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Where Does The GM’s Fun Come From?

Every time with every group that I have ever been in, when the GM was bringing his or her campaign to a close the question “Who want to GM next?” came up. With some groups the hands shot up without a second thought. With other groups you might as well have asked “Who wants a red hot poker in the eye?”

That isn’t the issue I’m addressing though. Thinking back, even amongst the groups that had GMing enthusiasts, there was always one person who would respond “I would rather play, because that is more fun.”

And when I stop and think about it that person is right in a way. Playing is usually more fun than game mastering is. As a player you have considerably less work than the GM most of the time, and you get to play one of the central characters in the story being told. When you compare the effort to the reward, why would anyone want to be the GM?

Yet I enjoy being the GM, and I know that others do too. So where does the fun for the GM come from? For some it is world building, for others it is the storytelling, and for others still it is that competitive challenge of trying to trump the players without ruining the game. These are all valid reasons to GM, and each is fun in its own way.

But for me the fun in being the GM is trying to keep things from spinning out of control. I like my games to play fast and to be open. I like to have extremes and yet still keep that suspension of disbelief going for my players. I like storytelling the improbable story with highly cinematic moments without the players saying “That was over the top.” Sometimes I hit that mark, and many times I have failed (even if we all had fun anyhow).

For me, the best GMing sessions were the equivalent of successfully landing a 747 that has had three of its four engines burn out (two of which are still on fire) in the middle of a blinding snowstorm with thirty female pregnant passengers all going into labor and a rabid baboon for my co-pilot. That fictional plane may have been brought in for a landing, but it all could have gone horribly wrong at any moment.

Why do I enjoy this so much? I don’t know, and I don’t care to find out either, but I will tell you one thing – you can’t have that kind of a moment as a player. The player is a vital element to any game, and the player can help make the game spectacular, but in the end it is the GM who really makes the game what it is.

And perhaps that is where the fun comes from – the GM gets to see their work through from the beginning to the end and on the GM’s own terms. GMs are not restricted to what they can bring into their games. You can push the envelope and set the tone of the game in a way that the players cannot. It is worth the extra effort to get that kind of a reward.

That is my opinion on the matter, so what is yours? Where do you think that the fun of being a GM comes from? Leave your comments for others to read and share your own experiences with me and other members of the Gnome Stew community. And no matter what happens, don’t forget that the GM is a player too! Have fun with it!

19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "Where Does The GM’s Fun Come From?"

#1 Comment By Vampir On November 4, 2008 @ 2:26 am

To me at least, the fun comes from plotting and inserting random ideas so that they fit the base concept of a game.

I love it when the players do something I didn’t foresee and I have to mend my ways appropriately. Whether it be taking prisoner the diplomat they were supposed to coerce into helping them or fighting a powerful foe to the last health point. It’s good fun to see how far from your intentions the plot is heading…

#2 Comment By arthwollipot On November 4, 2008 @ 3:16 am

In my case at least part of the fun comes from keeping up with my players. My current game is a sandbox, where I throw things at my party and see how they react. But they also throw things at me, and for exactly the same reasons!

#3 Comment By DNAphil On November 4, 2008 @ 7:37 am

For me, I find my pleasure in GMing in the the form of creating interesting situations for my players, and then playing off of them as they interact with the situation. For me the thrill is to create situations that challenge my players to dive into their characters and to live and feel through them. When a player becomes angry or excited, or surprised, then I know that I have done my job in creating the situation for them.

I see my role as the leader in a Jazz band. I play the song first, and help set the beat and pace. Then I open it up so that each player can come in and improvise. They stay within the beat and the pace that I have set, but they are free to play around and make their own music.

Through that interplay we create a story better than one that I could have written alone.

#4 Comment By DeadGod On November 4, 2008 @ 9:30 am

A lot of my fun comes from entertaining others. I derive a lot of joy out of providing escapism for others. I guess the act of providing others with escapism is also a form of escapism for me.

Secretly, though, my favorite part of GMing is when I throw the players a twist. Its like a practical joke or a magic trick. You construct the environment, provide just enough information, get them to think they know what is going on, and then pull the rug out from under them. The goal isn’t to be mean, but to provide excitement and tension. When I can get a reaction out of the players (and not just their characters,) it puts a smile on my face.

