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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?

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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

AdmundfortGeographer

Getting lost in fantasy maps
You know, one low hanging fruit for making the “job” of being the DM easier for starter/novices is to stop slapping bloated lists of spells on enemies that DMs will run. It really adds to the preparation work. It adds to DM decision complexity, choosing from far too many options. It slows combats to a halt as DMs must cross reference back and forth between the Monster Manual/Volo’s/Mordenkainen’s and PHB/Xanathar’s/Tasha’s.

If spell lists must be added, mark each spell that is a reaction, bonus action, or takes concentration in the list. That alone can make DM decision making for enemy actions, when the lifespan of a foe might be 2-3 rounds, greatly improved.
 

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Xenthaar1944

Villager
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.
Maybe set limits and standards? Maybe expect young people to act as "polite, well-behaved, considerate" young people? Sure as hell worked with my kids. My kids started playing in DND Year One. The game taught them math, reading, teamwork, planning and self-control. Or you can just shrug and let young people act as young thugs . . . That won't help them much later in life. Accept the coaching!
 

You know, one low hanging fruit for making the “job” of being the DM easier for starter/novices is to stop slapping bloated lists of spells on enemies that DMs will run. It really adds to the preparation work. It adds to DM decision complexity, choosing from far too many options. It slows combats to a halt as DMs must cross reference back and forth between the Monster Manual/Volo’s/Mordenkainen’s and PHB/Xanathar’s/Tasha’s.

If spell lists must be added, mark each spell that is a reaction, bonus action, or takes concentration in the list. That alone can make DM decision making for enemy actions, when the lifespan of a foe might be 2-3 rounds, greatly improved.
But that will kill the immersion for countless DMs! Think of the immersion!!
 

Sithlord

Adventurer
You know, one low hanging fruit for making the “job” of being the DM easier for starter/novices is to stop slapping bloated lists of spells on enemies that DMs will run. It really adds to the preparation work. It adds to DM decision complexity, choosing from far too many options. It slows combats to a halt as DMs must cross reference back and forth between the Monster Manual/Volo’s/Mordenkainen’s and PHB/Xanathar’s/Tasha’s.

If spell lists must be added, mark each spell that is a reaction, bonus action, or takes concentration in the list. That alone can make DM decision making for enemy actions, when the lifespan of a foe might be 2-3 rounds, greatly improved.
I love enemy spellcasters with lots of spells. I’m ticked dragons don’t have 12 age categories and a big list of spells. Same with Titans and many others.
 



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.
Welcome to D&D 3.X - the edition that in my experience broke a lot of DMs. Players loved it but DMs found the amount of work they had to put in to be excessive.

Instead of doing that I would suggest looking at and seeing what worked from games that have a high ratio of DMs to players. In my experience these have included o (not A) D&D, 4e, and Apocalypse World.

What do all these games have in common?
  • A clear play expectation on the GM
  • Simple clean rules with exception based design - all you need to actually play (and I mean all the rules) can be written on a couple of sides. This makes improvising in response to actions easy.
  • Simple enough monster design that you can do it on the fly - and you almost never have to work to e.g. find a spell.
  • Class based and balanced enough that the GM doesn't have to fix bad game design and only needs to concentrate on their side of the screen.
 

nevin

Adventurer
Maybe set limits and standards? Maybe expect young people to act as "polite, well-behaved, considerate" young people? Sure as hell worked with my kids. My kids started playing in DND Year One. The game taught them math, reading, teamwork, planning and self-control. Or you can just shrug and let young people act as young thugs . . . That won't help them much later in life. Accept the coaching!
What I've noticed over many years is too many older gaMe masters usually the ones without kids to be fair, expect the young gamers they recruit to act like they are 40. I think the fact that you instantly go to the idea that I think young gamers misbehave more reinforces my point. They in general aren't any better or worse in behavior than us old farts. But......they are younger and they do play differently and see things differently than us old people. And far too many grumpy old GMs run off good players
 

Sithlord

Adventurer
What I've noticed over many years is too many older gaMe masters usually the ones without kids to be fair, expect the young gamers they recruit to act like they are 40. I think the fact that you instantly go to the idea that I think young gamers misbehave more reinforces my point. They in general aren't any better or worse in behavior than us old farts. But......they are younger and they do play differently and see things differently than us old people. And far too many grumpy old GMs run off good players
That’s very true. I like playing in game with young people when they DM. And I like homebrew adventures and house rules designed for such settings. I try to never criticize and just let them enjoy the creative process. Which many times is not working. They really are learning by trial and error why some things work and somethings don’t. But I think thats part of learning to DM and create such settings. It normally takes many attempts at this to get decent at it. Love the guy that did his own Dino world.

but I do notice many of them not liking it when I don’t change my settings to fit what they want. I prefer to do 5E PHB by the book with them and do no homebrew rules with them. Mainly when they want to do something I tell them that’s a cool idea build a game around it and I’ll play in it and see how it works.
 

Welcome to D&D 3.X - the edition that in my experience broke a lot of DMs. Players loved it but DMs found the amount of work they had to put in to be excessive.

Instead of doing that I would suggest looking at and seeing what worked from games that have a high ratio of DMs to players. In my experience these have included o (not A) D&D, 4e, and Apocalypse World.

