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  1. #1

    GM's primary role, in your preferred playstyle

    Hi Everybody,

    As a result of finding VTTs at the start of lockdown, I've had the opportunity to play through a couple of long D&D campaigns as a player for the first time in years.

    We just finished Descent into Avernus this evening, and I'm almost at the end of Rime of the Frostmaiden with another group.

    I've had a great time because the players in each group (including the DMs) have been really engaged and involved and have thrown themselves into it. Both DMs have run the adventures pretty much as written (Rime very much so, Avernus with a transplant to Eberron and a lot of work from the DM to weave character backstories through the whole narrative in a very satisfying way).

    BUT but but...

    this adventure style seems to regard the GM's primary role to be making sure the story beats get hit. (The incident of the Chardalyn dragon in Rime is the absolute epitome of this - the dragon flies when the PCs arrive, no matter what the internal logic of the world might decree. It's 100% external meta storytelling. The players have absolutely no chance to find out about it in advance or do anything clever. It's just BAM! Story beat, deal with it).

    I've been around a long time, and I started playing in genuine "Classic" style:

    I guess my playstyle now incorporates a pinch of classic. I'm literally running a 1st to 20th now you have your fortress D&D campaign for one of my groups in consciously classic style, albeit the first time in a long time I've done such a thing. I like the interaction of rules with setting to evoke feels from Trad, and my heart likes a lot of things about the OSR but I prefer more rules support than the average "rulings not rules" OSR system. LARP immersion has never appealed to me, which is probably one the reasons I ran LARPs rather than played them.

    I think for me the GM's primary role is to make the world reactive. The player characters do some stuff. What happens as a result? Who does what and why? What do the NPCs do about it? How does it interact with their plots and plans, and what do they do as a result? Do they change plans? Bring forward the heist or put it back, or do something else entirely? I think of it as not just deciding what the rest of the world does, but trying my best to run the world as a simulation and watching what changes around the PCs based on their actions.

    That's the reason I like games with a living, breathing human GM instead of just playing a computer game. I need to make the world reactive every bit as much when running a published adventure as when running my own material. The job of being a world/adventure designer is something I can delegate a lot of the time. What I can't delegate is making this setting react to the specific actions of THESE player characters, right here and now. Amongst all the jobs the GM takes on, to my mind, this is the one that can't be achieved any other way.

    So I was wondering... what do you think the primary role of the GM is? I don't mean the one that takes the most time (we all know that's scheduling!) or that makes the biggest difference to the fun of the game (that's basic not-being-a-****-ness). I mean the reason why you have a GM in the first place, the thing that their most sacred duty is when push comes to shove.

    I think some classic playstyle fans might reply "to be fair"? Simulationists might go further than me in wanting them to run the world as a self-consistent simulation?

    What do you think? And how would you characterise your preferred play-style?

    Cheers, Hywel
    Last edited by HywelPhillips; October 13th, 2021 at 00:49.

  2. #2
    LordEntrails's Avatar
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    May 2015
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    The primary role of a GM? Good question, and it can be a tough one since often the needs of the moment or campaign will influence what that is.

    But to me, the primary role is to create the setting. The situation. Where are things and what is happening. The geography, the cities, the factions, their motivations and plans, who normally resides where and what do they do. And then drop the characters in. Expose the characters to the world and figure out how the world reacts, or doesn't, to the character's actions.

  3. #3
    Zacchaeus's Avatar
    Join Date
    Dec 2014
    Is to make sure that you and the players have fun.

    Whether that happens or not will depend on your and your group’s play style. Since my lot all started when they were 12 or younger fun was directly related to how many monsters they could kill with the biggest weapon or explosion at their disposal and what treasure they could find. Now in their early forties not a great deal has changed. Role playing, backstory and even the plot are essentially things which get hand waved most of the time in favour of puzzles, scary dungeons and epic tactical battles. Fantasy Grounds fits my group perfectly and I run published adventures as they are written. As long as they have plenty of monsters to kill and treasure to find they’ll fill up the WhatsApp group with chatter until the next session.
    If you need to contact customer support or if there is something that you would like to see in Fantasy Grounds that isn't currently part of the software or if there is something you think would improve a ruleset then add your idea here

  4. #4
    These are the agenda and principles from Apocalypse world. I adapt them for my d&d games and my players and i have a blast with eachother.

    Make Apocalypse World seem real
    Make the players characters’ lives not boring
    Play to find out what happens
    Barf forth apocalyptica.
    Address yourself to the characters, not the players.
    Make your move, but misdirect.
    Make your move, but never speak its name.
    Look through cross-hairs.
    Name everyone, make everyone human.
    Ask provocative questions and build on the answers.
    Respond with ****ery and intermittent rewards.
    Be a fan of the players’ characters.
    Think off-screen too.
    Sometimes, disclaim decision-making.

    For me, the most important thing is to be a fan of the characters and to make their lives not boring.

    I also like something he adds somewhere along the lines of "take as hard a move as you like not necessarily the hardest move you can make. Making the characters lives not boring doesn't always mean worse..."

