Playing tabletop role-playing games is a fantastic hobby, if you’re in the right group. In the wrong group, getting through a session can be a chore, and in the worst groups it can be traumatic. A lot of new players end up in bad groups, and return session after session, because they don’t realize how much better it could be. Other players leave the hobby completely after their first experience turns out to be a bad one. If everyone else is having fun and you’re the only one not enjoying themselves, it could just be that you’re in the wrong group. Different players have different tastes, and there isn’t one best way to play RPGs. If a group isn’t a good fit, it’s best to move on to a different one. If everyone at the table is miserable though, it could be that you have a bad game master. Here’s a list of the 10 most common types of bad game masters that we’ve seen.
10. The Railroad Conductor
Railroading is the most common complaint players have about game masters, and a lot of new game masters get confused about what it is. How much direction a game master uses in their campaign is largely a matter of preference. Some players just want to have the king tell them to go kill the necromancer in the tower, or have a giant pyramid full of treasure appear outside of town one day. They want to get their adventure on with as little hassle as possible. Other players want more of a sandbox approach where they're in a world full of places and adventures and their character's destiny is whatever they make it. Most players want at least some direction, like a few adventure hooks and an occasional hint on what to do next, otherwise they just end up wandering around unsure about what they could be doing.
The Railroad Conductor doesn't just add some direction to their campaign. The Railroad Conductor has a specific story they plan on telling, full of interesting characters, fun ideas, and novel plot twists, and they'll be damned if any players try to take this story off the track they've carefully lain.
If the players are tasked with retrieving the crown worn by the false king, and they come up with an elaborate plan to sneak into the castle and replace it while he sleeps, the Railroad Conductor will make sure that plan fails, because the players are supposed to attack the castle and fight with the king's guards that are better equipped and a much higher level than them, get knocked unconcious and imprisoned without any of their weapons, and then they'll meet an imprisoned Drow with an escape plan that will join their party and send them on the next leg of their adventure, only to betray them many sessions in the future.
The problem with Railroad Conductors are that RPGs are supposed to be collaborative games. The game master is in charge of creating the world, setting up the adventure, and coming up with obstacles to overcome, but the players get to be the main characters, and they get to decide how the story unfolds, and ultimately where it ends up. Players want the choices they make in the game to influence the story, and when they come up with a new solution to an impossible problem and then get lucky with the dice rolls, they want to be rewarded by having their character succeed in the game.
Even the most tightly controlled games will go off the track sometimes. Not only will players come up with strange ideas no game master could ever anticipate, but the best laid plans of game masters are ultimately at the mercy of the dice. Players might roll an unlikely streak of natural 20s, and suddenly the invincible bad guy that was supposed to be the campaign's main villian is dead halfway through the first session. Good game masters know they'll be surprised by how the story plays out, and when the story gets derailed, which it almost certainly will at some point, they let their players find a new story instead of trying to pigeon hole them into the one they originally planned.
9. The Puppet Master
The Railroad Conductor gives players the illusion of choice, the Puppet Master doesn't even give them that. Once the Puppet Master decides how your character should be played, that's how you're going to play them. If you don't want to do what the Puppet Master says you should, maybe a god will punish you by taking away all of your class abilities until you change your mind. Maybe the universe will punish you with bad karma until you do what you're told.
Then there's the worst kind of Puppet Master, the one that just tells you what your character does. Your thief is going to steal from the party's benefactor, even if you don't think it's a good idea, because thieves are stealers. Your Paladin has to heal the corrupt bishop. He can't choose to leave him to die because it's the only way he'll face justice and the party might need those heals, because Paladin's don't do that.
One of the basic rules of RPGs is that players always have agency over their characters and get to decide what they do. In extreme circumstances, usually when the group has agreed to play by a certain set of rules (like no PvP, or no sex stuff), and a player wants to break one of those rules, or when a player's intentionally trying to ruin the game for other players, it's okay for a game master to say no and tell the player they can't do that, but a game master should never make a player do something.
The best Puppet Masters are a devolved form of the Railroad Conductor who needs things to go just right, or a variant of the Glass Ego who knows better than you how to play your character. The very worst though are Marque de Sade's who are ramping up their control before they spring their sexual fantasies on a player.
8. The Infamous GMPC
Nothing makes an experienced RPG player cringe more than when the game master informs them that they'll also be playing a character in this campaign, a GMPC. Maybe the GM has the best intentions, and they just want to balance the party. Maybe there's a GM who actually played a GMPC well once. Usually though when the GM also plays a PC, it ruins the game for the other players.