What do all these games have in common?
  • A clear play expectation on the GM
  • Simple clean rules with exception based design - all you need to actually play (and I mean all the rules) can be written on a couple of sides. This makes improvising in response to actions easy.
  • Simple enough monster design that you can do it on the fly - and you almost never have to work to e.g. find a spell.
  • Class based and balanced enough that the GM doesn't have to fix bad game design and only needs to concentrate on their side of the screen.
Very much this. This was my first reaction to Lew's comments about making clear-as-possible player-facing rules and making the DM an interpreter more than a judge/designer. 3E did that, and it was a remarkably logical, robust and player-empowering design, but it became utterly onerous to DM after a few levels. Turns out making monsters and PCs follow strictly rationalized, consistent rules despite their utterly different use-cases was a giant PITA.

4E, by comparison, made encounter design and running the game with dynamic, exciting encounters almost EASY. It was the first time in all my play experience, going back to the mid 80s, that I really enjoyed DMing and didn't find it excessive work for the reward.
 

My experience greatly differs.

The problem is not that there are too few gamemasters... it's that there are so few good ones.

I have been personally lucky to play with really good GMs. But, have read, watched, visited, and played at enough conventions to know there are a lot more mediocre or "not very good" GMs out there than there are decent and good GMs.
 

My experience greatly differs.

The problem is not that there are too few gamemasters... it's that there are so few good ones.

I have been personally lucky to play with really good GMs. But, have read, watched, visited, and played at enough conventions to know there are a lot more mediocre or "not very good" GMs out there than there are decent and good GMs.
I know, it's strange to reply to your own post. But I just read my comment and thought what a negative Nelly it sounds like. I don't mean it that way. I think the people on this forum all have enough GM experience to understand we improve our craft with experience. That said, there is are many that, even with experience, will never rise above average. It seems to be an innate talent to reply off the cusp with an answer that is both sound, reasonable, and one that the table approves.
Again, those things can be improved, but there are people just born for public speaking or acting. (Born with that high charisma. ;)) They have a built in advantage, that when combined with a passion, make for great GMs.
 


My experience greatly differs.

The problem is not that there are too few gamemasters... it's that there are so few good ones.

I have been personally lucky to play with really good GMs. But, have read, watched, visited, and played at enough conventions to know there are a lot more mediocre or "not very good" GMs out there than there are decent and good GMs.
I would rate myself as a mediocre DM, but my group are willing to tolerate mediocrity because there are no better DMs available.
 


Reynard

Legend
That thread was more like one-true-wayism. Best practice forces people to argue about what’s best. Now google ‘Tips for DMing” instead and you’ll be inundated.
So much so it can actually be frustrating for an experienced GM (me) just looking for YT or podcast GMing discussions NOT aimed at the basics. It seems like everyone who has been GMing for 5 years has an advice video series for the total news, but no one wants to deep dive with the vets.
 

TheSword

Legend
So much so it can actually be frustrating for an experienced GM (me) just looking for YT or podcast GMing discussions NOT aimed at the basics. It seems like everyone who has been GMing for 5 years has an advice video series for the total news, but no one wants to deep dive with the vets.
That’s where the forums really come into their own I think. Where topics can be properly discussed in depth from multiple view points. There really is no substitute I think.
 


Norton

Explorer
I hadn't really thought about DMing in terms of how it integrally serves the industry as a while. Very daunting to imagine running a gaming empire that relies in large part on a rare kind of individual who has the aptitude, time and will to do the heavy, homework-laden lifting of your product. What's the ratio of gamer to DM? It might be written in places as 6/1, but to be fair that excludes all the gamers not getting games because they can't find a good and reliable DM who is willing to make the investment.

I'm a DM for four groups at present, with two weekly and two monthly. All of them are broad campaigns involving a combination of home brew and published. I'm a writer and creator so it's kind of in my DNA to DM and I really have no interest in being a player outside of the very occasional one-shot death crawl. To the point of the thread, I don't know if there is a way to increase the amount of self-flagellating bastards like myself. You're kind of born with it, no?

But for those who are suited but sitting out for various reasons, it may be worthwhile for publishers and companies to not just try and come up with tools that help facilitate running all kinds of styles of games (doffs cap to Sly Flourish) but also tools that cater to players so they become more of a draw to run games for. Role play guides, session checklists, and yes, suggestion of payment (I get paid by my monthly groups and "tipped" by my weekly groups). Money helps add energy to prep and performance, but nothing really gets me going like the passion of players to play. If you're just setting in for the ride while you watch TV and check your socials, maybe don't join a group.

I am tired, and life gets in the way quite a bit. Still, I prep all the time because I like telling stories and envisioning scenarios and encounters that I know will thrill my players. I can't tell you how much relief I would feel if I knew my players were also working on becoming better, and allowing me to look forward to observing their role play and plan executions that allow me to breathe a bit and hand over the reins. Alas—and I blame video games in part—they're probably not thinking about the game at all until two minutes before, when they full expect me to have my sh*t together.
 

I wouldn't go that far. One person on that thread is insistent. The majority of GMs I know are open. But, I believe the problem comes not with best practices (those are often individualized per table), but with innate talent. Some people are just better (by a lot) at holding an audience's attention.
I couldn't disagree more. DMing is a skill - and like all skills it can be taught, honed, and practiced. A slightly below average person can, with hard work and effort massively outdo a talented person who doesn't train and practice at almost any skill.

And my issue with 5e is that 4e had excellent tools for teaching the mechanical parts of DMing (particularly monster creation and encounter balancing) and Skill Challenges should have been one if they were better explained. 5e more or less throws DMs in the deep end and tells them to go. 3.X was worse, telling DMs not only to go but also they need to be a Rules Master of a complex game,
 

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