Bad Gamemasters I Have Known And Loved: The Workaholic GM – Part 1

From Scott G. Zaboem

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0234

A Brief Word From Johnn

XFN 1.1 Good For Gaming?

XFN (XHTML Friends Network) is a standard that lets you represent human relationships using hyperlinks. It’s commonly used in blogs, for example. However, its properties, imho, are useful for RPGs and NPC relationship design too. Check it out at: XFN 1.1 Relationships Meta Data Profile

Subscribers Increasing

Some trivia for you. Since the ezine began in November, 1999, the number of ezine readers has steadily increased. Currently, there are 13,493 ezine subscribers and an additional estimated 5,000 readers who peruse the online version at

Feedback on ezine features, ideas, layout, and so on are always welcome!


I’m keen on getting a G-Mail account for ezine testing and file transfers. I believe Google is still in the beta test stage for the service, but if anyone has an “in” for getting an account, I’d sure appreciate it if you dropped me note.

Be sure to get some gaming in this week!


Johnn Four,
[email protected]

Bad Gamemasters I Have Known And Loved: The Workaholic GM


Bad gamemasters are a problem, so we might as well stop denying it. Over the past ten years, I have probably read two dozen articles full of instructions for gamemasters with troublesome players. It’s one of the most common topics to be found in RPG Tips Weekly. In contrast, I have never seen an article that aids players who have troublesome gamemasters. My experience, however, has shown me that campaigns are more often wrecked by bad gamemasters than by bad players.

Good reasons exist why player-bashing is popular and gamemasters are rarely criticized. For one, most players are probably worried about expressing their opinions so that they don’t become labeled as bitter or immature, and there is a certain amount of legitimacy from this logic. Second, players often realize that their gamemaster’s job is a difficult one and are willing to cut the gamemaster considerable allowances. This slack given to gamemasters is a good thing but only in moderation. Third, most players simply don’t realize that there is anything they can do.

The problem with all three of these reasons is that they don’t allow the gamemaster any chance for improvement. When a chronic and substantial problem is disrupting the game, I think the gamemaster usually doesn’t realize that such a problem is being created. Other times, the gamemaster knows that something is wrong, but no one will tell her exactly what.

The point of this article is to help players identify, analyze, and aid a specific type gamemaster in trouble: the workaholic GM. There are actually many things players can do both in and out of game to assist such a GM, as discussed below.

Remember: every bad gamemaster is a good gamemaster with a few select bad habits.

Example Of A Workaholic GM

My present gamemaster is great. The Gamemistress, I will call her for now, is a solid story weaver. She handles small to medium-sized groups efficiently. She’s involved in each player character’s personal goals. She has a solid grasp of the rules. Best of all, her multi-layered conspiracies cause us to gather the morning after a session and trade theories until we drive ourselves bats with paranoia. Unfortunately, we can’t get her to run a game for us for more than two or three months at a time because she is highly prone to burnout.

In our last full campaign, the Gamemistress ran was handling extensive player to NPC storylines through e-mail between sessions, making detailed dungeon maps for her own use and meticulously shading each square of rock on her graph paper, and preparing countless NPCs in full PC detail.

As the campaign went on, experience was handed out less and less frequently. As a result, characters who accomplished goals during recent sessions were rewarded more generously than those who did well several sessions earlier. In addition, the Gamemistress began making excuses to end sessions early or cancel altogether. After that six month campaign, we allowed her a break for another six months while others took turns behind the shield. Her next attempt only lasted three sessions before she quit and left our characters forever trapped in a dungeon.

Analysis of the Workaholic GM

The workaholic is well-meaning and loves the game, but allows banal game preparation to take too much of her free time. If a gamemaster ever brags that she spent a certain number of hours preparing for the session, you may take this as a bad sign.

This type of gamemaster hasn’t learned to use her time efficiently. She may be spending way too much time doing simple things. She also is inclined to micromanage every aspect of the game. Micromanagement becomes a problem in a medium-sized or larger group. Likewise, running different campaigns simultaneously for different groups can accelerate burnout. If she tries to sidetrack the group with CCGs or movies, it’s time to intervene.

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Dealing with a Workaholic Gamemaster

Speak Up

If there is a workaholic GM in your group, the worst thing you can do is ignore the problem. First, speak with the gamemaster. It wouldn’t be rude at all to simply ask her, “Do you feel like you are about to burn out?”


