Design philosophy: paradigms of “GM-ing”

I’m friends with a lot of gamers who actually remember the first wave of D&D. You might call them “old school,” or perhaps “traditional,” in that they maintain a strict division between gamemaster (GM) and player in the way that those early role-playing games emphasized. That is to say, they range from the extreme stance that the GM is an adversary of the players, to a more moderate but still confrontational approach to being GM that involves “challenging” the players. These attitudes tend to share the assumption that “the GM is god” to some degree, meaning that the GM has the right and privilege of dictating the rules and situations of the game unilaterally. Many game texts explicitly support this notion, although often with caveats to temper petty authoritarianism at the gaming table by exhorting the GM to use this power for the sake of everyone’s fun. In keeping with the letter of that mandate, though perhaps not its spirit, many GMs engage in what is widely termed “railroading” their players into a pre-imagined story of the GM’s devising, and the player characters are forced sometimes through very capricious and heavy-handed methods to cleave to the story the GM has already decided he or she wants to tell, and every event conspires to keep the group on the predestined path despite any desire on the players’ part to perhaps have a say in the narrative.

As we all know, however, there is no “game police” that will come to your home and repossess your gaming materials if you don’t abide by every sentence, and that includes the good as well as the bad: many GMs continue to enjoy the power (real or perceived) that it’s the GM’s role to interfere with the player characters’ goals rather than facilitate them – and this interference is most readily manifest as unrelenting threat of death.

This approach is a valid one if the group agrees to it, I hasten to add, although readers should not be surprised to hear from my tone that I do not agree with it. To use something of an abstract analogy, I prefer that the GM be “executive” in approach rather than “legislative.” My type of GM is stage manager to the proceedings, bringing out props, scenery, and extras to fit the story as the group wants to tell it, rather than a director calling the shots. There is a certain amount of power invested in this role, despite the misgivings of the traditional gaming mindset (which often labels this approach with words like “hippy” or “soft”): the group still trusts the GM to be arbiter of the rules as necessary, but as a neutral third-party rather than actively interested opponent. The GM still has input into the details of the story as much as any of the other players do: the process is democratic in a pure sense, and the GM is the elected official that enacts what the table wants.

Looking over the games I’ve written and put out, I find this notion to be a mostly invisible point whose presence is felt by implication, like the focus around the ellipse orbits without being part of the ellipse. House of Cards, being the most strongly traditional game of the lot, tacitly gives the GM a significant amount of unilateral power, but the Diceconomy games (Double-cross, Runeblade, and Vector) are totally GM-less — the players share and exchange primary narrative power. More recently, in the Spectrum system, the GM is actually deemed the moderator, and apart from having the final scene of the session, the moderator actually has a very low presence in the game. I find that some of the ideas that are starting to percolate for future development are now situated around that general conceit, though perhaps moving back towards a higher GM involvement and power level in a more self-aware sense. More on those later; for now, I’m going to get back to polishing up Spectrum Prime 1.1 to get it up ASAP.