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Game Mastering is Not an Exclusive Club

Posted By Martin Ralya On June 22, 2009 @ 1:29 am In GMing Advice | 14 Comments

The AD&D 2nd Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide opens with this line:

You are one of a very special group of people: AD&D game Dungeon Masters.

AD&D 2e was the first game I ever GMed, and the one I’ve run the longest (though it’s been quite a while at this point). I first read those words back in 1989; I was 13.

And I thought that was the greatest thing ever. A special group — that I was part of! That gave me a lot of confidence when I was starting out as a first-time GM, and it’s not an overstatement to say that it played a role — albeit a small one, perhaps — in my keeping at it for the 20 years since then.

It probably had a similar impact on other budding GMs back in the ’80s, and if you’re just starting out and reading it now inspires you, that’s awesome.

But I’ve come to realize that it’s not not an entirely accurate statement — game masters are not part of a special group.

Yes, there’s a division between players and GMs, despite the fact that at the end of the day we’re all players, and we all share the same goal: to have a great time gaming with our friends.

Is game mastering harder than playing? Yes. Is it more work? Yep. Is it more rewarding in some ways? Sure, depending on your personality.

So: There are differences.

But I believe the long-standing perception that GMing is scary, intimidating, or too much work — rather than something that each and every gamer should attempt at least once — is due in part to this perspective: the notion that GMs are special.

We’re not special.

What we do can be special — but what our players do can also be special. And what everyone around the table achieves together? More special still — because that’s the magic that keeps us all coming back, whether we GM, play, or both.

Game mastering is not an exclusive club.

Just about anyone can do it. Not every gamer will like it; some will be better GMs than others; some folks won’t really enjoy it.

But the skills that make you a good GM, and the elements of the craft, can be learned by damned near any gamer old enough to get a handle on the basics.

If you want to be a game master, you can.

Hell, even if you don’t want to be one, you should try it at least once. Grab a published adventure for your favorite system, one that includes pregenerated characters. Read up on the bits of the rules you’re less familiar with, ask your friends to give it a shot with you, and sit down behind the screen for one night.

Having GMed even just that once will make you a better player, just like playing makes you a better GM.

Know what you’re getting into, but don’t be intimidated by it, or feel that because you’re not already one of the GMs in your group you can’t become one.

To wrap up, let’s finish that introductory paragraph from the AD&D 2e DMG, because it’s awesome:

Your job is not easy. It requires wit, imagination, and the ability to think and act extemporaneously. A really good Dungeon Master is essential to a good game.

That right there? Truth, pure and simple. And the essence of that first sentence — about being special — is also true: When you GM, you’re doing something special.

Just remember that game mastering is not an exclusive club — and happy GMing!

About  Martin Ralya

A father, husband, writer, small-press publisher, former RPG industry freelancer, and lifelong geek, Martin has been gaming since 1987 and GMing since 1989. He lives in Utah with his amazing wife Alysia and their awesome daughter Lark in a house full of books and games.




14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "Game Mastering is Not an Exclusive Club"

#1 Comment By Rafe On June 22, 2009 @ 7:30 am

That’s the edition I started with, in 1991. I, too, was 13. I find it definitely helps to think of yourself (when GM’ing) as a player. Though it’s pure perception, it makes the game feel more inclusive and collaborative instead of the more competitive DM vs Players mindset I started with way back when.

As for people trying to GM, that’s definitely sound advice. Even one evening behind the screen can change one’s ideas about being a player, and gives some appreciation for the other role at the table.

#2 Comment By LordVreeg On June 22, 2009 @ 9:18 am

I agree with the sentiment, but disagree with some of the underpinnings of the post.

The sentiment being that GMs are not a special club or an exclusive group, that it is a fun thing that everyone should try has my complete agreement.

However, I spend a lot of time on game theory and design in all sorts of places, and my sticking point is that the job of GMing (and rulesets and systems for GMing) includes three major possible duties. Pursuing any of these makes on a ‘GM’, but all fall under the rubric.

