What is a GM?

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A Game Master, in a free-form role playing game, fulfills a variety of roles. The players in such a game “play the role” of variously limited creatures, usually individuals. One could sum up the GM’s role as “the Game Master plays the role of God”… but that’s too easy! What does God do? What are God’s duties?

Authority and agency, consistency and novelty, growth and challenge. These three pairs of attributes form the core of God’s being and thus the focus of a GM’s efforts.

God created and runs everything and intentionally offers His creations agency, (mostly over their own lives). No one can do anything without His consent, but He consents to quite a bit. So, the GM must have absolute authority, but also allow, encourage, and deeply desire player agency. The GM settles disputes with finality, but also encourages them and gives them weight. The GM enforces gravity, both literally and figuratively.

God remembers, and is consistent. So consistent in fact that men have codified the “laws of nature” entirely on His reliable responses to their actions. You can rely on God to be the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. So too, the players should be able to count on the GM to offer them consistent responses. A small amount of arbitrary behavior (called “randomness” or “chaos” when God behaves thus) is acceptable. However, the GM is ultimately beholden to present the players with an understandable world, which rewards experimentation and exploration.

God also is endlessly creative. He never runs out of ideas, odd variations, and interesting places. Colors, shapes, the odd turn of phrase, and hidden treasures are around every rock (and occasionally, inside the rocks). The GM, too, must provide unending interesting things for the players to experience and discover. If the players are bored or uninterested, the GM has failed in making a vital and inviting experience.

But God is not content to merely offer His creatures freedom and novelty, He also desires them to become as Himself, powerful and perfect. God punishes, teaches, and inspires us in order to be more like Himself. He Loves us, in the hardest of senses. So too, the GM must desire the players (and the characters) to grow better, gaining wisdom, stature, and favor both with himself and with each other. The GM must invite the players not only to explore, but to grow.

And even then God is not content. He gives His creatures tasks, challenges, and duties which are both difficult and rewarding, according to their skill. He presses His creation, even unto death, to attempt great things. So too, the GM has a duty to challenge the players to attempt great things, and destroy them if they fail. The mortal struggle must be reflected in the GM’s world.

But, which is the greatest? How can we judge? A perilous question. Over-expressing even one of these duties can destroy a players confidence in the GM and leave the experience hollow. Often, the pairs are unbalanced against their compliment, but unbalance between the pairs is dangerous as well.

Authority and agency are the most commonly abused. Agency often runs rampant (especially among children) when the GM has little real world power to enforce his decisions on players. Without the GM’s “final word” players end up each separated into their own little imaginary worlds where anything can happen. Inevitably each player is the best and brightest, each a God themselves. This is good and fine, but if they wish to play together, there must be a common bond, the bond of common submission to the GM’s authority. Likewise the GM can easily blot out player agency (“railroading” is a common term for this) and withdraw all meaningful decisions out of the player’s reach. At this point, the GM must ask “Why am I even playing with these people?” The truth is the GM is often too enamored with their own ideas and plans. If this is the case, do not despair railroading GM! Instead, stop being a game master, and go write a book. It will be much more rewarding than having to deal with players, and your players will be able to get a new (and hopefully better) mediator for their exploits.

In just the same way, Offering too much growth without adequate challenge leaves the players feeling like everything is “just too easy”, and vice-versa. Consistency without novelty is boring, and novelty without consistency is maddening. The players and the GM must work together to achieve this, but ultimately the GM is responsible for the player’s experience.

But imbalance between these pairs is also dangerous. Emphasizing submissive freedom can leave the players without a sense of place or direction. Stressing consistent creativity can dazzle without directing. Focusing on growing challenges quickly becomes an exercise in mathematical extrapolation. All of these are good in their place, but a good game needs a balance of the elements to thrive.

So, if you’ve ever had a “bad” roleplaying experience, blame the GM. If you’ve ever played a frustrating CRPG, blame the game designer. And, if you’re ever dissatisfied with life, blame God. He can take it.

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