What to do with a bad GM

If there was nothing else to recommend about organized play, do it just to experience gaming with different GMs. If you’re lucky you’ll get an awesome one like Andy who DM’d my PHB3 Game Day game, and if you’re unlucky you’ll get some GMs like I experienced two weekends ago at PAX East. I have to say our regular DM (Sarah Darkmagic) has spoiled us to the point that at first I was incapable of comprehending a bad DM. Eventually I realized that I was dealing with a bad DM and for the sake of my precious time and the fun of D&D, I tried a few things to deal with it. Below I’m going to present the bad behaviors of the first DM I encountered in the Dark Sun game I played in. I want to state that the DM was not a bad guy, he was a pretty decent fellow. Also I have to give props to him for volunteering his time to run a game for strangers. Secondly, I don’t know this personm so I don’t know what else was going on in his life, the amount of sleep he got the night before, sugar levels, etc. Also he did not exhibit the bad behaviors all the time, and I am sure they were due to oversight, inexperience, or adherence to an incompatible gaming philosophy from mine. That said, the following may be experienced by any player from time to time:

  1. Unpreparedness. It may be hard to blame the DM for this one (for all I know he was handed the adventure 3 minutes before we started), but it’s hard to get into a game when the first 20 minutes are spent waiting for the DM to read the module. Granted this was better than if he just made stuff up because we wanted to experience this specific adventure. But, it’s too bad that we missed out on a few cool features of Athas because he probably missed it in the cursory glance. Also I felt like there should have been “Loading…” screens between encounters while we waited for him to buffer the adventure into his brain. This scenario is something I wouldn’t expect in a home game, unless the GM comes with a fresh module to run.For this situation I think I did the right thing by showing the DM patience. There’s not much a player can do with a specific adventure without know how it is supposed to go. In a non-organized play situation any player can take charge and start some action. This will create something for the GM to respond to, and if she is sharp, bring the other players in as well. While the ensuing action may not be right for the module, it’s always good to get things going and the GM can bring the story back on track later. If it’s later on in a session, any player can call a break for 5-10 minutes to give the GM time to read over the scenario while the rest of the players plan their moves or get some snacks. She’ll probably appreciate the extra time. In my game bag, I always keep a few small games and movies as well; sometimes the group just needs an extra week to prepare and that’s okay as long as you all still have fun.
  2. Unfamiliarity with the rules. I have been playing D&D for over 20 years and I can’t come close to understanding the rules. At least once a week I get a rule wrong (and there aren’t that many in 4e). Because of the of constant debating of rules I am quite confident about about certain ones that come up often with our group and we have successfully resolved. Things like line of sight, grappling, charging, dazed, and stunned. I have a lot of sympathy to the GM who has to adjudicate rules, and I don’t mind even if they rule wrong as long as I get a fair hearing. What I don’t like is a GM who gets the rule wrong and won’t even consider it. It’s one thing to hear arguments and rule quickly so the game can continue, but another to just say “No” without listening or glancing at the PHB open to the appropriate section.When this happened I let it go rather than fight. This situation wouldn’t come up in my regular group, but if I had a DM that would game with again, I would accept the ruling at the time and bring it up after the game in a calm conversation with the evidence to back up my interpretation. If the DM still refused to listen, I’d politely demand their reasoning, and if unsatisfactory (“because I said so”, “I don’t want to go back on a ruling”, etc) and I’d look for a new game. I understand not everyone has the luxury to find a new game, so I’m curious how people might deal with an unlistening DM and keep gaming with him or her?
  3. Lack of Enthusiasm. Everyone’s got his own degree of comfort acting around the table, especially with strangers (but who are D&D’ers to judge each other?), but no matter how mechanical and dice-rolly the group might be, if one player wants to role play, the DM should encourage it. Not only was this DM not encouraging but he himself wasn’t that into it. Image in your most monotone voice: “The crowd goes wild, roaring with excitement. Gazal shouts ‘Release the creature, and die for the glory of King Kalak!’” Yeah it was like that.If I were giving advice to DMs, I’d tell them to fake the enthusiasm for the benefit of the group. In this session I didn’t want to call out the DM for not playing it up, so I faked my own enthusiasm. I have to admit that I was pretty tired and without the encouragement of the DM I wasn’t able to sustain it, but at least I tried. I also tired to encourage the other players with their role playing, by responding their actions in character and supporting their characters’ decisions. Not everyone can bring it every week, and so when you have the energy, players should step up and take on the mantle of their characters.
  4. Adversarial role.  I don’t know if it’s age or experience, but I definitely felt the DM had a little adversarial relationship with us. It wasn’t anything explicit like overpowered monsters, just more a glee when someone took damage or frustration when we were doing well. The latest hotness in DMing is the “Philosophy of Yes” where the DM encourages the players to be creative. For example during the skill challenges when suggesting using a skill he said “explain to me how you use it” and instead of working with it or accepting it and using a high DC, he said “no, you can’t do that.” Also despite what it said in the module, he did not let us some skills multiple times (see next item).There wasn’t much I was able to do to counter this without getting confrontational, so I just kept guessing until I found an avenue that worked for the DM. As for the combats, he wasn’t out get us so much as “make us earn it” and so were able to slog through to eventual victory. I don’t have any good advice for players here other than talking to the DM outside of the game and discussing how to make the games smoother, and chipping in to buy him a copy of the DMG 2. I’m interested to hear your advice on this matter.
  5. Letting the story drag. Primarily around the skill challenges, it felt like were playing 20 questions, and he was content to sit there for 10-20 minutes while we racked our brains and character sheets instead of suggesting what options were available. A great DM will use even bad suggestions by latching on to them as clues to your thought processes and turning them around to guide you.What we can do as players is try our best to work within the GM’s framework to drive the story on. When that doesn’t work, using increasingly direct questions to illicit the next steps. Start with general investigation “What else can you tell me about the NPC? Is there anything useful in reach? Do you think Nature might be applicable here?”  then move on to, “we’re all out of the obvious options, what else might our characters consider?” all the way up to “it seems we’re stuck, what have we as players missed that our characters might know about this situation to help us move forward?” And if that doesn’t work, call a break and have a heart-to-heart.

