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Why Do You GM?

Lets face it, if you are a total improv GM or an uber-prep GM, game mastering is work; more work than being a player. Considering that most of us do not make a living GMing, and have other jobs and responsibilities, why would we want to take on more work in our lives? There must be a reason we accept the responsibility and work of creating a game and running it session after session.  So dim the lights, light some incense, and let’s do some soul-searching.

I never really thought about why I GM’ed.  I know my own pedigree of GMing, but the timeline alone does not speak to why I GM, and more importantly why I enjoy GMing. Having GMed now for nearly 30 years, I am sure that I am enjoying it , but I never really gave it much thought about what I am enjoying. Recently, I took some time and thought about the reasons why I was GMing and why it gave me enjoyment to do so. After some introspection, I realize that there is not one single reason, and that the reasons I like GMing have changed as I have matured (in Gaming at least) over the years.

A Long Time Ago:  Because No One Else Will

I came to GMing like a lot of us do; conscription. When I got into gaming (Moldvay pink box D&D), I had some friends who were interested in playing, but no one wanted to GM. So I took up the mantle of GMing.  My enjoyment at this stage was simple, it was just being able to play an RPG with friends.  I was not a skilled GM, and I made every rookie mistake possible, but back then it did not matter, getting to hang out with friends and toss some dice was fun enough.

A While Ago:  To Tell Great Stories

By the end of the 80’s I had GMed a great number of games for my friends, under a number of systems. These campaigns were entertaining, but I would not call them great in terms of sophistication or my ability to create a story, atmosphere, etc. In the late 90’s on a lark, I purchased the Amber Diceless RPG, and was changed forever. Through the GMing advice within the rules and the campaign I ran in the summer of ‘91, my eyes were opened to the storyteller style of gaming. I came to understand the role a GM had in creating the world around the players, and the power to develop a story that evoked real emotions from the players. I had since middle school been a frustrated writer, and suddenly games like Amber and Vampire tapped into that need to create story.

At this point, my enjoyment came from crafting great stories for my players. I would create complex plots and shocking twists. During this phase my GMing style was dominated by preparation and planning.  A great story needed structure and foreshadowing, so I would spend hours and days brainstorming into notebooks and crafting scenes for upcoming sessions. To keep the story moving forward, I became very skilled in the art of guiding players without railroading them, all for the purpose of telling the great story.

Understand, my players loved these games as well, and being able to sit at the table and play a game was still a source of enjoyment. At that time I believed that I had found my spot on the GMing continuum and was sure that my role was to craft the great stories and be the director to the cast of players.

Today: To Facilitate Great Stories

Until a few years ago, I stayed in that role of the storyteller and director. One day, something really cool happened during a game of d20 Modern. A player decided to go off script, but within the confines of the game, and created one of the most dramatic moments of the campaign (thanks Sargon). It opened my eyes, that there was tremendous power in the interaction of the players and GM to create a story as a collaborative process.

Soon I was reading all sorts of Indie games, and was changed by the philosophies of games like: Dogs in the Vineyard, Burning Wheel, and Houses of The Blooded. My enjoyment had shifted from crafting stories and being the director, to one more like a drummer in a jazz band.  My job was to lay down an interesting beat and let the players come in and do their thing. The end result being greater than what any one of us could have scripted.

There was also great enjoyment in not knowing what was coming next.  As the Storyteller/Director, the immediate outcome may not have been known, but the overall direction of a campaign was something that I had planned out.  My enjoyment of revealing that to the players waned and was replace by the excitement of having to think on my feet what to do in response to the players decisions within the campaign.

Today I have moved away from heavy planning and now find my enjoyment in setting up scenes and being surprised when a plot goes in a direction that I was not expecting, or when a player’s actions take the game to an new place.

Twitter Responses

I tossed out this question on Twitter asking people Why You GM (#wugm) and here are some of the responses that came back:

Breath Deep And Concentrate

So that is why I GM and where I find my enjoyment when I GM.  What about you? What makes you GM and what is it about GMing that gives you the drive to keep on running things, when real world commitments, player conflicts, writers block, and such crash against you?

18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "Why Do You GM?"

#1 Comment By Ben Scerri On January 28, 2011 @ 5:27 am

Currently I would have to say I am in the “To Tell Great Stories” era, but have been recently planning my next campaign in a very “To Facilitate Great Stories” way, so I might just be on the verge of shifting myself.

This came about because one of my players whom I introduced to RPGs inquired about GMing (which he is trying – I am so proud!), and so I thought it was time to give their stories a bit more spot light.

Great article!

P.S. Ironically, as I was typing this I got a Facebook message from ANOTHER one of the players I introduced who has just moved to a new city, and within his first day has already decided to take up the mantle for his new room mates. I couldn’t be more proud. 3 of my players now GMs. *wipes tear away from eye*

#2 Comment By hattymchappy On January 28, 2011 @ 6:34 am

Firstly, no one else will GM in my regular gaming group, but they may be coming around shortly.

