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View From The Big Chair

What is a GameMaster?

by Matthew Webber
Aug 20,2004


View from the Big Chair

II: What is a GameMaster?

Every core rulebook has one, that rather bizarre section tucked into the introduction somewhere that asks the question 'What is Roleplaying?'. It is so common that I have often wondered if there is a law, maybe an offshoot of the 'Seduction of the Innocent' era Comic Code that demands that rpg books must explain themselves to any potential buyer. Its all rather amusing, since if you aren't all that clear on what a roleplaying game is, you've probably picked up the wrong book, or even walked into the wrong store. You don't see 'What is a Boardgame?' in the rules of 'Monopoly' and I'm pretty sure there isn't a basic philosophy enclosed in a box of 'Kerplunk'.

What you rarely find in the rulebook is a good explanation on what exactly a Gamemaster is, and just what exactly are they suppose to do? By now most of us figured all that out, we picked up the tips from the rulebooks, gleaned what we could from the DM's Guide and listened to the stories our players told about the time they played with their cousin who liked to devise ingenious and sadistic ways to mutilate the PCs. That was only basic training maggots. And as any grunt will tell you, the stuff that will keep you alive you learn in the field, and you'd better learn it quick, otherwise ... well, it ain't gonna end pretty. First time my buddy Pete climbed into the Big Chair, he had some good ideas, but could never get a handle on things and it all started going pear-shaped pretty quick. Suddenly there was a loud pop and when the dust cleared, there was dice and Mountain Dew everywhere, a few campaign notes still fluttering in the air, and the Big Chair sat empty. We found Pete in the kitchen, curled up in the fetal position and whimpering about 'my plot, my beautiful plot ... they butchered it'.

So I'm going to make things as simple as possible and tell you what a GM is, at the same time giving you the one piece of advise that keep you from becoming another GM casualty of war. When you are sitting in the Big Chair: YOU ARE A GOD!

That's right, this is Vegas and you are the King, baby and if you want to decorate the jungle-room in neon purple zebra stripes, it is entirely up to you. Everything that happens on that table, everything that happens in the minds of the players, is dictated by you. And like the story says, with great power comes great responsibility. You may be the Creator, Owner and Operator of your particular campaign world, but if the faithful stage a revolt, you might just wind up exercising your divine powers on an empty room.

There are two parts to this power; first is the stuff they teach you about in basic training; the building and running of the gameworld itself. You control the weather and the climate, the people and the politics, the oceans and the tides, the vertical and the horizontal, all the basic mechanics of the gameworld that have to remain at least internally consistent. Then there is filling the world with NPCs, critters, dungeons and treasures. And finally, the coming up with a campaign. This is the stuff that makes people want to sit in the Big Chair in the first place, 'cuz this is where the Power and the Fun is.

But a great world does not a campaign make. There is no point in building a world that would make Middle Earth look like a sketch on the back of a napkin if the players don't want to play. What keeps your butt in the Big Chair is your ability to handle, coddle and compromise with the Players into doing exactly what you want them to. This is the real secret to being a Gamemaster, and what separates the gods from the mortals.

Everyone has a few war-stories about campaigns that were sabotaged by the players; how they got the characters arrested and thrown out of town before they could talk to the one NPC who knew the secret entrance to the Dungeon of Depravity, or how they hawked the great dragon-orb before they brought it to the Temple of the Scantily Clad Priestesses. The thing is, that no matter how the campaign failed it was still the GM's fault. If you don't adapt, don't anticipate and don't make it rain (treasure and XP 'natch) no matter how many virgins they throw into the volcano, then the faithful are gonna pull down their pizza-box altars and move on to some other god ... a god who can streamline a campaign to suit their needs and roleplay style, a god who knows when to let the players run amok and when to rein them in ... a god with better snacks.

There are as almost as many tricks out there as there are Gamemasters for keeping the players' nappys clean, their bellies fed and their dice rolling; ranging all the way from varying the style of gameplay, to flat out bribery. Running through some of these methods would take many pages, and will supply me with article ideas for any moons to come. Just keep in mind that not all the tricks will work all the time, or on all the players.

Nobody said this god stuff was gonna be easy.

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