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Worlds of Design: WANTED - More Game Masters

How much do you GM, as opposed to act as a player, in RPGs?


  • Total voters
    193
There never seems to be enough game masters to go around, a problem that’s been around for as long as the hobby has existed. So what do we do about it?

wantedposter.jpg

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Game Mastering is Work​

There’s a long-term trend to reduce the burdens of game mastering so that there are more GMs to play tabletop role-playing games, specifically Dungeons & Dragons and its descendants. There never seems to be enough, and it’s been a problem for the 45+ years that I, and some of you, have been playing RPGs.

I wouldn’t call GMing hard work, but it is definitely work. People don’t generally like to work in their entertainment. Most GMs undertake the work in order to allow their friends to be entertained. We could say that it’s a necessary evil. I always try to persuade most or all of the players in my group to also GM so that no one has to do the work all the time, but my impression is it’s more common for one GM to run a game for many sessions. At college game clubs, there are always enough players when someone offers to GM. Players who can’t find a GM are much more common.

GMing isn’t work for everyone, of course. Some may conceive the GM as a storyteller, and they want to tell (their) stories. I have a friend who is a software engineer and gamer, but also writes haiku every day and novels once a year (in National Novel Writing Month). He says he GMs with just a small amount of notes and makes the rest up as he goes along. So for him GMing may be another creative outlet, no more work than writing his daily haiku.

After having been player far more than GM for many years, my brother ran a campaign as sole GM, because he didn’t allow players to read the rules beyond the D&D Player’s Handbook! I can think of other reasons, but what’s important is that not many people prefer GMing to playing.

Why This is a Problem​

In video RPGs computer programming is as close as we get to a GM, so there’s no problem of lack of GM’s limiting the number of video games that are played. As you know, vastly more people play video RPGs than tabletop RPGs.

This is a problem for publishers. The GM in D&D-style games can be potentially in conflict with players, which is not an attractive role for many people. If a game doesn’t have enough GMs, the number of games played is limited by that insufficiency. And if the number of games played is limited, then there will be fewer people playing the game, which is likely to translate to fewer sales both of player and GM products.

The publishers of D&D undoubtedly saw that the appeal of the game was being limited by insufficient availability of GMs. What could they do to reduce the load on the GM?

How to Fix It​

One way to change the role of GMs so that it’s less likely to conflict with players is to make the rules absolutes rather than guidelines, and make the GM merely the arbiter (interpreter and enforcer) of rules rather than the creative “god” of the campaign.

When rules are very clear, the GM doesn’t have to make a lot of judgment calls, and it reduces negotiation (even though, in essence, RPGs are structured negotiations between players and GM). If you’re a team sports fan you know that fans particularly complain about referee judgment calls. It’s hard to make rules absolutely clear (see my previous Worlds of Design article, “Precision”) but the effort has been made. I’m particularly impressed with the systematic Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules.

Further, those GMs who need encouragement can use commercially available modules/adventures, which do even more to take the burden off the GM. How many GMs still make up their own adventures? I don't know, but evidently a small minority.

The Downside of Making it Easier​

I think of RPGs as games, not storytelling. When everyone plays the same adventure, it creates the risk of the same experience. I like the idea of fun from emergent play, where anything can happen and players stray outside the boxed text.

The x-factor that differentiates each game is the players and GM together. New GMs may stick closely to the text while experienced GMs stray from it, and really experienced GMs just make it up without too much prep time.

I think a good GM using the more flexible methods will create a more interesting game than one using the follow-the-rules-to-the-letter method. In my opinion, role-playing a situation is more interesting than rolling dice to resolve it, both as participant and as observer. Readership of this column surely has a different opinion, hence our poll.

Your Turn: How much do you GM, as opposed to act as a player, in RPGs?
 

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Reynard

Legend
I think we are likely to see a virtual GM or AI GM system appear relatively soon. It will of course be crude and buggy at first, but for many people using published campaigns it will be "good enough."
 

nevin

Adventurer
There never seems to be enough game masters to go around, a problem that’s been around for as long as the hobby has existed. So what do we do about it?

Game Mastering is Work​

There’s a long-term trend to reduce the burdens of game mastering so that there are more GMs to play tabletop role-playing games, specifically Dungeons & Dragons and its descendants. There never seems to be enough, and it’s been a problem for the 45+ years that I, and some of you, have been playing RPGs.

