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 WorkThere’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 ProblemIn 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 ItOne 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 EasierI 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?