I am not perfect. Not morally, not spiritually, not physically, and certainly not as a GM. I am learning from my mistakes and I want you to learn from them too.
In no particular order…
1. Assume that my players care about a published setting as much as I do.
I am embarrassed to admit it, but I tried to GM a game in the Pathfinder world of Golarion. Let’s just say that the players did not care about the setting at all. I should have created a homebrew setting (maybe with a few pieces pinched from Golarion) and used that instead. A good GM should know their players, otherwise the game will fall apart pretty quickly…which is exactly what happened.
2. Play in a universe that your players know every last little detail about.
I had a game in the Star Wars universe. I had trouble trying out interesting things because the players were worried about the Star Wars canon. We were playing in the time period between Episode 6 and Episode 7, because I naively thought that not enough had been published in that time frame to conflict with what we decided to do. When new books came out that addressed some of things that we made made up, one player asked if we should retcon our game to match the published material.
I have never felt like such a failure as a GM.
I had hoped that our game/story was fun enough to ignore some of the published material. I guess not.
3. Follow the character creation rules for antagonists.
In college, I once tried to create a “legal character” 3.5E villain for my players to fight. I used the same method to generate stats, I carefully rolled each level’s hit points, I added appropriate levels and the appropriate template EXACTLY, according to the rules. Based on my understanding of Challenge Rating (CR), I thought I had the perfect villain. Difficulty, but fair. The party destroyed him in one round.
When creating antagonists, think about what you want them to be able to do…and just give them that ability. Do not stick to the rules for characters. However, stick to the rules of the game. If your game states that armor always always always impedes arcane spellcasting, do not give your heavily armored villain a bunch of spells. Give the villain a loyal magic-using minion. Or maybe the minion is not quite that loyal. Or give the villain special armor that allows spells to be cast…which the player can loot from the villain’s corpse and use. However, the armor has a price that must be paid before its secrets are revealed. A steep price that a villain is able to pay, but a player may balk at.
Also, DO NOT say “Oh, the villain had 37 different contingency spells so he/she/it got away”, unless that villain is a highly intelligent magic user. If the party somehow corners the villain and destroys him/her/it before the “story” says he/she/it should die…accept it. Move on with the game. In the example above, I had not planned on this death, so I had trouble keeping the game moving in the direction I thought it was going to go.
4. Do not entice the players with a good hook.
No matter what a roleplaying game might say in its advice for GMs, DO NOT ASSUME YOUR PLAYERS ARE MOTIVATED TO BE DO-GOODERS. Give your players a hook. A lost treasure. Land. Titles. I have tried to motivate players by pulling at the heart strings and it does not do well. “Let’s go this way because the GM wants us to rescue the mayor’s son” is not a ringing endorsement of my ability to motivate players. I should have told the players that the mayor’s son had been kidnapped and taken to the ancient temple of a heathen god whose followers were known to collect strange and magical items. That might have been more inspiring.
5. Hold back weirdness.
This more a sin of omission than a sin of commission. The human imagination is a powerful thing. Let it loose. Bend genres. Do not feel constrained to a particular genre of game. If you are playing a fantasy world and an invasion of aliens seems like a good idea. Do it! Maybe the ancient artifact in the Temple of Foreboding is a cell phone that somehow still works…and a call comes through when the players find it. If the ideas seems fun and the players like it…give it a go.
If any of you have any mistakes that you have witnessed other GMs doing (because you are perfect 😉 ) that you wish to share, let me know!