I wouldn’t call GMing hard work, but it is definitely work. People don’t generally like to work in their entertainment. Most GMs undertake the work in order to allow their friends to be entertained. We could say that it’s a necessary evil. I always try to persuade most or all of the players in my group to also GM so that no one has to do the work all the time, but my impression is it’s more common for one GM to run a game for many sessions. At college game clubs, there are always enough players when someone offers to GM. Players who can’t find a GM are much more common.

GMing isn’t work for everyone, of course. Some may conceive the GM as a storyteller, and they want to tell (their) stories. I have a friend who is a software engineer and gamer, but also writes haiku every day and novels once a year (in National Novel Writing Month). He says he GMs with just a small amount of notes and makes the rest up as he goes along. So for him GMing may be another creative outlet, no more work than writing his daily haiku.

After having been player far more than GM for many years, my brother ran a campaign as sole GM, because he didn’t allow players to read the rules beyond the D&D Player’s Handbook! I can think of other reasons, but what’s important is that not many people prefer GMing to playing.

Why This is a Problem​

In video RPGs computer programming is as close as we get to a GM, so there’s no problem of lack of GM’s limiting the number of video games that are played. As you know, vastly more people play video RPGs than tabletop RPGs.

This is a problem for publishers. The GM in D&D-style games can be potentially in conflict with players, which is not an attractive role for many people. If a game doesn’t have enough GMs, the number of games played is limited by that insufficiency. And if the number of games played is limited, then there will be fewer people playing the game, which is likely to translate to fewer sales both of player and GM products.

The publishers of D&D undoubtedly saw that the appeal of the game was being limited by insufficient availability of GMs. What could they do to reduce the load on the GM?

How to Fix It​

One way to change the role of GMs so that it’s less likely to conflict with players is to make the rules absolutes rather than guidelines, and make the GM merely the arbiter (interpreter and enforcer) of rules rather than the creative “god” of the campaign.

When rules are very clear, the GM doesn’t have to make a lot of judgment calls, and it reduces negotiation (even though, in essence, RPGs are structured negotiations between players and GM). If you’re a team sports fan you know that fans particularly complain about referee judgment calls. It’s hard to make rules absolutely clear (see my previous Worlds of Design article, “Precision”) but the effort has been made. I’m particularly impressed with the systematic Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules.

Further, those GMs who need encouragement can use commercially available modules/adventures, which do even more to take the burden off the GM. How many GMs still make up their own adventures? I don't know, but evidently a small minority.

The Downside of Making it Easier​

I think of RPGs as games, not storytelling. When everyone plays the same adventure, it creates the risk of the same experience. I like the idea of fun from emergent play, where anything can happen and players stray outside the boxed text.

The x-factor that differentiates each game is the players and GM together. New GMs may stick closely to the text while experienced GMs stray from it, and really experienced GMs just make it up without too much prep time.

I think a good GM using the more flexible methods will create a more interesting game than one using the follow-the-rules-to-the-letter method. In my opinion, role-playing a situation is more interesting than rolling dice to resolve it, both as participant and as observer. Readership of this column surely has a different opinion, hence our poll.

Your Turn: How much do you GM, as opposed to act as a player, in RPGs?
I disagree with the premise. I've seen far more GMs flame out trying to follow the rules, than flame out with guidelines.
Most games I've left over the years were over rules trumping fun. That is where this type of game design leads. The strength of tabletop RPG s is the flexibility a GM whi doesn't have to follow the rules gives a game.

My counter Argument is these companies need to devote more resources Into teaching and supporting new GMs . with facebook, video conferencing and all the technologies available its almost criminal how big companies avoid helping develop GMs that keep games alive so players keep buying product
 

Reynard

Legend
I disagree with the premise. I've seen far more GMs flame out trying to follow the rules, than flame out with guidelines.
Most games I've left over the years were over rules trumping fun. That is where this type of game design leads. The strength of tabletop RPG s is the flexibility a GM whi doesn't have to follow the rules gives a game.

My counter Argument is these companies need to devote more resources Into teaching and supporting new GMs . with facebook, video conferencing and all the technologies available its almost criminal how big companies avoid helping develop GMs that keep games alive so players keep buying product
The industry as a whole has always relied on volunteer GMs to survive. Look at conventions: for most cons, the entire draw is games but very, very few conventions compensate their GMs in any meaningful way.
 


Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
The solution is pretty simply, IMO.

