When I play in a roleplaying game, sometimes I come across a bad GM. Sometimes, the GM is bad because they are inexperienced or there are circumstances out of their control. However, there are other times when GMs make mistakes that are, in essence, unforgivable. These mistakes ruin the game and make it no fun at all for a player. I’ve decided to label these “The Seven Deadly Sins of GMing.”

1. Unpreparedness

Not coming to the game ready to play. As a GM, you are the organizer, referee, storyteller, and entertainer. If you’re not prepared to do these jobs when you come to the table, then you and the group will suffer the consequences. Preparedness means something different to each GM (I for one feel like I’m completely prepared if I’ve got a detailed story in my head, while others feel that they must write everything down beforehand). This sin could encompass not bringing needed materials to a game (especially con games), as well as not reading the adventure beforehand, or even worse, not knowing the most basic rules to the system you’re running.

Personal Experience: I played in a con game, run by a member of an otherwise very well-respected gaming group, where the GM seemed to make up his own rules for Savage Worlds. Successful Fighting rolls directly deal damage? Enemies make Dodge Checks? The GM spends Bennies to make the players reroll? I’m convinced he looked at the rules for the first time just 15 minutes before the game.

2. Apathy

Not caring about the game you’re running. This is where the GM has little passion for the game and it shows. His or her excitement isn’t evident and the players have little reason to get excited either. In its most extreme form, the GM would rather do anything besides GMing. Generally this happens if they did not originally plan to GM or there was some incentive to running the game that was more important to them than the personal enjoyment of running the game.

Personal Experience: In my only game of Pathfinder ever, I walked in ready to play (I had heard that it fixed many of the issues in D&D 3.x and was eager to try it to see if it was the game for me). The game had loads of issues, but one of the worst was the GM who brought no enthusiasm to the game. He read the adventure text in a deadpan tone, didn’t bother to explain monster damage (he’d silently move figures, roll some dice, and then say “you take 9 damage”), and didn’t even try to allow for roleplaying. I found out at the end that the only reason he ran the game was to be part of Paizo’s GM rewards program. The game was so horrible for that reason (and many more) that I have never played a Pathfinder game since.

My personal experiences for Apathy and of Unpreparedness are both described further in GMs to Love, GMs to Hate.

3. Railroading

Dictating how the players should play the game. Most commonly, this is done by presenting a situation with a problem and only accepting a single solution, or otherwise failing to give them a choice on how to proceed. I should note that when I talk about it as one of the “seven deadly sins,” I’m talking about the more extreme examples. Sometimes it can be useful in a limited amount, such as in con games where you need to tell a story in a limited time period, but it’s best done if you at least give them other options (or use some techniques to give the illusion of choice). But when you’re running a whole game and dictating how the players should play every step of it, then you’ve gone too far.

Personal Experience: I haven’t experienced this one personally, but I have a friend who played in a game where the GM presented a murder mystery. There was one clue at each site with one way to find it and one interpretation of the clue and one place to go next. Interrogating subjects or trying alternate ways to catch the killer was vetoed, and there was nothing more to be done.

4. Lack of Focus

Not having the game at the center of your attention. This is when the GM is at the table, but their mind is not. They are being distracted by other things in the room, texting, or having personal issues in life that keep their mind off the game. It’s bad enough when a player is not paying attention to the game, it’s worse when the GM, the one coordinating the game, isn’t. Apathy could be the reason for this, although it doesn’t have to be.

Personal Experience: It seems that shortly before a con game of D&D 4e, the GM had some sort of relationship crisis with a girl he’d just received a phone call from. Apparently he didn’t have the willpower to force his issues out of his mind and, despite us telling him that he could cancel the game if he wasn’t up to it, he decided to go ahead and run with it. The GM’s mind clearly wasn’t on the game and there was one or two times when the game stalled because the GM didn’t keep the action moving. The game ended after one encounter of D&D 4e and the four hour game took a grand total of one and a half hours. Not the way I planned my con game to go.

5. Physical Neglect

The term “gamer funk” has been coined to describe the body odor that comes from a stereotypical gamer. This tends to be someone who is so geeky that they neglect personal hygiene and fails to shower or use deodorant. I also broaden the sin of Physical Neglect to include failure to get enough sleep and not eating right because those can have a detrimental effect on how to run the game.

Personal Experience: There was a GM who seemed unable to focus on the game and was somewhat…cranky. After about an hour and a half, his buddy stopped by and gave him a sandwich, which he ate voraciously. Afterwards, he did a lot better and was focused and entertaining. From what I could tell, he hadn’t eaten much at the convention and it was adversely affecting his ability to GM an enjoyable game.

6. Playing Favorites

Favoring one character over another. As a storyteller, there is a temptation to want to make certain characters be the heroes of the story, rather than having six or so characters equally be the heroes. Unfortunately, this results in players not having as much fun, as they are no longer the stars of the adventure. This comes in two flavors: Mary Sue characters where they are an NPC favored over the player charcters, or the Dungeonmaster’s Girlfriend where a certain player is favored over others.

Personal Experience: The worst time I’ve come across this is in the Deadlands Classic adventure Fortress o’ Fear, which is a below average ending to the otherwise phenomenal Heart o’ Darkness trilogy. The adventure is based around Jackie “Mary Sue” Wells, time traveler from the future who has a gun that is powerful enough to kill even Stone. Most of the scenario revolves around her bossing around the posse, then saving the day time and again by being so awesome she can’t be killed and doesn’t need to roll dice. This was perhaps the biggest reason why the adventure failed (although the backstory to the creatures in Devil’s Tower was just as bad). Completely excising her does make the adventure playable though.

7. Absence

Simply not showing up. Obviously, there are understandable circumstances for GM absence, such as personal illness and family emergency and if these are properly communicated, are fully forgiveable. But if the GM fails to show up with no explanation, then I say that they’re committing the worst sin of these seven. I would also include in this category canceling a game on short notice for a non-emergency reason. It’s fine to cancel for non-emergency reasons with enough planning so long as it doesn’t happen too often, but telling us you’re going to be absent mere hours before the next game isn’t.

Personal Experience: One thing I occasionally encountered in college was a GM canceling a game two hours before because they “have too much homework.” This always irked me because 9 times out of 10 the problem could have been avoided with proper planning. Generally I had done my homework ahead of time knowing full well that I’d be busy that evening, and so to suddenly have something I was looking forward to canceled because the GM failed to do the same left a bad taste in my mouth.

An Eighth Sin?

Interestingly, the Orthodox Church recognizes Eight Deadly Sins rather than the Seven that the Catholic Church recognizes (they add Despair). Is there an Eighth Deadly Sin that you think should be added to this list?