But like Kristian on Twitter said, I love the “hosting” aspect. I like being the guy that organizes everything so that everyone can show up and have a great time….and building worlds is fun too. 🙂

#3 Comment By Hawkesong On January 28, 2011 @ 6:40 am

World creating (and destroying, sometimes), storytelling, organizing, all that jazz as others have already said.

Facilitating great stories is a new thing, and comes about mainly because I have players who have stories to tell! For a long time, my players were more passive. Now, I have two players (they’re married to each other in real life) working out a very interesting love story between their characters, and another player just finished a very drawn out “spiritual journey” type story for his own character. All this while working to save their world from the great evil from beyond! I’ve never had so much fun 🙂 Now I’m not leading the group from dragon to dragon – I’m getting to listen to their stories and throw wrenches in their works, and they love me for it!

But even if I lose these players I’ll probably still GM. I’ve learned a lot over the years and feel like I’m just better at GM-ing than playing. Partly because being “just a player” frequently gives me less opportunity to be creative. Being the creator of the campaign world gives me a direction for the masses of creativity I have anyway, and fuels my fire!

#4 Comment By MonsterMike On January 28, 2011 @ 8:02 am

Excellent essay! My journey has been similar – I started GMing at about age 13 or so because I was the only one motivated enough to do the work. I found that I really enjoyed creating the adventures, but being 13 they were mostly storyless dungeon-crawls. My idea of a great story was that you were given a quest to get the sparkly hoozits from the big bad at the end.

Later, still as a teen gamer, I found a lot of satisfaction in introducing mystery to my adventures. The PC’s actually had to figure things out and piece them together as they went along, but still their actions were constrained by the overall arch of _my_ story.


Picking up from where I left off, somewhere in between I learned the value of just going with it. One of the first rules of improvisation is to always go along with anything another actor suggests. If you are frustrated in your game because your players keep going off your rails and wandering away from your plot, let them. I say yes to everything and just watch where it goes. Then it becomes _our_ game instead of _my_ game.

#5 Comment By Clawfoot On January 28, 2011 @ 8:35 am

I grew into GMing gradually. I was strictly a player for a long time, and then I was asked to step up as a co-Storyteller for a LARP, and I grew a lot and learned a lot in those years. That translated well into a few short-lived tabletop campaigns, and from there, I gradually found my footing as a GM (pretty much strictly tabletop now) and am happy here. My players seem to enjoy themselves, and I think I’m good at reading them and knowing what they want.

How I got into it doesn’t answer the question of why I do it, though. The bottom line is that I find it fun. I love springing dramatic surprises on the players, and I love it when they spring dramatic surprises right back at me. It’s co-operative, it’s enjoyable, I like the world-building and the creative aspects, I like playing villains, I like playing patron deities of the characters, I like throwing in the unexpected and I like it when my players do the unexpected. I love coming up with NPCs and making them memorable and seeing players connect with them. I love rolling with the punches. I love creating emotionally-charged scenes. I love those so-crazy-they-just-might-work plans players come up with, and I love saying ‘yes’ to them. I love building a world and watching how it changes through the actions of the PCs. I love implementing the consequences, both good and bad, of their actions.

I once worried I might be a secret control freak, but ha! Anyone who’s ever had my players knows that the GM’s control over the story is illusiory at best, and I love it more than anything when my players take what’s come to be known as “Option Pi.” (The short version of the origin of the phrase: I was running a game, and thought I’d prepared for every eventuality. I had a plan for if the players chose to take option A, B, or C. Once at the crossroads, however, they chose option Pi, something I would never have seen coming in a million years. I rolled with it, and it has become one of the most-fondly-recalled sessions ever for both me and my players.)

So, that was the long answer. The short answer to why I love GMing: it’s fun. And Option Pi rocks my world. 🙂

#6 Comment By Patrick Benson On January 28, 2011 @ 8:47 am

I GM because I am good at it and because I am competitive. I think we all tend to gravitate to roles that we have a natural talent for, and I like to compete in a friendly manner with other GMs.

If you ran a great fantasy game with a dragon, I want to run a great follow-up game with a horde of dragons that builds upon what you did. Once done I hope that your next game tops mine.

The point isn’t to outshine the other GMs, but to keep raising the bar for all GMs. That is how we achieve excellence collectively. We just keep pushing each other to achieve greater results.

#7 Comment By Trace On January 28, 2011 @ 9:14 am

I guess “To extort sexual favors from my wife, in exchange for advantages for her character” is the wrong answer, huh?

