Game Master: Friend or Foe?

by | Sep 14, 2015 | Notes From the Dungeon Master

I’ve heard of Game Masters described as story tellers, who work with the players at the table to create a dialogue that will eventually evolve into the tale of an epic journey. I’ve heard of Game Masters as a vile creature of the Underworld, who is tasked with destroying the will of the players at the table in a struggle souls.

Is a Game Master inherently good – there to guide the characters along on their journey? Is a Game master inherently evil – there to lead the characters to their death?

On one hand, the GM who helps his players and develops a story with them provides a table where the players feel content that their characters will not die until some catastrophic event occurs (or they completely fumble the dice and no amount of GM sway could help) and they sacrifice themselves for the betterment of mankind and the world. Players like this type of GM since they don’t have to worry that all of their hard work creating their character won’t go to waste when they are slaughtered within the first twenty minutes of the first session. Game Master A is good.

On the other hand, there is the GM who creates encounters filled with challenging beasts and dangerous terrains. His goal is to not just kill the characters, but to whittle down the players through trickery, manipulation, and guile – this struggle continues to the point where the players are more relieved than distraught when the encounter ends in bloodshed. While the stress of the night is over, their hearts now filled with rage and distrust as they feel thwarted not by the beasts and baddies, but by their creator himself. Game Master B is bad.

The real issue begins with the after-effects of these games. When Game Master A continues his epic campaign, the session’s events are already pre-determined. The players sit at the table assured that the group of goblins they are currently fighting aren’t the BBEG and therefore have no chance of killing them. No matter how negligent they are in their player duties, the GM will fix things so that they won’t die until it makes sense for the story. The players become lazy and it only ends up creating more issues for the GM, as he has to continually fix the player’s mistakes behind the curtain. Game Master A is bad.

When the players sit down at the table in front of Game Master B, they come prepared for battle with strategies and backup scenarios for how they will retreat and regroup. The players communicate with one another (most likely outside of the session since this GM probably puts time limits on an individual’s turn length) in the hopes that they will eventually last past the fifth round of combat… Or maybe even win! The GM becomes the BBEG of the campaign and when he is finally defeated, the players feel a sense of accomplishment that all of their previous characters were sacrificed justly so that this moment may taste that much sweeter. Game Master B is good.

But which one is real? Which Game Master creates a more fun environment for his players and the game in general? One style has to be better than the other, right?

A Game Master needs to be able to create an amazing story filled with excitement driven by characters, intensity, story, and tension. Your players need to feel that they can die at every turn, but they won’t as long as they are smart and thoughtful – because they know that you are not out to kill them. A good Game Master is a token who is capable of flipping sides whenever the need arrises.

In truth, the evil GM is the one who chooses one side and goes with it, never providing a balanced game. So long as you treat yourself as another member of the table, you will always be known as a good Game Master.