Judging the Game


My last article began to explain the art of game mastering to aspiring GMs (gamemasters). My premise in doing so is that the growth of the tabletop RPG hobby depends on gamemasters to organize the play group, run the campaign, and judge the sessions. Because this is a challenging job, there is a perpetual shortage of GMs, and as such there are many people who would play RPGs if there were a GM to run them. With this in mind, I then discussed the origin of the Gamemaster role, and laid out the 4 functions of the Gamemaster:

  1. Judge
  2. World Builder
  3. Adversary
  4. Storyteller

I called storytelling “in many ways the least important” function, and assigned the Judging function as the first, basic role. I was planning to plunge right into a discussion of Judging in this column, but that has been postponed! First I want to respond to some comments I received on last column and explain a bit about my underlying premises on GMing.

It’s Not Your Job to Make Sure People Have Fun
When I listed the four functions of the GM in my last article, two out of the first six responses said that “the real job of the GM is to make sure people have fun.” Others have said this to me in conversation. Well, I disagree!

If you’re the GM, it’s not your job to make sure people have fun. The belief that when a player doesn’t have fun it’s the GM’s fault has caused more GMs more grief and heartburn than any other myth in gaming. You can be an amazing GM, yet a player might not have fun. Because whether or not people have fun is going to depend on factors that are outside your control: How did their wife treat them on their way over? How was their day at work? How well do they roll the dice? Do they play the game as well as the other players? You can’t control these things, and therefore you shouldn’t feel responsible for them.

What you should feel responsible for doing is creating an environment in which everyone could have fun. Imagine that you are hosting a party: Your job is to provide the right mix of appetizers, drinks, ambience, and crowd so that people can have fun. It’s not to act like a clown because Rob had a bad day at work. This is a subtle point, but if you keep it in mind, you’ll avoid a lot of self-inflicted doubt and stress about your role.

The Agency Theory of Fun
So how do you create an environment in which everyone could have fun? Given that The Escapist has an extremely intelligent reader base, I hope my readers won’t mind a theoretical answer to this question. It involves a concept that I’ll call “the agency theory of fun”.

In philosophy, agency is the capacity for human beings to make choices and to impose those choices on the world. It’s my belief that in our everyday lives, humans in modern society feel an absence of agency. Most of our capacity for meaningful choice is illusory; our daily lives are routine, and our scope of choice limited by lack of opportunity or resources. Very few people really can “change the world” in even a small way. Almost all of us lock on to meaningless decisions, such as what football team to support, or what color to dye our hair, as a means of expressing our need for agency. Unfortunately, intelligent people – the sort most likely to enjoy an RPG – feel the lack of agency far more poignantly than most, and often experience existential depression as a result. If you’ve either felt, or know someone who has felt, existential depression, this will probably make sense to you.

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Given the above, I’d argue that the great enjoyment elicited by tabletop RPGs (and some videogames) is a result of creating a sense of agency among their players. In an RPG, by making choice X, the player can impose result Y, which is the essence of agency. And because tabletop RPGs are an experience shared within a meaningful social circle of friends and colleagues, result Y feels meaningful. In a real sense, in the context of our circle of friends, Nick really did save Erik’s life last week. Moreover, because tabletop RPGs are enjoyed sequentially, in a campaign format, the number of choices made and the impact of those choices compounds over time. The game becomes more meaningful the longer it is experienced. This is why long-term campaigns are more fun than one-off sessions, and why playing with a bunch of close friends is more fun than playing solitaire or with a group of strangers. Sustained campaigns with close friends create a stronger sense of agency.

However, in order for a campaign to effectively create a sense of agency, the players must be able to make real (not faux) choices that have meaningful consequences on the players and their world. And that’s a requirement which is, for instance, in direct opposition to storytelling, or making sure everyone has fun.

A Roller Coaster May Be a Wild Ride, but It Is Still a Railroad
Imagine that your party has only a few minutes to find the artifact that can close the gate to the abyss. The artifact could be underneath the dark citadel, or on the peak of the lonely mountain – but they don’t have time to search both. Now, if you have real choice, the artifact is really in one location or the other, and your choice will determine whether or not you find it. On the other hand, if you have faux choice, then you only think you have choice. Whichever choice you make, that will be where the artifact is, along with an interesting, pre-scripted encounter of your level forcing you to fight to get it. So either choice is fun – but both are faux.

Many GMs never offer real choice, because the problem with real choice is that players can only be sure they have real choice when they suffer meaningfully bad consequences. And in the context of a tabletop RPG, that usually means permanent destruction of something unique – a favored henchmen, irreplaceable magic artifact, animal companion, or player character.

For a while, a skilled sleight-of-hand artist can maintain suspension of disbelief about the reality of choice, leading players on a roller coaster ride that makes them think they are making real choices and facing meaningful consequences. It’s the same art that a skilled novelist can use to make us believe that a favorite character is in danger, even though he’s not. But a never-ending string of perfect, dramatically appropriate, fun outcomes that defies probability eventually leads even the dimmest players to realize they don’t have real choice at all. A roller coaster may be a wild ride, but it’s still a railroad. And when the railroading gets revealed, the sense of agency dies, and with it dies the sense of fun.


So this, then, is the paradox of gamemastering: In order to make sure that everybody could have fun, you have to be willing to let the players make choices that lead to results that aren’t fun. You can’t guarantee the fun. And if you try to make sure everyone has fun, eventually you’ll guarantee that no one has fun at all, because you’ll destroy the sense of agency which is the root of the hobby’s pleasure.

