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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

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I'm not a published module GM, but if I were I'd be supremely pissed at WotC's weirdly slow publishing pace,
Nobody's restricted to only using WotC modules, though. There's lots of third-party stuff out there for 5e and truckloads of modules for older editions that just need a bit of conversion in order to work with any other edition.
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.
Here I agree. Give me a standalone any time.

That said, their Princes of the Apocalyspe - if approached from a modular frame of mind - can easily be taken as 15 or so separate standalone modules for a range of different character levels, all in one book. Just strip out the bits that tie them together, both literally (the connecting passages) and figuratively (the backstory).
 

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TheSword

Legend
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.
I made it clear why. The refutation that success is linked to quality. You can see the examples in every thread discussing a new campaign book launch.

What makes it doubly astounding is that it’s amateurs that make these attempts to denigrate the published campaigns. Despite all evidence to the contrary.
 


TheSword

Legend
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?
🤷🏻‍♂️ I definitely like a themed campaign to capture the imagination.

With a typical campaign lasting us about 18 months, one every 6 months gives us plenty to choose from.
 

Grendel_Khan

Adventurer
🤷🏻‍♂️ I definitely like a themed campaign to capture the imagination.

With a typical campaign lasting us about 18 months, one every 6 months gives us plenty to choose from.

I may disagree about the list of great campaigns you cited earlier (Curse of Strahd, etc.), but based on this it sounds like you're the exact target audience, and like they're serving you well.

I say that without snark, seriously.
 

What makes it doubly astounding is that it’s amateurs that make these attempts to denigrate the published campaigns. Despite all evidence to the contrary.

First of all... amateurs? How well do you know the users on this forum? Several have published roleplaying material themselves. So... speaking of denigration...

To me, it sounds like you simply dislike criticism of published work. If that be the case, then why are you on a discussion forum?
 

TheSword

Legend
First of all... amateurs? How well do you know the users on this forum? Several have published roleplaying material themselves. So... speaking of denigration...

To me, it sounds like you simply dislike criticism of published work. If that be the case, then why are you on a discussion forum?
I don’t see the professionals (and yes there are plenty of them) writing off other professionally produced works. They appreciate how much effort goes into it and are a lot more respectful. Yes I do believe it’s the armchair amateurs that are the most vociferous.

There is a difference between criticizing (throwing mud at something you don’t have a taste for) and criticism (looking at the pros and cons of something in a considered light). I’m all for the latter.

For instance, there were plenty of things that could be improved in Rime of the Frostmaiden. Discussing what they are and why is interesting. Less interesting is hearing people go onto that thread just to trash talk WOC and urinate on the parade. The people who claim despite popular acclaim, great blog reviews, great Amazon reviews, great production values, great sales, experienced writers, original IP, well drawn maps and balanced rules... it is really just a pile of shite and not a quality product at all. As I said, it’s bewildering.
 
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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I don’t see the professionals (and yes there are plenty of them) writing off other professionally produced works. They appreciate how much effort goes into it and are a lot more respectful. Yes I do believe it’s the armchair amateurs that are the most vociferous.

There is a difference between criticizing (throwing mud at something you don’t have a taste for) and criticism (looking at the pros and cons of something in a considered light). I’m all for the latter.
Very unlike some other trades, I tend to think that the only real differences between professional and amateur module writers are that the professionals a) get paid to do it, b) sometimes have more support behind them in terms of editors, distributors, etc., and c) are likely a bit more dedicated to it than are the amateurs.

Some of the best modules I've ever seen and-or run were written by amateurs. Some of the worst were written by professionals.

Obviously, the reverse is also true: I've seen and run (and written myself!) some really terrible amateur stuff, and seen and run some excellent professional material.

But if I evened out the production values, formatted them all the same, etc., I could put ten modules in front of you - a mix of amateur and professional - and on reading them through you might have a very hard time telling which was which.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
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.
They are not meant to be read but not used at the table. That’s a misrepresentation. Rather, they’ve said the people who like to read them but don’t expect to play them are also part of the market, as much as the gamers who will run them.
 

I don’t see the professionals (and yes there are plenty of them) writing off other professionally produced works.

Why not? If anything, a professional will have a stronger opinion on matters of their own field. Case in point, I am a level designer, and I criticise the level design in games all the time. I hold very strong opinions about it, because it is a subject I am very passionate about.


