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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

loverdrive

Makin' cool stuff
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
As if players like that actually read the rules...
 

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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?
That's fine if a system isn't for everyone, but 5e has a special revocation of excuse here. d&d had significant GM facing stuff devoted to exactly the kind of thing that @loverdrive seemed to be talking about in the past. If you go back & look at the 2e or 3.x dmg there is a huge percentage of it aimed at supplying the gm with exactly that kind of system & game understanding. I skipped 4e so won't comment on that edition, but 5e just says rulings not rules & leaves the gm to figure it out with blind trial & error.

"5e is a different kind of game" is a bad excuse that only goes so far. Take awarding experience, past editions had advice that better equips 5e gm than 5e's own anemic guidance. Awarding treasure is another area where past editions had extensive advice into important aspects that are not going to be immediately grasped without time & likely mistakes. For all the lip service 5e gives to rulings not rules that's another area where 5e literally excised rules that aided players & gms to all be on the same page when going outside the letter of existing & written rules
As if players like that actually read the rules...
oh indeed, but that's sandwiched between some details on starting point buy allowances & limits then followed up with a 30ish question character quiz thing
Character Quiz
** What are your character’s central strengths and weaknesses?

What are your character’s central strengths and weaknesses?
** What is your character’s primary emotional state?

What is your character’s primary emotional state?
** What role does your character fill in a group?

What role does your character fill in a group?
** Describe your character’s family or tribe.

Describe your character’s family or tribe.
** Who are your character’s three most valuable contacts?

Who are your character’s three most valuable contacts?
** What personal values and beliefs does your character hold?

What personal values and beliefs does your character hold?
** To whom is your character closest and why?

To whom is your character closest and why?
** What does your character need the most?

What does your character need the most?
** What are your character’s life goals?

What are your character’s life goals?
** What does your character fear the most?

What does your character fear the most?
** Describe your character’s appearance.

Describe your character’s appearance.
** How does your character define “heroism”?

How does your character define “heroism”?
** Describe your character’s hobbies, interests, desires, and likes.

Describe your character’s hobbies, interests, desires, and likes.
** What would your character do if they killed an innocent bystander?

What would your character do if they killed an innocent bystander?
** For what does your character have little patience and tolerance?

For what does your character have little patience and tolerance?
** Does your character hide any emotions in public?

Does your character hide any emotions in public?
** How does your character view death and beyond?

How does your character view death and beyond?
** What does your character dislike about themselves?

What does your character dislike about themselves?
** Describe your character’s bedroom or rest location.

Describe your character’s bedroom or rest location.
** Describe a perfect date night or other enjoyable outing.

Describe a perfect date night or other enjoyable outing.
** Describe your character’s relationship with money.

Describe your character’s relationship with money.
** Describe your character’s views on authority and the law.

Describe your character’s views on authority and the law.
** Who has impacted your character’s life direction the most?

Who has impacted your character’s life direction the most?
** How does your character view forgiveness and revenge?

How does your character view forgiveness and revenge?
** What are the origins of your character’s special abilities?

What are the origins of your character’s special abilities?
** What is the prime motivation behind your character’s actions?

What is the prime motivation behind your character’s actions?
** In which way does your character focus their personal growth?

In which way does your character focus their personal growth?
** Describe the accomplishment of which your character is most proud.

Describe the accomplishment of which your character is most proud.
** How does your character think they might die?

How does your character think they might die?
** How would your character describe themselves in a single sentence?

How would your character describe themselves in a single sentence?

Because of the way point buy works there is a lot more built in customization& associated advice throughout the races classes abilities & so on and those tend to have a decent chunk of guidance that's hard to avoid. Either way, even a character who rabidly avoids it will have a difficult time making the gm look like the bad guy when the gm is trying to point out what it says on a specific page.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Nevertheless, people will find an infinite way to act weird and bad. It sort of feels like being an animal caught in the headlights at night, and the unpleasant learning experience. Usually it takes effort not to think about it. Also reinforcing the idea of RPG's as a collaborative storytelling space, such as mixing mad libs with chain mail; the worst sins are usually having their character go off alone, wanting some one on one adventure time with everyone else watching, and totally undoing the previous players actions in the turn before or ignoring what they did completely.
 