Next, you should volunteer. In a previous article, I outlined several different ways that an assistant gamemaster can carry some of the proverbial burden (see “5 Ways To Harness Game Master Assistants” in Issue #144 or RPT#144 – 5 Ways To Harness Game Master Assistants ). Tasks as simple as keeping track of experience points for her can be a huge help. Another great way to help out is answering rules questions for new players.

If you don’t work well with newbies and wish to avoid responsibility, ask to be given charge over mood music, the map, or anything else that interests you. A gamemaster who is skilled in working with large groups will likely assign idle players the task of roleplaying minor NPCs, but an observant player may volunteer for the job without being asked. There are many other ways to take on gamemaster responsibilities, but these few are a good start.


The best way to help a workaholic gamemaster is a little tricky, and I don’t suggest this step be taken in every situation. A workaholic may need to be shown ways to run a game more efficiently. No gamemaster will ever think to ask, but if done politely, tips may be given nonetheless. I directed my gamemistress to the automated map creators at As far as I know, she never actually used them, so I probably wasn’t tactful enough.


As a last resort, try switching games. You could suggest that the gamemaster try running a game with simpler rules and a less epic setting for a while. Using myself as an example, I run the Star Wars RPG. The second edition with the old West End Game D6 rules is my personal standard game. I am willing to run other games, but I always come back to Star Wars. Most bad gamemasters are actually good gamemasters who are running the wrong game.

Unlike the player characters she terrorizes, the Workaholic Gamemaster will usually not improve with experience. Instead, she may become more of a workaholic and more prone to burnout. I myself was a workaholic gamemaster until I observed some very skilled gamemasters and saw how efficiently they ran their games. There is help for the worst workaholic.

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Commentary From Johnn

Thanks for writing about this sensitive issue Scott. I’ve definitely been guilty of over-planning and over-preparing as a GM, and I’ve also played under a workaholic GM. You made a good analysis of this ailment.

Some additional thoughts on the topic:

Perhaps the GM has lost her confidence? Confidence is an ever-changing thing, regardless of circumstance. Professional athletes, for example, who are the best in the world at what they do, can lose confidence for a number of reasons. A home-run hitter can enter a slump and a reliable goal scorer can hit a dry spell. So, even though the players all agree a GM is awesome, she might be feeling unconfident and so over-prepares.Have you heard of the 4th wall in stage and theatre? Campus Program Fourth Wall I believe there’s a 4th wall in RPGs.

It exists in the players’ minds as a suspension of disbelief. Some GMs’ greatly fear exposing the 4th wall in a game. They fear they’ll do something to break everyone’s sense of disbelief in a blunt, ungraceful way. This not only shatters everyone’s disbelief, but creates an uncomfortable and awkward social moment.For example, imagine if the game session is going well and the GM suddenly says, “Oh no! I didn’t plan for this. I don’t know what to do.” In many groups, that would be a shocker.

The players would be ripped right out of roleplaying mode and be facing a real-life uncomfortable moment.I believe this shattering of the 4th wall is a fear GMs have that’s akin to the fear of making a fool of yourself while public speaking. To compensate, GMs will over-prepare so that they’ll never get caught-off guard.

Perhaps your GM has lost her passion and enjoyment of the hobby? It’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem. Did the burn-out cause her enjoyment to wane? Or was she already losing interest and this scared her, so she over-prepared like a crazed doctor applying the paddles to a dead heart- attack victim? I personally went through this stage a few years ago. Fortunately, I tried some of the same solutions you mention and they helped a lot. I took a break, played different games, and played more than I GMed.

The pressure for realism is greater than ever before. As the RPG crowd ages and matures, and the quantity of material about GMing on the net proliferates, I feel there is a heavy pressure put on GMs today to “get things right.” Ironically, I think this pressure comes from writers and not from the players. ;)There is a lot of criticism in articles, books, and forums about dungeon ecologies, for example. People who write about dungeons these days expect a realistic ecosystem in dungeon design.

Long gone is the time when you could get away with a large dragon in a square chamber surrounded by square rooms filled with other creature types. How do these critters survive? Where do they get their water and food? Wouldn’t they just kill each other?GMs who read this good advice can fall prey to building up huge, self-made requirements to get things “right.” They read, collect books, and take too long in preparation. Now, their plans are so brittle that the PCs break things left and right too frequently for the GM’s comfort level.

