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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
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.
We'll just have to agree to disagree on this one. I am specifically talking about DMing. And you are correct, practice will improve a person's DMing play. But imo, if you take someone that knows the rules, is good at impromptu, and can hold an audience's attention, they will outperform the mediocre DM who has practiced and practiced.
I have only anecdotal evidence, but can say this: I have observed this pattern over and over. I have seen DMs that can plan, are imaginative, and design great set pieces. But, that all means nothing if people talk over them, listen half-heartedly, or become distracted. On the other hand, I have seen DMs with almost no prep but great auditory and charismatic skills have players hold onto every word. And better yet, do it after a mere year's worth of practice.
Earlier I spoke of great DMs. I think this is when you can combine the prep with charisma.
 

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We'll just have to agree to disagree on this one. I am specifically talking about DMing. And you are correct, practice will improve a person's DMing play. But imo, if you take someone that knows the rules, is good at impromptu, and can hold an audience's attention, they will outperform the mediocre DM who has practiced and practiced.
But improv and holding the audience's attention are themselves both skills. Improv classes are the obvious way of learning this.
 



But improv and holding the audience's attention are themselves both skills. Improv classes are the obvious way of learning this.
I completely agree. People can and do get better. But there are some people that don't need a class and can still way outperform most that do. I hate to compare to something other than DMing, but for analogous purposes, I think it is a lot like singing. Yes, people can improve their tone, learn how to hold a note, learn timing and melody and phrasing, and can go from poor to descent, maybe even good.
Then along comes someone who sings in the shower. No training. Hasn't read one page on music theory or notes. But can out-sing the other with ease. Such are the naturally talented.
 

Yes, natural talent is usually a myth, hiding the fact that the person actually spend thousands of hours dedicated to something.

Reading books of the genre you want to DM, is one of the best ways of improving DMing skills. In my opinion.
I agree with this. But natural talent is a myth for people who are in the top one percent. In the rest of the bottom 99%, watch any high school sport, college play, backyard concert, etc. and the talented (practiced or not) separates itself. I mean even Gladwell declared his 10,000 hour rule incorrect.
That is not to say 10,000 hours of anything doesn't help. ;)
 

Reynard

Legend
Reading books of the genre you want to DM, is one of the best ways of improving DMing skills. In my opinion.
I don't think reading is a particularly useful tool for learning how to be a decent GM. I think playing under good GMs, watching good GMs, and getting advice from good GMs are all useful.(in descending order of value). But there is no substitute for doing it and -- importantly -- getting feedback when it is done.
 

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