RPG game master player

Why Do We Play? RPG Game Master and Player Differences Explored

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D&D Design Diary: Martial Artist martial archetype
Kickstarter Korner for March 2018, Week 4

In a recent video from Nerdarchists Dave and Ted, they explored the question of why we Game Master. It’s a fantastic video if you haven’t checked it out yet, and it gave me a lot to think about for my own motivations. In this article I’d like to explore a topic that runs parallel to theirs but at a higher level of generality: why the differences in motivations between being a GM and being a player leads to most conflicts at the table.

Why we are a Game Master

  • Necessity: You’ve got a group together that wants to play, but no one except you feels comfortable stepping behind the screen and putting the work in to run the game. Maybe your group views you as the most outgoing, or the most creative, or you can do funny accents the best. Whatever the reason might be, however trivial it may seem, it’s a valid one. So the task falls to you to GM.
    RPG Game Master
    The iconic Dungeon Master. [Art by Jeff Easley]
  • Macroscopic creativity: You enjoy world-building and creating a place for the players to interact in. You like cartography and creating interesting places. You like character studies and enjoy crafting NPCs with unique stories to tell. You like thinking about the narrative as it pertains to the larger picture and weaving an overarching story that encompasses the players and informs their actions.
  • Self-awareness: You know that if you were a player, you wouldn’t have as much fun as if you were GMing. Whether you’d recognize when mistakes were made by the GM, or whether you couldn’t trust yourself to not metagame from that nagging GM perspective, or whether you wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about how you’d have done things differently if you were GMing, you’re self-aware enough to step into the role of GM to avoid that behavior. Let’s face it, none of that is fun for anyone at the table and the less it occurs, the better.
  • Game design: You enjoy theory-crafting unique additions to the rules as written that add flavor to the game. You see problems inherent in the rules for whatever system you’re running, and you find joy in turning those problems around in your head and finding solutions that you can incorporate on a case-by-case basis for your game. You want to add new and unique items, classes, characters, or foes that aren’t in the base rules. So you step behind the screen to engage that aspect that you find fulfilling.
  • Improvisation skills: Regardless of your approach to GMing (i.e. extensive preparation or off-the-cuff) there’s always an element of improvisation that factors into running a game. If you find yourself able to come up with dialogue quickly on the fly, able to generate interesting NPCs when the players ask about random people you hadn’t prepared for, or able to craft interesting encounters or variations on an encounter you had planned, you might step behind the screen and exercise that as a strong point if others in the group don’t believe they have the same capacity to do so. [NERDITOR’S NOTE: For more on improvisation check out Mike Shea’s article on D&D Beyond.]

Why we are a player (as RPG characters)

  • Lack of confidence: You don’t think you’d be a good GM. After all, if you’re a player you only have to keep track of one entity in the world. If you’re GMing, you have to manage a world and all its inhabitants – friends and foes alike. So you decide to play a character. Maybe it’s just so you can get your bearings, get a better grip on the rules, or work up to GMing at a later time. Or maybe it’s because you realize you probably won’t be comfortable behind the screen. So for the moment, you’re just one person in the world the GM is establishing for you.
  • Groupthink: You just want to be part of the group. You’ve got a group of friends who want to play a tabletop roleplaying game and you value the social interaction more than you do the actual activity in which the group partakes. So you play along and roll up a character, going with the flow as the group plays and the GM does their thing.
  • Problem solving: Playing a character in a tabletop RPG is an exercise in problem solving skills. The GM throws encounters, puzzles, traps, social situations, and anything else under the sun at the players and it’s their job as the characters to resolve them in the manner they see fit. Maybe you see yourself as a strong lateral thinker or a good riddle solver or a grade-A strategist. Any of those characteristics lend themselves well to being a player, because your strengths correlate to the group’s strengths and the group’s successes in the game at large.
  • Microscopic creativity: You’re a creative individual, but you prefer focusing your efforts narrowly and deeply. You want to craft a character, delve into their backstory, flesh them out narratively in the world both from the beginning and as the game plays out, maybe even create art that reflects your character (if you’re so inclined). So you’re content to sit at the table with the rest of the characters and tell your story in collaboration with the GM’s guidance.
  • Escapism: Tabletop RPGs offer a unique experience to shed worldly troubles or the stress of everyday life and escape into a collaboratively imagined world by taking the role of a created character. We all have things that wear us down and demand that we take a step back and recover. If you view tabletop RPGs as an escape, chances are you also view the role of the GM as a somewhat stressful one, so you might just roll up a character and sit down at the table to engage in the storytelling as someone other than yourself.
RPG game master player
Whether you’re the Game Master or a player, play more games! [Art by Olie Boldador – Click image for more of his work]

So what?

At this point, we’ve identified various reasons why players will either GM or play as characters. There are many more, I’m sure, because the bounds of human choice and reasoning far exceed my ability to exhaust them all in a few bullet points. But what’s the upshot of this whole analysis? Why have I bothered to categorize the reasons for playing a tabletop RPG with a group of people?

Because in some sense, the root of many of the conflicts we face at the table is in the differences between the reasons I listed above. Look back over the lists I’ve given. If you stare at them long enough you’ll see something interesting: almost no common overlap. Besides the obvious reason of “having fun” or “enjoying yourself” in whatever role you choose, the GM and the players are coming to the table with vastly different and in some cases diametrically opposed ideas of “why I’m playing.” You can see how conflict arises if you can get down to the reasons why people are at the table to begin with.

If you identify that a player is playing because they consider themselves a problem solver or a strategist and your entire campaign revolves around political intrigue with very little dungeon crawling, you can see how the player might act out or become disinterested. That disinterest can manifest in many different ways, ranging from not paying attention and staring at their phone all the way up to berating the GM whenever possible because they’re not having fun, so why should anyone else at the table.

If you as a player come to the table just because of the groupthink mentality, just to tag along and be part of the group, but your GM has a penchant for macroscopic creativity and wants everyone to be involved, you can see where they might be frustrated if you don’t engage with the world and enjoy losing yourself in the world they’ve crafted.

If the GM decides to be a GM because no one else wants to, it’s a breeding ground for conflict! Something goes wrong: there’s a TPK, there’s a riddle that no one is able to solve, there’s a lack of imagination in the encounters that are placed before the party, etc. Then the players get mad and play the blame game. “It’s your fault GM. You did this.” But then the GM just says “Hey I didn’t want to be the GM. No one else wanted to. I told you it might be rough to start with.”

So what? Are we forever fated to have irreconcilable or persistent conflict at the table because of this?

No, otherwise I wouldn’t have written the article to begin with. This is why having session zeros for your campaign is immensely important. At the session zero, get a feel for why your players are there or why your GM is playing to begin with. Establish what everyone’s expectations are for the campaign. If the GM is a good one, or has the potential to be a good one, they’ll see those reasons and try to cater the campaign for everyone. If the GM states their reasoning, empathize with it and understand what kind of game they’re planning to run based on their motivations. Then when conflict arises, as it inevitably will, you can look back at the session zero and see what the causes were for it. More often than not, the conflict is going to come from a misalignment of reality with expectations.

And it all boils down to why we’re at the table to begin with.

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Follow Austin Rodgers:
Graduate student in pure math by day, avid tabletop gamer by night. Austin is a lifelong gamer who enjoys writing fantasy and science fiction, and musing about all things tabletop roleplaying, from classic hidden gems to modern powerhouses like 5e D&D.

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