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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

Grendel_Khan

Adventurer
My opinion is that, unless publishers are able to speed-up the creation of new modules and adventures, at some point in the future a lot of potential GMs will be forced to write their own stuff because they will have trouble finding groups that haven't played already what has been published so far, especially if they don't have a group of friends to play with.

Another way to fix this would be to make more sandbox-oriented modules which actually allows replayability instead of being a railroad experience, so that players can find some value in redoing the module.

I'm not a published module GM, but if I were I'd be supremely pissed at WotC's weirdly slow publishing pace, and current tendency toward big adventure books that take you through an entire campaign in a given and very specific setting, instead of more standalone and general stories. I know, Candlekeep is different, but it's also a pretty rare case (and it's still all about one place). How about just producing more stuff, potentially with lower production values, because it's for DMs not players?

Or is WotC's output not a problem that DMs actually have? Or do people tend to like the campaign-book approach and/or get their fill of published adventures from third-party publishers?
 

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pumasleeve

Explorer
Yeah, I've been trying to get a break from DMing for around 4 years. I keep asking. No one else wants to do it.
what im really getting at are players that are really armchair quarterbacks, not actually quarterbacks. Players that dont actually want to run, but think they do. At first these players are just happy to have found a game, then they gradually start complaining about various things (nothing constructive- edition wars, "your game isnt like critical role", etc), progressing into tantrums at the table and then quitting. Maybe ive just had bad luck with problem players.
 

what im really getting at are players that are really armchair quarterbacks, not actually quarterbacks. Players that dont actually want to run, but think they do. At first these players are just happy to have found a game, then they gradually start complaining about various things (nothing constructive- edition wars, "your game isnt like critical role", etc), progressing into tantrums at the table and then quitting. Maybe ive just had bad luck with problem players.
Non of my players are like that. They make a point of not complaining, even when I'm rubbish, since they are so glad to have someone to do the job.
 

Garmorn

Explorer
While I prefer to DM, I also want to be a play every 2nd or 3rd Campaign. That was fine because up until 2005 I was in a group that ran 3 to 4 campaigns per week and had 3 DM and up to 14 players. I have taken a long break of over 10 years (my to my dismay). I doubt that there will ever be a enough DMs unless group size grows beyond 6 or more players per game. That would require special mix of players and a very good DM.
 

pumasleeve

Explorer
I'm not a published module GM, but if I were I'd be supremely pissed at WotC's weirdly slow publishing pace, and current tendency toward big adventure books that take you through an entire campaign in a given and very specific setting, instead of more standalone and general stories. I know, Candlekeep is different, but it's also a pretty rare case (and it's still all about one place). How about just producing more stuff, potentially with lower production values, because it's for DMs not players?

Or is WotC's output not a problem that DMs actually have? Or do people tend to like the campaign-book approach and/or get their fill of published adventures from third-party publishers?
having switched from 5th ed to OSR, im definitely appreciating working with 25 page booklets that cover 3 or 4 levels of play that can be inserted into any campaign, as opposed to the wotc books that cover 10 to 15 levels of play. I wonder if the format may be part of the reason dms prefer to make their own stuff?
 

I'm not a published module GM, but if I were I'd be supremely pissed at WotC's weirdly slow publishing pace, and current tendency toward big adventure books that take you through an entire campaign in a given and very specific setting, instead of more standalone and general stories. I know, Candlekeep is different, but it's also a pretty rare case (and it's still all about one place). How about just producing more stuff, potentially with lower production values, because it's for DMs not players?

Or is WotC's output not a problem that DMs actually have? Or do people tend to like the campaign-book approach and/or get their fill of published adventures from third-party publishers?
It's not ideal, but most of us understand the economics of it, from WotC's perspective.
 

Garmorn

Explorer
what im really getting at are players that are really armchair quarterbacks, not actually quarterbacks. Players that dont actually want to run, but think they do. At first these players are just happy to have found a game, then they gradually start complaining about various things (nothing constructive- edition wars, "your game isnt like critical role", etc), progressing into tantrums at the table and then quitting. Maybe ive just had bad luck with problem players.
I have had players who specifically refuse to DM. They don't complain and are just happy to play. Of course there are all types. Since I start running games in 1980 I have seen all types. The best hope is to encourage the ones that what to try it. One way is to set up a one off quest in your current game with them and let them run it. There are lots of other approaches also.
 