One solution is trust. The GM needs to learn to trust the players. Players will almost always give a GM the benefit of the doubt. If an illogical thing occurs, players will just ignore it, rationalize it away, or ask the GM about it. Here’s the 4th wall again. How does a GM react when a player exposes a logic error, mistake, or problem? Again, most players will work with the GM and give him the benefit of the doubt. Everyone makes mistakes and players know GMs have got a lot to do.A GM who takes this situation badly though, will work even harder to make things more realistic for next session, which unfortunately, is the wrong approach, as per your article.

Tips Readers:

Do you have any tips to help workaholic GMs? Scott and I would be very interested in your comments and advice! Hit your reply button and let us know how you’ve helped a workaholic GM, whether that GM was a friend or yourself.


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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

World Building; History in the Making

From Michael Sinclair

Every world has its history. Just look at the very world that we live in today. Go to any country or region and you’ll find that it’s rich in history, from politics, to religions, to cultural influences.

In each region, the ‘locals’ have their own perspective on the events that occurred thousands, hundreds, and even just a few years ago. When they look at the history of other cultures, their perspective is still their own. What one individual, or region of individuals, reads into it is probably going to be different from those who actually experienced the events.

An example would be wars. A nation that is attacked and defeated will most likely write their history in an effort to victimize themselves –whether they were in fact the victim or not. The victorious nation will put down in their books that they were a valiant hero trodding down an evil government or whatnot. Just as the saying goes, one person’s trash may be another’s treasure. It’s all about perspective.

Keep this in mind when designing your world. It will give it more realism instead of simply laying out the history in one giant setting. History becomes quite convoluted through time. Perhaps such a twisting of tales could lead adventurers to discover what _really_ happened those thousands of years ago at the Palace of Vallamahal when the Prince was slain…

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Adventure Design; Random Forks of Fate

From Michael Sinclair

Most adventures have an intended goal with possible outcomes. The characters play along in the general story that the GM has pre-planned and will either meet that goal or not. If you as a GM have enough time before your next session and you’re planning a new adventure, why not try something new? Sit down with a blank package of index cards, and instead of coming up with a single setting, come up with several. On each index card, note a single event or action, but don’t be so specific so as to limit where or when it can be used.

During the game, as your players are working their way through the adventure, randomly draw a card at certain points. This can determine where they will end up next, but will not ultimately effect the intended goal(s). They already have little clue what will happen next, now they will have even less of an idea. As will you as the GM. You’ll know what _can_ happen, just not what _will_ happen.

The best part is, you can always use the cards again in another session and the players will never know what could have happened. They will be left wondering just where those forked fates could have led them!

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Mediation – Large Scale

From Yannick Jobinre

Tip #1 from Issue #0233

Concerning the “Mediation – large scale” campaign idea, I would recommend reading, “Shake hands with the Devil” from General Romeo Dallaire, leader of the peace mission in Rwanda, or any writings on United Nations peace missions. In the book I mentioned you can find all the little (and not so little) things that can make mediation fail…utterly.

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GM Split Parties Together

From Robert Eck

I want to add a simple tip to the #231 Issue about rogues and split parties. Last time I GMed, the players split up to enter the supposedly empty castle. One PC tried sneaking in with the other PCs following from a safe distance. At this point, I usually would have started to play with one group at a time. Instead, I simply let the players listen to the other group sneaking/fighting. They could have used the information they got from listening to the other group, but they at least acted as they hadn’t.

Almost immediately, one PC in the direct attack group got wounded and trailed behind the rest. I just played on. As things got more heated for all groups, I started to play shorter segments of time with each group to increase the drama. A few times I had the possibility to say things like “A man enters from the door to the left. He looks familiar… Now to you guys on the roof…”. It was a lot of fun.

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World Building; The Twisting of Time

From Michael Sinclair

If, when looking for realism in weaving the history of your world, you find the results to be sub-par, perhaps you should look to the help of others.

Since history is largely based on the observance of others, something you could try is getting people you know (whether they’re your actual players or not is up to you) to give their own version of historical events.

Simply put, hand out brief descriptions of major events that took place far back in the history of your world and ask those people you’ve spoken with to write up their own somewhat detailed account of what happened. You do the same as well.

What this does is give you different backgrounds on different events. Your cultures are now a bit more diverse than they were before — and it didn’t take you extra brain power to come up with multiple background information.