Players need to stop being jerks to the GM. If a player thinks the GM is doing a bad job, then they have a simple, easy-to-understand solution.

The player can be the GM.

When anyone is first GMing, no matter how simplified the system, it is hard. It is difficult. It is stressful. Mistakes will be made. If you are a player with a new GM, be forgiving, be nice, and (as necessary) provide positive feedback to the GM.

Almost no one, not even the Matt Mercers of the world, are born as fully-fledged master GMs. It's a process. If you are a player, help the process.
 

nevin

Adventurer
The solution is pretty simply, IMO.

Players need to stop being jerks to the GM. If a player thinks the GM is doing a bad job, then they have a simple, easy-to-understand solution.

The player can be the GM.

When anyone is first GMing, no matter how simplified the system, it is hard. It is difficult. It is stressful. Mistakes will be made. If you are a player with a new GM, be forgiving, be nice, and (as necessary) provide positive feedback to the GM.

Almost no one, not even the Matt Mercers of the world, are born as fully-fledged master GMs. It's a process. If you are a player, help the process.
So the solution is that most young people need to stop being young people and act like thier older? Solutions that require people to be different than they are never work. I do agree people should behave better.

I also believe as important as GMs are to tabletop RPGs companies should spend more resources developing them.
 


Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
So the solution is that most young people need to stop being young people and act like thier older?

I was not aware that young people are jerks, and, quite frankly, it's pretty disturbing that this is your description of them.

I started DMing when I was very young, and luckily my friends (who were also young) were not jerks to me.

If the young people you hang out with are jerks, the problem is the people you hang out with- not their age.
 

Reynard

Legend
So the solution is that most young people need to stop being young people and act like thier older? Solutions that require people to be different than they are never work. I do agree people should behave better.
Is it an inherent trait for "young people" to be jerks? I sure hope not.
 

nevin

Adventurer
Young people are immature was my point. I've noticed this disturbing trend from my fellow grandpa gamers that they expect the kids to act like thier adults. Never gonna happen. I'm not saying all kids are jerks.
But the strawman of people need to step up when I said companies need to step up was ridiculous. One has nothing to do with the other.
 

Reynard

Legend
Young people are immature was my point. I've noticed this disturbing trend from my fellow grandpa gamers that they expect the kids to act like thier adults. Never gonna happen. I'm not saying all kids are jerks.
But the strawman of people need to step up when I said companies need to step up was ridiculous. One has nothing to do with the other.
It's not a strawman. You were the one that made the statement as a refutation of the idea that they should, in fact, be kind.

On the subject of companies fostering new GMs, I agree with you. That is yet another thing the companies have offloaded to the community. YouTube is lousy with GM advice -- some of it very good, most of it middling and some of it just terible.
 

Mistwell

Crusty Old Meatwad (he/him)
My group has never lacked for GMs. Half our members will GM given the opportunity. One of our GMs will provide that service in a game store for others, or did pre-pandemic.

I do agree WOTC needs to focus more on teaching people how to GM. We're mostly old timers.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Young people are immature was my point. I've noticed this disturbing trend from my fellow grandpa gamers that they expect the kids to act like thier adults. Never gonna happen. I'm not saying all kids are jerks.
But the strawman of people need to step up when I said companies need to step up was ridiculous. One has nothing to do with the other.

Okay. So now you are insulting young gamers by calling them jerks, and older gamers by calling them "grandpa gamers." Great!

And all of this in response to a post saying that the most important thing is to be nice and accepting of people starting to GM? Okay!

Finally, I wasn't responding to you. You responded to me with your comment. So "strawman?" Uh huh.

GMing is inherently a social activity- there is already tons of advice, including videos, books, and other resources, explaining "how to do it." People, more than ever, are able to see how other successful GMs ... GM.

That's not the issue. The reason for the imbalance (which has always existed) is twofold:

1. GMing is almost always "less fun" and "more difficult" than playing. There will be fewer people that want to GM, and get enjoyment from GMing. Some games try to resolve this by changing the division of authority, etc., but fundamentally "playing" and "GMing" will be at least slightly different, and "playing" has the root term of ... you know ... PLAY.

2. It is difficult to be good at something at first; it requires multiple reps. It's a learning process. No matter how good the instruction is, it's different when you have to do it. You can have all the tips, all the preparation, but the best thing you can have is a group of excited and forgiving players. Period.