I don’t want to end this with a list of all the things that GM did wrong. There were a things he did that impressed me:

  1. Preparedness. Although he didn’t read the adventure, our DM did come equipped with appropriate minis, pencils, books, at least a cursory familiarity with Dark Sun, and DMing experience. The combats themselves moved as quickly as the dice allowed and they were certainly interesting and fun.
  2. Let us try things. Even though he made it difficult and rejected a whole bunch of ideas, he was at least receptive to letting us suggest what we wanted to try. Also he did give some freedom in the chase scene and helped us figure out how to catch up with the bad guys.
  3. Friendliness. The guy was good-natured and overall worked well bringing a group of strangers together. I certainly appreciate his time and willingness to DM.

I think I’ll leave it there and talk about some of the other DMs I encountered another time. Anyone have some interesting stories about convention DMs (good or bad)?


15 thoughts on “What to do with a bad GM

  1. Hi Mike,

    I feel your pain – it seems, when we have a good DM, that the game is amazing! Then, when we unsuspectingly (is that a word?) get a bad DM, it really shines a light on the things that can go wrong.

    I find it interesting that the DM hadn’t read the module, but did have the right minis and could run the combats very quickly. Sounds to me like his style is combat oriented and so he really gets into the battle aspects and can run those and recall details and powers very well, but is not as interested in the role-playing aspect, and so is lackluster in that realm. What a shame!

    I think the biggest killer for me is a lack of enthusiasm in my DM (and players, since I am usually the DM). For me, one of the great things about the game is that people can come up with creative and interesting solutions to problems, and the system is flexible enough to allow the attempt of pretty much any crazy plan! When the DM or players aren’t interested in that, well, the game loses something for me.

