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Master of the Game

Alexander Macris | 13 Apr 2010 21:00
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Whether you've played a tabletop role-playing game or not, you probably are familiar with the concept of the Dungeonmaster (DM) or Gamemaster (GM). They're sometimes also called Judges, Referees, or Storytellers. Whatever they're called, they are the hardy souls who organize the play group, run the campaign, and judge the sessions. Indeed, Wizards of the Coast considers DMs their "lifeblood," explaining, "You learn D&D because somebody teaches you how to play. And that somebody is usually a Dungeon Master."

"Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?" - Juvenal, Roman poet, 2nd c. AD

Juvenal asked: "Who watches the watchmen?" I ask: Who teaches the DM how to DM? Generally, the answer is "nobody." And that's a problem. I've long believed that one of the major obstacles impeding the spread of the tabletop hobby is the lack of good DMs. It's been my experience that most people who like games, given the chance, will participate in a tabletop RPG, and once they start participating, continue to enjoy it. But most people don't get to ever even try an RPG, simply because there is a worldwide shortage of Dungeon (or Game) Masters.

As a tabletop patriot, I ask not what RPGs can do for me, but what I can do for RPGs. So over the next few columns, I'm going to offer some guidance on how to run your own game. I'm going to teach the teachers - so that you can go forth and start your own campaigns, and spread the tabletop RPG pastime.

My inspiration is a book I learned from, called Master of the Game, written by Gary Gygax. I read that book cover to cover at least six times and I still keep it in my office. If I can get you to read this column even once, I'll feel like I've done my part.

The Foundation of Game Mastering
Let's start with the foundation of gamemastering. It's not what you think.

As I mention above, a DM has many responsibilities, ranging from teaching new players to organizing the group to judging the sessions. The manifold role of the DM is precisely what makes it so intimidating for new entrants - there are few people who feel comfortable organizing what is in essence a social club, and doing improvisational acting, and being a rules lawyer, and being a story writer, and so on. The many roles of the DM have also contributed to the manifold names for the same job.

One common name for a DM is "Storyteller," a legacy of White Wolf's Storyteller RPG system. Unfortunately, I believe White Wolf did the profession of DM an incalculable harm when it said that a person running one of their popular games was called a "Storyteller." It's a name that suggests that your primary role will be telling a story, and this mantra created an entire generation of gamers who sneered at preparation, judging, and game mechanics and viewed their chief job as improvisational literature. The result: at best, melodramatic amateur theatre. At worst, entire groups turned off by a not-game with no rules.

Storytelling is indeed a function of the gamemaster, but it's just one of four functions, and it is in many ways the least important. It is certainly the farthest from the foundation of the GM role.

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