GM Constraints… Wait, WTF?

I’ve been chewing on writing this post for about a week now. I feel like a spend a lot of words/energy talking about why the GM/DM/Judge is significantly, uniquely important to the experience of a role-playing game as opposed to the experience of any other game. I feel like it’s one of those weird intersections of the gaming populous that leaves me thinking that – to me – it feels self-evident but clearly it isn’t.

This rumination started with reading Rob Donoghue’s post, GM Constraints which is focused on FATE games but it led me to a weird place. I’ll admit, when I see a post with the title, GM Constraints, it’s almost irresistible bait for me. I’m only a little ashamed of that. Ultimately though, his post didn’t rile me up and get my nerd-rage flowing. It just confused me.

Of course, I admit freely that I don’t understand the appeal of FATE games anyway (that’s a lie – I understand their appeal at a cognitive level, I just don’t really see the payoff). It’s possible that my overall confusion stems from that fundamental disconnect but I don’t think so. I’m going to put two statements out there…

    1. GM constraints don’t make a game better.
    2. That said, the best GM constraint is the players.

Here’s where my confusion starts with the post:

I have been chewing a bit on the mechanization of GM restrictions. Often they take the form of things that the GM cannot do, but such restrictions are usually designed to curb abuses. While that’s admirable, it often has elements of fighting the last war, which feels wasteful.

But what if you begin from a position of high GM trust? It’s the position I like to take – I am happy to empower any GM who is good enough to know when not to use that power.

Do you see my confusion? Beginning from a position of high GM trust. Connect this next statement to my above statements:

    3. If the players don’t trust the GM, the game has already failed.

If you don’t trust your GM, why are you playing with him/her?

The rest of the post goes on to discuss creating a set of mechanized GM choices which restrict the available actions to attempt to push some different kind of creativity out of the GM which he or she might not be able to achieve in a completely freeform environment. While I’m all for thought experiments, I find the entire concept of mechanizing “gamey” restrictions to be an odd choice for trying to make a better RPG experience.

He continues,

The trick, of course, is to make the direction useful. If it’s merely random, then it’s likely to produce random results. The constraint needs to be something that moves play in rewarding directions. This is, on paper, what a GM is often trying to do when “railroading” players, but in that case it is based on the GM’s decision to trust her sensibilities over the organic direction of play.

I’m not entirely certain that I agree with his definition of “railroading” in the above paragraph but that is a word I think we – as a community – have used so poorly and so often in our anti-GM rants that it has lost all useful meaning. Railroading is another of those intersections of ideas in our culture that seems to have taken on a magical life of its own that ignores the necessary role of the GM as gentle director of the action. A GM can railroad as effectively by simply describing a scene a certain way as they can by only putting one door in every dungeon room. I didn’t even use sarcastic quotes when I wrote that… be proud of me.

The point I’m dancing around here is that the GM is not the most important player of the game at the table but he/she is the one that the other players place the most trust in. Everyone is working together to make the game good (one assumes) but the GM is burdened with everyone else’s fun along with assuring their own. And as someone who is the GM for 90% of my gaming experiences, I can say that there is a skill to it. You practice making the little tricks and nonsense work to ensure that everyone (including you) gets to have fun. But that also comes with the group as a whole agreeing that the GM gets a little more latitude than everyone else because you know, it’s necessary.

Forcing the GM to work toward some arbitrary (even if well-defined) end creates far more problems than a GM forcing the hands of the players. Sure, it might be fun for the GM to take on a challenge like this in a specific, limited context once in a blue moon but it probably only works well if it is kept from the players.

In the post he comments on the difference between the GM acting based on some imposed order of action vs. simply trusting his or her own sensibilities. For me, that’s precisely the wrong tack to take. What we need to be teaching our GMs to do is be better at using their sensibilities and interacting with their players to protect the organic growth of the game while also preserving the unique nature of the RPG experience which is only truly achieved when the GM is unfettered. That’s why I’ve devoted so much of my life to playing these games versus any other hobby I could have picked up… because they are unique experiences, and the role of the GM is the most interesting innovation of RPGs.

Just my two cents.


