RPG Design Handbook: Chapter 4 (Part 2)
Posted by Nathan P. on November 15, 2008
(previous posts collected here)
Chapter 4: Authority & Credibility
Part 2: The GM is Not a Person
Defining the GM
The vast majority of RPGs centralize most authority over non-player-character game elements in one person; the Game Master (which has evolved as a system-neutral term. You may be familiar with Dungeon Master, Storyteller, or other game-specific title). Game texts often specify a certain set of duties for this person, such as:
- playing NPCs
- describing locations and environments
- keeping track of time and telling everyone how long their actions take
- framing scenes
- run a mission, adventure or story in which to involve the characters
- arbitrate rules disputes
There are also many non-specified duties which can be expected of the “standard” GM, such as:
- preparing the mission, adventure or story ahead-of-time
- organizing the logistics of getting together to play
- providing a space in which to get together for play
- own all of the necessary materials for play
- have the most knowledge of the game system and/or game setting
As these two non-exhaustive lists demonstrate, there are many, many things that can fall under the GM umbrella.
Breaking It Apart
All of the duties listed above, along with many more, are necessary for your game. But is it necessary that they be performed by one person? This is a critical question for game design. As with everything, there are good reasons to answer this question with a yes, or with a no. But it is worth examining exactly which duties you wish to be performed, and by who, in order to acheive your design goals. While doing so, keep in mind the non-systematic duties (that second list), and whether (a) you wish to address those questions at all and (b) how addressing them will aid or hinder your design goals.
Once you begin thinking of the GM as a collection of responsibilities (with their associated authorities!), it becomes useful to think of the role of the GM in a given game as a “pattern” rather than as a role. Here is a breakdown of some common GM Patterns in published games along two axis: Single/Multiple, and Centralized/Distributed.
- The Single, Centralized GM is the default GM Pattern in most games, regardless of design tradition. The GM is textually expected to perform almost all systematic duties (other than players choices for their characters), and is often socially expected to helm the logistics of actually getting together to play. One of the benefits of this kind of pattern is that it supports a GM who has a strong vision for play and makes it easy to enact that vision; it is also suited to games that require secret information or plotting that will eventually be made known to the players, making the “Big Reveal” truly surprising. However, it can be intimidating for somebody to approach a new game and feel like they have to know everything about it to run it “properly”, and it can be exhausting for the GM to carry all of their responsibilities continuously. Most traditional games exhibit this pattern, like Dungeons & Dragons (any edition), the World of Darkness games, GURPS, and so on.
- The Single, Distributed GM is a pattern wherein the GM has a smaller subset of textual duties, with others being performed by other players. The GM duties tend to cluster around presenting the world, creating plot hooks and resolving rules disputes. Duties such as scene framing, authoring new color (or mechanical) elements into the game world, and even creating or playing NPCs can be shared amongst the other players equally, or they may be distributed systematically. This pattern can support the GM who comes up with the “adventure” beforehand, but it also works well for a game where the plot is supposed to emerge from the events of play. One game that works this way is InSpectres, wherein the resolution mechanic is what gives total authority over narration of the result of an action to either the player in question or the GM, and it is expected that events will veer wildly away from the initial setup to the game. This pattern is easy to move into from the Single Centralized GM pattern, if the group identifies certain duties that they would rather share amongst themselves. It’s the default for many small-press focused design games. This pattern works well for a game that expects and supports creativity and engagement in the game entire from all of the participants, but it can also result in a certain sprawling and unfocused kind of gameplay.
- Multiple, Centralized GMs is a pattern that assigns the same set of GM duties to different people at different times, and sometimes to more than one person at once. Usually based around how scenes are framed or a certain turn order, different players will have authority over the world, NPC, scene framing, etc at different times. Usually, every player has a character, and plays that character when they are not performing GM duties. One example of this kind of game is Polaris, where each player serves as the GM of the person sitting across from them at the table, and there is a strict turn order that gives each player a turn as Heart (their character) and Mistaken (the GM for the person opposite them). A game currently in playtest called How We Came To Live Here has two GMs, one of whom has authority over “inside-the-tribe” affairs, while the other has authority over “outside-the-tribe” events. This pattern works well for a game that is aimed at giving everyone a chance to play a single character, but also has a structure (whether narrative or mechanical) that needs to be maintained by having a singular touchpoint for it. Often, this kind of game has a particular manner in apportioning the GM duties that can be difficult to parse if the group is not used to this structure, and it is difficult to push one persons vision into the game if it’s not shared by the rest of the group.
- Multiple, Distributed GMs is a pattern that is commonly referred to as “GMless”. Typically, GM duties are equally distributed across all of the players, with some kind of systematic structure for when and how they can be enforced. In this kind of game, everyone is typically responsible for an equal share of each part of the game, from scene framing to character ownership to plot events, though there is often felixibility in terms of how interested each player is in using their authority in each area. One example is Universalis, which works by giving each player a set of resources with which they can establish characters, create new rules, enforce consequences of actions, and so forth. Another is Baron Munchhausen, which revolves from player to player, with each player narrating an astounding tale of derring-do, which is subsequently judged by the other players. This kind of pattern is well-suited to round-robin, high-narration kinds of games, as well as games that seek to offer every player the same role in shaping the game experience. However, they can be somewhat fragile and subject to being dominated by those with strong personalities or more significant investment in the game.
These are not hard-and-fast categories, and many games that are written with a certain pattern in mind can be easily modified to accomodate a different pattern (especially along the Centralized/Distributed axis). The primary lesson here is that the GM is a set of duties and responsibilities, which can and should be organized in the manner best suited to your game.