    I usually run long-term campaigns and am not as familiar with convention style sessions, but here is what I suggest to counter some of the things you mention:

    1) Preparedness: There really is no balm for this one in a one-shot environment. In an ongoing game, the best thing to do is to decide to not have the game that week, wait until next week when everyone is fresh and able to contribute, and the DM has had time to prep. In a one-shot situation, you really only have two choices: a) decide to excuse yourself from the game and miss out on playing that night, or b) make the best of the DMs non-preparation.

    How do you accomplish b? Don’t sigh loudly when he has to search the booklet, yet again, to find the answer to your question. Be as patient as possible when he is determining something you think he should have known. And most of all, don’t let his lack of preparation ruin your fun – sometimes its a mindset.

    2) Unfamiliarity with the rules: Since this is a one-shot, just let it go. That is the best advice I can give. Anyone that doesn’t know the rules and then makes bad decisions based on lack of knowledge aren’t worth playing with again, but you are already playing this session, so let it go. It will lessen your stress and yo are more likely to salvage some fun.

    In an ongoing campaign this would be unacceptable. You need a DM that will listen to your reasoning and be willing to look things up when there is a rules question. Now, the DM may make a ruling and look it up later, only to find out they made the wrong call, but that’s okay as long as the DM is willing to come back and discuss it at the beginning of the next session, admit they were wrong, and go over how the rule reads and how it will be played from now on. I’ve fallen victim to this a couple of times in the past two years, and I know my players respect that I listen to them and then discuss it later.

    3) Lack of Enthusiasm: Sounds like you did the only thing you could – do your best to keep your own enthusiasm high. That is about all you can do here as well. This is similar to #1 in terms of what I would do in my long standing game (i.e. postpone till next week), but in a one-shot, all you can do is try to have fun. The best thing to do is get the other players enthusiastic and interact with them as much as possible – the DM that doesn’t role-play can cause a dead-zone at the table – don’t let that happen.

    4) Adversarial role: Seems like this goes with that DM’s love of battle. It appears that he sees the game as a competition between your PCs and his Monsters (or NPCs). This makes him seem like he is out to get your PCs and wants to “win” at all costs. The best way to think about this is to disbelieve it. In many sports competitions it’s all about the mental psych-out that some players hope to use against the other side – it becomes an advantage by making the opposing players lose confidence and falter. If he approaches all games this way, that may give you the impression that the DM is out to get you. Just don’t believe it. If he is the nice guy you say he seemed to be, then he is just in ‘game-mode’ or competition-mode’ if you prefer – that means he is going to try and psych you out so that you don’t perform as well – its a mental tactic and nothing more. Just don’t let it get to you and don’t think of it as adversarial and it will remove the sting of it.

    Now, if your regular DM is like this and it doesn’t fit your gaming style, then it may be time to get a new DM. [note: I mean this as the general you, I’m speaking to everyone, not just to you about Sarah Darkmagic]

    5) Story Drag: This happens in many sessions at various times, even long-standing campaigns. Unfortunately it sounds like you got a DM that wasn’t enthusiastic enough to run a proper skill challenge in this particular event. The only remedy for this is to start talking fast. What does that mean? Well, when someone talks fast about a stressful situation it gives the indication that time is a factor and “we better do something and make things happen, and quick!” Its a psychological technique and it works in some circumstances. Given this DM’s apparent apathetic attitude to non-combat situations, you may need to try and jump-start his attitude about skill challenges – they are, after all, supposed to be high stress situations that take finesse and skill, but not completing something with combat powers shouldn’t make it boring – it should be fast and furious action. The players should have to describe what they are doing, in detail, and quickly. You can run this in combat round style where each players describes the PC’s action in detail, for every six second round.

    There is a huge difference between
    A) saying “I climb the fence” and then “I rolled an 18 on my skill check.”
    B) “Lothar runs up to the gate and leaps at it, trying to grab onto the top bar and pull himself up. He struggles but gets a handhold and a foothold, trying to climb the rest of the way!” spoken quickly and excitedly.

    Also, when you fail a skill check, describe the action quickly and in a breathless manner, as though it is a real loss – that may get the DM’s blood pumping and he may want to pay attention to the action again.