Most of the time the entire reason for the GMPC is just that the game master also wants to be a player. In the past, when the game master was just a player, there was another game master to tell them no when they wanted to break the rules and play an overpowered homebrew class, or be four levels higher than the rest of the party. Now that they're the game master though, there's no one to stop them from playing the kind of character they've always wanted to play.
The game master is supposed to tell the story, and the players get to be the main characters in it. When the game master is also a player, they almost always end up being the star of the story. If they're lucky, the other players are allowed to be the supporting cast. Usually though the other characters are just there to witness how great the GMPC is. Maybe the other players will get to take the lead on the adventure only to horribly fail so the game master's character can show up and save them, but it's just as likely that the game master's character will win the day before the players are even able to do anything significant. It's also not that uncommon for the GMPC or other NPCs to berate the players for being so useless or under-powered when compared to the GMPC.
7. The Punisher
RPGs can be pretty rule heavy, but all of the rules are designed to fix in-game problems. If a campaign is too easy, the game master can up the difficulty on enemy encounters. If the players aren't progressing fast enough, the game master can give out extra experience points. If players can't agree on what a rule means or if there are conflicting rules in the book, most games have a rule that the game master makes the final decision on how it should be played.
With five editions and countless books, Dungeons & Dragons probably has more rules written for it than any other game. Despite all those rules, I've never read a single sentence about how to punish a player for showing up an hour late to a session. There's nothing in there about the penalty for players who are looking at their phones instead of paying attention to the game. There's not even anything about how many experience points you lose for being a complete jerk face. It's because RPG rules are meant to deal with in-game issues, and game masters shouldn't use them to punish players for things that happen outside the game.
If a player always shows up late to a session, the game master should talk to them and find out why. Maybe they can't make it on time, and the group can start an hour later, or they can agree that the group starts without them and they get there when they get there. If a player's always looking at their phone, maybe they're bored, and some changes can be made to make the game more interesting for them. If they're a complete jerk face, maybe they should be kicked out of the campaign.
That's not how the Punisher deals with problems though. The Punisher believes that players need to be reprimanded for every infraction, and the only way they know how to do that is by hurting their characters in-game. Show up late, and maybe you'll be down some hit points and maimed. Miss a session, and when you come back your character might be dead. If you're a total jerk face, well the Punisher has a whole torture chamber set up for you.
People play RPGs to have fun, not to be treated like a naughty child and have their toys broken every time they do something wrong. Punishing a problem player rarely solves the issue, since it doesn't address the underlying problem. Most of the time it just makes the player act out even more. It's not much fun for the other players either. They usually end up feeling punished as well, since hurting one party member typically weakens the whole party.
6. The GM's Paramour
A lot of couples play games together, and it can work out fine if they both play responsibly. The game master should run the game fairly for all the players, and their better half shouldn't turn game decisions into relationship issues. Unfortunately things don't always work out that way. Some game masters will play obvious favorites with their significant other, and some significant others will throw fits and even threaten to end the relationship if the game master doesn't run the game exactly to their liking. Sometimes the game master isn't even in a relationship, they just have a crush on one of the players and want to use their position as game master to woo them.
The situation always ends up the same, the game becomes all about the game master's paramour, and the other characters are just there to be side characters in the story. The paramour is never wrong. Anything they try always succeeds. At times they're allowed to outright break rules, and the game master makes special exceptions so they can build overpowered characters. Sometimes they don't even have to come up with an overpowered build, the game master just gives them extra levels or more powerful equipment so they'll be better than the rest. Whenever a problem arises, the paramour really shines as she breezes through it and carries the rest of the group.
5. The Adversary
Other than a few odd-duck games, role-playing games are designed to be cooperative. The players work together to overcome obstacles, and the game master works with the players to create the story the obstacles occur in. Some players want to be part of an overpowered team and blow off steam as invincible epic heroes. Other players want a real challenge, and they're looking for a game full of difficult encounters and devious traps, where death waits around every corner and any mistake can mean their character's death. There's also a couple dozen more shades of gray between those two extremes, and all of them are perfectly fine ways to play RPGs. It's a matter of taste, and it's ultimately going to come down to what type of game the players want to play.
No matter how difficult the players want their game though, they're never playing against the game master. The game master's role is to run the game and facilitate the adventure, and they work with the players to make it enjoyable for everyone.
That's not how the Adversary sees RPGs though. To the Adversary, the game master is playing against the players. The game master wins by killing all the players, and they try their best to make sure the players all die.
