GameMaster: Narrator, Director, Coach?

Mistakes to avoid in tabletop roleplaying

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"Dungeon Master" from the 1980s cartoon, "Dungeons&Dragons". Both the cartoon's plot and especially the character were miles away from the actual game or occupation of the same name.

This article is a part of what I hope to be a helpful series for those who desire to embark on a journey of roleplaying adventure. My idea is to tackle different topics related to tabletop roleplaying in such a way that will offer something to newcomers and veteran players alike.

Previously, I have briefly skimmed through some basics of roleplaying. This time, I would like to talk specifically about one person – but the most important one: the Gamemaster (GM for short). This is not to say the rest of the players would be any less important for the game. Roleplaying games are a collective effort. But the Gamemaster is the “glue” that keeps everything together.

Throughout my many years of tabletop roleplaying, I have encountered several stereotypes regarding the Gamemaster. Nowadays, the rules of most games tend to make it clear what the GM’s role is and what it is not. Nevertheless, certain stereotypes seem to live on, either through the players’ sheer ignorance or out of (bad) habit. I believe it is often more accurate to say what something isn’t rather than what it is, so let me use some examples of misconceptions about Gamemaster to show what a GM should be.

Gamemaster Isn’t The Players’ Enemy

A long time ago, in the dark, dark last decades of the previous millennium, when tabletop roleplaying games emerged from the primordial darkness, fear and confusion often accompanied the new players. A classic model, still alive in the popular culture, was this: a group of adventurers, made by the players, is supposed to reach an objective (find a hidden treasure, kill the evil overlord). The Gamemaster creates the environment whose sole purpose is to prevent the players from reaching it.

There are several sources of this confusion, in my opinion. One of them is simply the mindset many players arrive with to their first game: most people are used to tabletop games being competitive. In most games, your objective is to win, which makes all the other players your opponents. In a RPG, people usually acknowledge that the other players are “on their side”, which logically leads to the conclusion that “we are all in this together” against the Gamemaster.

But that is not so. Yes, the Gamemaster creates a setting that provides challenges, but challenges does not equal trying to kill the characters. The goal – and this cannot be stressed often enough – is for everyone to have fun. And a challenge means fun (or it is one of the many, many ways to provide entertainment in the game), but taking the game as a case of “Gamemaster vs. the players” is completely missing the point of RPGs.

Another reason underlying this misunderstanding may stem from the game’s origins. First tabletop RPGs evolved from miniature war games, and such a game was obviously competitive in nature. But once “roleplaying” entered the field, the essence of these games became completely different.

The Dungeon Master Isn’t the Master of the Dungeon

One more reason why people tend to make this mistake is hidden in the term “Gamemaster” itself, or rather, in its other, equally common variant – Dungeon Master (coined by probably the most mainstream RPG, Dungeons&Dragons). This name already sounds like it’s the name of a supervillain – the Evil Overlord the players are supposed to defeat (indeed, identifying the GM with a specific villain character is a very rare heresy, but not entirely unheard of). Secondly, it implies that the person is the “master” of this particular “dungeon” (another instance where the label fails – the adventure doesn’t need to be contained to any place like that at all!), ergo, all the monsters within are Dungeon Master’s minions and all the treasures hidden within belong to the Dungeon Master. This “justifies” such exclamations from the players as “ha haa, now we killed your troll guardian!” or “yes, we found your hidden treasure, now we looted it and it is ours!” There is some logic there – it was the Dungeon Master who “put” the treasure there, but the reason why they put it there was so that the characters could find it, of course! The same goes for the monsters.

If we are to understand the label “Dungeon Master” properly, we should say that it is more akin to a person who has built a theme park for visitors, who can then come and enjoy whatever the creator has installed there. But even this metaphor isn’t perfect: it should be the way that not only has the creator built the park, s/he also accompanies the visitors and adjusts the park according to their actions (and in this metaphor, the park doesn’t represent only a static dungeon, but the entire game setting including the plot, events, non-player characters and their actions).

Not Master, But A Referee

I have already touched the problem of the name “Gamemaster” (or “Dungeon Master”). Ultimately, I believe it is a very unfortunate term all in all. Many gamemakers have noted the same and have tried to come up with their own terms. Names like “The Storyteller” are fairly good, even though they reduce the perception of GM’s role in some other way, but at least they remove the problematic “-master” part. Unfortunately, there are also games which use worse terms, such as “The Highmost”, that sound like the creation of a sick mind; their worst crime is that they imply some sort of hierarchy in which the players are subordinate to the GM. And that is another myth that should be smashed.

The GM knows the most about the setting, usually also knows the most about the rules, but that does not mean s/he should approach the game like a despot. Acting like an absolutist ruler is a mistake many GMs tend to make, even experienced ones. They feel like their job is to make the game go “their” way. That is completely understandable, given that every GM experiences now and again this classic problem that they painstakingly prepare an adventure and the characters start acting in such a way that throws 90% of it out of the window.

But such is life (and game). The GMs need to stop clinging to their vision of how the game is supposed to be and understand that a RPG is the collective result of the players’ play in a democratic manner. Of course the GM should make sure the game does not get completely off the rails, but should not limit the players’ freedom. It is a topic that would require its own article, but sufficient to say, the GM should act more like a referee or at most a coach rather than a boss.

Just Take Heed

The GM should also resist the urge to “punish” the players for doing something “wrong”. If “wrong” means wrong in the setting of the world, it is all right: if the characters walk into the middle of the town and start robbing local shops in plain daylight, it is logical the city guard will show up and deal with them mercilessly. But if “wrong” simply means the party creatively avoids a problem – they ignore all the hints leading to a secret chamber where the sole artifact capable of defeating an evil lich is stored, but they come up with another perfectly plausible way to dispose of the monster – the GM shouldn’t ruin the party’s day just because they ignored the GM’s original vision. Such things happen very often, and Gamemasters of all ranks should watch themselves.

I believe we have covered some of the essential areas where both players and Gamemasters often confuse what the GM’s role is supposed to be. There is a lot more to being a Gamemaster, and especially being a good one, but understanding what the Gamemaster is not is a very important thing for both the players and even more so, for the GMs themselves.

Next time, I promise, we are going to move to more specific situations and examples from gameplay. For now, may the dice roll in your favour.

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Rostislav Kurka
Rostislav is a Protestant theologian and a self-trained Sith, counting Jan Hus, Darth Revan and Darth Traya among his main influences. He hails from the hundred-towered city of Prague, where he had spent a large part of his life creating worlds and inspiring young generations to roleplay. His involvement in organising children's camps led him to accidentally writing a Lord of the Rings musical, which made him temporarily famous, and a Three Musketeer-Jedi fanfilm, which didn't. He has recently moved to the frozen waste of Finland, because that's it, the Rebels are there.