What’s a GM??? Even for Socratic Design, isn’t that a little basic? Heh, maybe. This article might be more useful for players rather than designers. We’ll have to see. But over the years I’ve been roleplaying, I have heard the GM defined as many things. The GM is God. The GM is a moderator for the action. The GM is the one who tells the story. The GM is a game referee. The GM is the final authority. The GM is the opponent. All these things have been said and applied in games at one time or another, but from a design perspective, they aren’t all that helpful. So let’s look at what I believe a GM really is.
First and foremost, the GM is still a player. He is a participant in the game just like everyone else. I think this concept is sometimes lost on people, especially new designers. The guy behind the DM screen still wants essentially the same thing as the guy portraying the half-orc barbarian. He’s there to have fun and use the system to kick ass. So one thing designers need to keep in mind, if they plan to include a GM in their game, is that the GM really is on equal footing as all the other participants. He’s there to explore the game elements, have fun, portray characters, and socialize with his friends. He’s not a mystical entity behind a curtain with smoke and thunder surrounding him.
Second, the role of the GM boils down to responsibility, specifically the degree of responsibility a game thrusts upon him. All participants in a game have certain responsibilities dictated to them by the game. For players it is generally their job to portray one or more characters. GMs, however, are usually responsible for handling everything else. That’s a lot. But in recent years, this has started to change somewhat.
Imagine, if you will, a spectrum. On one side you have a game like Dungeons and Dragons. Players play one character that is strictly defined by class and race. The GM creates the setting, NPCs (both enemies and allies), and challenges the player-characters will face. The players have a very limited amount of responsibility, while the GM has a very expansive amount of responsibility. Moving over slightly you have a game like Ars Magica. In this game, players might portray many characters- especially allies of their main character. The GM still creates a lot of the setting, NPCs, and challenges, but player input in much more encouraged and even supported somewhat with mechanics. Next over you might have a game like Dogs in the Vineyard. Here, the GM is responsible for creating a town, its people, and a Situation. However, it is then up to the players to decide how all that relates to each other. It is the players that tend to drive the action while the GM rolls dice in opposition. At this point, the responsibility of the players and the responsibility of the GM are about equal, IMO. Finally at the opposite end of the spectrum is InSpectres. In this game, it is almost totally up to the players to decide what parts of the setting will be explored, who/what the monsters are, and how the whole thing ends up. The GMs role is pretty much just to react to what the players do. Most of the responsibility is lifted from his shoulders as the players are most definitely in charge. There’s a million games in between and beyond even those, but when you envision what a session of your game will be like (if your game has a GM) think about how much you want the GM to be responsible for.
Third, the GM is the pace setter for the game. Often, it is the GM who starts a scene and who declares a scene over. This is often called “Scene Framing.” It’s up to the GM how fast or slow a particular set events take. This is where a GM has to be very responsive to the players. He has to gage what the players want to get out of a particular scene and how much they are enjoying it. Sometimes a scene will last a few minutes in real time but encompass hours or days in the game’s imaginary time and vice-versa. Designers need to consider this role of the GM. What tools do you give a GM to create, explore, and end a scene? Is it his sole discretion? Is that authority shared with the players in any way?
So in the end, what have we got? The GM is a player first, he’s endowed with certain and specific responsibilities, and he is the pace setter for the game. Every GM in every game will be slightly different. Examine the GMs you’ve had in the past. What made them great? What made them suck? For your game, what would the ideal GM do? How much responsibility and credibility are you going to give him (or deny him)? What tools and aids are you going to create so he can do his job? Finally, what makes your game fun for him?