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View From The Big Chair

I: "Pay No Attention to that GM Behind the Curtain!"

by Matthew Webber
Jul 22,2004

 

View from the Big Chair

I: "Pay No Attention to that GM Behind the Curtain!"

Its been called the The Hot Seat, The Big Chair, The God Chair and even The Comfy Chair. No matter what you call it, it's a lonely place to be. Like the kings of old you sit amongst them, but removed and alone. Their eager, unwashed faces peering back at you, full of expectation and waiting for you to reward their efforts in simply showing up (maybe because they remembered to bring the sodas) with all the adventure that their imaginations can handle. It's the least you can do to run them, and their characters, through the ringer for a while.

The players have the easy part; roll a few dice now and again, collect wealth and power beyond their wildest dreams of avarice, maybe talk in a funny accent if the mood strikes. It's that poor sod behind the curtain, or in this case a cardboard screen, who must mix that delicate alchemy of storyteller, actor, referee, den mother, game-show host, nemesis and schoolteacher, to become the unsung hero of every campaign: a GameMaster.

An example of good GMing that I like to draw from comes from over the rainbow. The Wizard of Oz may have been nothing more than a midwestern, depression-era con-man, but he was able to tie together four characters and guide them through a memorable two-part quest (find the Emerald City, Kill the Witch), establish an entire setting with only a few characters (All the speaking "NPCs" in Oz who weren't female or a Munchkin were played by the Wizard), and in the end rewarding the players with nothing more than what they already had (a brain, a heart, a home, da nerve). All of it guided and planned by the man behind the curtain.

The GameMaster, to borrow from Rodney Dangerfield, gets no respect, no respect at all. No one tells gaming stories about the kick-arse wilderness encounter tables or the time the characters completely missed that secret door into the dungeon you spent three weeks working on. Who has to fork over the extra pencils and dice whenever someone else forgets? Character Sheets are tended, treasured and occasionally buried with full honours, but all your well-crafted NPCs are only so much chattel to interrogate, harass and rob. And why are the books always "Player's Guides" anyway? Why can't they be mighty tomes labelled "Gamemaster's Eyes Only," filled to the brim with juicy secrets that the players must complete epic quests to uncover?

The point is that there isn't a whole lot of help out there for the Gamemaster. Most books have a couple of pages with a few helpful tips, and then it's "sayonara baby -- yer on yer own." There are reasons for this; there are as many styles of gamemastering as there are GMs and it is difficult to write something that appeals to everyone from the number-crunchers to the number-fudgers, from the meticulous to those who just wing it. Also, the attrition rate for most starting Gamemasters is atrocious. Many called to the Big Chair are sent fleeing back to the ranks after only a few sessions. The bulk of the RPG audience, by a ratio of about 3:1, are players. The aim of this column is to look at Roleplaying games from the perspective of the lowly twenty-five percent -- to discuss tips and issues that appeal to the brave souls who offer their time and talent to actually run the games.

Make no mistake, this is a dangerous, gruesome and gruelling process not for the faint of heart. The demands are many, the rewards few and the only recognition for a job well done is going be the same group of guys coming over to your house week after week. So why do it, you ask? Some might say it is a calling, other might whisper, not unfounded, comparisons to sadomasochism and delusions of grandeur. But for those of us who climb into that Big Chair, we know that somewhere deep down inside, there is a sick and twisted little part of us that loves doing it.

Next Time: What is a GameMaster?

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