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

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 [1] — 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!).

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:

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.


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.)

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Game Master, Referee, Storyteller: What’s in a Name?"

#1 Comment By Jeff Rients On February 27, 2006 @ 8:56 am

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 Comment By Sean Holland On February 27, 2006 @ 8:58 am

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 Comment By Troy Taylor On February 27, 2006 @ 11:33 am

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 Comment By ScottM On February 27, 2006 @ 2:36 pm

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 Comment By Walt C On February 28, 2006 @ 10:14 am

Chronicler – Witchcraft and Armageddon

#6 Comment By Walt C On February 28, 2006 @ 10:15 am

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

Director – Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and Angel

#7 Comment By Martin On February 28, 2006 @ 10:51 am

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 Comment By Zachary Houghton On March 1, 2006 @ 10:37 am

Game Ref-Orbit

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 Comment By Martin On March 2, 2006 @ 7:30 am

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 Comment By Sensei Le Roof On March 4, 2006 @ 12:14 pm

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

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

#11 Comment By Brodie On March 5, 2006 @ 12:26 am

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 Comment By Martin On March 6, 2006 @ 7:50 pm

Sensei: Got ’em, thanks!

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