TheSword

Legend
I was thinking that if there is a dearth of GM’s then it is maybe worth considering what things make me NOT want to GM (bearing in mind I am currently DMing 2 regular campaigns (and another once our monthly session starts up).

Things that make me not want to DM/Sap my DM enthusiasm include... in no particularly order...

  • Power players (or extreme optimizers, using the same very effective combinations to make the game trivial).
  • Players trying to force a character into a themed campaign that jarr with the theme (usually linked to the previous point).
  • Ingratitude from players. Particularly over magic items. This usually stems from a sense of entitlement. It’s also luckily very rare, though even in long term groups it can still be apparent.
  • Flakey players that can’t meet at least a semi-regular schedule... doesn’t matter what that schedule is. Missing a session is fine but regularly canceling sessions is frustrating.
  • Not being able to find the resources I need... this is mainly maps.
  • Exterior pressures, work pressure, time, partner etc.

The last one for me, is actually the least affecting, the first is the most (so maybe there was an order 😂) Mainly because RPGs are stress relief for me so work etc being tough makes me want to do it more.

The first one is a killer. Precisely because it’s stress relief for me, I don’t want games that play like a tug-o-war arms race, with players fighting to make challenges negligible. That’s not fun for me either.

I guess if you’re struggling to find a DM, it may be worth questioning whether these apply to you?
 


J.M

Explorer
It saddens me to hear people complaining about how published adventures "require more prep than coming up with something on my own" or aren't as imaginative/consistent/well-crafted/etc....not because it isn't true, but because it unfortunately is true. Published adventures can and should be game-enhancing and prep-reducing, but even some of the most celebrated examples seem to fall short of these basic requirements.
I believe published adventures would have a better reputation if they focused on why they exist in the first place.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
When a player shbeeep. When a player takes dump on a prewritten adventure, I am running, it bothers me less than when they take a dump on my personal written adventure. I only spend 3 hours reading and taking notes and writing in the published book. Not 3 hours of blood and sweat and tears of my own mental stuff. To have a jerk who had a bad week tick me off.
 

Reynard

Legend
It saddens me to hear people complaining about how published adventures "require more prep than coming up with something on my own" or aren't as imaginative/consistent/well-crafted/etc....not because it isn't true, but because it unfortunately is true. Published adventures can and should be game-enhancing and prep-reducing, but even some of the most celebrated examples seem to fall short of these basic requirements.
I believe published adventures would have a better reputation if they focused on why they exist in the first place.
I think this is due in large part because they are usually written to be read rather than used at the table. This is the Paizo style. James Jacobs and others have stated numerous times that their target market is people who may never actually use the modules, but enjoy reading them. This means that important playing information is obscured in unnecessary prose, among other things.

5E has been taking baby steps to alleviate this but has not been doing enough, IMO. The flowcharts in Descent into Avernus are essentially useless, and Rime of the Frostmaiden desperately needs an NPC and Quest relationship map. Modules could be visually designed in a way to let them be run at a glance, on the fly, with zero prep, but since pamphlet sized modules don't sell, we get the opposite.
 


TheSword

Legend
It saddens me to hear people complaining about how published adventures "require more prep than coming up with something on my own" or aren't as imaginative/consistent/well-crafted/etc....not because it isn't true, but because it unfortunately is true. Published adventures can and should be game-enhancing and prep-reducing, but even some of the most celebrated examples seem to fall short of these basic requirements.
I believe published adventures would have a better reputation if they focused on why they exist in the first place.
Have you considered that the top two selling RPG products of the last decade, 5e and Pathfinder did so on the back of published adventures...

Paizo became big enough to create a massive spin off D&D because of the popularity of Age of Worms, Shackled City and Savage Tide... plus it’s stewardship of Dungeon Magazine.

WOC has released more campaign books than supplements for 5e, which if you had told me was going to be the case in the 2e or 3e years, I would have laughed you out of the room. We would have said it can’t be done... you can’t make a successful publishing company off adventures. 12 years later look at us.

I don’t believe these companies would have been successful if their main product lines weren’t good.
 