They appreciate how much effort goes into it and are a lot more respectful. Yes I do believe it’s the armchair amateurs that are the most vociferous.

Based on what though? And why are you so dismissive of our forum members, by calling them armchair critics?
There is a difference between criticizing (throwing mud at something you don’t have a taste for) and criticism (looking at the pros and cons of something in a considered light). I’m all for the latter.

Whether the criticism being thrown at a product is fair or unfair, is simply a matter of opinion. What you call mud slinging, we may consider good points.
For instance, there were plenty of things that could be improved in Rime of the Frostmaiden. Discussing what they are and why is interesting. Less interesting is hearing people go onto that thread just to trash talk WOC and urinate on the parade.
The vast mayority of people on this forum seem to fall into the former category though.

The people who claim despite popular acclaim, great blog reviews, great Amazon reviews, great production values, great sales,

Irrelevant. Argumentum ad populum.

experienced writers, original IP, well drawn maps and balanced rules... it is really just a pile of shite and not a quality product at all. As I said, it’s bewildering.

Even experienced writers write poor modules. And not every original IP is a guarantee for quality. If anything, the product of an experienced writer should be helt to a higher standard, and deserves close scrutiny and criticism.

Bare in mind that they want us to pay for the product. So it is perfectly fair to closely analyze and critique it.
 

pogre

Legend
I am a forever GM who plays on occasion just to get on the other side of the screen from time-to-time for perspective. I play to improve my GMing.

I'm going to paint with a broad brush a bit here - solid players who show up every week on time, are decent human beings, and value everyone's time and fun - to me, that's what is in scarcity. I'm blessed with such a group of players and I do not take them for granted!
 

TheSword

Legend
Very unlike some other trades, I tend to think that the only real differences between professional and amateur module writers are that the professionals a) get paid to do it, b) sometimes have more support behind them in terms of editors, distributors, etc., and c) are likely a bit more dedicated to it than are the amateurs.

Some of the best modules I've ever seen and-or run were written by amateurs. Some of the worst were written by professionals.

Obviously, the reverse is also true: I've seen and run (and written myself!) some really terrible amateur stuff, and seen and run some excellent professional material.

But if I evened out the production values, formatted them all the same, etc., I could put ten modules in front of you - a mix of amateur and professional - and on reading them through you might have a very hard time telling which was which.
I think there are some talented people out there waiting for a shot and some, given a chance could absolutely be held up against the lead designers of major firms. I agree.

The operative word is some though. This touches on Owen K C Steven’s feedback. The level of criticism fans feel they are entitled to level on forums is way beyond what you would see in other professional circumstances.

We wouldn’t look at a novelist like GRR Martin or Steven King and say there was no difference between them and amateurs (by amateurs in my posts I mean non-professionals).

The difference between the DM at the table and some of the professionals is that the DM gets feedback from 3-8 people. IF they are open to it, and IF they run a game with players able to put feedback meaningfully, and IF they are brave/forthright/blunt enough to be honest to the person whose house they may well be a guest in.

Chris Perkins has spent decades writing material for public consumption, being edited by professionals who are paid to be honest and improve the work, reviewed by experts, and played by thousands of gamers, discussed in forums and at conventions and game stores.

I agree that there is nothing fundamentally different from the two people. The amateur with the right practice, editing, testing and feedback loop, for year after year could definitely be at the level of a professional... I just don’t think a lot of the most vociferous critics on here are in that position.
 
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TheSword

Legend
Why not? If anything, a professional will have a stronger opinion on matters of their own field. Case in point, I am a level designer, and I criticise the level design in games all the time. I hold very strong opinions about it, because it is a subject I am very passionate about.
Yet they don’t come on here and trash other professionals... certainly not in their own names anyway 🥸. Passion is often manifested in tone deafness to how ones criticism is made.
Based on what though? And why are you so dismissive of our forum members, by calling them armchair critics?
Not all forum users. Just the rabidly critical ones
Whether the criticism being thrown at a product is fair or unfair, is simply a matter of opinion. What you call mud slinging, we may consider good points.
We learn how to critique a work in high school. Criticism of the kind seen a lot of time on here would get you an F. Don’t take my word for it, read the threads.
The vast mayority of people on this forum seem to fall into the former category though.
I’m not referring to them. I’m referring the people who aren’t critiquing but who are slinging mud. They have an ideological objection to published work, and think because they haven’t written it, it must be worse.
Irrelevant. Argumentum ad populum.
It’s not irrelevent in the context I’ve given. Limited market, similar price, similar product, freedom of choice. Marketing can only take you so far. I also don’t how you can see individual reviews as ad Populum.
Even experienced writers write poor modules. And not every original IP is a guarantee for quality. If anything, the product of an experienced writer should be helt to a higher standard, and deserves close scrutiny and criticism.
Bare in mind that they want us to pay for the product. So it is perfectly fair to closely analyze and critique it.
No, the standard should be fairly applied. This leads to Owen Steven’s points that fans think they have the right to level criticism far beyond what is reasonable or normal.

