What is a GM anyway?

Of course I know what a GM is. . . What I am trying to figure out, is how to explain how to be a good GM in as little space as possible because I’m rewriting the GM’s section for 3rd edition right now. I have a few thoughts on this so I thought I’d share them in advance.

It’s easy to watch a GM do a good job and understand what a new GM is supposed to do. It’s somewhat hard to coherently explain what a GM is supposed to be doing on paper. You can use the tactic of listing things a GM shouldn’t do and by explaining what a GM isn’t, what’s left should be the right thing. Like chiseling away at a block of stone to get a statue, you could remove unwanted ideas and traits until you have what you want. But that’s not what I’d like to do. I’d like to explain what a GM is, not what they aren’t. Why? I don’t know, I just like to do things the hard way.

I started thinking about it yesterday and I realized that even the name “Game Master” really gives the wrong idea. A good GM is not the master of the game, any more than the president of the United States is master of Congress. A good GM adheres to a system of checks and balances and a starting GM is probably anything but a master in the sense of skill.

What about other terms, like referee and arbiter? I’m not fond of these titles either because they explain part of the job but not nearly all of it. They’re too passive, like the players are going to duke it out and the referee is there to make sure it’s all above the belt. No, it doesn’t begin to describe the job.

When it comes down to it, the original term Dungeon Master makes sense. That player ran the dungeon, they were “master” of it. Except DM doesn’t make sense for any other game and it makes less sense in the current kind of play RPGs see.

A Definition

Misnomer titles aside, a GM’s job is actually not that hard to describe. It’s their job to present rewards to the players and assign costs to  the rewards. The rewards can be money, allies, new toys, new abilities, experience, knowledge or anything else that the players might find motivating. The cost can be just as diverse. In fact a GM should have several costs in mind for various ways the players might try and get the rewards. There are often multiple potential rewards in a game and there are even more costs for each of them. A starting GM will most likely do best with one reward or a few and expand the potential rewards for their games as they become more skilled at handling the game.

Balancing the value of the reward and the cost of reaching for it is crucial to keeping players excited and interested in the game. When the cost is too great, the players will not reach out for them. If the reward is too great, their progress in the game will be too rapid and the excitement of a challenge will be lost.

This description works for linear scenarios or for sandbox play, so it holds up well. But it isn’t complete yet. This is the 30,000 ft view, someone being introduced to being a GM needs some more detail.

Tools

A GM has a host of tools to accomplish their goals. Each tool should play some role in delivering the reward or exacting the cost. The tools I can think of off hand can really be used as either the cost or the reward and it’s usually in using the tools that a GM can make their worst mistakes.

Story

This tool is the narrative that the game forms overall. Playing out character roles is the main way that all players make the story. A measure of control to the story is one very common reward and it is usually thought of as good form to give the players as much of it as possible. By default there is a very low threshold for a player having control of their character and the actions the characters can take.

The main way a GM uses story as a cost is by giving the characters challenges to overcome. There are other story based costs such as losing the potential for a story arc but in almost every game there will be story based challenges that the PCs will try to overcome. Challenges may use other tools like NPCs or spending resources but the other tools are present because of the story (hopefully).

What can go wrong? – If a GM takes away control of how the players will deal with challenges or unnecessarily chooses the challenges the PCs will face they are said to be “Railroading” the players. The idea here is that a train cannot turn off the rails to go to a different place. If a GM constructs a story too tightly so that the players make no (or very few) meaningful choices they are Railroading.

NPCs

Non-Player Characters are all the characters that come into the story and are not one of the Player Characters. The GM takes on the role of these characters.

NPCs can take the form of a reward when they are friends and allies. They take the form of a cost when they are foes.

What can go wrong? – Most commonly, a GM may make a “Pet” NPC. This NPC is used like they were a PC but has the power of the GM behind them. The pitfall here is that the pet NPC will often steal the spotlight from the players, denying them agency or control in the story. There’s really very little point in playing the game any time NPCs become the deciding agents of a story.

Rules

The rules of the game define what a character can and cannot do. They are not usually a reward or cost in themselves, they are frequently the delivery system. To make sure rewards and costs happen fairly the rules have to apply consistently. Although many games give the GM license to alter the rules as they see fit, players may view them as their safety net that protects them from an all powerful GM. In our survey on game design, people universally wanted the GM to stick to the rules.

There are some circumstances when a rule could be a reward or cost. When a GM gives a bonus or a penalty to rolls they may be rewarding or exacting a cost.

What can go wrong? – Often the rules are the rules and a GM may feel the only way to reward a character or have them pay a cost is according to the written rules when in fact many of the rewards that an experienced GM will give his characters have more to do with story. On the other end of the spectrum a GM may not like the results the rules present and will skip them entirely to get the result they want. This can make players uncomfortable if they can no longer predict what will happen in the game because the GM decided to ignore the normal order of things.

Resources

Resources are things like hit points, experience points, money, food, fuel, vehicles and so on. They can be spent to overcome challenges or possibly to trade for other rewards the players want.

Getting access to more resources is an obvious reward while running low on or out of a resource is probably the most common cost the GM will use.

What can go wrong? – Being too stingy or generous with resources can spoil the feel of a game. Having to little in the wrong setting will be frustrating to the players. Having too much of some resources can remove the tension of a story, such as, having too many hit points can make a fight just an issue of outlasting an opponent.

That’s my thoughts on GMs at the moment. I may be making a glaring omission or two. When you read through this, was there anything that popped out at you as wrong? Is there a situation that you could think of where this would give a novice GM the wrong idea? Let us know in the comments please!

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