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.
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.