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An RPG is Not the Game Master's Story

September 30, 2018

 

Lots of people think that a game master (GM) is the author or director of a role-playing game. To them, the GM spends a lot of time preparing the world and the story, and the players just act out their roles. While that work for some role-playing groups, it is not the style I prefer.

 

To me, an RPG is about the story of the player characters. If you ask people about their most memorable RPG session, most of them would tell you who their character was and what they did in the game. Very rarely would they tell you about the intricate lore and how great the NPCs are.

 

I see role-playing games as collaborative storytelling experiences, and it means everyone at the table contributes to the story, not just the GM. I like having gaps in the lore and setting, so that the players can fill them in. As mentioned on this blog before, Urban Shadows is my favourite RPG. In it, everyone picks an urban fantasy archetype, and there are just enough details in each playbook to give them unique flavour, yet with room for the players to insert their own details. I have also read Beyond the Wall, and I like the mechanic where players draw the map of the village that the characters live in.

 

Comparing my experience in higher education teaching, where an emphasis is placed on helping the students to learn and not the teaching material itself, I believe the purpose of a GM is to encourage the players to tell their stories. The player characters act, and the GM portray appropriate consequences to those actions. There are no wrong ways for a player to play their character (unless it makes other players uncomfortable). The GM should not craft a story and expect the player characters to fit in, but they should mould the story around the player characters. In fact, some RPGs use terms like facilitator or master of ceremony (MC) for the role of game master, and I find them quite fitting. (I use GM simply because it is the more recognised term.)

 

(A thing worse than railroading your players in a story that does not respond to their actions, is to railroad them in a story you write about their characters. In the former, the players can still feel ownership of their characters, even if they do not contribute to the story as a whole. In the latter, even the character ownership is taken away from them.)

 

The players should feel comfortable role-playing their characters. For most players, it is not very fun if their characters end up the butt of a joke, or is disregarded by the NPCs all the time. In my games, I aim to make the player characters cool to play, and their actions have an impact on the world.

 

For the above reasons, I love PbtA games and their philosophy of playing to find out what happens. I felt liberated when I run my first Urban Shadows game,  knowing that I do not have to spend hours preparing the adventure beforehand by drawing out maps and looking up monster stats. The players provided all the plot hooks and potential NPCs, and I just bring them to fruition.

 

In short, an RPG is a story the players tell about their characters, and the GM is here to facilitate it, not the other way round. If a GM wants to tell their own story, they should write a novel or direct a movie.

 

(Image source: https://pixabay.com/en/chess-pawn-king-game-tournament-1483735/)

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