#5 Comment By Scott Martin On November 4, 2008 @ 10:25 am

I like reacting to the choices players make, building a world that everyone comes to understand (and successfully predict), and creating challenges for friends to overcome.

Much like a player though, different games scratch different itches as a GM. Producing PTA required a lot of on the spot improvisation, constant attention to pacing and conflict. My 3.5e game, on the other hand, is about creating fights that scare the players into thinking they’re overmatched, then watching them succeed with panache.

#6 Comment By michaelkatz On November 4, 2008 @ 10:28 am

I’d have to disagree with “you can’t have that kind of a moment as a player.” When I play the fun I get can also be likened to landing the on-fire 747. Generally the best moments are when you’re down to your last hit point, last spell, and the fate of the world hangs in the balance, and somehow you pull out some cool stunt that stops the bad guy before it all crumbles around you. Maybe a little denouement of escaping the evil tower that suddenly starts to crumble as you escape.

In that metaphor, it’s the DM’s challenge to bring you down to that point… i.e. starting a fire on the plane and making sure there’s just enough gas to get to the landing strip.

#7 Comment By Fang Langford On November 4, 2008 @ 10:39 am

Oh, no. I just like to screw with people’s heads. lol.

Fang Langford

#8 Comment By Patrick Benson On November 4, 2008 @ 4:25 pm

MICHAELKATZ – I should have been more clear. The GM is the only person at the table who gets to set the overall tone and mood of the game. Players can push boundaries, and a good GM will accommodate that style of play when appropriate, but only the GM can say from the beginning to the end that the game is striving for “X”. The GM has to get buy-in from the players, and then there is a lot of work to be done to follow-through with that plan, but the GM really does set the tone for a game.

Of course, a group of players pushing the game in a certain is a cue to the good GM to change gears and put his or her personal plans aside.

#9 Comment By DarthKrzysztof On November 4, 2008 @ 10:01 pm

I think the most fun I have is along Vampir’s lines – changing my plans to fit the players. In fact, I like to leave the unimportant stuff undefined so I can fill it in with their ideas as we go. (We have short, weekly sessions, so it’s pretty easy for me to do this.)

Example: Our planewalking heroes got mixed up with a refugee NPC who fled his homeworld because “things were gettin’ bad there.” That was all that was important, so I left it at that.

Eventually it became clear that the PCs would end up going to that homeworld, so I’d have to figure out what the trouble was. During one of our sessions, the group found a great, dark shaft in the Underdark, and one PC mentioned that it looked like something a “chained god” would rise out of. The refugee NPC, who was there, started muttering about the cult of Vecna (that being a phrase often used to describe Vecna).

So that world’s overrun by undead. Problem solved. Thanks, player!

#10 Comment By Vampir On November 5, 2008 @ 3:08 am

If your name truly is Krzysztof, that’s one funny coincidence that we like GMing the same way…

#11 Comment By DarthKrzysztof On November 5, 2008 @ 6:50 am


Well, it’s Chris, really, but our circle needed a way to distinguish all the Chrises we know. 😛

Another part of the GM’s fun is watching the players make a bad decision without any way of knowing it’s a bad one. I had a campaign in which the players needed to hide an NPC. They had a map of the city with something like 80 locations on it, and they decided to hide her in the one place I’d already predetermined would be destroyed by a *meteorite* at the end of the day.

I had to show them my printouts to convince them I wasn’t making it up.

(But like I said, they couldn’t have known it was a bad decision, so they were eventually able to find her. It was still a priceless moment of panic.)

#12 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On November 5, 2008 @ 11:14 am

It sounds terrible, but GMing is a bit of an ego thing for me. I like being in charge of a group. I enjoy the satisfaction of providing a fun and challenging game. I like being the dealer in a card game, as it were.

In addition, there’s a bit of a kick from knowing what’s going to happen, and savoring it as it happens. It’s almost like Greek tragedy; everyone knows the story, but the enjoyment lies in watching it unfold.

#13 Comment By penguin133 On November 5, 2008 @ 2:54 pm

I like to play, but enjoy DMing more, for the reason that I love to create the World, the story, etc., etc. I also love the challenge of having to think faster than the players, to answer their queries and persuade them to go on suspending thier disbelief while collectively enjoying the game! As Telas puts it, I also like the challenge of providing a fun game. The epitome of fun for me is to make sure I DON’T actually kill anyone, but make them BELIEVE you are going to! As the ancient Chinese curse supposely says, “May you live in interesting times!” Keep them hopping about, never quite knowing what is going on; that is the challenge for me, to make it a challenge for THEM

#14 Comment By Swordgleam On November 5, 2008 @ 5:57 pm

I like making people happy. Running a good game makes people happy.