1) Sitting down and running a game.
2) Managing a campaign/group of continuing adventures.
3) Setting design/rules design

These are all under the bailiwick of GMing. Furthermore, and this is where I might run afoul of some people, I believe that these different responsibilities/activities are hierarchal in terms of defining the ‘exclusivity’ or ‘specialness’ of the GM grouping. Virgil guides us GM’s through three major circles, and they get more rarified as we go.

“Grab a published adventure for your favorite system, one that includes pregenerated characters. Read up on the bits of the rules you’re less familiar with, ask your friends to give it a shot with you, and sit down behind the screen for one night.”
Sound and good advice, and purposely written to define the experience as easy and unthreatening, a ‘dip-your-toe’ invitation.

However, it speaks directly to my comment. It’s a good idea and an easy way to try GMing without major investiture. But it’s also GMing at it’s most basic and simple level.

I guess my rambling point (that has been written in during a conference call and a purchasing emergency) is that ‘GMing’ is more than one thing, and as with any art, there are levels of investiture that lead to mastery, and that these levels of investiture do equate to some measure of exclusivity.

But the feet have to get wet sometime to start it. The doors are open to one and all, welcome.

#3 Comment By TwoShedsJackson On June 22, 2009 @ 9:24 am

After playing 4e for the past 6 months, I’m still hesitant to try my hand at DMing. One factor is that I don’t have a lot of time to prepare, but more importantly, I know that a poor DM can make for a dismal session for everyone else, and I don’t want to inflict that on my friends.

I was the DM back in OD&D and 1e days, but all I did was build dungeon crawls with little coherence. My friends enjoyed the few sessions we played, but they had nothing to compare it to.

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On June 22, 2009 @ 9:54 am

@TwoShedsJackson – Six months of play is probably enough; if you’re not still asking how things are done when your turn comes around, you can do it.

It doesn’t have to be perfect when you run it– sometimes, as a GM, it’s just nice to get to play for once. You can give the gift of “a night as a player” to your GM. While http://www.gnomestew.com/gming-advice/introductory-games-for-new-roleplayers was about new players, my wife had only run one session when she went about introducing new players. Look at that article for lots of advice and tools to make it easy for your first time.

#5 Comment By TwoShedsJackson On June 22, 2009 @ 10:19 am

@Scott Martin: Thanks for the encouragement. Our DM gets time off fairly often, as we also have a “side session” that we switch to if one of our players has to leave early, and which we takes turns DMing.

(For me, it’s DM, not GM. That’s the one thing I’m “old school” about.)

#6 Comment By robustyoungsoul On June 22, 2009 @ 10:45 am

Terrific post.

#7 Comment By BryanB On June 22, 2009 @ 12:23 pm

I’ve never considered gamemastering to be an exclusive club per se; It is something more like members of the same chain gang of slaves that are rowing a Roman galley. :D

#8 Comment By DocRyder On June 22, 2009 @ 3:57 pm

That introductory line of Gary’s sounds like one of those introductory lines from a brochure by a correspondence school: “You are one of a select group chosen to be part of a special class of thousands with the Acme School of Dungeon Mastering…”

Yeah, right…

Actually, I do believe there are some people who just aren’t suited for DMing. They may not understand plot or may not even get story. They’re disorganized to the point that they can’t find the character creation section of whichever rules they’re running. They can’t think on their feet. They can’t control a group of players and keep them from going so off track that the game wanders into realms of silliness unrelated to the game. Those people ought not be DMs (or whatever you call it).

#9 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 22, 2009 @ 5:09 pm

I am not a fan of the “Players are gamers, but GMs are elite gamers!” mentality. Some GMs display it and it really irks me.

