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What Does the GM Do?

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? [1]” over on Attacks of Opportunity [2], 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?

8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "What Does the GM Do?"

#1 Comment By John On August 2, 2005 @ 4:00 pm

This is an interesting topic, Martin, and I want to respond to it. But first, a correction.

When I said:
“Most are simply silent on the subject and let the group sort it out for themselves — to lesser or greater degrees of success.”

I most emphatically was NOT refering to Universalis or games of its ilk. Universalis is the OPPOSITE of this. It spells out clearly what all of the GM-like tasks are and explains how they are managed. It’s probably the very best game in terms of explaining how and why to do all of the tasks of gameplay.

My statement above refers to games like D&D, Vampire, Exalted, Call of Cthulhu, etc. Those games say almost nothing about most of the tasks on my list. Who starts and stops scenes in Exalted?

Anyway, that’s what I meant.

#2 Comment By Bankuei On August 2, 2005 @ 4:37 pm

Hi,

I think that without stepping back and analyzing how you, yourself are enjoying the game, that it becomes that much harder for you and anyone playing with you to help push it to what you think is fun. Not “deep thinking”, but just, “Hey, that was cool” or “Let’s skip this, it’s boring”.

I think all the mainstream games you listed probably become way more functional when the whole group is willing to step in and out like that as well as communicate it directly to each other.

#3 Comment By Martin On August 2, 2005 @ 5:05 pm

(John) When I said:
“Most are simply silent on the subject and let the group sort it out for themselves — to lesser or greater degrees of success.”

I most emphatically was NOT refering to Universalis or games of its ilk.

That was sloppy writing on my part, John — I meant what you meant, I just didn’t make it clear! I’ve gone back and edited the post to correct that — thank you for pointing it out. 🙂

Here’s how that bit reads now:

“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.”

#4 Comment By Frank On August 10, 2005 @ 9:59 am

Martin –

Couldn’t figure out a better way to contact you…

This blog entry is causing the page to not display correctly in Internet Explorer 6.

Right after “which of the GM’s jobs should also be players jobs?” the page display stops (looking at the source, I see some kind of span tag right there – perhaps that’s the problem).

The sidebar and everything don’t show up at all.

Frank

#5 Comment By Martin On August 10, 2005 @ 11:20 am

(Frank) Couldn’t figure out a better way to contact you…

Very cool of you to try, and thank you for pointing that out! I’ve added my email address to the sidebar. 🙂

This blog entry is causing the page to not display correctly in Internet Explorer 6.

Right after “which of the GM’s jobs should also be players jobs?” the page display stops (looking at the source, I see some kind of span tag right there – perhaps that’s the problem).

I use Firefox, and everything looks fine — but in IE 6, it breaks the whole site. I looked at that post again, and it turned out to be a broken span tag at the very end that was doing it. Thank you so much for catching this, and taking the time to tell me about it!

#6 Comment By Frank On August 15, 2005 @ 6:08 pm

(Martin) Very cool of you to try, and thank you for pointing that out! I’ve added my email address to the sidebar. 🙂

Of course I wouldn’t have been able to read the sidebar… But I could have found it in the page source at least…

Frank

#7 Comment By Martin On August 15, 2005 @ 9:09 pm

(Frank) Of course I wouldn’t have been able to read the sidebar… But I could have found it in the page source at least…

Good point (and still quite embarassing!). 😉 Thank you again — and I assume you’re not having any problems with the site now?

#8 Comment By Frank On August 17, 2005 @ 9:50 am

(Martin) Good point (and still quite embarassing!). 😉 Thank you again — and I assume you’re not having any problems with the site now?

Everything looks good now. Time to get to reading the newer threads…

Frank

#9 Pingback By Treasure Tables » How Should GMs Learn to GM? On December 17, 2005 @ 10:44 am

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