I’m also a storyteller, in the oldest sense. I don’t care what story my game tells, so long as it’s a good one. Anything the players do makes me happy, as long as it makes the story better, and if it doesn’t, then I’ll just have to tell the story a little differently. When I hear the players telling the story to other people out of game, it makes me really happy. We did that – we created a story worth telling. What could be better?

#15 Comment By Eclipse On November 5, 2008 @ 11:01 pm

I loved your plane analogy, and oftentimes, I also feel the challenge of keeping things in control when they want to spin out of control is one of the fun parts of running a game.

I also like entertaining people, but the main motivation is because I have a story to tell, and gaming is the best medium for me to tell it. This is because I always have big ideas, and no idea how to fill in the little pieces. The players fill in those vital missing pieces, and build up the story while I gently guide it along.

Of course, the players also have a habit of changing it, but I expect that and it’s one more thing that makes it fun, because even I don’t know the ending, and that keeps me hooked on the story as well.

#16 Comment By DocRyder On November 6, 2008 @ 10:08 pm

I personally enjoy the word building a lot, but I think best thing I’ve done as a DM/GM/ST is the storytelling element. I think my best game was a past-life regression in a Mage the Ascension game in which we never picked up a die. I created ties for my players present day characters in the Victorian era that explained their relationships and had them totally hooked. It was stellar, and I’m hoping to someday have another moment that good.

#17 Comment By penguin133 On November 7, 2008 @ 9:42 am

Doc, your post above is precisely what I love in the storytelling. I had a semi-roleplaying Western Skirmish campaign some years ago which I ran interspersed with a similar Pirate one, and one of the greatest series of games we ever had was when our Western “Selves” went to turn of the Century Mexico looking for the treasure buried by our “Pirate Ancestors”! Heavens to Murgatroyd, we had just about everything in there, Aztec survivors, Undead pirates (Thank God for Silver bullets!) and a werejaguar, as well as sundry Pistoleros and marauding Comanche! But the combination of both stories into one made the whole thing truly unique, and gave an added Dimension to the passing of information, you could tell a guy something he had heard from his grandparents about Great Uncle Buck, etc! Also the players could throw the occasinal spanner in the works trhemselves.
Added a whole new layer to the Roleplaying!

#18 Comment By LordVreeg On November 7, 2008 @ 10:09 am

As good a question as one could ask. Why do we do this?

And there have been a number of answers that seem to resonate with me. The ego thing is useless to deny here, and the comment about the Jazz band is also something that works with me.

I think the World-building part is huge as well. This stupid campaign is a quarter-century endeavor, so some of the older players have helped write much of the narrative, and some of the playing areas are like novels to me now.

Plotting is huge high. The Dreadwing Story arc (and the Vampyre Servant sub-arc) has been going on for over a decade, and the PC’s are just getting to some of the good parts plotted out a decade ago. I don’t think I realized at the time how long that was going to take, and there have been twists that I did not expect, but there are few things as satisfying as when the players have one of those totally immersed, “AH-HA!!” moments, when they discover a true piece of the puzzle.

#19 Comment By Chando42 On January 13, 2011 @ 10:28 pm

Though this comment is a little behind the times, I would like to share with the rest of the Stew an epiphany I had regarding the subject matter of this article.
I actually appealed to the gnomes for help righting my sinking GM ship a few weeks back, and their advice has worked wonders on my games. My biggest issue was NPCs, and how I didn’t play them very well.
However, I was trawling through the rulebook, reading all of the cool stats and abilities available to characters during chargen, and I remember thinking, “I wish I could be a player; then I could try out all these cool character concepts that I have!”
I nearly dropped the book when I realized that GMing allows me to do just that, WITHOUT THE RESTRAINTS OF A SINGLE CHARACTER. I’d been thinking of NPCs as inferior to PCs, and been yearning to try out all the unique abilities available to PCs. As the GM, I can do what I want with my NPCs, up to and including giving them just as much depth as the party.
I go back to GMing tomorrow with a fresh perspective on the game.