Master of the Game


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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So if not storytelling, what lies at the essence of being a DM? Role playing games descended from miniature wargaming. Miniature wargames are competitive simulations, generally with two opposed teams – say, Germany and Russia in World War II. But most miniature wargames also have a participant called a “judge” or “referee”. The role of the judge in a miniature wargame is:

  • To choose or create the scenario the other players will compete within
  • To help explain, teach, and enforce the rules
  • To prevent cheating and keep the players honest
  • To rule on “grey areas” not covered by the rules
  • To control the flow of information to permit “fog of war”

Note what’s absent from the role of a miniature wargame judge: While today the DM is often perceived as “the adversary,” a miniature wargame judge was not responsible for playing the adversary – he was, in fact, a neutral referee between the adversaries (the players).

And so it was in the first role playing games, the DM was not responsible for playing the adversaries, either. In Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign, for instance, the players were initially pitted against each other – one of them was a vampire named Sir Fang, while another was a cleric – with Arneson serving as the arbiter.

Nor was the miniature wargame judge responsible for telling a story. A story might emerge over the course of a miniature wargame, but it does so by happenstance, as a result of the unfolding of the battle. When the game is over, a story – or, really, a fictional “military history” – could be written up. But the judge did not write it up in advance, or adjust the course of the game to have one side win or lose based on the plot.

Likewise, in early tabletop RPGs, the judges did not have a “story” for their game. They had a setting and a set of rules, and the outcome was left up to the players. The original RPG, Braunstein (which preceded D&D by several years), was explicitly an open-ended wargame, and ended up going in directions its creator never foresaw. (For more on the origins of D&D, see James Maliszewski’s “Founding Fathers“, part of our High Adventure series of old-school D&D columns.)

The foundation and first function of the DM was then, and is now, Judge. You show me a player who knows the rules, can teach them to others, is comfortable making rulings in grey areas, and can control information flow between players as necessary, and I’ll show you a player who is on his way to being a great DM.

There are three other functions. The second function is World Builder, a function that arose out of wargame judging (“choose or create the scenario”) and expanded over time as games became richer and more detailed. The other two I’ve already mentioned as ancillary to the core, but they are that of Adversary and Storyteller.

Next week we’ll explore these functions in more detail, but for now your homework is to pick up your favorite rules – maybe a Starter Set if you don’t have any rules yet – and start mastering them.

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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