9 responses

  1. I like your 3 statements quite a bit.

    The second has a lot of unsaid concepts behind it~

    1. Thank you. The second does have a lot behind it but I think maybe I didn’t do a good enough job explicating that.

  2. “…and the role of the GM is the most interesting innovation of RPGs.”

    Seems today this role is seen more like a burden someone at the table has to take instead of something you long to learn and to fill out. And to make sure he does not enjoy the greater power of the role compared to the normal players you have to confine him in special rules. Strange concept.

    Great post of yours. Good reading!

    1. It does seem as if it seen more as a burden than a joy these days. As much as I hate to do it, I lean toward blaming the “tyranny of fun” phenomenon for that. The pendulum swings. I think the resurgence of old school play and attempts to give some new birth to diceless play may help rejuvenate the GM ranks. We’ll see.

  3. I largely agree with your points, but since you frame it as disagreement, I suspect i may not have communicated clearly, so to expand a bit:

    The heart of this is an idea in a lot of creative arts that constraints breed creativity. Blank pages often create paralysis, but throw in some limitations, and things flourish. This is, at least in my experience, true for GMing as well.

    And the reality is, GMs are almost always operating under constraints. Most of them are some variant on player interest (whether it be with the fiction, rules consistency or what have you) but there are others. Some games add further constraints (or at least try to) but those are often agenda driven and paradoxically built on the assumption that GM’s can’t be trusted, but that they will accept those constraints.

    Now, I don’t dig that. GM trust is important to me, and the reason I do not see the contradiction you do (or more precisely, the reason I embrace it) is that I do not put limitations on a good GM because I trust her to put limitations on herself. That ability (and judgement) to self-impose limitations is one of the foundations of that trust.

    So given that I trust the GM enough to limit herself, why would I mandate external limitations?

    Well, I wouldn’t. But I might give her the tools to do it because it might be fun for *her*. One problem with being very good at something is that it is easy to fall into familiar patterns which generate good results. Success by autopilot can still be fun and rewarding, but it rarely pushes you. Taking limitations from an external source is akin to adding more weight to your lift – you make things harder in hopes of improving.

    Now, obviously this is not a novice technique (though there might be good techniques for a novice to be derived from it), and equally obviously, there’s no guarantee that the reality would work as well as the theory, especially given the myriad possible ways such a thing might be implemented.

    Put another way, think of this as akin to my proposing taking a run with a backpack full of weights. If taken at face value, it would be preposterous and counterproductive. But as a training technique, it could serve a purpose.

    That said, I fully admit that there’s another motive. By thinking about how this trust works differently, we potentially improve our ability to communicate best practices to the next generation. “You can do anything” is not great guidance for a new GM, but neither is “You cannot do X, Y and Z because we don’t trust you.” The games in the latter position have progressed significantly, and I think we need a better message to respond with. And I think we get that by pushing ourselves.

    So, totally cool if it’s not your bag, but there it is.

    1. Thank you for this excellent reply! I really mean that – this kind of comment is why I write this silly blog. I appreciate you taking the time.

      I wasn’t very clear either and that is entirely my fault. I think you are right in the things you are saying. I agree that GM’s are always constrained in some ways – but I find some of those things to be different than stacking on an additional, mechanical constraint which feels (to me) dissociated from the narrative experience.

      This is also why, as a player, I don’t like systems that use a lot of “permission” points even though I did have a brief love affair with them in the early 2000’s.

      I’m on board with the idea that you propose of GM’s stretching their creative muscles and not living in their comfort zone. If creating a mechanical constraint can do that for you, then go for it – I’m in. I’ve always found for myself that the best thing to push me out of my comfort zone are active, engaged players who won’t let me get away with being complacent… but that’s not really the point.

      I think where we see it differently is this… taking a run wearing a bunch of weights isn’t counterproductive – it’s exercise. Taking a run wearing a bunch of weights but then also tying your legs together… that’s preposterous.

      The layers of mechanical constraints added to the GM workload you mention above feel more like the second one to me.

      Sometimes I do fail to be clear and polite though, for which I apologize. I completely agree that if this kind of play works for you – do it! Do it and do it the best you can. But, yeah, it’s not my bag.