    Well, I think this is long enough – in fact, I may just go post it to my own blog. Can I link back to your original post so that my readers can get a look at to what I am responding?


  2. Oh man, I’ve had my bad share of con DMs.

    The worst sin to me is the adversarial position…it sucks when the person who is supposed to arbitrate things is nerfing whatever you try and then cackling when his monsters get criticals. I find that uber-irritating. I feel like I am just there to get beat on, in which case I really don’t want to play that game.

    I’m willing to forgive a lot of the other stuff if the GM can keep the game moving and flowing, is enthusiastic and attempts to keep things fun for everyone. Don’t know the adventure? Fine. Con GMs get addventures shoved in front of them all the time. Missing some rules? Fine. But don’t read the adventure for twenty minutes and then make a big huff because I chatted with another player for a minute during combat. And definitely don’t get out of sorts if someone who knows the rules decently well points out kindly where the rule is messed up.

    Am I speaking from experience here? Yes….My worst con experiences are when GMs are running through the motions and expect leniency for their failings while simultaneously offering none on the part of the players. A real drag.

    I didn’t get to play at PAX though, just run.

  3. Needing time to get up to speed on a module is understandable. I ran the DS preview on Sunday, had it for over 24 hours and still had a bit of trouble remembering things to run it right (kept forgetting to roll for spikes), Felt I could run it better, though I don’t think that’s a problem of itself.

    As far as enthusiasm, I’ve gotten the impression from some of the local regulars a events are still clinging to 3.5. On several occations, I’ve felt a disdain for 4e. This isn’t a huge problem until you get to things like skill challenges. I had one DM, make us roll the skill challenge, and then roleplay the investigation that was through the SC. But I wouldn’t be suprised if there are DM’s there who’s rather be running pathfinder.

  4. Pingback: Response to: What to Do With a Bad GM « DM Samuel's RPG Musings

  5. @DM Samuel,
    Good points, I hadn’t really considered how the apparent discontinuity in preparation plus well run combats probably means that he is just combat-oriented. I understand too that some DMs like to do lots and lots of preparation that he probably did not. I mean its great that he enough time to look at the combats and grab minis for everybody. I had to borrow most all my stuff off Tracy last minute, so that’s forgivable. For me it was the combination of all those things that really set me off.

    I am going to have to try using urgency the next time I’m at a skill challenge in that situation. I used description and pantomime, but I was pretty prosaic since the whole game was running slow.

    It certainly looked like your table had a great time (yours too Dan C). It’s because I know there are great organized play DMs out there (I’ve seen plenty in the short time I’ve been doing them) that makes me (a) bummed getting the short stick and (b) know that as players we can challenge a lackluster DM to do better…I think anyone who voluntarily participates in this hobby has the potential.

    @Dan C,
    Oh shoot about the spikes. I think I forgot those a whole bunch of times too 😦 There was a lot going on, but I wish he hadn’t forgotten the things that gave the party bonuses or were Dark Sun specific. That’s a good point about 3.5 v 4e. However 4e’s on its third year, so we’ve had time to adjust. I don’t know what this guy’s regular game is though. I didn’t get disdain so much as carelessness.

  6. Hi, Mike. First, thanks for the ego stroke. I’m truly glad I rate in the “awesome” DM zone and not the “bad” DM zone. (Bad DM! Very bad!)

    As I’m sure you noticed, I’m a big believer that three things make for a great public D&D experience: enthusiasm, flexibility, and pacing.

    1. Enthusiasm: Nothing kills a game deader, public or private, than a DM lacking enthusiasm. If you can’t get excited that you’re telling what you hope is a great story, then you might want to sit this one out. I try to give the PCs fun descriptions of the monsters’ attacks, react and pantomime monsters taking wounds, make humorous comments now and then, and keep the energy flowing. I think this really is the cardinal crime of bad DMs. Yes, maybe something happened to a DM, or they’re burnt out, or sick, or exhausted. But it really isn’t that hard to turn up the volume just a bit, even if you can’t quite crank it to 11.

    2. Flexibility: If I wanted a situation with limited choices, I could be playing a video-game. Kudos to Sarah Darkmagic for letting me use Diplomacy to rally the arena crowd, even though it wasn’t part of the module. And when our side of the arena was having trouble with the nasty lizard-things, some of the folks from the other side of the wall vaulted up it and came to our aid. And she helped it happen. When people come up with clever strategies that make sense, then say yes and give them a chance to go for it. When they come up with ideas that DON’T make sense, give them a chance. Hey, let them try and fail. But at least let them try. Creativity on behalf of DMs and players is what makes this not a novel, or a computer game, or even a board game.

    3. Pacing: I tend to speak more quickly during fights and slower during descriptions. It’s always good to move things along. Not only do you not want to run out of time, but you want to keep energy high (enthusiasm, y’know?) If you let the story bog down or drag, then you’ll lose your players.

    – Andy

    • Thanks guys! I might not have a lot of confidence in some areas, but I try to run a good game for my players. Flexibility is one of the most important talents for a DM, particularly a new one. It’s impossible to guess all the ways in which your players are going to interact with your story. Sometimes, you just need to change what you want to tell to accommodate what they want to.

      @Aethanbear, I loved your diplomacy idea and the spikes threw an interesting element in. In my home game, I try to give the players as many chances as possible to come up with an interesting solution to a problem and act it out. I might not always succeed but at least I try. Now I just need to work on my description and projection a bit more.

  7. I’m playing in my first D&D game that my boyfriend is running for me (hoping to turn me into a full-fledged gamer, I’m sure, lol), but since this is my first game, I have no experience with other DMs. I’ve heard that my boyfriend is really good–I know people have actually requested him to run games before–so I don’t know what other DMs do or what bad DM would even look like.

    But no roleplaying? Okay, granted, *I* don’t do a lot of roleplaying (I’m of the bashful variety), but my boyfriend does a ton of it, and it really breathes life into the game. So I can’t imagine a DM not doing it.

    Hm. That just made me realize how much I do like that aspect of it. Perhaps I’m making it more boring for my man by being too scared to roleplay? Do DMs prefer that their players do that? I’d drink to loosen up during the games, but, uh, we sometimes start at 10 or 11 AM, lol.

    Anyway, any advice for new players? Any do’s and don’ts? Granted, my DM might be my boytoy, but I still want to make things enjoyable for him as a DM as well.

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  9. @Spring,

    I think any DM will prefer their party members to role play; it shows that you’re engaged and interested and rewards and encourages their work. In addition you’ll get more out of it. Of course how much role playing you do and how over top and LARP-like you get will a matter of your own and group’s preference. I think a good medium is to find a level that you’re comfortable with and then challenge yourself one step further.

    I wouldn’t worry about making the game boring for your boyfriend. I’m sure just playing is great for him, and it’s good that you are spending time together on a fun hobby.

    Having a little “social lubricant” is not a bad thing, regardless of the time, however you want to make sure you don’t drink so much that it inhibits your ability to focus on the game or annoys your game-mates. In addition, you’ll want to follow all your local laws and make sure you have a safe way of getting home.

    There’s not much advice I have for new players other than to go out there an play. Despite what some trolls say on forums, there’s no “wrong way” to play D&D. The only rule that’s resolute is “have fun.” The one thing you may want to watch out for as a player is making sure you respect the other players and make sure everyone gets enough time and opportunities to participate. This is a challenge sometimes when the DM is a s.o. of one of the players. And don’t withhold nookie for XP.

  10. lol “Don’t withhold nookie for XP.” Yeah, that would never happen.

    Thanks for the response. I will try to roleplay a bit more. I need to get over the bashfulness, anyway. But I guess it would help to try to get over it in front of my boyfriend before moving onto settings with other people…although I might just take my boyfriend’s suggestion of playing a cleric that has taken a vow of silence to get out of it!

  11. Pingback: More on Bad GMs : When it goes on too long « Mike's D&D Blog

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