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Everyone has their own preferences and reasons for enjoying RPGs, and that's wonderful. But I am generally against the DM "telling stories" at least in long form campaign games because "telling stories" means both prescribing and proscribing things better left to player choice, dice rolls and whim.
It doesn't. But since you aren't that kind of DM, I guess you can be forgiven for not understanding how it works.

Even when you are writing a novel, you do it by creating your characters, then asking yourself "what would X do in this situation?" Storytelling doesn't involve the author telling the characters what to do, it involves the characters telling the author what they do.
 

Reynard

Legend
It doesn't. But since you aren't that kind of DM, I guess you can be forgiven for not understanding how it works.

Even when you are writing a novel, you do it by creating your characters, then asking yourself "what would X do in this situation?" Storytelling doesn't involve the author telling the characters what to do, it involves the characters telling the author what they do.
We are apparently using such divergent definitions for the same word that there isn't much point in arguing about it, since we aren't talking about the same thing.
 

loverdrive

Makin' cool stuff
I honestly don't think there's that much disparity in numbers between GMs and players (though there's definitely some).

I think the main reason is that "stage magician" mentality -- the GM should know every nook and cranny of the game world and the players can poke at it with 3m poles! Oh, and also the GM must make that naughty word fun.

Screw that naughty word. It's perfectly okay to not be prepared for anything, it's perfectly okay to redirect questions at players. Being a "stage magician" is the last thing I want.

Other thing I always make clear is that players' fun is their responsibility, not mine. I'm here to entertain myself. I don't know what the players want, I'm not a psychic, and even if I was, I'd use that power to steal people's CVCs anyway.
 

Sithlord

Adventurer
I honestly don't think there's that much disparity in numbers between GMs and players (though there's definitely some).

I think the main reason is that "stage magician" mentality -- the GM should know every nook and cranny of the game world and the players can poke at it with 3m poles! Oh, and also the GM must make that naughty word fun.

Screw that naughty word. It's perfectly okay to not be prepared for anything, it's perfectly okay to redirect questions at players. Being a "stage magician" is the last thing I want.

Other thing I always make clear is that players' fun is their responsibility, not mine. I'm here to entertain myself. I don't know what the players want, I'm not a psychic, and even if I was, I'd use that power to steal people's CVCs anyway.
It’s also perfectly okay to die because you are not prepared for everything.
 

AtomicPope

Adventurer
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.

I disagree with this, as it's conflating problems. Unclear rules are a problem. God GMs are a problem. The GM will always be the arbiter of rules regardless of whether or not they're absolutes because in the end a decision must always be made. Who makes that decision? The GM or the player?

How many GMs still make up their own adventures? I don't know, but evidently a small minority.
I'd like to see real data on this claim. All I have is over 35 years of anecdotal experience in RPGs, both playing and running, with people from all over the world, and it's very different from this claim. In fact, my experience is the opposite is happening. With the advent of the internet, social media, and online communities more GMs are making their own adventures. Not to mention, nearly everyone is tailoring published adventures to suit their own homebrewed campaign. When I was a kid we'd run adventures directly out of the modules with no real changes. Now it seems that even young people are inspired by online communities, not to mention WotC itself as written in their campaign modules, to modify the source material to suit their needs and explore new ideas.

I think of RPGs as games, not storytelling.
I highly disagree. RPGs are collective storytelling games. The strength of pencil-and-paper RPGs over video games is in the collective imagination, it's in the story. When we lose sight of this we lose what's best about them. Video games are much better at keeping track of time and numbers. A video game can track nanoseconds and calculate every result to the millioneth decimal place. Unless you're a Mentat, you can't. However, you can construct narrative time better than any video game can because it suits the needs of a story that's being told together, live, and by all of us.
 

TheSword

Legend
It’s a good idea for DMs to play semi-regularly. It keeps them humble, and means they see things from a players perspective every so often. There are a few names on the list of DM only that now explains some of their positions in other threads. Though I appreciate I am lucky to have a great GM who runs games alongside me, giving me chance to play. I know not everyone is that lucky.

