Monday, September 17, 2012

What's In A Name? Taking A Look At Common Titles For The GM

Everyone's heard that shakespeare quote about what's in a name, right? Personally, I've always disagreed with it. Names have power, and calling something by a different name implies it has different qualities. For example, most people thing unpleasant thoughts about "stink bugs" because of their name, despite the fact that many of those people have never interacted with one. Imagine if their name was "sweet bugs" or "heavenly scented and pleasant to have around bugs." Extreme, sure, but you get the idea. With that in mind, I thought today would be a good day to take a look at the different monikers that GMs - including GM itself - have worn over the years and with different games and what those names imply/mean beyond the simple form of just being a title. Shall we begin?

As a note, I've posted something similar to this before. You can read that post here. (eerily similar title and stuff, but less title specific analysis)

Dungeon Master/Dragon Master (DM)
Depending on the book, or form of D&D like fantasy RPG, you had on hand this was probably the moniker for the person in charge of the game. Now a days it is synonymous with a "GM" or "ST" but that isn't where the game began. The earliest RPGs were strategy games that had the group focused down to a very small point (one character per player) and the dungeons that they explored. In this regard, the Dungeon Master was the 'force' that ran the Dungeon that the players were exploring, looting, and vanquishing. The roots, considering the game, are actually fairly adversarial. The PCs are looting a Dungeon, and the Dungeon Master places the traps, monsters, and other nefarious things to stop them from doing so.

Dragon Master on the other hand isn't much better, though it implies control more directly over the "greatest beasts" to be in the world, the dragons. This is less confrontational, but also saw a lot less use in my experience. The only game I can find now that refers to DM as a Dragon Master is the old board game Dragon Strike, and in that game a big dragon was meant to be the be all end all for the malevolent forces that the players worked against.

Long and short, the term "DM" or "Dungeon Master" implies the existence of Dungeons (or Dragons) as a prominent force of the game, and that the DM is the person that is in charge of them. Considering that most often the players are at odds with what the D stands for, there is also an inference of antagonism between the DM and the Players, and that is still present in a lot of D&D games today where the game is based on the players going through an adventure via battle mats and facing creatures that the DM controls with combat and other things heavily regulated by the rules. Not all DMs take an adversarial role, I'm not trying to say that, but the name does have its roots in that particular history.

Game Master (GM)
Game Master started to become popular as games moved out of fantasy and dungeon crawls into different settings, places, and means. The name is immediately more neutral, pointing the person out as the "Master" of the "Game" being played. The inference of an antagonistic relationship is gone, as is any implied relation of the GM being the person who controls the opposition directly. The name does have a more totalitarian ring to it, after all there is generally only one master of something, and for this game the GM is it.

So what are the inferences of this title? Mostly they're blatant. Number one, this is a GAME. You'd be amazed how often people forget this, but it is a game. Number two, the GM is in charge. Again, only one master and the GM is the master of the game. The negative implication is that a Game implies a winner and a loser, which RPGs traditionally don't have. This is one of the hardest points to explain to non RPG gamers. There is no winner in an RPG. There is no loser. Everyone wins (you had fun) or everyone loses (bad game) but winning and losing in the traditional sense is simply not there.

Story Teller
I believe White Wolf introduced the concept of a Story Teller with their World of Darkness line of games. Right away you can see the shift in focus. No longer is the RPG about playing a game, now it is about telling a story with the ST as the "primary" story teller in the game. Part of the problem with this is that while the ST has a new moniker, players are still players. They aren't something like "leading actor" or "main character" which can cause some confusion. Why? Because the ST's name implies he/she is telling a story but the term player implies that there is a game going on. Both are true here, but they are also at odds with each other.

With the dark gothic horror element that White Wolf had in place for its game, this name change actually does make a lot of sense. The game wasn't meant to be about raiding dungeons, killing liches, or exploring the great beyond. WoD was supposed to be about exploring the story from the side of the monster. Characters played Vampires, Werewolves, and the mages of phenomenal power that in other games they would fight. They had dark urges with blood lust and rage to contend with. The game was the story of those people and trying to hold on to who they were. Would it have worked as well with calling the ST a GM? Probably, but at the same time the name change made it more obvious that WoD was trying to do something different. You can decide for yourself how well they succeeded.

The implications with this name are that you are in a narrative. Someone is telling a story, and your character is involved in that story. That means something. In stories the characters involved don't often win, and in fact they quite often hurt. It also implies that you should care less about winning and losing and more about the story. Both good points, and issues that GMs like me have tried to hammer home - even into our own heads - on numerous occasions.

The Other Names
This post covers the big three. The other post (linked at the top) has some for other names. The point here though is that the name means something. Calling your GM role "Operations Control" implies stuff about your game (militaristic in some sort, and the OC gives out missions and resources/etc/etc.) Calling it an Animator makes different implications. Finding the right name, and right feel  for your game is one of the hurdles you face as a game designer. Implications towards an antagonistic relationship can be bad - or good - and people will pick up on those. Just like they'll pick up on the sense that they should have total control - which can also be bad/good depending on the group. Either way, I think this shows what a name can hold.


  1. I want to find a "heavenly scented" GM!

  2. Huh. I just noticed when reading this that my preferrence has shiften from Story Teller to Game Master these last years. I started my RPG career with Vampire and we always said Erzaehler, story teller. But these days I almost always use Spielleiter, game master or game leader, if you want the literal translation.

  3. I'm old, so default to DM or GM, usually GM, none of this ST malarkey, but a mate of mine used to use Games Operational Director, though he was more than happy if we used the Acronym

  4. I like "Referee" for implying a neutral arbiter.

  5. I just had to quickly check what term my current favourite games uses, and they call them a narrator, but quickly add, "or games master", just in case people get confused. narrator has a smack of Story teller to it, but seems to lack a certain something. I think I'll just stick with GM...

  6. "Heavenly Scented" sounds more like a game to game thing, but good look on your quest Mr. Blue.

    Jebediah, that is interesting that your preference has shifted. I'm not sure I've ever thought of it as anything aside from GMing, but that was what the first game (TMNT!) I ever seriously played had it listed as. Could be a shift in what you want in the game, or just your understanding of the role.

    Anon, I've explained the role of GM to players before as basically being "I'm God in this universe, controlling everything you don't." It worked pretty well and also dealt with the "but the rules say..." as I'd already pointed out I was God.

    Chris, referee is decent but it implies pvp (games with refs have players on opposed sides) it also implies that the GMs only job is to enforce and interpret rules. Still, it works better than a lot of other monikers that I've seen.

    Paul, narrator I like. It doesn't cover the full gamut of Story Teller, but it also leaves room for the players involvement. Definitely an interesting term. Also interesting that your game pointed out both titles. What game is that btw?

  7. I know that I tell much more my own stories as a player now or that it's much more of an collaborative effort now that when I started playing RPGs. But I think the change comes from not playing Vampire/WoD anymore (not by choice) and because I do most of my talking/writing about gaming in English and it's so convenient to just write GM, everybody knows what I mean :D

  8. Chaosium's "Prince Valiant, the Storytelling Game", copyright 1989, used "Storyteller".