Monday, March 5, 2012

The GM Is A Player

I'm going to be upfront. This blog post was inspired by this post from The Action Point. In the post the writer makes a lot of good points. They do, however, forget one key point. Or at least, that is how it seems to me. It is a point that a lot of people tend to forget when thinking about GMing, especially the GMs themselves. That point? It is right up there in the topic: the GM is also a player of the game. Let's talk about what I mean by that.

Note: Before I begin, I want to point out that I am not disagreeing with the post linked above. As a GM you do not have the right to run roughshod over your players or force things on them. However, that doesn't mean your fun isn't important.

Everyone's Fun Is Important
The main point I want to stress with this is that everyone has an equal right to have fun at the game table. This goes for all of the players and for the GM. If any one person isn't having fun, then something needs to be done in the game for this to change. After all, if a game isn't fun why would you play in it?

Quite often I have seen GMs who have lost the spark with their game. Maybe something happened that made the game go off the rails, maybe the game has just been going on for too long, or maybe it is something as simple as the work load to fun had is just not worth it. In all cases though there is a person who isn't having fun with the game. This is a problem. Don't believe me? How much fun are you going to have in a game where the GM isn't having fun? How long until the GM starts to just try and make it unfun for everyone? This can ruin an otherwise great table top group, an otherwise great story, or an otherwise stable relationship/friendship. Simply put, it matters.

Agency vs. Running Rampant
This is the only place I'm really going to touch on the real subject matter of what Action Point had in their post. There is a difference between having Agency in a game and someone simply running rampant. There can be meaningful choices without things going off of the rails. Now, I am by no means saying that the GM should rail their players into a series of locked choices with binary results. Quite the opposite, I'm all for giving the players a lot of power and seeing where they go with it. However, this doesn't excuse the player from their part of the social obligation being in an RPG brings.

Let's take an example. We all sit down to play, and we agree that we want to run an epic fantasy game. We want to run a game where the world is in the balance, and the PCs are the heroes of prophecy that are going to save it. This is agreed upon before a character is generated so that the GM can get to work on the story, the NPCs, and the challenges that may be there. However, five sessions in the players decide to go "screw it, we want to buy this city and just run around. Who cares about the approaching army of darkness?" At this point, the players have broken their side of the deal. The game they are now creating (and lets be honest, the PCs create the game as much as the GM) is not the one that the GM agreed to be a part of.

The GM in this situation is now left in a bad spot. They can go along with what the players are doing, even if it isn't fun for them or at all what they wanted; they can have the dark army that they'd already placed show up and force the issue; or they can end the game. Technically, this even falls under player choice - after all, the players chose to ignore the plot that was going on - but it would still feel like rail roading from a player persective.

The key thing to remember here though is that the GM is left in a lose/lose/lose situation. If they go along with what the players are now making the game about they aren't having fun anymore, if they end the game no one is having fun anymore and people may be cautious about starting up another game with them GMing, and if they push forward with the previously agreed upon plot the players are not having fun because the GM is forcing a plot down their throat.

GM vs. Players
This is the last point I'm going to make on this, but it is something that isn't said enough. I will clarify that I am not trying to give a GM a feeling of entitlement so much as I want to remind players of something.

When I ran Five Rings Online I had a lot of people tell me that I should be nicer (I was never mean from what others said, just stern) to players and give them what they wanted because without players there would be no one to run for. This is true. Without players there is no one for the game to be run for. However, I always countered to these people the other side of that coin: without a GM there is no game.

Someone else can GM, that's great. Someone else can also play in the game instead of a single player. Or instead of a single group. If a GM and a group don't get along well enough, than both should seek out alternative arrangements for their gaming because otherwise neither is going to be happy.

The point here is that it takes a GM and Players to make a game. Both are bound by the agreement made at the beginning of the game that they're going to play in X type game. It doesn't matter if X is decided by a group discussion, or by accepting an invitation when the GM says "Hey, I'm going to run a heroic epic fantasy game about saving the world from evil dragons and their armies, you in?" With both ways an agreement as to what the game is about has been made.

This doesn't give the GM to run rough shod over the players and their wants. The players, for a good game, still need to have this freedom. They need to be able to act on their own and have their choices matter. However, that freedom being there doesn't mean that the players get to run roughshod over whatever the GM has done or wants for the game. If these two things can't be accomplished at the same time, then a discussion needs to happen about where the game is going and how.

It can be a narrow road. But if you can stay on it, it leads to very memorable games.

That's my opinion on this at least. Yours?


  1. Excellent article. The GM has become the forgotten player in RPGs.

    I think I managed to finally come up with a succinct response to the GM vs. PC mindset that seems to be just below the surface of a lot of these agency discussions.

    Here's my current response:

    There is no “your game” and there is no “my game” hence neither is there a dynamic between the two. There is only “our game” and it cannot struggle against itself for the spotlight.

    That’s what I want.

    Originally posted here:

  2. Very well said, and a view point that I think would make a lot of games a lot more fun.