I’ve played with some GMs who treated me in a condescending way when I joined their game, and then they played in a game that I GMed, and the next time that I played in their game the treatment that I received was noticeably different. I was now in “the club” because I could GM just like they could. Whether or not I know how to GM should have no bearing on how I am treated as a player, but it happens (at least that is what I have seen, anyone else?).

I think anyone who plays tabletop RPGs should try GMing at least once. Not because they should be GMs, but because they might like GMing. I also believe that you break out of your comfort zone with music, movies, books, cuisines, and anything else that might be part of your routine. It is just a healthy experience IMO. GMing is different from playing, and for some of us it is more enjoyable than being a player.

Yet being a GM makes you a member of a special group? No, absolutely not. It may make you feel special, and that is just fine, but it does not make you special. It just makes you a GM. :)

#10 Comment By Zig On June 23, 2009 @ 5:36 am

Lots of good points in the article and the postings that preceed my own.

In my own group we have two people who will run a game with regularity. Myself and one other. We’ll both run D&D (1st and 2nd editions) while I will run Shadowrun and he Rifts.

However, over the years, some of the regular players have had a chance to sit behind the screen for a bit. It left them with some respect for what goes on when you slip on the GM/DM boots. I wish a couple other of my players would take even a one shot turn behind the screen so they’d have a better idea of the work…and the task of herding cats that can sometimes occur when things go haywire.

That being said, I find it very useful as a GM/DM to sit on the players’ side of the screen every so often. It reminds me that the story telling is group activity. Something which I occasionally forget when running a game. Being a player every so often reminds me to not railroad the PCs, but to instead be (and plan) flexible.

I think taking on the role of GM/DM is special in that you take on a lot of responsibility, but there is no game without the players, so they too are special. Doubly so that rare player (well, at least rare in my experiences) who becomes a prime mover in the game. The one who gets vested in the plot and starts coming up with the crazy ideas and outlandish plans that leave you as the GM/DM scrambling. I love being surprised be my players.

Ah, one final thought; time spent on the players’ side of the screen reminds me to do my darnedest to include something in every gaming session that will make each player feel important and indispensable to the group. I know when I’m a player the chance to use that odd ball skill or what not can really leave me with a good feeling at the end of a gaming session.

#11 Comment By Zig On June 23, 2009 @ 5:39 am

@BryanB – LOL! That’s great!

#12 Comment By Bercilac On June 23, 2009 @ 6:19 am

I started DMing with the “exclusive” idea in my head. Principally, I thought that the players’ sense of awe relied on certain mysteries, mysteries that I myself was not privy to when I was first introduced to the game. I asked my players not to read the Dungeon Master’s Guide or the Monster Manual, as these contained “forbidden info.”

I’ve since discarded that idea, if only because players NEED to look at the DMG to figure out what sorts of magic items they might like to create/buy and often need to look at the MM for various races (I never run campaigns anymore with the set in the PHB, too boring). It’s not what the elements are that makes the mystery, it’s which one you have in store next; just like the words in a sentence don’t mean anything unless they’re in the right order. (Ooh, semiotics…)

#13 Comment By Martin Ralya On June 23, 2009 @ 6:15 pm

@LordVreeg – Guilty! I do like to make GMing sound less imposing that it can sometimes be, but that’s out of a genuine belief that it IS less imposing than many folks think. ;-)

@DocRyder – I don’t think every player should BE a GM, just that every gamer should try it at least once. Even if you hate every minute of it and your players feel the same, you’ll learn a lot.

@Bercilac – Yep. Call of Cthulhu was the game that broke me of that back in high school. I wanted to read all the stories so badly that I learned to compartmentalize player vs. character knowledge so I could read the stories and still enjoy the surprises in the game. Good point!

#14 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On June 25, 2009 @ 10:08 am

I disagree that all players should gamemaster at least once. Some “GMs” bunge it up so badly so consistantly that they should retroactively declare they have never GMed and never will, and kill all witnesses to the contrary.

;p

But unless you’re one of those, keep truckin. Even when you make mistakes, you’ll learn.


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