Sounds like a pretty dumb question, right? Or at least a question with a very obvious answer: the GM creates scenarios, runs the game and plays the NPCs. That’s true, but those are pretty broad descriptions — particularly that middle one, “runs the game.”
Let’s break those topics down into smaller chunks, and try to answer another question at the same time: which of the GM’s jobs should also be players’ jobs?
In the comments to a post entitled “What is the GM’s job?” over on Attacks of Opportunity, John Harper put forward a great list of GM responsibilities. I don’t think he intended this list to be 100% comprehensive (he called it “some” GM tasks), but it’s pretty darned close:
– Provide adversity for protagonists
– Establish boundaries of imaginary content (define situation)
– Rules interpretation (referee)
– In-game-world time management
– Start/stop scenes
– Back-story creation
– Conflict creation
– Color commentary (narration embellishment)
– Play NPCs
– Pacing (real time)
– Ensure protagonist screen time
– Authority over what information can be acted upon by which characters
– Authority over internal plausibility
– Social manager of who gets to speak when
– Arbitrator of disagreement among players
John also adds:
Some games put all of these tasks in the hands of one player. Some don’t. Most are simply silent on the subject and let the group sort it out for themselves — to lesser or greater degrees of success.
I think that the group of games where these tasks are split up is largely composed of indie RPGs like Universalis (where everyone is a GM) or Sorcerer (where the group collectively defines game terms before play) — so let’s focus on the other group: the vast majority of games, where there’s one GM and these are that GM’s responsibilities.
First off, is there anything missing from John’s list? I can only think of one thing, but it’s a doozy: make the game fun.
Most of the list ties into making the game fun in some way, but I think it’s worth spelling that one out for two reasons: having fun can get lost in the shuffle if you focus too much on other things; and making the game fun is a responsibility that the GM and the players should share.
Whether it’s spelled out in the text or not, most games place this responsibility squarely on the GM’s shoulders. When everyone gets together, the GM is supposed to make sure you all have fun. That’s a great goal — the goal, really — but it can also be pretty stressful. I know it’s something I tend to worry excessively about when I’m running a game, sometimes to the extent that I don’t have fun myself!
That brings me back around to the idea of shared responsibilities. As far as “making the game fun” goes, I’m not just talking about not being disruptive, or showing up on time, or knowing the rules for your PC’s abilities — all of which are good ways to help ensure that everyone has fun. I’m talking about actively accepting part of the responsibility to make the game fun as a player, even though this typically falls to the GM.
There are a few responsibilities on the list that many players are comfortable sharing with the GM, notably back-story creation (via their PC backgrounds), color commentary (describing their PCs’ actions in interesting ways) and rules intepretation. But there are other items that could also be a lot of fun to share — like framing scenes, creating elements of the setting, playing NPCs and pacing. Plus the Grand Poobah of meta-level responsibilities: making the game fun.
Sharing in that responsibility would require stepping back a little ways from the game during play — something GMs do all the time — and thinking about it as a game, rather than from a character’s perspective. Not metagaming in the sense of using real-world knowledge in character, but in the sense of thinking, “How can I, as a part of this game, make what happens next more fun for everyone?”
I don’t think that will work for everyone — some players just like to play and not worry about anything else, some GMs enjoy having complete control, etc. — but I do think it’s something that mainstream games should address, even just as an option (in the case of D&D, for example, it would have been a perfect topic to cover in the DMG II). And I’ve watched some really marvelous players do this at the table, so I know it can be done!
What do you think? Have all of the GM’s responsibilities been covered here (by John’s list and my addition)? Does the idea of shared responsibilities — and specifically, sharing in the meta-consideration of making the game fun — hold water in games like D&D, GURPS and Vampire?