The Role of the Game Master

On May 15, 2013, in JT Evans, RP Nerd, by JT Evans

rp_nerdFirst off, let me say that I tend to use the term “Game Master,” or GM, when referring to the person sitting behind the screen. There are other names, and they include Dungeon Master, Loremaster, Storyteller, Referee (my least favorite), The Computer, Spymaster, and so on.

One of the most important people at the table is the Game Master (GM). This is not to say the game runs at the whim of the GM or that the game “belongs to” to the GM. In a typical role playing session, if the GM is absent, then the players tend to resort to playing card games, board games, or just go home to relax. So, what is it that the GM does at the table?

He/She is nominally in charge of the game and how it’s run. Why do I say the GM is “nominally” in charge of things? Well, the GM is responsible for quite a few things:

  • World Building
  • Settings and Scenes
  • Monsters, Creatures, and Bad Guys
  • Challenges, Skill Checks, and Traps
  • Rules Adjudication
  • Creating Overall Story Structure or Plot
  • Keeping the Players Focused
  • Treasure, Experience Points, Rewards
  • Characters in the world not controlled by the players (Non-Player Characters or NPCs)
  • Game Setup and Campaign Style
  • Backstory for the Campaign
  • Maps, Maps, Maps!
  • Stocking the Dungeon (if there’s one)
  • Handling Interpersonal Conflict

It may seem like the GM controls quite a bit of the game. It’s true that the GM does, but the real choices in the game are up to the players. If a game is being run properly, the story is about the player characters (PCs), not the NPCs, Monsters, Bad Guys, GM’s pre-built plot line, or anything else. While it won’t quite read like the next great genre novel, the story being told should revolve around the people on the outside of the GM screen. These are the most memorable gaming sessions and campaigns. The GM is more of a tour guide that allows the participants of the tour to go off the beaten path and explore the wilderness if they choose to do so.

I’m a firm believer that every role player should GM at least one story. It could last a single session or for many years or anywhere in between. By getting the experience of what it’s truly like behind the GM’s screen, it will help expand the player’s horizons and outlook on the game. I once I had a fellow gamer that was a serious role player for many years, but she had never run a game. With some gentle prodding, we managed to get her to run a few sessions. I think it lasted just three sessions before she threw in the towel with the comment, “I thought I was going to be in charge of the story, but I had no idea how different it is on this side of the screen!” She really enjoyed running the game, but it wasn’t her cup of tea. She’d rather focus on a single character and develop that character to the best of her abilities rather than split her focus between everything I listed above.

As I’ve said before, role playing games encourage collaborative story telling. Think of the GM as the historian, story teller or bard that transcribes the events down for posterity. They can put their own slant or vision to the story as they guide the PCs through the tale. However, it’s the PCs’ stories he’s telling, not his own. He’s the Watson to the Sherlocks sitting at the table.

One of the most important aspects of the GM’s job is to make sure folks have fun. If the game’s too easy, the players will get bored. If it’s too hard, they’ll get frustrated. It takes time and experience behind the screen to find that sweet spot. Another thing to keep in mind as a GM is to make sure all of the players are engaged in the game through their characters. Find some thread in their backstory or character traits that pulls them into the plot of the game.

Lastly, RPGs are built around conflict. It’s the nature of the beast. Without the generic “man in conflict” plot, the collaborative story being told around the table would be incredibly boring. However, this conflict should never be player vs. GM. Yes, the GM is throwing challenges out to the PCs, but the players (and especially the GM) should never take on a “me vs. them” attitude about overcoming those challenges. In addition to this, the players are (usually) on the same side. Every once in a while something will happen to cause the characters in the story to come at odds with one another. When this happens, a player should never take the conflict with another player personally. The GM has to watch these situations carefully to ensure they don’t get out of hand. Yes, a spirited conversation about the next course of action is healthy, but a shouting match between the players will do nothing but breed bad feelings that will haunt the group for many sessions to come. The GM may think his/her only role is to adjudicate rules disagreements, but he/she is also there to step in and keep the personal disagreements from salting open wounds that may arise at the table.

Up next, we’ll talk about the role of the players sitting at the table (or virtual console, or Google Hangout or Skype conference.)


One Response to The Role of the Game Master

  1. Yes, I do think every player should GM at least once.

    I also think that GMs should try a variety of systems and styles, to get the tools to be a better GM. There are games that are use tools and ideas that are transferable and extremely useful.

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