In all seriousness, though, I DM for the reasons listed above, and a few more, often at the same time. I get great ideas (#2), and I think they SHOULD be developed and played (but no one else will run it, #1), so I create a game where my players can make that happen (#3).

#8 Comment By drow On January 28, 2011 @ 10:37 am

i like to DM because i get to play any characters i want, maybe a dozen a week, and not care if they’re dead at the end of a session.

#9 Comment By BishopOfBattle On January 28, 2011 @ 11:14 am

I definately got into the role of GMing because “no one else would do it.” I was interested in gaming for a long time, but while I had plenty of friends who wanted to PLAY, I never found anyone who wanted to GM. Because of that, I went through all of middle school, high school and even college without ever playing (I guess I just ran in the wrong circles?) and it wasn’t until post college that I finally decided, “To hell with it, if I can’t get to play, maybe running it will be fun…”

And it has been. Its also done more than anything else to widen my gaming circle and introduce me to others who GM and I’ve subsequently gotten that chance I always wanted to play in someone’s game. I do enjoy the creative aspects of it and I’m just starting to craft my own worlds and stories after a long period of running published adventures. I enjoy the prep heavy aspects of hte world creation, but I do notice that I get closer to “burn out” the longer I go inbetween sessions as a player.

#10 Comment By Zig On January 28, 2011 @ 12:00 pm

This is wonderful! Looks like this article really resonated with a lot of GMs out there.

It’s interesting; I never really thought about the why of GMing.

Now that I have, I think I have a similar experience to many. At the get go it was because no one else wanted to except one of my friends. I felt bad that he never got to be a player so I offered to run a game for a while.

Kind of liked it actually. I think those years were my initial lessons in herding kittens.

Over the years I started to learn of other games aside from D&D and the TSR offerings (Top Secret, Gamma World). Through that and some articles that began cropping up in Dragon I gained an idea of what role playing could actually be.

Once that happened, I focused more on story and the game world with all its people. When I was a player I tried to make my character three dimensional.

I too came across the Amber game. Loved the ideas in it! Same with Castle Falkenstein when it came along.

By the time of my late teens I was really getting into making the game and its world alive. I made sure the deeds of the PCs changed the world around them for good or ill.

Stories and plot became something I spent the bulk of my prep time on. The actual mapping and stating I felt I needed to do before each session was the part I considered actual work.

Why? Well, I think part of it is that I love to tell a story, and it’s really neat to have to constantly evolve and change the story as it moves forward as the main protagonists are really and truly out of your hands. Love too the having to think on my feet when the PCs inevitably come up with something I had never even considered. Or having to make up an NPC right on the spot…Odd who some of those wind up resonating with the players and wind up becoming ongoing NPCs that the players feel strongly about one way or another.

I think the proudest I ever was as a GM was when I ran a Shadowrun game several years ago. My players as the game started moving really evolved their characters into distinct people, they came to have strong relationships with some NPCs I loved to play, they were very conscious of how their actions could have repercussions in the wider area and world even.

The best was that they would get so involved in the plot that when we all were hanging out at the local diner drinking endless cups of coffee (we weren’t into bars) they would all talk about the happenings in the campaign and plan out whatever run they were about to embark upon at the next game session or draw out plans of their homes/crash pads/safe houses in great detail.

Lots of fun, and so often rewarding.

#11 Comment By BryanB On January 28, 2011 @ 5:48 pm

I really have no idea why I GM. The pay is poor. The hours are unreasonable. And the majority of gamers are fickle and too hard to please. 😀

#12 Comment By E-l337 On January 28, 2011 @ 7:17 pm

Phil, your last reason is the main reason I’ve BEEN GMing for as long as I have – because I love the collaborative process. I imagine a lot of people here have been doing it longer than me, but that the PCs could take the story in a radically awesome direction was why I hooked into it the way I did – as both a GM and a PC.

It sucks when the groups you game with don’t seem to pick up on this as much – it’s like trying to carry the band with only awesome percussion, and coaxing the bassist to blast out some radical riffs. It’s a lot of work, but with a little bit of planning and the proper hooks, oh man can you lay out something awesome.

I think the best thing to date I’ve done was, laughably enough, a d20 Future game based on a simple premise from the start: Refuse to take the ‘target’ you were hired to ‘rescue’, or complete your mission and get paid. The players took the obvious path, but when they threw her a birthday party out of the blue? That was a priceless freaking session. They even bought her a puppy.

Stuff like that is why I GM – because tapping into the raw awesome of a group of people is exhilarating, especially when you’re the one that helps it happen.

#13 Comment By black campbell On January 29, 2011 @ 12:14 pm

I’m somewhere between to tell or facilitate great stories — depending on the group or even the night. I started the same way, and it’s one of the main reasons I GM: I’m the one that can whip things together quickly, and I’m the one that will do it when everyone else claims not to have the time.

