The DM’s Role, Part 1 – Is

This will be my first post in a three part series: the Role of a Dungeon Master. In this post, I will be tackling what a DM is, and in the following posts I will tackle what a DM is not, and finally, what a DM frequently is, but should not be.

  • Player – First and foremost, a Dungeon Master is a player. I think this is something people forget: that at the end of the day, a DM is looking to get the same enjoyment out of a play session as a player. They’re not getting paid, they’re there to imagine. Their imagination may encompass a slightly broader scope, they may be imagining kingdoms instead of heroes, but they’re players all the same.
  • Storyteller – The DM, in the greatest abstraction of his role, is a storyteller. A bard, preferably one level higher than his players. The DM is responsible for maintaining the narrative of the game. The DM must be a master, an artisan, of all the things that make good writing – plot, character, dialogue, pacing. They must be able to make jokes, and references to high and pop culture, and use their campaign as a commentary on a greater theme, all while making it relevant to the other players. And the DM must do all of this, all while keeping the players engaged in the story they are collectively constructing.
  • Creator – In order to support his role as a Storyteller, the DM must also be a creator. Sure, it’s possible to just buy a campaign setting, and buy an adventure, and run said adventure, but without a little authorship, he’s not really a DM. I’m not saying don’t use published campaign settings, and I’m not saying don’t buy adventures. I’m just saying that if a DM adds nothing of his own invention to a campaign, then he’s more of a Dungeon Facilitator than Dungeon Master.A DM needs to take his campaign, published or original, and make it his own. There has to be something in the campaign that speaks to the players, be it a villain or a village, a monster or a magic item. More importantly, there has to be something that the DM brings to the table every night that speaks to him directly. A good DM takes ownership of his campaign. Even if you’re just adapting the Marvel Ultimate Universe to a Champions Game, you need to bring something new and fresh to the table to surprise your players.
  • Arbitrator – Last, but not least, unfortunately, is a Dungeon Master’s role as the arbitrator. The DM facilitates questions in regards to both the rules, and to the players. While there may be better at the table better suited to the role of a diplomat and a mediator, the ultimate responsibility falls to the DM. Why? Because any serious disruption of play can lead to a disruption of the story, and it maintenance of pace falls under the DM’s responsibilities as a Storyteller. It may not be ideal, but never forget that this is part of your role as a DM.

I doubt I have many readers to comment on this post, but the role of the DM is something I feel strongly about, and expect me to come back to this subject again in the future.

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5 responses to “The DM’s Role, Part 1 – Is

  • Tommi

    Welcome to the world of rpg blogging!

    I partially disagree with your characterisation of GM’s duties. The GM is exactly a player among the others, that we agree totally on. All that follows is, of course, IMO.

    I don’t think about the GM as a storyteller. Rather, the GM is the one who sets up a situation and keeps all the player characters engaged with it and each other. Assuming well-built characters and situation, a story is very likely to emerge and the GM can be part of the process as much as the other players are. Dialogue and pacing are the important skills; plotting not so much, non-player characters something secondary to PCs.

    That the GM should be better at all of this stuff than players is something I find to be difficult; maybe it works if there is only one GM in the group. Maybe.

    When it comes to creating: I find that GM creates as much as the other players do, but the material created is different. The players create things relevant to their characters: Dialogue, actions, equipment, NPC contacts and friends, etc. The GM creates material that is farther from the PCs: Setting material that touches no player character directly, relevant NPCs that the PCs meet but did not seek out, and so forth.
    There is a lot of shared creation, of course.

    As a GM, I spend no extra effort in maintaining good relationships between players. That is: I do it anyway, GM or no.

  • tcdm

    Thanks for the comment, Tommi! Much appreciated. Good to know I’m already being read. Especially since I ended my post saying I wasn’t going to get comments. 😉

    Now, in response to your comment, with a little civil disagreement.

    I agree that the other players (herein referred to as Players) are also instrumental in the construction of the narrative of the game. However, I think a DM who lacks basic storytelling skills will be a poor DM indeed.

    I have met inarticulate, quiet, muttering Players who were excellent additions to my table. They had trouble playing loquacious characters, and would frequently have to describe soliloquies rather than narrate them, but they were incredible players.

    A DM can’t be quiet and inarticulate. I think he’s GOT to have a mastery of yarn spinning. And to say that that NPCs are secondary to PCs I think is a fallacy of the highest order: I think the most any given NPC can hope for is to come in as a close second to the least important PC. But the body of NPCs as a whole, the collective third-persons of the campaign – these are at least as important as any PC. If one Player leaves and takes his PC with him, the campaign can continue. But a campaign without NPCs, especially without good NPCs, is not much of a campaign at all.

    I’m confused by what you mean when you say “only one GM in the group.” Most campaigns I play in only have one DM. (More on that nomenclature later.)

