Mar 01 2012

The GM’s Role

I was reading a post on a message board about the GM’s role in RPG’s. This was my reply. I though it was interesting enough to share it so here’s the posts that started the conversation by Michael Hoff:

“What is the role of a GM? (As it applies to RPGs)”

To get the ball rolling, I’d offer the view point that a GM is two-thirds story teller, one-third referee.

I think the bulk of an RP is in the story: the characters, the plot, the world, the ebb and flow of actions and reactions. Anytime I hear about somebody relating fond memories of RP experiences, the rules or edition used is always secondary to the events that made it up. Doesn’t matter much whether you beat an Orcs THACO or AC as much as how engaging the experience was.

And while I’m always a story supremacist over rules lawyer (Which is really what wargaming is for anyway) the GM still has to keep the story itself within the boundaries of rules or else we really are just sitting around playing pretend. 

I’d love to hear how other people feel.

Here’s Robert Ferrick’s response:

I would agree though I would add a few other roles that GM’s often play:

  • Teacher
  • Social Organizer
  • Chef
  • 3-D artist

These are just a few of course, but it is often left to the GM to organize the chaos of getting four or five people in the same room on a regular basis and getting them fed, making sure they know how to play, creating props, models, terrain, and sometimes the representations of the heroes they play and finding new and interesting ways to provide excitement and challenges while balancing the needs of the story with the needs of the individuals.To me the story always comes first but learning what kind of experience a diverse group wants as individuals and meeting those needs is a great challenge. By this I don’t mean that it is a hardship, but a joy. The people who are always looking for the next challenge and trying to come up with quality material on a regular basis are the GM’s people come back to. 

Each GM has strengths and weaknesses of course…personally I could give a flying fart about rules lawyering. I once persuaded a GM to let our NPC viking mascot crash through a wall rather than simply walk around the side of the building because it was more visually pleasing and more in keeping with the personality of the character. And it worked. Just that little change to an ongoing story can make a great moment. When a plaster covered viking with lathes sticking out of his fur came charging out at the guards they just about peed their loincloths.

Moments like that are what make a personally told story better than video games and even some books. Ok, so the story may not be a Pulitzer but by Crom you were THERE when it happened.

And here’s my retort:

I think the GM’s role depends entirely on which game you’re playing because there is such a plethora of games out there today. The GM’s role in a game like mouse guard, is different from the GM’s role in the New Marvel Superhero’s RPG by Margret Weis which is similar but different from the GM’s role in the old Marvel RPG from TSR, which is different from Dog’s in the Vineyard or Inspecters, or Dread, or Blowback or ect…

Ok now that I’ve gotten that out of my system I suppose you’re talking about more traditional RPG’s like the various iterations of D&D including Pathfinder, Traveler, Cortex, Savage Worlds, and such. In that case I think these are the rolls a GM should fullfil:

  • A facilitator to telling stories.
  • The one who challenges the PC’s by creating conflict so drama is created and interesting stories can be told.
  • The interpreter of the games rules so he can do the best job possible with steps 1 and 2.

It’s a short list but it has a deep meaning. In a traditional game most of the pressure to create plot is on the GM. Most trad games don’t have rules for creating back stories, it’s just the way it is. Crafting a character suggests idea’s of back story but they’re just not there most of the time. This has changed in recent times as gaming is evolving and the line between those hippy indy designers and the trad designers is getting blurred more and more. Sorry got a little off topic. The point is even if the GM has back story from the players he can choose to ignore it if he’d like, which would be silly since my personal feeling is GM’s should be story facilitators.

Interesting stories are created by drama and drama is created with conflict which is the GM’s job. With out the conflict or challenge there’s really no game because there’s no decisions to be made to change the state of the story. This is necessary for an interesting game experience otherwise we’re just having round robin storytelling and that’s when I get to the rules interpreter.

We use rules to help us decide what happens in those situation. It’s the random element that keeps us guessing at the stories events. GM’s who understand not just what the rules do but why they’re doing them and how they can create a certain feel are the best GM’s. They can understand when a cool scene, like a viking breaking through a wall instead of walking around, is better for the scene and can manipulate the rules to create the chance for the event to occur. I’m a rules guy and I’m a story guy. You can be both, especially if you understand a games rules should reflect the games style. If they don’t then you’re making more work for yourself than is nessessary and you’re cheating your players out of the experience they really want.

Question: What do you think the GM’s role in gaming should be?

Chris “The Light” Snieak

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