#14 Comment By rotato On January 29, 2011 @ 12:50 pm

I guess it’s pretty common for GMs to start out of nessecity- I was introduced to the concept of the pnp rpg (when my age was but a single digit) by my older brother. But after he went off to university, I didn’t know anybody else who’d be interested.

Many years later in my mid teens I picked up a shiny new 3.5e dnd phb and the rest was history. I’ve always had to convince others, almost bribe them into playing. I love the idea of conjuring fantastical tales in any setting, and those that I’ve managed to get to play along with my ideas went away impressed! I was glad to be able to convert some good friends to this odd concept of imagination and dice-rolling.

Player input is now what I look for most as a DM. Back in my regular 3.5 dnd days, the players in the game I was running got to a small town and somehow managed to inadvertantly help to summon hordes of once-banished devils into the world. The chain of events was completely improv’d and I had about 15 minutes to prepare. I guess the one player that caused it was secretly playing a more sinister character than the rest of us had realised.

It’s things like that that make me want to GM. The bizarre or even the straightforward ideas that people come up with within the game world are amazing, and I love every bit of it. I’ve only ever been a player once, and while it was just as fun, being able to facilitate new and old players alike with my wild and wacky plotlines makes it all worthwhile.

(Long time reader, first time posting- apologies for the wall of text <3 )

#15 Comment By Don Mappin On January 30, 2011 @ 10:30 am

I do it for the hookers and blow.

That, and I enjoy role-playing and running a game provides me with the unfettered ability to craft people and stories and play them.

Players keep coming back, so that’s a good thing.

#16 Comment By Roxysteve On January 31, 2011 @ 9:39 am

Wow, good question.

After a lot of soul-searching, I answer: I dunno, really.

I’m a colossal control freak, I think, and that doesn’t hurt (or help, sometimes). I enjoy playing RPGs, but I’m not a good *player* of RPGs. Clues go over my head, sometimes the team and I just don’t see eye to eye and, well, there’s that whole “if you look round the table and can’t see the a-hole, it’s you” thing. Nobody Else Will is also in effect – the games I run are not, usually, popular with other GMs.

But I do love to watch others solving the mysteries (I typically run mystery-driven games rather than encounter-driven ones) and live for really clever, disastrous or just hysterically funny moments that come out of a perfectly reasonable – if lethal – situation after the players twisty little brains have a go at it.

I like crafting stories, though I also love to run printed stuff. I recently had a brainwave when I needed to have the players undergo short Dreamlands experiences – I met them individually for Dinner and Drinks in the city and ran, over dinner, an improvised, dice-free mini-RPG one-on-one. Because they were unable to collude or take notes at the time, the sessions took on a dream-like quality in that they were only half-remembered and everyone involved thought it was a great success and asked for more. If only there were time enough…

I like making LARP-style props for games and feel *really* good if I can get an involuntary exclamation of disgust, excitement or admiration from a player when they get that first look at whatever it is.

I enjoy the meeting of people I otherwise don’t see from one month to the next.

But I think it’s the control freak thing, mostly.

#17 Comment By Roxysteve On January 31, 2011 @ 10:01 am

[2] – “I like to compete in a friendly manner with other GMs.”

Wow, interesting answer (shortened in quote for brevity, not to cherry-pick).

It has never occurred to me to do that. There is a GM whose style I always think of as running the most enjoyable games I played in, but I don’t try and duplicate or outdo his technique; it wouldn’t really work for me and my games.

There are GMs in whose games I’ve played and who I regard as “bad”, whose techniques were so far at odds with my own ideas on how to run a game I don’t *need* to remind myself not to emulate or “better” them.

I sit in and mooch sometimes during a game, and I watch how the GMs work, but only as a matter of general interest. I’ve never seen anything in action that I wanted to steal and do better, technique-wise, and there are some pretty awesome GMs at my LFGS.

I take ideas on how I might resolve a specific issue that is bugging me, a rule or budding scenario plot point that won’t “gel” properly, things like that, and I’ve played in others’ games simply to see how the rules should be run in rules systems I’m due to use but have not until then done so (which is how I discovered a love, against all expectations, for Deadlands Reloaded). The advice in this blog led to my picking up Savage Worlds for the first time (damn you all for that new addiction). But get competitive with other GMs?

Of course, it’s true that I run mainly games that no other local GM runs. Only game in town and all that. That might be why I’ve never felt motivated to come at this issue before.

Well, someone now wants to try porting Dresden Files into the Hero system at my LFGS, where I run a twice-a-month Friday Night Dresden Files game (using the Evil Hat rules). Perhaps this will bring on the competitive juices.

Thanks for sharing, Patrick.

#18 Comment By Roxysteve On January 31, 2011 @ 10:04 am

[3] – Wait; there are hookers? Why do I never get to know about these perks until it’s too late?