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You Are Not The Director

We gamers commonly use a movie or theater analogy to describe role-playing, either to non-gamers or even amongst ourselves. You know the one: ‘the players in a game are like actors, and the characters are the roles they play’. 

But where does that leave the GM? He traditionally writes the adventure, but he isn’t exactly the writer. He plays the supporting cast, but is oh-so-much more than that.

The GM must be the director, right?

Wrong. It’s tempting to describe the GM as a director, after all, he controls much of the script, the scenery, the additional actors, etc. But unlike the director, the GM does not control the lead actors, the editing, or even the final product.

A better analogy is to describe the GM as the producer. A producer is a behind-the-scenes individual who coordinates and organizes, who provides the resources necessary for the film or play to take place, but then (hopefully) steps back and lets the talent do their thing. (Yes, some producers will insist on family relatives in roles, or fight the director for creative control, but these are bad examples.)

Why it matters

I’ll readily admit that I’m quibbling over the semantics in a throw-away analogy.

What really matters is not the term that you might use to explain an RPG, but the approach that it implies. A director controls the action; a producer facilitates it. The difference is tremendous.

Do not be the kind of GM that controls events or forces a certain outcome, because you’re taking that ability away from your players.

Be the kind of GM who provides all of the raw material for the events to occur, puts out fires when they erupt, and gives things a nudge or two when they need it.

Facilitate, don’t control. Produce, don’t direct.

Me? I’ll be in my trailer…

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "You Are Not The Director"

#1 Comment By John | We Have Contact On May 21, 2009 @ 7:04 am

Good analogy. Viewing the GM as the director is akin (sort of) to viewing the game as a “DM vs. PC” endeavor. Everyone has their role to play, but the outcome and path of the game are not (or rather, should not) be decided by any one person.

#2 Comment By LesInk On May 21, 2009 @ 7:31 am

“You play the cleric, you play the fighter, you play the wizard. And, I as, the GM, will play the rest of the world.”

That’s alot of power. I agree that as the GM of the ‘rest of the world’ it is so easy to slide into controlling the adventure instead of facilitating the adventure. However, for those still sorting out the difference, perhaps another way to think about it is by asking, “How would the world react to what the players just did or are doing?” In other words, action generates reaction.

That reaction should be in scale of the action. If a player kicks over an ant hill (real one), well, the ants scury about and nothing much happens. If he goes and steals a holy relic from the Church of Yo-Ho-Ho, the yohohoians are going to come scrambling after that player.

The problem for me seems to come when the players are just dawdling around kicking over ant hills when we want something heroic to happen. As GM, its your job to put out there opportunities to pull the player into a series of events where the player *might* become a hero. Its the player’s choice on which opportunities to take and which to leave behind — and some of those choices aren’t going to be ones leading to success. But its their choice, good or bad.

Oh, and finally, providing only one opportunity is not a choice. The party should be in control of their actions.

#3 Comment By Wimwick On May 21, 2009 @ 8:09 am

Great article. I know everytime I’ve tried be the director while DMing it has ended poorly. The key as you mention it is to facilitate the gaming session, provide responses to the actions of the PCs. Those responses should be appropriate, but they shouldn’t railroad the PCs into any decisions.

#4 Comment By John Arcadian On May 21, 2009 @ 8:18 am

The role of the GM in the RPG movie analogy was where I always got hung up. There is nothing in the movie world that quite fits the reactionary referee role that a GM, IMHO, should serve. The best I could ever think of was script-writer for an Improv troop.

#5 Comment By Patrick Benson On May 21, 2009 @ 9:06 am

Two words: Damn straight!

#6 Comment By BryanB On May 21, 2009 @ 9:20 am

Producer sounds right.

#7 Comment By Tony Graham On May 21, 2009 @ 10:55 am

Brilliant! Definitely an accurate analogy.

Now there only remains the problem of casting – hopefully the players are the leads. However, some are only interested in being supporting characters, there is usually an unfortunate bit-player and, of course, there is the (hopefully) infrequent disgruntled cast-member that wants their own spin-off series in which they are the only star.

Let’s just leave the Producer who feels their FX Monster is the real star of the show and the cast is just around as gloriously bloody victims out of this conversation.

And remember, any monkey can direct. There’s plenty of proof out there demonstrating the fact. It takes GM brilliance to produce.

#8 Comment By TwoShedsJackson On May 21, 2009 @ 12:03 pm

Or perhaps the DM is like the set of actors in a movie who are intimately familiar with the canon, as opposed to the Players who are coming in cold?

#9 Comment By Scott Martin On May 21, 2009 @ 12:32 pm

Producer is the name Primetime Adventures uses for its GM role.

#10 Comment By Loonook On May 21, 2009 @ 2:51 pm

I think that there is such a fine line (and large amount of development) that DMs play a myriad of roles.

At some times, this can include the producer, director, writer, gaffer, craft service (if ordering pizza counts 😉 ).

However, I do agree that facilitating is much more important than direction in the average game.



#11 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On May 21, 2009 @ 7:22 pm

Thanks for the comments. As many noted, this isn’t necessarily about perfecting the analogy, but instead it’s about how to approach GMing.

Also, to all those producers out there: I don’t want to give the impression that a producer’s job is necessarily one of “set it up and step back”. Most producers are up to their elbows in the production from start to finish.

[1] – I definitely could have expounded on it, but your “heroic anthill” example is where the “giving things a nudge or two when they need it” comes in.

#12 Comment By LesInk On May 21, 2009 @ 7:47 pm

Ahhh … brevity, yes, that’s what they call it. Before I knew it Tenser’s Floating Soapbox had appeared underneath me.

Keep coming with the great discussions.

#13 Comment By AndreasDavour On May 21, 2009 @ 9:50 pm

I’ll sing with the choir, good analogy!

Also, I’ll add another reason why it pays off not to think as a director, and why comparisons with novels usually don’t work either. I once played with a friend who hadn’t GM’ed in a while, but he had this great idea for a campaign, based on a novel he had read.

If you think as a writer or a director, you will start to have ideas about what should happen. That is not fun.

You are not making a story, the players are.

#14 Comment By Malnacht On May 26, 2009 @ 12:15 pm

One of my players gave me this great analogy in response to this article.

“We are an improv troop and the DM is the audience who have just shouted out that we are in a dentist’s office with a chicken and fear of clouds.”

#15 Comment By Tacoma On July 21, 2009 @ 4:54 pm

I agree with the article. The best games seem to run with just enough DM input to keep everything whistling along. But if the DM is working too hard for whatever reason, things seem forced. And if the DM isn’t putting anything in he’s not really doing much but sitting back – when the players get into deep roleplaying discussions or blow four hours planning an assault, that sort of thing.