    I think the DM has to craft more than the other players. Anything the Players come up with, so too does the DM: Dialogue, actions, equipment, NPC contacts and friends, and so forth. All these things are required for a good NPC. A recurring NPC is as fleshed out as any PC.

    Yet the DM must make more – the setting. A campaign can function well with one boring PC – we’ve all been there, at a table with a group of friends, one of whom creates a really lame character, and yet, we’ve all had fun. But a boring setting? A boring campaign world filled with unquestioned cliches and uninvestigated stereotypes? There are very few campaigns, very few good campaigns, that can function against such an uninspired backdrop.

    And the fact that you spend no extra time as a DM facilitating good relationships… I think that speaks much more to your character and to the character of your Players, than it does to the role of a DM. I think a bunch of less mature players would require facilitation by the DM.

    All that disagreement aside, THANK YOU FOR POSTING. Come back soon!

  • Tommi

    Being a quiet and an inarticulate GM, I share your concern about it not being very easy. It does train one to gather attention and also helps in becoming more articulate, though.

    I am indeed saying that NPCs matter very little when compared to the player characters. Note that this is somewhat specific to my style of running a game. This is my way: Player characters are central. The entire game revolves around them. Their decisions shape the future, for good or ill. The gameplay is creating their story. NPCs are there to pressure PCs (and hence players) to make hard decisions. Good player characters are the most important component in any campaign (I prefer the term “game”; campaign implies that the game has more than a single scenario or story).

    This means that my game has very low tolerance for people dropping out or not attending a session. This is not a huge problem in my current social situation and if it becomes one, I will change my style to match.

    When I say that a group has more than one GM, I mean that I and Thulen (http://thulen.wordpress.com) alternate game mastering and both self-identify as game masters. We run different games (thus far). The point is that both of us can’t be one level above the other when it comes to gamemastering.

    I disagree about detailed NPCs being as detailed as PCs. They are clearly on different level; there is no player complaining if an NPC doesn’t get enough screen time or gets screwed in other ways. I don’t need to target the game to engage the NPCs; their function is to engage the player characters.

    About setting; I can run a game in what I call the standard D&D setting. For example, if I say that there is this quasi-medieval town, surrounded by other independent towns and threatened by a necromancer living in a castle around two days to the north, on a line of hills. The terrain between is sparse forest. Then I ask every player to make a character who is involved in the conflict. Everything else is detail and produced in play, maybe aside from the relationships of the PCs, who get cursory treatment before.

  • TCDM

    Okay, in no particular order:

    You’re write about NPCs and PCs being on a completely different level, but I don’t think that ties into detail. I’m comparing them on a level of craftsmanship, on authorship, in the DMs role as a Creator. You’re right, I can have an NPC disappear for seven sessions in a row and no one mentions it. But I play epic campaigns, years long, and I know some of those NPCs are as detailed as the PCs. Some of them, more so – I use one setting for all my ‘games,’ and so some of my NPCs have been around for years and years.

    As for you and Thulen, I still think that at a table there can only be one DM. There may be partnerships in some cases, but having a ‘Player,’ who is a DM in another campaign, try to exert any authority, doesn’t work. You say you run different games, and that means that on any given night, you only have one DM. And I do think that whoever is DMingon that night is one level above the other. Maybe not.

    I’ve found that most Players want to participate in a story. They don’t want to create a story. They want to have a world, where they can bring their characters to realization, where they can make their own decisions and see the results of those actions. But they want to have some idea of where they’re headed. It’s good to have a captain.

    Other than that, all your points are valid and strong, but I think you’re speaking to a specific style of DMing, one particular to your tastes. Of course, any sweeping generalization I make about GMing will ultimately have exceptions. Not even exceptions – an assumption only has to be correct 51% of the time for it to be a “correct assumption.” I’m speaking to all campaigns. And while you may have a group who is perfectly balanced and where all are equally experienced, equally mature, and of the same level of investment in all things role playing (and truth be told, that’s ridiculously awesome), I think very few campaigns are. Most games/campaigns/groups do utilize the DM as the central figure. They are the storytellers and arbitrators and creators of the campaign. And while this may not be the case in your campaign, I think if you look around at definitions of Dungeon Master or Game Master on the internet, you’ll find that there is a bit of consensus on this.

  • Tommi

    A multi-year campaign certainly generates a lot of detail; a year is enough for that particular phenomenon to have a pretty strong effect.

    My style is indeed mine; it is a mix of traditional sandbox play and the aesthetics that have come out of such communities as the Forge (indie-rpgs.com) and later Story-games.com. For me, the purpose of internet GMing discussions is to see how others play and steal and bastardise any useful tools. I also tell how I play, so others can do the same with my stuff.

    The more-than-one-GM thing is miscommunication, so I’ll just say that you are pretty correct.

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