The problem is RPG rules aren't written to be competitive. At worst, they assume the game master will act as an impartial judge of the players' actions. In a competitive environment, the rules to just about any RPG heavily favor the game master. The game master could easily raise the difficulty on all the encounters to make them impossible to win at the players' current level, design puzzles that are only solvable through moon logic, and completely change the game rules to the detriment of the players. That's a lot of work though. They could just start the adventure by telling the players a giant meteor falls on them and kills everyone.
4. The Glass Ego
The very best game masters are willing to admit that sometimes they make mistakes, and their games could always be better. They're open to criticism, because they know listening to their players will make them better game masters. Even if they can run games perfectly, so many things come down to player preference that it's important to get input about what players want the game to be like.
Then there's The Glass Ego. The Glass Ego knows how to run their games. They've been game masters a long time and they're really good at it, and they don't need to hear their players' opinions. If a player's unhappy in their game, it's because they're a bad player, and they're not playing it right. Also whatever they say goes, because they are, after all, the game master, which to them means they have all the power and only their decisions matter.
3. The Marque de Sade
Most people play role-playing games for the fun of it. They like pretending to be someone else, or telling a story, or winning at combat. Some people just like rolling dice. Then there's the Marque de Sade. The Marque's favorite part about role-playing is the sex. Specifically they like the sexual fantasies they're going to role-play. Usually the Marque has to be a game master, because if he was a player, most game masters would kick him out. The Marque also likes the power he gets from being the game master, and the authority it gives him over the players. If the players are very lucky, the Marque is just looking for some consensual sexual roleplay with players who are also into getting off with him, but usually he's specifically looking to force his sexual fantasies on his players, and often they're full of the fetishes he's into.
Marques like to claim they're being edgy, or doing a grimdark campaign. They may say that they want to run a campaign that's more adult or more realistic than what most people play. Since Game of Thrones became a popular thing, a lot of Marques have been advertising their games as 'like Game of Thrones', when what they really mean is I'm going to force you to pretend to have sex with me.
Most RPG players are well-adjusted folk who fulfill their sexual needs with relationships or casual dating. They play Dungeons and Dragons, for instance, to explore dungeons and slay dragons, not so they can sexual roleplay with some creep, or watch some other player sexual roleplay with some creep. Most games don't need sex at all, and if they do have it, they keep it subtle and fade to black before it gets too graphic. If groups really want to delve into sexual themes, it's something that needs to be agreed upon by the entire group, and everyone needs to be explicit about what kind of sexual content they plan to add to the game and how graphic it will be. Even when everyone's on board, it's still a good idea to have a system in place for player to opt out, no questions asked, if the game ever makes them too uncomfortable.
2. The Pushover
The Pushover is a game master who just can't ever say no to a player. They might be afraid of confrontation. They might be afraid they'll lose a player, or no one will want to play with them. They might be so afraid of coming off as a Railroad Conductor or a Puppet Master that they go to the opposite extreme. The Pushover isn't always a bad game master. With the right group full of responsible players who all want the same thing, the Pushover can run a very nice game. The problem is as soon as a problem player enters the group, that player can ruin the game for everyone else.
A problem player can insist on playing a broken homebrew class, and like a GMPC be so overpowered that they become the center of the group. Or they can be like the Adversary, and start PvP combat or rob the other players while they sleep, and even if the other players don't want a PvP game, the Pushover allows it because he doesn't want to tell a player what their character can't do. Maybe the problem player will be a Marque de Sade, and the rest of the group will have to sit through twenty minutes of him role-playing sex with a prostitute every session.
There's a time and a place for everything, and sometimes the game master has to say no. Sometimes the questions they say no to are innocent enough. A player may not realize that the build they want to play will make them too powerful compared to the rest of the party, or that the sort of character they want to play wouldn't work well in the sort of game everyone else wants to play. Sometimes a game master has to say no because one player is trying to take over the game and make it fun for them at the group's expense, or they just want to destroy the game and cause misery because they're bored. The game master's primary purpose isn't to let players do whatever they want, it's to make the experience fun for everyone involved. Sometimes that means talking to a player and telling them their behavior is out of line, and sometimes that means telling a player they aren't a good fit for the group.
1, The Unfun GM
The biggest red flag that there's an issue with your game group is that you're not having fun. RPGs should be a fun activity, and if you feel bored, or frustrated, or angry, or traumatized after a session, something isn't right. It could be something that is easily fixed by talking with your game master and the rest of the group. It could be that you're just not a good fit for the group, or that the entire group is toxic. Whatever the case, if you're not having fun, and the group isn't willing to change to accommodate you, it's better to leave the group than stick around and spend your free time in misery.