GM = Quarterback?

Blame the championship games last night. Blame this post. But I’m thinking about the relationship between GMs and players and the challenges gaming groups face on this front. I’ll be getting back to what I wrote about yesterday with “unique characters” but this came up…

I’m very pro-GM. Ask anyone who knows me, heck, just read my blog and you’ll know I’m pro-GM. And by that I mean that I’m in favor of the GM as rules arbiter, involved participant, and equal member in shaping the story that unfolds as part of the game. The story is about the PCs but it really doesn’t work without a GM to help shape events, to play the cast of thousands surrounding the PCs and occasionally, to challenge the players and characters to the edge of their ability. I don’t believe in rail-roading or GMNPCs but neither can I stand perfectly balanced encounters and the “always say Yes” philosophy that has invaded gaming.

A game’s success often hinges on the relationship between everyone at the table being a decent one. The most important dynamic though is GM to players. I think of the GM like a quarterback of the gaming group. (I promise, I won’t stretch this metaphor too far, but until after the Superbowl, I’m stuck on football…) The GM is often the one shouldering the blame when a game fails, just like a quarterback gets most of the press when a team loses. Only the hardcore analysts talk about the running game or the blown coverages, but when you lose, everyone loves to show highlight film of that second interception. And yeah, maybe you shouldn’t have thrown that pass – but maybe you wouldn’t have been taking so many risks if your receivers hadn’t dropped so many of your passes earlier in the game?

Just a little more… I also think, inspired by the post that I read, that there is a sense of the “pocket collapsing” around the GM these days. When you’re the quarterback and you spend most of the game running for your life from the defensive linemen, you tend to get a little jumpy, a little tense and it can affect your performance. I think a lot of GMs feel as if they have been marginalized and that a sense of rules-based player entitlement has created the adversarial feeling pervading some gaming tables (and some blog posts). As a GM I’ve never understood the desire to have an adversarial relationship with the players. Your NPCs might not be friends with their PCs but the player and GM need to be in sync. It’s the reason I agree so strongly that D&DNext (or 5E or whatever) is a pipe dream. There is no grand, unified theory of RPGs and thanks to four editions with vastly different expectations and central design tenants, there is no unified theory of D&D.

But that’s secondary to my point here. I don’t believe in GM entitlement. The GM is there to help make a great game just like the players. But I hate the legislating and marginalizing of the GMs role that I’ve been seeing creep into a lot of games. A good game needs a good GM. And a good GM makes even an average game better. I’ve had a few average GMs, only one really bad GM, and mostly good GMs. The reason is that I’m not afraid to walk away from a game that is clearly not going to fit my style. I’ve also been, at times, an average GM. Occasionally, I’ve been great (judging by what players tell me) and I’ve had the pleasure of playing with some Great GMs. It makes all the difference in the world.

If the game system itself is set up to push the GM around the pocket or hit his arm as he throws, then how can that GM possibly be great? If the GM is too worried about not upsetting a player because they couldn’t play a half-fiend werewolf FBI agent with a chainsaw hand (true story, bro) then how the GM be on their best game?

Perhaps this is related to my issues with seeing most modern games as just big math problems and my reason for preferring diceless play. If it is, I’m okay with that, and I know it’s not for every group, but it works for me. But I think the GM is getting the shaft in a lot of gaming circles these days (and I’ve written before about why I think that is so I’ll leave it alone here) and it’s a darn shame. RPGs are a team activity, and the GM is the one shouldering a lot of the burden for team success. So let’s not hobble our GMs, okay? Let them thrive.

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One response

  1. I followed the link and all I got was this lousy programmed Polish IP message:
    Blog został usunięty
    Niestety, blog pod adresem wondrousimaginings.blogspot.com został usunięty. Ten adres jest niedostępny dla nowych blogów.
    Tutaj miał być Twój blog? Zobacz: ‘Nie mogę znaleźć swojego bloga w internecie. Gdzie on jest?

    What the hell does that mean to me?! Shortest Polish blog post ever? Or am I surreptitiously reminded, again, why I dislike IT/engineering Gods and Google…? (not that I need reminding – the hobby is full of suc legend in their own mind types)

    <<>>
    breaks Aristotle’s Poetics rule of upbeat – downbeat – resolution, which is traditionally in the GM’s power to organize. Some people might misnomer this very broad control as railroading but, and I am guessing anecdotally, these would be the people who most likely tire from their systems that reject Aristotle’s Poetics. The Poetics punctuate the games saving them from becoming one long sentence.

    >>> Your NPCs might not be friends with their PCs but the player and GM need to be in sync.<<<>> It’s the reason I agree so strongly that D&DNext (or 5E or whatever) is a pipe dream.<<<

    The new edition offers those fans some nice shout outs and Easter eggs, but it doesn't get so bogged down in nostalgia that it alienates newcomers or loses sight of what's important, specifically being fun and playable.
    WTC Press Release 19 May 2014
    http://www.gamenewshq.com/news/1516981
    This would be an example of how that baggage gets atop of Atlas.

    <<>>

    GM-less games seem like one long taffy pull to me, which could be fun if every one at the table were into the same page of porn or fluently following Aristotle’s Poetics without prompting. If I have a harsh opinion, it is reaction to the harsh anti-GM rhetoric in fashion today – two years after you wrote this blog post.

    I will direct you to that [url=http://www.dragonsfoot.org/forums/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=66309]Dragnsfoot post[/url] again. One poster there reminds us that the GM is the medium through which the system gets played. That means the players have to [b]proactively engage[/b] the reactive GM (not just the GM has to proactively engage the players all the time). Marshall McLuhan might say the medium is the GM and the content are the players.

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