There is plenty of critiquing going on, in blogs ane reviews. We have more feedback loops now then at any point in history, with online streaming, unboxing videos, Amazon reviews, endless Reddit’s. I’m just saying there’s a way to do it and still be a decent person you know.
 

We learn how to critique a work in high school. Criticism of the kind seen a lot of time on here would get you an F. Don’t take my word for it, read the threads.

I kinda do on a daily basis. In my experience, the vast mayority of users on this forum is mature and fair. I may not always agree with everyone, but most users on this forum are able to articulate their criticism well, in a way that makes polite discussion possible.

I’m referring the people who aren’t critiquing but who are slinging mud. They have an ideological objection to published work, and think because they haven’t written it, it must be worse.

I don't know if that is true. I wouldn't presume so.

It’s not irrelevent in the context I’ve given. Limited market, similar price, similar product, freedom of choice. Marketing can only take you so far. I also don’t how you can see individual reviews as ad Populum.

Individual reviews, depending on who they are written by, can give you some idea of the quality of a product. I'll give you that. But popularity and sales numbers don't tell me anything about whether the product is good.

After all, lots of people bought tickets for The Last Jedi and lots of people had a great time. Still a terrible movie though. But then again, that is just my opinion.

No, the standard should be fairly applied. This leads to Owen Steven’s points that fans think they have the right to level criticism far beyond what is reasonable or normal.

Who decides what is reasonable and/or normal criticism?

If I need to pay for a product, I will judge it more harshly than a similar free product.

There is plenty of critiquing going on, in blogs ane reviews. We have more feedback loops now then at any point in history, with online streaming, unboxing videos, Amazon reviews, endless Reddit’s. I’m just saying there’s a way to do it and still be a decent person you know.

I don't think we need to be nice in our reviews of products at all. By all means, bash it to pieces, but make it an entertaining read.

I've seen vile reviews of things that I have produced, that I thought were unfair. But people are free to hold (and share) their opinions. It does not bother me, and it should not bother you.
 

TheSword

Legend
After all, lots of people bought tickets for The Last Jedi and lots of people had a great time. Still a terrible movie though. But then again, that is just my opinion.
Who decides what is reasonable and/or normal criticism?

If I need to pay for a product, I will judge it more harshly than a similar free product.

I don't think we need to be nice in our reviews of products at all. By all means, bash it to pieces, but make it an entertaining read.
The divide between published and homebrew is ideological for a lot of people and has nothing to do with quality. These people aren’t buying some books and not other. They have decided they don’t like published adventures, period. This often masquerades as a quality issue or value for money.

Their opinions are unlike to ever change, I get that.

Everyone can be a little bit nicer though.
 

Grendel_Khan

Adventurer
Everyone can be a little bit nicer though.

Ah good, relax everyone, the civility-wanter is here.

You can claim you're ever-so-appalled at all the meanies being terribly ungrateful toward the professionals gifting us dolts with their sales-generating material, but you know this is what happens in forums, and yet here you are. And what are you doing on this benighted, mean-spirited forum? You're spoiling for fights, and getting them.

That's your prerogative, but let's not pretend you're somehow above the fray just because you're sort of vaguely stanning for anything that people buy lots of copies of.
 

TheSword

Legend
Ah good, relax everyone, the civility-wanter is here.
I was talking about criticism of publisher work specifically. Talk to me you like.
You can claim you're ever-so-appalled at all the meanies being terribly ungrateful toward the professionals gifting us dolts with their sales-generating material, but you know this is what happens in forums, and yet here you are. And what are you doing on this benighted, mean-spirited forum? You're spoiling for fights, and getting them.

