We’ve been talking a bit about games without GMs, particularly as we work up Lucid for the con. (Quick teaser: it’s an RPG about lucid dreaming. We think.) In so doing, it’s exposed an interesting point. The idea of what a “game master” is depends on the system you’re playing. Adversary? Guide? Prompt? All plausible roles. All different in how they play. The part that has me going is that this is a different distinction than who has control over which elements of the story. It’s not concerned with how, but why. Why has always been a more interesting question to me, if a bit troublesome.

My first exposure to indie RPGs was My Life with Master and one of the things about that system that engaged me was how clearly it set out the role of the GM. As a GM, you’re encouraged to hurt the players, but more specifically, by cajoling the players into hurting themselves and each other. By forcing them to hurt those they love, you reinforce their hate not simply for the villain, but for how the villain makes them hate themselves.

I will admit to playing far more D&D than I have any right to, given how often I point out its shortcomings. That said, when they say Dungeon Master, you know exactly what you’re supposed to be doing. As a DM, you’re in charge of the dungeon. There may be a story, there may be rationale why you have to enter these five foot wide corridors, but no amount of hand-waving glosses over the essential truth that D&D is about kicking open decaying doors, killing orcs, and taking pie.

Other game systems have different functions for their “player in charge”. In Apocalypse World, the Master of Ceremonies is, like an MC at a concert, responsible for keeping the event hopping and full of interesting. In Becoming Heroes, we called the GM a Game Master (an opportunity lost) but we took pains to describe what the GM is supposed to be doing and why. Because the title “game master” has lost its meaning, if it ever had any. These days, just as often as we talk about how to build games that players will want to play, we talk about the GM, if there is one, and how we can make their play experience better.

Eight days to the convention! If you’re not going to be at Gen Con, look for Lucid as a free download here on our site during the con.

  • Mario Bolzoni

    I really like what you’ve done in the GM chapter of Becoming Heroes. Sometimes a game manual takes that kind of info for granted, and that usually results in players having to struggle to figure out how the game is actually to be played.