Three Dumb GM Habits I Need To Break

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1056

I have three dumb GMing habits I have to break.

I’ve even written about these before. But it’s good to have a reminder because they creep back into my games over time.

Maybe you have these habits too?

My Precious

I hold too much information back.

Imagine trekking across dangerous lands, delving into dark depths, and plundering tombs only to earn a minor clue in the story.

When I keep clues and plot-advancing details too close to my screen, the story inches forward. Instead, I want my stories to leap ahead in breathtaking moments.

My wrong thinking goes like this: “I can’t wait to see the expressions on my friends’ faces when this awesome twist finally gets revealed.”

The problem is, that twist will take several sessions. That’s many sessions without major plot reveals and advances.

I also fixate on the wrong kind of twists. I tend to build up puzzle twists and mystery twists.

But these always get spoiled as player’s muse on possibilities. That is, if my group hasn’t forgotten the key details and lost the plot because I’ve been too miserly with information.

Fantastic twists come from emergent gameplay. They shouldn’t be hoarded. Instead, we want to review our session logs and find cool ways to surprise players based on simple consequences to their actions and your milieu’s situations.

Would you rather have:

  • A twist you plan, carefully guard, and mete out over several sessions only to have it spoiled by player speculation or unsuccessful railroading?
  • A twist every session that comes from opportunities you spot while GMing or pondering last session?

For example, have a faction betray the PCs.

Last session the party was rude to the gate guards as they inspected the characters.

So you have one guard sell information gleaned during the inspection to a villain, rivals, or opposing faction.

When players learn why their foes knew so fast where they’re staying, have tactics and spells prepared to target specific characters, and create the perfect lure to the ambush site, they’ll no longer think you’re cheating.

Instead, they’ll throw their dice at you because of your cunning milieu.

Note to self:

  • Quit trying to make “perfect” twists and mysteries for future epic reveals and twist something from existing gameplay every session.
  • Stop hoarding information and reveal plot details as fast and furious as possible — rapid plot advancement makes for exciting storytelling.


Some published adventures give such convoluted backstories that I can’t keep the plot straight. They force four or five layers of developments just to set up the current situation.

My golden rule is to keep things simple on my end and let players make things complicated.

But no. I find myself writing longer backstories with numerous developments and twists and turns.

This just gives you more stress as you try to keep the story straight and gameplay consistent with history — a history not to be played out, therefore not worth a lot of time to develop.

For example, NPC A gets betrayed with NPC B so they ally with NPC C. But NPC C gets tangled with NPC D and the MacGuffin changes hands. Then NPC D betrays NPC E, who is connected to Character 1, and turns to NPC F for help. This is the lead-in to the story.

That just broke my brain.

Instead, I need to keep it simple.

NPC E needs help from a PC to get something back from NPC D.


Then let gameplay create the grey areas, nuances, twists and turns ala emergent gameplay we just talked about.

Note to self:

  • Keep things simple. Stick to single and straightforward sentences to describe  plots and backgrounds.
  • Use gameplay, fog of war, and player decisions to make life complicated for the PCs.

You Learn More by Listening

In last night’s session I found myself talking a lot. I must have a nice voice because I sure do like hearing it. 🙂

We’ve talked about descriptions in past Roleplaying Tips. (For example, Beat the Uncanny Valley with A Deft Detail, Kill Boxed Text – Dynamic Descriptions Made Easy, and Being A Devil With The Details.)

Players need to know what’s happening, immediate dangers, and interesting options.

However, they don’t need to hear me wax on about minor details, nor make constant wise cracks, nor have NPCs talk so much.

When players talk, especially amongst themselves, I get many benefits:

  • Learn about their intentions
  • Get inspired by their ideas
  • Glean their motivations
  • Get a few moments to regroup
  • Deeper player engagement

My job is to queue up situations with just enough context to let players take the ball and run with it.

Note to self:

  • I learn more by listening. Keep descriptions concise.
  • Treat the ball like a hot potato and toss it back to players as fast as possible

Three habits I need to break for better gaming.

Keep it simple, listen more, and let plot developments come faster by not hoarding information.

How about you? What’s a bad GM habit would you like to break?