Reducing conflict with more rules Comprehensive rule sets make calls harder not easier. DMing 5e after Pathfinder 1e for 8 years was an absolute joy. The other DM in our group agreed. More rules stifles creativity and slows down the game.

Published adventures can be amazing. Just so long as you remember they’re not tailored yet. Keep the best elements, add your own spice to taste and you can come out with something amazing. Heck even Chris Perkins changes things to his own style and he wrote/edited the damn things.

The hate for published adventures is bewildering. A bit like a playwright criticising a theatre group for performing a play by another more famous writer. You just wouldn’t see it in other creative collaborative worlds. It smacks of reverse snobbery to me.
 


TheSword

Legend
Maybe because Pathfinder 1E is utterly incomprehensible, like an RPG version of Necronomicon?
Player: “I want to hide behind the door and peek my head out to fire a crossbow if I hear a noise”

DM: [Quickly searches ‘door,’ ‘peek’ and ‘listen’ on the 1,400 feat SRD] Well do you have the Door Shield feat? In which case you can do this as a swift action and get a +2 bonus to AC

Player: I’ve never heard of Door Shield? Is that a thing?

DM: Yes it was released in the module Doors of Oblivion, part 4 of the Doomsday Door AP.

Player: Ah, no I don’t.

DM: What about Cautious Peeper? In which case it’s +1 to sight based perception checks and you can cause enemies to reduce ranged attack rolls against you by 4 if you make a CBD check = to 10 + the enemies perception skill + the number of rounds it’s been since you last did something interesting. It was released in the Ultimate Bar-Steward book in 2015?

Player: I’ve never heard of that either... I took Toughness and Weapon Focus.

DM: Ahhh... ok... well... you can’t do it then.
 
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Grendel_Khan

Adventurer
The hate for published adventures is bewildering. A bit like a playwright criticising a theatre group for performing a play by another more famous writer. You just wouldn’t see it in other creative collaborative worlds. It smacks of reverse snobbery to me.

I'll fully admit to being a gaming snob, but allow me to be something even worse: a pedant! Comparing published adventures to plays doesn't work for me, since when you stage a play you don't have an established set of background characters and then tell the lead actors and featured players to just, like, make up whatever roles and dialogue they want. TTRPGs are notoriously hard to compare to almost anything else, and even when people argue that it's like improv...well, improv troupes never stop the action to spend three hours rolling initiative and asking a million questions about which enemy is still up and which one is wearing better armor than the other.

I think the written adventures that are masterpieces (like Masks of Nyarlathotep or something) are great not because they've necessarily laid out some timeless narrative, but because they've given you excellent, time-saving tools to put together a new story that's almost totally your group's. But damn it if those aren't rare, and I've yet to see one whose central storyline is great or memorable on its own, because that would involve some wonderful narrative unfolding between NPCs, while your resident group of PCs just watches it all happen.
 

TheSword

Legend
I'll fully admit to being a gaming snob, but allow me to be something even worse: a pedant! Comparing published adventures to plays doesn't work for me, since when you stage a play you don't have an established set of background characters and then tell the lead actors and featured players to just, like, make up whatever roles and dialogue they want. TTRPGs are notoriously hard to compare to almost anything else, and even when people argue that it's like improv...well, improv troupes never stop the action to spend three hours rolling initiative and asking a million questions about which enemy is still up and which one is wearing better armor than the other.

I think the written adventures that are masterpieces (like Masks of Nyarlathotep or something) are great not because they've necessarily laid out some timeless narrative, but because they've given you excellent, time-saving tools to put together a new story that's almost totally your group's. But damn it if those aren't rare, and I've yet to see one whose central storyline is great or memorable on its own, because that would involve some wonderful narrative unfolding between NPCs, while your resident group of PCs just watches it all happen.
Curse of the Crimson Throne?
Rise of the Runelords?
Carrion Crown?
The Enemy Within?
Curse of Strahd?
Odyssey of the Dragonlords?
Age of Worms?

What do you mean storyline is ‘great or memorable on its own’? The stories are designed to be interacted with by the parties.