Agency and Causality, Or Why Rules Matter
The agency theory of fun also explains why rules matter. Rules, in a tabletop RPG, are ultimately about what philosophers call action, where “action” means intentional effects caused by an agent. It is the rules that dictate the results of action, and thus define the relationship between a player’s choices and the consequence he experiences. The rules provide the framework of cause and effect that gives meaning to choice. For instance, virtually every RPG has rules that dictate when you may choose to attack a target, how the success or failure of this attack are determined, and the consequences of each.

A game without rules cannot provide a sense of agency, anymore than a world without causality can. If the players operate subject to arbitrary outcomes – what the ancients called “Acts of God” and RPG designers call “GM Fiat” – they have no meaningful way of knowing or understanding what the consequences of their choices will be, and thus no agency.

I believe that the agency theory of fun is the reason that esoteric games like Amber Diceless Roleplaying or Everway have never caught on, and why as games evolve, they evolve in the direction of more rules. Comprehensible, detailed rules add to the player’s sense of agency, just as playing with friends in an ongoing campaign does. (This does not mean that extremely complex games like Rolemaster are an unmitigated good – but that’s a critique for another time. Let’s just say that the simplest rule system that provides agency is best.)

Agency also explains why dice are, and will always be, a popular mechanic with RPGs. As I explained above with the example of the hidden artifact, if the consequences are pre-determined, then the choice is not real. The inherent contradiction between omniscience and free will has plagued religion for thousands of years, and it plagues RPGs, too. For instance, imagine if tabletop RPG combat went like this:

Player: “I attack the dragon.”
GM: “Based on your attack bonus and the dragon’s armor class, if you attack, you are certain to miss.”
Player: “Uh… well I don’t attack, then.”

It’s hard to imagine that game being much fun because the result of the player’s choices is determined before he’s made them. (This is the same reason that Tic-Tac-Toe isn’t fun.) Agency, then, requires that we be able to predict the consequences of our choices, but not with certainty. D&D creates agency with its Core Mechanic: “To determine if your character success at a task, you roll a d20, add any relevant modifiers and compare the result to a target number. If the result equals or exceeds the target number, your character succeeds. If the result is lower, you fail.” The relevant modifiers and the target number provide causality. The d20 provides uncertainty. Both are essential.

Don’t Change the Dice, Change the Rules
Because randomness is inherent to RPGs, every gamemaster soon becomes familiar with the temptation to cheat, or in gamer parlance, “fudge the dice.” For instance, imagine that a new player, Carrie, is joining your campaign. In her very first battle, her character takes a critical hit, and is killed. The temptation will be very strong to pretend that the die roll was different – that a critical hit was just a normal hit, or even a miss. Especially if you think “my job is to make sure Carrie has fun,” you’ll convince yourself that dying is not fun, and that therefore Carrie’s character shouldn’t die.


The agency theory says that you should never fudge a meaningful die roll. The desire to fund is founded on the faulty premise that you need to make sure people have fun. But it’s a mistake to believe that letting a character die destroys fun. In fact, the opposite is true – it’s fudging the dice that destroys fun, by destroying the ability for the players to make meaningful choices. Letting the player live when her choices would have led to her death is essential to keeping the game fun, for all the reasons I explained earlier.

So what do you do about Carrie above? It depends. If Carrie died because she rushed in to a fight that she shouldn’t have, or volunteered to take point, then you let her die. But if she died because she got killed by an invisible sniper before she even knew what was happening, the answer is “change the rules in advance to prevent that sort of situation from happening.” In real life, many things can happen to us that really are the result of “Acts of God,” and have nothing to do with our agency. There is, after all, a slim probability that sitting at my desk typing this article, I will be killed by a falling meteorite. And that sucks! In fact, the very abundance of these types of events is exactly what strips us of our sense of agency in day-to-day life. Since RPG rules are fun to the extent that they give the player a sense of agency, mechanics that strip away agency should be changed. The evolution of the classic D&D game shows us how this works.

For instance, in the original edition of D&D, characters died instantly when they hit 0 hit points, and since starting characters could begin with as little as 1 hit point, that meant that death could come at almost any time, arbitrarily. There are several ways to resolve this dilemma. The classic approach was to maintain what I Hit It With My Axe’s Zak Smith calls “ironic distance” during the early levels – the knowledge that you’re not really your character. Early D&D supported this with quick and dirty character generation that let you replace your dead fighter with another fighter in about 30 seconds.

As D&D developed, though, the desire for increased player agency lead to ever-increasing levels of character customization, making choices that impacted what the character was like. This investment made it harder for players to maintain sufficient distance from their characters to tolerate arbitrary death. D&D’s designers quickly introduced mechanics to address this, most famously by allowing characters to be “dying but not dead” until they actually hit -10 hit points. Suddenly, Carrie’s not dead – she’s just dying, and her party has a chance to save her by defeating the sniper and healing her wounds.

My Secret Sauce May Not Be Your Secret Sauce
If you’re an experienced gamemaster and you fundamentally disagree with everything I’ve written above, you’re probably going to fundamentally disagree with my guidance on how to be a gamemaster, too. That’s ok – gamemastering is like cooking; everybody has their own recipes. I don’t claim to have the only secret sauce, I just have my secret sauce. It works really well for my campaigns, and I’ve had a lot of success with my methods. If you disagree with my sentiments, all I ask is that you respectfully explain why, and share your own methods in comparison. Ultimately everything we can do to pass on different schools of gamemastering to new players will be a good thing.

Until next time, happy gaming!

Alexander Macris has been playing tabletop games since 1981. In addition to co-authoring the tabletop games Modern Spearhead and Blaze Across the Sands, his work has appeared in Interface, the Cyberpunk 2020 fanzine, and in RPGA AD&D 2nd Edition tournament modules. In addition to running two weekly campaigns, he is publisher of The Escapist and president and CEO of Themis Media. He sleeps on Sundays.

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