner of implications concerning the quality of workmanship of public utilities and the like. What are the odds this problem is discovered by a carpenter, or by someone who can afford to hire a carpenter? The result is most bridges and other works would be poorly constructed. That means the optimum trade routes would continually be shifting around, and the fastest route to a destination would continually be changing. This leads the characters to new places, requiring them to stop periodically and ask the locals about what’s changed on the road between here and their next staging point.

As this example shows, you can get as much, or as little, out of an event as you want. At the least, the day-to-day lives of the characters will come to life instead of simply being glossed over. To some extent, you need to be guided by your players’ preferences in this sort of thing; some will not want to roleplay every little thing and will want to skip to the “interesting stuff”, so bear that in mind.

Using The Diary – Players

It can be harder work using this material for a character of your own, because you can only take advantage of the opportunities and the pacing the referee permits. You have to throw hooks for roleplaying these daily events out to the referee and hope that he bites – “fishing” for roleplay.

For example, you might announce, “My character is tired of eating the same thing day after day and is on the lookout for something a little more unusual as lunchtime approaches.” It’s then up to the referee to come up with the details of what, if anything, you find, and how much time is spent focusing on the quest for lunch.

Don’t be surprised if the referee doesn’t take the bait. First, he has to have some idea of what you’re doing and why (show him this article), and second, he can’t afford to let one player or one PC become the centre of attention for too long, or the others will grow bored and frustrated.

If this is something you want to get into, the best way is to get all of the PCs involved. Make this a jumping-off point for group roleplaying. In a typical D&D group, for example, starting an in-character discussion of favorite foods, or of standard cuisine, or of ogrish cooking (they always use too much pepper) might provide an interesting diversion.

This can be a benefit for the referee as well. The result is a period of time spent gaming that requires little or no forethought and preparation on his part, leaving him free to devote attention to polishing the transition from such mundane concerns to bigger picture events.

At first, there will probably be a sharp discontinuity between the two, but as the referee grows more used to the situation, he will begin to ‘seed’ his segues into the mundane events.

When he wants to raise awareness of some social change that’s occurring, he doesn’t have to put the players on alert with a blunt “You enter the town of [name] and immediately notice….” With important details appearing during seemingly unimportant, player-initiated activities, the players will also learn to be a little more alert to what’s going on around them, resulting in a better roleplaying experience for all concerned.

Too Many Diaries

It’s easy for this sort of thing to go too far, slowing progress to a crawl. Consider a group with 6 players and 1 referee. If they all have daily diaries, based on the example given, there will be an average of 6 events a day.

This approach works best when only one person is providing the ‘spark’, though that might put the other players out since the spark’s PC will get the bulk of the attention unless they are good at involving others in their scenes.

The solution is to prioritize things. The GM’s diary takes precedence, but if there is nothing especially interesting, illuminating, or inspiring in the events listed for the day, he can then turn to the players. Using a rotating roster ensures each gets a turn at being the first alternative considered.

I hand out playing cards, one to each player, in descending order – Ace, King, Queen, and so on, all of the same suit. When each card is handed back because I have considered an event from their diary, it gets replaced with the next highest card of the next suit.

When this approach is adopted, the number of diaries becomes an asset, not a liability. Each party member is now contributing equally to the campaign and helping bring it to life, and each gets his turn at being the center of attention. The referee now has several ideas for everyday events to draw from, and is able to pick and choose which best suits the campaign situation.


Everyday life can be one of the hardest things for a GM to convey to his party. There is a natural tendency to want to skip over whatever is unimportant. Do this too much, though, and your players will quickly learn to pay close attention to everything, because it is always important, eventually.

The alternative is to play everything, which slows progress to a crawl. What’s more, referees often have trouble generating the mundane day-to-day events because they are focused on the big picture. It is easy to slip into a situation where the GM becomes uninspired and repetitive – describe the terrain, describe the weather, describe anything of interest, and repeat, for day after day after day.

Real life, as captured in a diary, contains enough improbability and coincidence that it is easier to find something fresh. And remember, at the time these things happen to the characters, they are just as consuming of their attention as the plot to overthrow the king or defeat the monster or whatever.

Which sounds more appealing:

“You have been travelling for a couple of hours when you hear a moan from the bushes beside the road,”


“You’ve been travelling for a couple of hours, delayed by the strap on one of the pack horses whose buckle has failed. Every hour or so, you have to stop to re-tie the makeshift repairs you have made or the horse’s load will spill out all over the road. You have just stopped to re-tie the strap for the umpteenth time, and are looking forward to getting a replacement bridle at the next town. As you knot the soft leather, you hear a moaning sound from the bushes alongside the road….”

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Reminder – Give PCs Meaningful Choices

From Angie Leach


Your #366 issue, Notes to the GM, was great. Could I take the liberty of suggesting a couple that I feel are also relevant?

You might not agree with me, but as a player I resent the GM “directing” me along a particular route, and it’s something I refuse to do in my campaigns.

I have roleplayed in campaigns where the GM had obviously got a route-map of the whole thing written out in advance, even including the ending, and we players were pushed along the course of it as though we were on rails, robbed of all feeling of free will, being blocked whenever we tried to do something that didn’t “fit in”.

I have also roleplayed when the campaign was predestined to end in a certain way (basically with our characters dead) and there was, we found out afterwards, no way our characters could have done anything that would have altered things, although we were being led to believe that we could.

That, to me, is dishonest and it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. It’s almost as though the GM has got to win.

I also think a GM should be consistent with rulings, and not alter things from one decision to the next. It’s confusing to have a GM apply a rule one way, and then the next time the same rule is used it’s interpreted differently, with no prior warning and just the comment “you don’t argue with the GM.”

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Borrow Ideas From Movies

From Darryl

I know this has been mentioned before, but getting ideas from movies is an easy way to get ideas for a game. My library has many movies you can borrow and I just viewed Silent Hill (never played the game) and loved the monsters in it.

In my game, an evil artifact that looks like a three-foot-long bird claw is being hunted by my PCs before the evil god’s servants find it.

How can I blend the “burnt children” from the movie and the evil claw together? On an island ruled by orcs, the leader has the artifact and lives in a large mound. I now make the mound an old lava vent with a cave left underground. The orc leader has a hole punched into the cave floor (uses a large log hung from the ceiling) exposing molten lava. He uses a wooden pole to attract baby fire elements to the surface and grabs them with the evil claw. Then he dips them into a shallow pool of water that the orcs made, forming a shell over them.

Now, bring in PCs and set the fire elements onto them. The baby elements, who look like “leather covered children,” are sent running to the PCs trying to find their parent and only hurt you if they knock you down. They don’t radiate good or evil. If you damage one you expose the lava body and take fire or heat damage along with your weapon. Killing the creatures or fleeing them works, but I would reward PCs who get any back into the lava pool.

Two other creatures I plan to use are the armless acid spitters and the dead, mangled janitor who sends the odd effects down the restroom walls. The janitor is changed to a creature that can send tentacles at the PCs. If it touches them, it can drain something from them. Ideas I’m considering are hit points or magic points for casting.

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Use 3D Props

From R. Douglas Barbieri

I used one of your suggestions to go 3D and it was a hit. I had my PCs up against a huge city wall, with my baddies throwing spells and such from above, and through the gate below, fire giants walked out and pummeled them. It inspired one of my players to start doing it in every game he ran after that. What a difference!

Check out a couple of pics of my friend’s board: