Friday, May 6, 2016

How to deal with a Problem GM

In my time as an RPG player I have read countless articles on how to deal with problem players, how to be a better player etc. While I have found many of these article to be incredibly useful, I don't recall ever seeing an article on how to deal with a problem game master. I get this, after all the number of players willing to take on the role of game master is fairly small and most gamers are pretty happy to simply have a game to play in. The problem is that there are bad game masters and a lot of players don't know what to do about the problem. While I am not all knowing and have my share of bad game mastering habits, this article (and likely a couple follow up ones) is my attempt to help people dealing with a problem GM navigate a fairly intimidating situation.

Because of the rather subjective experience of player and game master interaction, it is rather hard to say "this is what makes a bad GM". Instead of going that route I am going to list a few types of "bad GM's" discuss why they are a problem and offer suggestions on how to deal with them. Keep in mind I am not all knowing. While I have been playing RPG's since the age of nine, I do not know everything there is to know about every game ever played. If I miss something feel free to let  me know.

Mr. Entitled,
Mr. Entitled is the GM who thinks just because he is the GM everyone should kiss his butt and thank him for taking the time to run a game. This person generally acts like everyone at the table owes him something simply because he is there and willing to run a game. This kind of GM will insist the players bring him food, drinks, etc. and if you don't he will punish you in some way ranging from in game harm to threatening to kick you out of the game. Mr. Entitled will also do things like insist you show up on time or you won't be allowed to play or get angry when you miss a game. The biggest problem with this guy is that he is often one of the few Game Masters in town and knows it. This has led him to believe that he is needed more than the players are and his attitude shows it.

My first suggestion on how to improve things with Mr. Entitled is explain how you feel. This might backfire and make him mad, but at the same time there is a chance he will hear what you are saying. In my experience Mr. Entitled types genuinely want to run a good game and are not above hearing out a player. While talking things out with your GM is always a good idea, try to approach the subject in as friendly a way as possible. Mr. Entitled often feels like you owe him something so when you want to contradict this idea he can be a bit put off.

The biggest issue with Mr. Entitled is that he is generally the only GM you know. When this is the case, the best way to solve the situation is to find another GM to play with. Hang out at a game store for a bit, meet other player's and you will likely meet other GM's who will be happy to invite you into their game. This is likely going to make Mr. Entitled a bit grumpy but it will also let him know he is not the only act in town. This might not solve the problem with him but it will give you another option and sometimes that is the best option.

Mr. Winner,
Mr. Winner is the GM who thinks that the game is a competition between himself and the players. This guy seems to have entirely missed the concept that the game is  intended to be a cooperative experience and wants to turn it into a competition. Generally this kind of GM wants to prove that they are the smartest person at the table and will go to some extreme lengths to prove it. He will often omit important information on purpose, add abilities and hit points to monsters, and other similar things that are designed to give him the edge. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Mr. Winner is that he will do all this under the guise of providing "challenging content" which is a bunch of BS because most games are already balanced to be challenging without the GM having to make them tougher.

Mr. Winner is a tough nut to crack when you want to see a change in the game. This guy doesn't look at the players and fellow contributors but rather as adversaries. For this reason he will often turn the conversation into an argument which he can "win". This of course means that getting him to hear your complaint will be a bit of a waste of time.

Instead of trying to get Mr. Winner to see your point of view I would suggest asking him to help you be a better player. While Mr. Winner wants to win, he also loves showing off his mastery of the rules. By asking him to help you be a better player you are talking to him in a language he can understand. While this might not improve the situation greatly it will give you a look into how he thinks and this can be useful. I wish I had better advice for this guy, if one of you reading this has a good idea, please let me know.

Mr. Power Trip,
Mr. Power Trip is a lot like Mr. Winner only worse. This guy doesn't even pretend to be providing you with an appropriate challenge. He is the master of his world and you are simple pawns in his game. Mr. Power trip is the guy who throws a ten hit die invulnerable demon at a first level party and laughs as he kills every character. He isn't a lot of fun to play with because you seldom achieve much with your character.

When it comes to dealing with Mr. Power Trip I honestly don't have a lot of advice. This kind of person tends to enjoy the power of game mastering to much to ever let it go and is normally quite resistant to change. The best way to handle him is to either grin and bear it while you focus on enjoying character creation or to simply quit his game. You can try talking to him and explain that you feel his encounters are to overwhelming. If he does listen he is still probably going to power trip in other ways but at least the encounters become a bit more fair.

Mr. Awesome,
Mr. Awesome is the GM who always has an NPC that is five thousand times as cool as any of your characters. In a game run by Mr. Awesome you will spend a lot of time watching his NPC's do cool things and encountering his past characters who achieved world shattering things. Mr. Awesome will often treat the other characters like side kicks while regaling you with tales of his NPC's. It won't matter how good your character is, his NPC will always be better.

The thing with Mr. Awesome is that a lot of times he simply wants to be able to play the game too. While the previously mentioned types of GM relish the role of Game Mastering, Mr. Awesome would generally rather be a player. A lot of the times his NPC's are characters he wants to run in games but he doesn't have anyone to run games for him.

My suggestion for dealing with Mr. Awesome is to find a time to talk with him one on one. Don't tell him that his characters are bad, but do tell him you often feel over shadowed by his NPC's and would like a chance for your character to shine. In my experience if you approach Mr. Awesome tactfully and without accusation he is willing to change things a bit. Maybe he will drop his NPC out of the group or maybe he will find a way to make sure everyone gets some spotlight.

Another thing I would suggest for Mr. Awesome is to run a game for him or find a game he can play in. a lot of times this will help Mr. Awesome feel a bit less like he has to run his characters as NPC's and instead give him a chance to actually play. While I can't speak for every Mr. Awesome out there, I do know that being given an opportunity to play helped me out.

Mr. Attached,
Mr. Attached is the GM who significant other in the game as well. While most of the time this isn't a problem there are times when Mr. Attached can show some incredible favoritism toward his significant other. When this happens the significant other genreally has the best character, the best gear, a more intimate knowledge of how the game world works, and other benefits everyone else is denied.

The biggest problem you will have with trying to talk to Mr. Attached is that you are asking them to detach their feelings for someone very important to them. This is not easy for anyone even under the best of circumstances and for Mr. Attached it might be even harder. A lot of times Mr. Attached is afraid that if he doesn't show favoritism his significant other will not like the game or get mad at him. While it doesn't help make the game better for you, it can also be hard to approach the subject in the first place.

I really don't know what to suggest someone do in this situation. While I am generally about talking things out in a gaming group this particular situation can be kind of tricky to navigate. Mr. Attached is probably going to be defensive of his significant other and anything that sounds like an insult to her is not going to be met well. If you do decide to talk about the problem do so in as mellow a way as possible. Make sure it is understood that your not asking him to pick a side nor are you asking him to punish his significant other. Instead do your best to explain what you would like to see different. Instead of focusing on the favrotism, focus more on how to make your character on par with Mrs. attached. Again this is a tricky situation and not one I would want to navigate.

Final Thoughts:
While there are plenty of other types of problem GM's, this article has gone on for long enough now. I will likely do a follow up article or two and perhaps spend some time really digging into each kind of problem GM. For now though I hope this has helped both player's and GM's understand the various kind of game masters players can find frustrating.

If you have a particular problem GM you would like to see discussed or have an experience you would like to share, please sound off in the comments either here on the blog or on my Facebook post. If you think I am wrong or just plain stupid, feel free to let me know that too.


  1. I worry constantly that I have these traits. It would be a great relief to me if my players ever came to me with these issues so we could resolve them. I think any DM worth his salt feels the same way. Everyone has to have a reason to come to the table.

    1. I agree with you whole heartedly I GM and feel the same way it would make me feel so bad if someone thought I was one one these and didn't just tell me

  2. I hear you and I think I will have to offer a GM's perspective in a future article. I just want to see the game get better and a lot of times GM's may not even be aware they are doing these things... thanks for the comment!

  3. I have been guilty as a young man of Mr Awesome but as I have got older I am more inclined to stay in the background. I still have a set of characters to choose from and I usually pick one to to make up for party shortfalls, if there is no rogue or no healer for example but they never make decisions unless the players are truly stumped and I tend to make them a few levels lower than the players or employees of the players.
    Other bad GM's I have come across is the perpetually unprepared and disorganised/distracted GM and the drunk GM who is great for the first hour or two but then it all just falls apart. I don't drink and dice anymore at all.

    1. thank you for your input. I think a lot of us go through the Mr. Awesome phase and it's understandable. Like I said in the article a lot of time we want to play as well and this can get a bit carried away. The good thing is that most of the time Mr. Awesome will chill this out when they discover it is a problem.

      I will be doing a follow up on this article and yes, Unprepared and Distracted will be in there... Drunk might make the third instalment.

      again thanks for the comment and thanks for reading the article!

  4. When starting a group talk about having a rotating GM position run one campaign break, new GM pick new characters and repeat. People Will surprise themselves and turn out to be really good GM's. Plus you get to experiment with different characters.

    1. I might have to write an article about that because it is something I have heard a lot. thank you for reading and commentingon the article!

  5. Great article. Fine ideas for approaching certain types, and excellent insight into common DMing tendencies that can reduce player enjoyment. I have had varying degrees of success in overcoming a couple of these tendencies in my own DMing.

    Unsolicited advice: You may not want to use Mr. in front of your DM archeypes, as there are plenty of female DMs, too, and I am sure they are equally fallible. You could use The Entitled, The Winner, etc., or some other modifier.

    1. Thank you for commenting. Part of why I wrote it is that I hope DM's will read it and recognize themselves in it.

      as far a the unsolicited advice, you are not the first person to mention it and going forward I will be making sure I don't sound so sexist. It was a lapse back into an old habit from the days when you were supposed to use masculine pronouns...

      Again thanks for the comment and glad you liked the article!

  6. Nice overview and yes I think you could go on for another few pages.
    Think all DM/GM's go through various phases as outlined. I'm always reflecting on what I did for each session and if I am getting close or tip over I take a step back apologise to my group and try not to commit it again. We're all there to have fun and if your not having fun then why play :)