This guest post by TT forum member Telas was the 1st Place winner in our Guest Post Contest, which posed the question “What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a GM?” Congratulations, Telas!
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The most important lesson I have learned is that the Game Master is the leader of the group. This probably isn’t news to anyone, but the implications of this are tremendous. As a GM, you will of course have the freedom and power that come with that position, but (most importantly) you will have the RESPONSIBILITY of being a leader.

Because that’s what real leadership is — responsibility. Ask any military officer how heavy a burden leadership can be.

A GM has power, tons of it. He can turn his players’ characters into gods or corpses, or anything in between. Some gamers don’t like admitting this, and create rules and agreements to control that power, but those are not necessary. If the GM is irresponsible with his power, he will find his group shrinking down to just himself. The power that a GM is granted by the rest of the group is given with the expectation that it will be used to make a good game.

A GM has freedoms that her players do not. She can create entire worlds out of whole cloth, and redefine rules on the fly. Yet her ability to do these things is directed to some degree by how well they make the game for her players. Again, if she is irresponsible with her freedom, she will find herself master of a very small game.

One of the issues we talk about on Treasure Tables is finding out what constitutes “a good game” for your group. The hardest part of this is usually finding out what they want. Sometimes, this is easy; other times, it’s near-impossible. Regardless, it’s a continuing process, as each individual’s definition of “a good game” is continually evolving.

As a GM, you need to be aware of your players’ wants. Does this mean you need to give them exactly what they want? Not at all, but you do need to make sure they’re enjoying what they’re getting.

In any group, disagreements will occur, and some kind of resolution needs to take place. Even if it always comes to a vote, someone has to handle the voting, manage the discussion, and enforce the decision. This is usually the GM.

Gaming is a very subjective activity, even with tables of modifiers and books of rules. Subjectivity requires good judgment, and the authority to enforce those judgements. These are the same qualities found in good leaders.

Even when a non-gaming decision has to be made (“Anyone want to order a pizza?”), the GM is usually consulted. (You know this is true…)

Does this make a GM a slave to his players? No, not any more than a CEO is slave to his stockholders. He is given this freedom and power to do a number of things, but is expected to show some kind of result for them.

And this, as a GM, is what you will be expected to do. This is why I feel that the most important factor in a game is the quality of the GM. A weak ruleset can be house-ruled into something workable. A borderline player can be brought around to the rest of the group’s point of view. A game will even survive losing a bad player, or even a couple of them. But there is no substitute for poor leadership in any organization, no matter how small.