Active from 2005 to 2007 and dedicated entirely to system-neutral GMing advice, Treasure Tables was one of the earliest RPG blogs. It was also the precursor to Gnome Stew, so we decided the best way to keep all of its content -- over 750 articles and more than 7,500 comments -- accessible to as many GMs as possible was to move it here, which we did in 2012. Comments are turned off, just they as were when Treasure Tables closed in 2007. The GMing material and discussion archived below was originally featured on TreasureTables.org. Enjoy! --Martin Ralya

Here on TT, I use “Game Master” (or more often, GM) to apply to everyone who runs RPGs, even if I’m talking about a specific game that uses a different term (like Referee or Storyteller). It’s the most common, most widely understood term, which makes it a good fit for this site.

But many RPGs change that up, and call their GMs something else entirely — is there any significance to what the GM is called in different RPGs?

Let’s kick off with a list of terms for game master, as seen in a wide range of RPGs.

I pulled most of these terms directly from the 91 excerpts that were posted in How Different RPGs Define the GM’s Role — and in some ways, this post is an expansion on that one, too.

(If you know of a term for GM that isn’t on this list, please mention it in the comments.)

Terms for “Game Master”

Update: Several terms came up in the comments, and I’ve added them to this list (thanks, everyone!).

  • AI – Red Dwarf
  • Animator – Toon
  • Bartender – Tales from the Floating Vagabond
  • Chronicler – Witchcraft
  • Computer – Paranoia
  • Control Man – Hunter Planet
  • The Creator – SenZar
  • Director – Buffy, the Vampire Slayer
  • Dungeon Master – D&D in its many forms
  • Excursion Master – Excursion into the Bizarre
  • Fate – The World of Synnibar
  • Game Ref – Orbit
  • Guide – Epic RPG
  • Ghostmaster – Ghostbusters
  • Gore Master – Dead Meat
  • Hollyhock God – Nobilis
  • HoLmeister – HoL
  • Journey Master – Encounter Critical
  • Judge – Many older games
  • Keeper of Arcane Lore – Call of Cthulhu
  • Lejend Master – Lejendary Adventures
  • Moderator – Many games (mainly older ones)
  • Narrator – Star Trek, among others
  • Ninja Master – Night of the Ninja
  • Producer – Primetime Adventures
  • Referee – Traveller, among others (many older games)
  • Rune Master – RuneQuest
  • Sheriff – Deadlands
  • Story Guide – The Shadow of Yesterday
  • Storyteller – World of Darkness games
  • Zombie Master – All Flesh Must be Eaten

Observations (based on my original list)

Here’s what jumps out at me based on this list:

• A common variation on GM is one adapts the term to the setting or theme of the game — like Zombie Master for All Flesh Must be Eaten, or the Keeper of Arcane Lore in Call of Cthulhu. I see these mainly as differences in flavor, not in what the GM is supposed to do in those games.

• Related to that are games that use a term that not only blends into their theme, but also defines the GM’s role a bit differently — for example, Producer in Primetime Adventures (a game in which you play out TV shows) and Animator in Toon (an RPG about cartoons).

The Producer is in charge of a game of PTA in slightly different ways than a GM is in charge of most other games — for example, the Producer has a fixed budget that’s used to provide opposition for the PCs.

• Lastly, and most significantly, some RPGs use their term for GM as a statement of purpose that defines the GM’s role differently in very broad ways — more broadly than, say, Producer or Animator does. Let’s look at a 3 of these individually:

  • Storyteller: In keeping with White Wolf’s approach to RPGs, this term places the emphasis on story and distances itself from rules and mechanics (both of which are more strongly implied by Game Master). (Narrator has similar connotations, although it removes some of the control suggested by Storyteller.)
  • Referee: This term denotes impartiality, casting the GM (unfortunately) as little more than an arbitrator — there’s not much creativity suggested by this one. (I’d say the same thing goes for Judge and Moderator, too.)
  • Fate: Calling the GM “Fate” implies superiority over the players in a way that the term “Master” in “Game Master” doesn’t. This fits pretty well with the overall tone of The World of Synnibar (the only game I know of that uses the term), but it’s a poor choice.

Does the Term Matter?