So yeah- if you're a player with a new GM, don't be a jerk. That's the best way to create new GMs that stick with it.
 

We sure about this? Minority, sure, but a small one? I haven't run a published adventure in 30 years, and I don't think I'm that much of an outlier.
Same here, I have tried to run published adventures a couple of times. Every time it has probably taken as much work to run as devise my own adventures. Actually in my group, I don't think any of the GMs ever run published adventures.
 

nevin

Adventurer
I said if you young people to act older it wasn't going to happen. Only you talked about people being jerks. Adults have a hard time being supportive when they disagree. Expecting it from younger crowds is naive at best.
I've seen many young people chased off from D&D by the old grandpa equivalent of the old manstanding out on the lawn pontificating to the kids how they need to be better than he was. Those new DMs need support and they rarely get it.
 

Grendel_Khan

Adventurer
I disagree with the premise. I've seen far more GMs flame out trying to follow the rules, than flame out with guidelines.
Most games I've left over the years were over rules trumping fun. That is where this type of game design leads. The strength of tabletop RPG s is the flexibility a GM whi doesn't have to follow the rules gives a game.

Totally agree. And while I get why Lewis framed his post the way he did -- this is a D&D site, first and foremost -- his approach sidesteps the fact that PbtA and even the OSR have reeled in new GMs specifically because they're less mechanics-heavy. Not everyone wants to play, much less run, nonstop tactical combat, and there are tons of games that cater to a more free-flowing, low-prep GMing style. They just aren't 5e.

That said, I also agree with your point that game companies should cultivate more resources for new GMs--particularly companies like WotC, since basically everyone, even the biggest PbtA boosters, seem to at least start with trad/F20 games.
 

timbannock

Explorer
Same here, I have tried to run published adventures a couple of times. Every time it has probably taken as much work to run as devise my own adventures. Actually in my group, I don't think any of the GMs ever run published adventures.
I don't think it's a minority at all. Even folks using elements of published adventures homebrew large parts, and the sales of third party monster books and the like suggests published adventures couldn't possibly make use of all the sources of monsters, magic items, new classes and spells, etc. that surely are in many GMs hands.

Sly Flourish has studied this; I wonder what his data says?
 
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Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
So this is something I covered previously, and here's what I said then:

In another thread I recounted the experience I had recently wherein a young player was trying to DM for the first time, and it didn't go very well (unfortunately). I also ran across a couple of things that are great general advice and thoughts, but I thought I'd share as thoughts for newer DMs.

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, and I really wish somebody had told this to me.

All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there is this gap. For the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not that good.

But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. A lot of people never get past that phase. They quit.

Everybody I know who does interesting, creative work they went through years where they had really good taste and they could tell that what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. Everybody goes through that.

And if you are just starting out or if you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you’re going to finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you’re going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.


Source: Ira Glass on Storytelling.

On the first day of class, Jerry Uelsmann, a professor at the University of Florida, divided his film photography students into two groups.

Everyone on the left side of the classroom, he explained, would be in the “quantity” group. They would be graded solely on the amount of work they produced. On the final day of class, he would tally the number of photos submitted by each student. One hundred photos would rate an A, ninety photos a B, eighty photos a C, and so on.

Meanwhile, everyone on the right side of the room would be in the “quality” group. They would be graded only on the excellence of their work. They would only need to produce one photo during the semester, but to get an A, it had to be a nearly perfect image.

At the end of the term, he was surprised to find that all the best photos were produced by the quantity group. During the semester, these students were busy taking photos, experimenting with composition and lighting, testing out various methods in the darkroom, and learning from their mistakes. In the process of creating hundreds of photos, they honed their skills. Meanwhile, the quality group sat around speculating about perfection. In the end, they had little to show for their efforts other than unverified theories and one mediocre photo.


Source: Atomic Habits by James Clear.
(Both sources were brought to my attention by the very, very good website, kottke.org)


No matter what your level of talent, in any field, nothing is more important than doing. If you are starting to DM/GM, you will make mistakes. That's fine! It's part of the process- you will learn from it. Keep on doing it. Don't give up. Whether people talk about the "10,000 hours" or "number of reps" or "just keep swimming" it's always the same- the more you do something, the more you learn from your mistakes, the better you get.

So, for the holidays, I thought I'd share that advice. You will mess up. You will learn from it. Whether it's DMing, or countless other things. Just stay in the saddle. :)
 

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