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TheSword

Legend
I think this is due in large part because they are usually written to be read rather than used at the table. This is the Paizo style. James Jacobs and others have stated numerous times that their target market is people who may never actually use the modules, but enjoy reading them. This means that important playing information is obscured in unnecessary prose, among other things.

Have you got sources for this rather unusual claim? “their target market is people who may never actually use the modules.”?

Do you mean the fact that the magazine format Paizo used for their APs was designed to also have world building and crunch elements to broaden the appeal? That may be the case from a marketing point of view, but let’s be honest people buy the AP books for the AP, not for the feat, magic item or monster you can get on the SRD anyway.
 

nevin

Adventurer
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.
Opinions. Also I didn't call anyone a jerk said other people called them jerks. And I'm a grandpa gamer didn't upset me. But so far you have now twice responded to what you thought I said instead the actual sentences I wrote.
 


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. I can -- and have! -- write a novel if I want to "tell a story." I run games for a different reason entirely.

I don't agree with that at all. I've been running a story heavy campaign for years now, and I don't need to prescribe or proscribe much of anything. It's a sandbox. The players can go where they like, and do as they like. The story is then affected by their choices.
 

Reynard

Legend
I don't agree with that at all. I've been running a story heavy campaign for years now, and I don't need to prescribe or proscribe much of anything. It's a sandbox. The players can go where they like, and do as they like. The story is then affected by their choices.
I think it is a matter of terminology here. To me, what you describe is not "storytelling" as I would understand the term. That's letting story emerge from play.
 

TheSword

Legend
Sales numbers are not an indication of quality. Some of the worst music sells really well.
Not all Ad Populum arguments do, but some can.

When you are producing similar products, for a similar price, to the same competitive market then extreme sustained clear differences in popularity absolutely can indicate quality.

Particularly when backed up by glowing reviews, experienced writers and excellent art.

The continued antipathy on this forum for all things successful is a constant bafflement to me. Using wildly different products like music (a highly subjective thing anyway) to try and disprove the link between commercial success and quality for all products just doesn’t make sense. Maybe people don’t have enough business experience to see that 90% business USP is either quality of product or customer service. I don’t think the customer service is why 5e is smashing the competition with its Campaign Book strategy.

It’s like people are channeling @Aldarc
 

J.M

Explorer
Have you considered that the top two selling RPG products of the last decade, 5e and Pathfinder did so on the back of published adventures...

Paizo became big enough to create a massive spin off because of the popularity of Age of Worms, Shackled City and Savage Tide... plus it’s stewardship of Dungeon Magazine.

WOC has released more campaign books than supplements for 5e, which if you had told me was going to be the case in the 2e or 3e years, I would have laughed you out of the room. We would have said it can’t be done... you can’t make a successful publishing company off adventures. 12 years later look at us.

I don’t believe these companies would have been successful if their main product lines weren’t good.
What this suggests is that, as you point out, they've built successful game lines on the back of published adventures, which I appreciate and applaud. I'd much rather see lots of adventures I can run as is or mine for ideas, rather than the splat-fest we used to have in the 2e/3e days. But as @Reynard pointed out, it does not necessarily suggest that said adventures are optimized for ease of prep or table use.
 

Regnier_LoT

Villager
Although I agree that sales number isn't an indicator of quality, it is an indicator of how easy it will be for somebody to find players/GMs for that particular game. It will be easier for you to find a group for a best-seller game than for a niche game, which I think has a certain effect for new GMs that will try to follow the trend as it is easier that going against it. Also some people might not realise there are other games beyond those that have the greatest sales/playerbase/influencers.

I'm sure someone has had this conversation online (I have):
User 01 - "Looking for people to play (insert description of system)"
User 02 - "Excuse me, which D&D books do you allow to use?"
User 01 - "It isn't D&D"
User 02 - "What? You said it was a TTRPG..."
User 01 - "It is, but it isn't D&D. It is a different TTRPG with a different system"
User 02 - "Oh. I was under the belief that D&D was the only TTRPG..."
 

The continued antipathy on this forum for all things successful is a constant bafflement to me.
Where do you get the impression that people on this forum have antipathy for things that are succesful?

I certainly haven't. I judge products by their quality, not by their popularity.
 

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