The early days of Paizo were probably the best examples of the great campaigns though I would count Curse of Strahd and Odyssey of the Dragonlords as greats.

Also just because it’s published doesn’t mean it’s epic and will take years to complete. Look at WFRPs Ubersreik Adventures and Ubersreik Adventures II. Twelve one-shots of original and interesting adventures that can be completed in a session or two.
 
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loverdrive

Makin' cool stuff
Player: “I want to hide behind the door and peek my head out to fire a crossbow if I hear a noise”

DM: [Quickly searches ‘door,’ ‘peek’ and ‘listen’ on the 1,400 feat SRD] Well do you have the Door Shield feat? In which case you can do this as a swift action and a +2 bonus to AC

Player: I’ve never heard of Door Shield? Is that a thing?

DM: Yes it was released in the module Doors of Oblivion, part 4 of the Doomsday Door AP.

Player: Ah, no I don’t.

DM: What about Cautious Peeper? In which case it’s +1 to sight based perception checks and you can cause enemies to reduce ranged attack rolls against you by 4 if you make a CBD check = to 10 + the enemies perception skill + the number of rounds it’s been since you last did something interesting. It was released in the Ultimate Bar-Steward book in 2015?

Player: I’ve never heard of that either... I took Toughness and Weapon Focus.

DM: Ahhh... ok... well... you can’t do it then.
Player: “I want to hide behind the door and peek my head out to fire a crossbow if I hear a noise”

DM: [Quickly searches ‘door,’ ‘peek’ and ‘listen’ on the 1,400 feat SRD] Well do you have the Door Shield feat? In which case you can do this as a swift action and a +2 bonus to AC

Player: I’ve never heard of Door Shield? Is that a thing?

DM: Yes it was released in the module Doors of Oblivion, part 4 of the Doomsday Door AP.

Player: Ah, no I don’t.

DM: What about Cautious Peeper? In which case it’s +1 to sight based perception checks and you can cause enemies to reduce ranged attack rolls against you by 4 if you make a CBD check = to 10 + the enemies perception skill + the number of rounds it’s been since you last did something interesting. It was released in the Ultimate Bar-Steward book in 2015?

Player: I’ve never heard of that either... I took Toughness and Weapon Focus.

DM: Ahhh... ok... well... you can’t do it then.
That pretty much sums up my experience with Pathfinder. Or Doorfinder, in this case, I guess.

Now, serious bussiness.

While I agree that complex rules on using doors as a shield don't help with running the game at all, actual rules on running the game do -- something that Pathfinder nor 5E have.

In PbtA games, on the other hand, Master of Ceremonies has pretty solid framework to rely on. The players look at me and waits for what I have to say? I must make a move -- say something that demands a response and end it with "What ya gonna do?". Ok, what kind of move should I make? One that furthers the Agenda and aligns with Principles. Easy. Just follow the rules and it will work like a charm.
 

Regnier_LoT

Villager
PbtA is great for some and bad for others GMs. I know GMs that hate PbtA because they feel that the system doesn't allow you to write your own stories and instead you are supposed to "discover the story" with your players, which means that you must be actually good at improvising the entire thing. As a Kult GM I don't see this issue personally, but there is a lot of people who keep saying that Kult is not PbtA precisely because it allows to run a module instead of playing with no predefined story.

In either case, finding GMs for X system could be an entirely new thread. I'm mostly curious to see a poll that reflects how many times players are willing to play the same module. Once in their lifetime? Multiple times but with a different GM each time?
 

what im really getting at are players that are really armchair quarterbacks, not actually quarterbacks. Players that dont actually want to run, but think they do. At first these players are just happy to have found a game, then they gradually start complaining about various things (nothing constructive- edition wars, "your game isnt like critical role", etc), progressing into tantrums at the table and then quitting. Maybe ive just had bad luck with problem players.
I've had a couple players like that over the years & generally find that the ones most likely to be frustrated that it's not like critical role in ways that come out at the table are te least involved of my players with the biggest case of main character syndrome. It's why I was so thrilled to see a couple player facing pages in character creation aimed at helping players avoid it in amime5e. trying to push back against it as a gm is extremely difficult to do without coming off as the bad guy
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