      Thank you again for the thoughtful comment.

  4. Have you ever read or played Apocalypse World or Dungeon World? They define GM responsibilities in tremendous detail. Everything should serve the Agenda, always follow the Principles, and choose a Move (dramatic action) from the list when the players fail a roll or everyone looks to you to see what happens (but never say name of move).

    To someone who hasn’t read them, that probably sounds like hyperbole. It’s not. It’s literally the way the rules are written. It’s written that way not because GMs cannot be trusted but because the GM’s behavior is the most powerful element determining the play experience. I think you’d agree with that. So the only way to be sure you’re playing this game as written is to closely define how to run the game.

    This method isn’t superior, necessarily. In fact, it circumscribes the game’s experience – intentionally. Contrast D&D, Pathfinder, or 13th Age, which rely far more on GM skill and discretion.

    The interesting thing is that the limitations, as Rob Donoghue said, are often liberating in that your focus is zeroed in on a few key elements. Most people I know who have read the GM’s Move list report that it codified things they were doing but never explicitly thought through.

    In short, GM limitations are useful to ensure your game isn’t a new setting for the GM’s habitual style. They’re not for everyone, but they’re excellent to try once or twice.

    So I would alter your first statement. Constraining a GM does not *necessarily* make a game better, but it certainly can define a game and setting more strongly than any amount of backstory.

    All that said, I largely agree. Games with strong mechanical limitations (as opposed to creative ones) on the GM (i.e. GM spending limited currency to determine difficulties or oppose players) are not often my cup of tea. But I’m okay with limitations that amount to a GMing ethos and style.

  5. I have spent a lot of time pondering Dungeon World. On the one hand it really speaks to me… but when I think about running it I just… don’t want to.

    When I think about the way Dungeon World attempts to codify the moves/agendas/principles, I really do get excited – but then I think about the issue of what happened with a game like 4e D&D. D&D 4e had this great idea – fighters do a specific thing, rogues do a specific thing… and they’ve been doing this all along but sometimes, they do it poorly. What if all those things were codified into Roles and those roles really meant something?

    It was a great idea. And it just… really didn’t work. Well, let’s be fair, some players/GMs think it works just fine. I was one of them for about two years. But the failings of the approach wore on me until I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I get that same vibe from Dungeon World.

    You’re right. I love your point here, “limitations, as Rob Donoghue said, are often liberating in that your focus is zeroed in on a few key elements.”

    This is a great point. I just think that I’m better off if those limitations are connected directly to my players, my table, and the organic experience growing there rather than a “behind the screen,” potentially unconnected mechanic that I’m adopting to somehow mechanize my GMing.

    So I think we’d fundamentally agree that we both are happy with the GM having some form of constraints – and that those constraints can (and will) breed creativity. I think we just cross over at the point of “where should they come from.”

    But yeah, I do spend a lot of time thinking about Dungeon World… that game vexes me.

    1. This may just be because I’ve played/run a lot of games in both camps, but I honestly think of these constraints as a design choice with consequences, not as inherently good or bad.

      I’ve likened it to handing a chef a cookbook and setting them free in a grocery store versus serving meals that, while exquisite, nevertheless always use the same ingredients.

      To continue your 4E analogy, the rules and powers were very good at what they did: making a high-powered combat experience. Similarly, Apocalypse World’s rules bake in the implied setting and ensure that the world, as portrayed by the GM, is one of gritty impermanence and scarcity. You have to rebuild it from the foundations if you want to create a different experience – like Dungeon World for dungeon-crawling.

      Eclipse Phase, Numenera, 13th Age, Savage Worlds, and Pathfinder are more general, in my opinion. Saying the name of the game doesn’t tell you what kind of experience it’s going to be. Most “indie” games seem to be about refining one very specific experience, while the more traditional approach relies on GM-ing as a more general skill set. “Let’s play THIS game THIS way” as opposed to “let’s play a game” and only then working out details.

      Sorry if that rambled! I too often see people advocating one of the two approaches as the One True Way when they’re just a hammer and a screwdriver: tools for game designers, nothing more (though of course it’s fine to have preferred systems and experiences!).

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