Personally, I don’t find that a particular game’s term of choice for GM has much impact on how I run that game. If I decided to run an older game that called the GM “Judge” or “Moderator,” for example, I wouldn’t think of my role as different in any way from being a GM in any other games.

I can think of two exceptions, though, based on reading — but never actually running — World of Darkness games (Storyteller) and Primetime Adventures (Producer). In both of those cases, I think of the game differently primarily because of the way its written, the structure of the book(s), the rules and so forth — but also because of the term that’s used in place of Game Master.

Questions

What conclusions do you draw from the different terms — and do they really matter to your perception of the game, or how you run it? (And if you know of any terms for GM that aren’t covered on this list, please mention them in the comments.)

About  Martin Ralya (TT)

"Martin Ralya (TT)" is two people: Martin Ralya, the administrator of and a contributor to Gnome Stew, and a time traveler from the years 2005-2007, when he published the Treasure Tables GMing blog (TT). Treasure Tables got started in the early days of RPG blogging, and when Martin burned out trying to run it solo he shut it down, recruited a team of authors, and started Gnome Stew in its place. We moved all TT posts and comments to Gnome Stew in 2012.



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12 Responses to Game Master, Referee, Storyteller: What’s in a Name?

  1. I use GM universally like so many others, but I tend to stick to DM for D&D.

    Some others terms:

    The Creator – SenZar
    Journey Master – Encounter Critical
    Rune Master – RuneQuest
    Hollyhock God – Nobilis (surprise you missed this one!)
    Ghostmaster – Ghostbusters
    Ninja Master – Night of the Ninja
    Excursion Master – Excursion into the Bizarre
    Gore Master – Dead Meat

  2. From my experience, the title matter far less then the person who takes the role. Sure, some buy into the DM as lord and master of the Game (and its group) rather then just the setting, other prefer a more relaxed, interactive style. I have seen Storytellers who were control freaks and GMs who allowed the players the shape the game world. It is the person, not the title, that shapes the play style.

  3. Deadlands has a sheriff

    I think it comes down to two camps: Whether the role is one as rules arbiter vs. mood setter, or if you prefer, judge vs. narrator. Most games lean more one way than the other. But some on that list are simply a designer/marketer trying to fit the name to the genre of the game, rather than clue the players into the GM’s true role.

    I prefer GM/DM, which because of its universality, tends to make the meaning generic.

  4. The name doesn’t matter much– it’s what the book tells you about the role that matters. For example, both Dogs in the Vineyard and Primetime Adventures are very clear that many of the aspects that you’re used to a GM exercising, their GM doesn’t.

    If your book is vague about what a GM does and you just give it a fancy name, you haven’t contributed anything useful.

  5. Walt C

    Chronicler – Witchcraft and Armageddon

  6. Walt C

    Even with a Preview I hit “Post” too quickly, lol.

    Director – Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and Angel

  7. Thanks for all the new terms — I’ve added them to the list. :)

    I don’t have anything to add to what Sean, Scott and Troy said, except that those are all good points.

  8. Game Ref-Orbit
    Guide-Epic

    Starship Troopers is interesting in that it uses the plural “Games Master”.

    Add Iron Gauntlets to the list as also using “Director”.

    To be honest, I subconciously default to “GM” even when using a system that doesn’t use that designator. I can’t ever recall finding true merit in any divergent title.

  9. I’m in a similar boat, Zachary — my brain substitutes GM in most cases. Where we differ is that I think the presentation — especially in, say, PTA — plus a divergent title does have an impact on how I view a game.

  10. What about “Bartender” in Tales from the Floating Vagabond, or “AI” in Red Dwarf?

    Oh, and the “Computer” in Paranoia, natch.

  11. The name of the GM is only flavor unless the game actually shares GM narration powers among many players. For instance, the SOAP rpg based on soap operas allows each player to create their own scenes and other players can join existing scenes or create their own. Whatever a player says happens unless another player spends a token to change it. players gain tokens by demonstrating character traits or exposing information about their “secret”. No GM, but its definitely a roleplaying game.

  12. Sensei: Got ‘em, thanks!

    Brodie: Any chance you’ve got a link to that soap opera RPG?

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