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Impartial Arbiter, Friendly Guide, or Deadly Foe?

masks [1]

The many masks of a GM.

Recently, I got into an argument. On the internet. Shocking, I know. How could such a thing happen? No one ever argues on the internet! This particular argument stemmed from a discussion on GMing. In another internet group, a friend had come across a request for GMing advice, but all the tips given felt adversarial and old-school to him, prompting him to bring the subject up to his friends. Obviously, I have some opinions on the role of the GM, but someone else countered that the GM should be an impartial arbiter and nothing more. The discussion was on!

The conversation stayed civil, despite differing opinions, but it did get me thinking. What is the ideal role for a GM to take on? Should they just be an impartial arbiter, just observing the players and making judgment calls when necessary, or do they become as invested and involved in the story as the players by being the fan of the players? And what about the deadly foe that GMs used to become as they plotted deadly traps and difficult challenges for their table?

Thanks to John’s review of Designers & Dragons [2], I’ve been avidly reading up on the history of gaming. It’s been fascinating looking at how the hobby began, how it has grown and changed over the years, and how it continues to evolve today. Between being birthed as an offshoot of the war gaming hobby, and the early emphasis on tournament play, it’s not surprising that many games in the 70’s and 80’s were rules heavy and encouraged the GMs to keep their players at a distance. Over time, rules have generally been simplified or streamlined and the secrecy and distrust that was fostered between player and GM has (mostly) disappeared.

I’m a fan of the rules light, story heavy style of GMing many systems advocate for today, but I think it’s absolutely worth examining other styles. Not only can it improve your skills as you pick and choose techniques from different methods, but it can allow you to provide a more diverse game for your players that might have different tastes.

Take for example the ‘Impartial Arbiter’. As it was stated in the original discussion, it felt too clinical and disinterested. For me, the game can’t be just about playing referee. I need to be a bit more invested than that. If I can’t be a fan of the PCs and the adventures they’re having, I’m eventually going to lose interest in the game. At the same time, if the GM is too invested in the game’s story, it can be easy to start taking control back from the players and railroad them to the interesting bits you want them to experience. Remembering to remain at least a teeny bit impartial can give the players the freedom to take the game in unexpected but exciting directions.

What about the ‘Friendly Guide’? Not exactly the direct opposite of the impartial arbiter, this style focuses on bringing the game world and its inhabitants to life. This one is probably closest to my style, as I love trying to bring the wonder of the setting to life. If I can get the players to get excited about a place I’ve described or an NPC I’ve introduced them to, I feel like I’ve done my job. The downside is that you can get too caught up in the world to pay attention to what the players really want to get out of the game. Just like an author spending pages describing a scene can get boring as you wait to get to the good bits, your players need to interact with the world, not just wonder at it.

Then there’s the ‘Deadly Foe’. Many of my early GMs fell into that category and I’m actually quite glad that things have shifted away from that. As a player and a GM, I want action and adventure, not random death [3]. That said, it’s important to remember that most players actually do want a challenge. There’s a great deal of satisfaction in defeating an adversary that could have won the encounter. This is something I have to work at, since my tendency is to make fights a little too easy. When I remember to give my players something truly challenging, their eyes light up and they dig right into doing their best to outsmart me and defeat the bad guys.

I’ve oversimplified a couple of categories when there could be dozens. Most of us are a more likely a combination of styles than any one GMing trope. On top of that, just as the games we used to play have changed over the years, so have our GMing skills and techniques. I would be surprised if anyone is running a game exactly the same way they ran it ten, fifteen, or even twenty years ago.

What about your style of GMing? I’m curious how different people have evolved over the years. Let us know your thoughts on the subject.

7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "Impartial Arbiter, Friendly Guide, or Deadly Foe?"