That's your prerogative, but let's not pretend you're somehow above the fray just because you're sort of vaguely stanning for anything that people buy lots of copies of.
Totally understand if when I said amateur it came across as incompetent rather than non-professional. I’m sorry for that, it wasn’t my intention. This came about coming the suggestion that quality is irrelevant when it comes to successful sales of RPG products. I don’t believe that is the case.

I agree that the best selling product isn’t necessary up the best quality product. But there is a threshold of quality that needs to be passed for something to be consistently successful the two aren’t unrelated... and growing. When added to all the other measure we can see, it paints a picture.

Anyway not spoiling for a fight. Sorry happy to leave it there if people prefer.
 

Grendel_Khan

Adventurer
Totally understand if when I said amateur it came across as incompetent rather than non-professional. I’m sorry for that, it wasn’t my intention. This came about coming the suggestion that quality is irrelevant when it comes to successful sales of RPG products. I don’t believe that is the case.

I agree that the best selling product isn’t necessary up the best quality product. But there is a threshold of quality that needs to be passed for something to be consistently successful the two aren’t unrelated... and growing. When added to all the other measure we can see, it paints a picture.

Anyway not spoiling for a fight. Sorry happy to leave it there if people prefer.

I'll cool my jets too. Sorry for being so snippy back there.

But I do want to unpack this business of sales for modules as a measure of quality, specifically when it comes to WotC.

WotC dominates tabletop like no other company in any other industry. Maybe Disney comes close, except that Disney's acquisitions mean that it has a lot of output, and that output is relatively diverse. If nothing else they at least produce stuff in two big genres (SF and supers). WotC releases a tiny amount of RPG products per year, and they're not only entirely in one genre, but they've basically created their own genre. Most fantasy media, not that there's a tone of it, doesn't really resemble D&D. D&D is very much its own thing, and WotC's footprint is so big that, from a sales and total audience perspective, RPGs are almost entirely D&D.

I'm not a big fan of D&D, at all, so I'm not cheering any of this. Just stating the (to me) sad fact that the hobby I'm obsessed with is largely defined by a single company that puts out very few products, all of which are basically the same. Sure, you might fight a steam-driven automaton or whatever instead of a stone golem, but you're still doing it with spells and swords and MMO-style tactics.

But this leads, I think, to a uniquely captive audience, a massive fanbase that's waiting for any and every new WotC release. And because those are so rare, and because each one is a big old book, a landmark event that's hyped for months and discussed at length for months after, I don't think sales of those published adventure are a measure of anything, except that D&D is still looming over the hobby like a certain giant fiery eye. I do think that's an important measure--those sales tell us whether interest in D&D is rising or plateauing or waning. But I honestly don't think a ho-hum or even badly written adventure would change that trajectory, or be reflected in the sales. A true disaster might, but that's why I think the captive audience element is important. I can't imagine how bad a WotC product would have to be for it get a genuinely bad set of reviews. As long as they don't go nuts and add cyberware or something to the mix, everything is inherently graded on a curve, largely by people who are absolutely, 100 percent bought into what D&D is. And I think any pushback from outside the D&D faithful would be met with the same reaction that Avengers: Endgame fans had toward negative reviews of that movie: You aren't a fan! You don't get it!

I'm not saying that WotC is untouchable, or that they aren't capable of shitting the bed. We've obviously seen previous editions of D&D that didn't unite the fanbase like 5e has. But I do think that, given 5e's current position and dominance and all of the sunk costs that entails, all that their few-and-far-between books have to do is avoid being unreadable and they will continue to sell like crazy and get reviews that grade them on a curve--as D&D books, not as RPG materials, overall. If they produced more total books with a wider variety of content, I'd think that individual sales numbers would be a much more useful set of signals.
 

Lwaxy

Cute but dangerous
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.
Maybe not less prep,but not more either. I do not use them to ave on work but to be part of the world and share experiences with others played/GMed through the same campaign.
 

Lwaxy

Cute but dangerous
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?
If anything, the pace of modules,no matter what company,is too much for me. So much I want to GM and only so little time. I can't even keep up with Paizo, WotC is way on the backburner and I doubt I'll ever get there again.
 

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