#1 Comment By pkensler On April 10, 2015 @ 5:10 am

From time to time, it calls for all three – but I definitely lean heavily towards the “friendly guide”. There is just way too much fun to be had, NOT to be a fan of the PC’s. When they solve a puzzle, when they think of a solution you didn’t, when they connect the dots and somehow make 2+2=5 (their incorrect plot deductions are better than the story so you change it). If you’re not a fan of the PC’s, you’re missing out. That being said, you still need a heavy dose of the impartial arbiter. I’ve got one player who is very insistent that when death is on the line, I roll in plain view because he wants to be sure that if his character lives, it’s because that’s what the die said, not because I fudged the roll. He wants the risk of loss, so sometimes you have to be willing to let bad things happen to good PC’s. Thanks for the article!

#2 Comment By Mr. Flibble On April 10, 2015 @ 6:21 am

Well…yes, exactly. If I don’t enjoy playing with the people I play with and the characters they come up with, I don’t really see a point to the exercise. “Impartial arbiter” has its place (especially where game mechanics issues are concerned), but “deadly foe” is contrary to my personality and (redundantly) my ideas on what makes a fun, immersive group activity.

#3 Comment By John Kramer On April 10, 2015 @ 6:32 am

When I started I was probably an adversary to my PCs, since then I’ve evolved my GMing style. I don’t know that I’d say that I’m a friendly guide or an impartial arbiter.

All GMs need to read the GMing section of Dungeon World or another PbtA game – it’s affected every aspect of my GMing, even in more traditional RPGs. I recognize now that I’m just another player, it’s my job to be a fan of the PCs, to present an interesting world, and to play to find out what happens. Gone are the days of extensive pre-planning, my story doesn’t matter if the PCs don’t buy in, so instead we focus on the group’s story which emerges through play. I no longer roll anything behind a screen – for systems that let the GM roll anything that is, because rolling in the open keeps you on the same level as the players, you have to follow the rules just like they do, and players appreciate that their fate is in the roll of a die and not affected by my whim.

#4 Comment By Silveressa On April 10, 2015 @ 9:25 am

I usually attempt to strike a balance between all 3 when Gming, a friendly guide to make the adventure fun and give the PC’s a chance to blossom, an impartial arbiter to keep rules/mechanics fairly arbitrated, and deadly foe during key points of the campaign to ensure a proper level of climactic challenge.

That said, I do think my enjoyment of Gming would be sharply limited if I wasn’t a fan of the characters. They are after all the stars of the show, and not liking their characters would kill my enthusiasm for the next session and that lack of interest would no doubt manifest itself in the game and likely lead to an early demise.

(Perhaps that’s why some campaigns fizzle? Because the Gm isn’t really enthused with the characters the group is playing?)

#5 Comment By Scott Martin On April 10, 2015 @ 10:55 am

Like the other commenters, I’ve bounced through the various approaches. I’m rarely a deadly foe, though I do try to avoid falling in love with cunningly crafted explanations and death traps–sometimes, I think, deadly foe begins as playing a smart foe correctly, but can sometimes result from players successfully bypassing prep work or other time crunch frustrations.

I’ve found that my games fall flat when I retreat to my default, mere impartial arbitration. Yes. it’s nice to have a consistent world and steady physics, but in the end it’s a story. Without the spark of interest from everyone–an excitement about showing personality instead of returning to the most effective thing–games can drag.

#6 Comment By Mutak On April 10, 2015 @ 3:07 pm

Yeah – all 3.
While planning adventures, mostly foe, but always tempered by…let’s call it a friendly arbiter.
When thinking about treasure/rewards it’s mostly arbiter with a touch of friendly.
During the game, mostly arbiter, but with some friendly when looking for stuff to improv.

#7 Comment By NikMak On April 11, 2015 @ 3:50 am

As with most folks here I think Im all three, but tend to towards the impartial arbiter most of the time (unless something is way cooler/funnier if I nudge the dice a little)

But no one has mentioned setting specifics? Im surprised. If your doing the classic supers setting and classic epic fantasy (could we argue that they are the same thing really? and space opera too?), you need to be the friendly guide a lot more. If your doing something a bit more gritty and dark, then the arbiter works well (if the system is stable!) and sometimes, usually for a one shot where we have a few hours to kill because we have not got a regular game going; its good to be the adversary as well >:)