  5. #5
    Story-teller, props master, super-host, and someone to talk to about gaming in general. Part mentor, part 'guide', and certainly fun & full of surprises. Someone that is perhaps well-read, clever, and brilliant on the spot, or that can just wing it when needed.
    I sadly believe and suggest the writing quality in some products suffers from too many deadlines that need to be made commercially, and also are written by those that may not have ever played much, or run many roleplaying games. I am personally inspired by others, and by the things I have digested over the years with RPGs in general. Movies, comics, other game systems, and a plethora of real-world examples for ideas.
    Often, most of the published content is already doomed, and too well documented, over-analyzed, and overly-hyped before I even get around to running it, or been given even a chance to look it over. I try to run the sandbox mode as much as possible, and feather in the story as it fits into the group's direction, the party's perception, and the overall feel of the campaign as a whole. Imagine the surprise when a new player or GM gets the shock of their life when they have already read the adventure, watched YouTube videos, and discover that things do not go as planned or as rail-roaded into the main story hooks..!

    In the not-so-distant past, the text, images, and stories were much harder to share and give away except maybe through the mouths of others that actually played, or ran, or created the content. I have had players disappointed in my games because I did not run the story or the game as the books suggest or as it is actually spelled out. I get this, "Hey, that is not a part of this setting or module...", or "Well, this is not right, this is not the way this is to run, it is not like it was presented on YouTube, or shown on the Critical-Role shows"... :-)
    Nowadays, you really get a bunch of copy-cat regurgitations out of most of the newer content and very few original ideas. And, because of online corporate commercialism, the ease of giving away the stories, and the need to make a return on investment profit, no adventure or lore is sacred... Back in the classic days, you find out about these adventures through the stories of the people that played them at a local gaming convention, or at best, you saw the book and browsed through it in a hobby store, or maybe you saw an ad in the back of a semi-related printed magazine. A total secret would work for me, but the consumers and the marketers just cannot wait to disclose a new product online, or it is often leaked through Amazon sales pages, or maybe even boot-legged and distributed online illegally! In either scenario, meta-gaming is inevitable, secrecy ruined, and any real originality has undoubtedly taken a back seat these days.

    One hope is that a GM might learn to get a feel for the theme, the mood, and the ideas from the actual players, not using much of the rapid online reviews and walk-throughs.
    A GM has more than just the rules, new content, and a little experience on their side, but he or she has to have empathy, creativity, and a passion for the game. I have to work much harder to NOT make my game so canon, and close to the advertised product lines now. I recall being inspired to run and learn about the settings from novels and my friends, and not from the reviews of a corporate or a paid reviewer to hype up the new content. Dragonlance was a great example of this or even some of the earlier FR novels. This is what made me a good storyteller, learning to read, listen, and be creative, not just collect the next best thing on the rapidly cycled online content. The internet is a good thing, but it can also kill the mood, the feel, and the surprise elements. Video game, not really, but very parallel online distribution and sales, yes. Fantasy Grounds does a little better job at keeping the IP protected and not so easily passed around. This is one reason I like the platform.

    Also, most informed shoppers and content investors are not going to really be able to see the entire picture of a decent product through the initial reviews and the inflated hype of a given product release, they are going to actually try to use the given content and then decide if they want to continue to use it again or upon the next release or sequel. I miss having only sections of a module or a larger setting released in smaller bites. This did a couple of things... it helped keep all of the story surprises from being revealed straight away, it made distribution a bit less "heavy", and it also gave the final chapters more direction and feedback based on how the initial parts were released. I think modern publishers have missed the mark with this newer modern development and release approach. Just imagine a fairly decent setting being released all at once and only having a couple of good parts or maybe some good artwork, and your company spent a lot of focused effort, time, resources, and money to get the product launched within 13 months. This cannot be good in the long term if the product is not very good. As a consumer, I would rather have to wait a little bit longer, with no big secrets given away, and to know that my games and feedback have contributed to the overall gameplay, or helped with decent product changes. I will gladly take a two-year, gradual release of a solid and enjoyable product that has a higher replay value, than that of a rushed and poorly written setting within a shorter 13-month rapid product cycle. I can almost guarantee that most of the current play settings rarely get more than 6-9 months of good sales and then rapidly decline after that, once the hype dies. Rulebooks, obviously last a bit longer, but NOT if they are not very useful, or too niche, or not researched well enough before development actually starts.
    Last edited by Laerun; October 15th, 2021 at 10:23.
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  6. #6

    Join Date
    Oct 2015
    Somewhere in the Universe
    Figure out what your players want. Story, RP, Combat can all be important. Each group is different. A good DM takes time to figure out what style of game the players want. Adjust if needed.
    If everybody is having fun I have done my job.

  7. #7

  8. #8
    Interesting perspectives everyone, thank you.

    Obviously "having fun" is a primary driver of playing RPGs at all. In my mind it is the job of everyone around the table to achieve that, I don't think it's a job that should fall solely on the GM's shoulders. In my preferred playstyle it is definitely not up to the GM to create a memorable experience for everyone - that makes it sound more like watching a performance than playing a game together. Of course, the GM has to do a lot of the work beforehand to facilitate the memorable experience, but my most enjoyable sessions both as a player and GM have come out of the players' actions, not the GM's.

    Maybe it is more on the GM in the story-heavy, hit-the-plot-points style?

    Laerun raises an interesting point about the change in expectations now that we can learn a lot more about the experience of other groups online. I've seen postings in some places along the lines that homebrew settings, homebrew adventures and even running written adventures in sandbox mode is "gross". I'd not really thought of the corollary, which is that people sign up to play (say) Descent into Avernus expecting to have the game play experience that they've already seen IN DETAIL on YouTube and Twitch. Not just the sort of broad details you might once have read about in a magazine review, but even down to the level of the GM "not doing the voices right".

    There's a lot to think about in the post, thank you Laerun.

    I'd thought a bit about the rise of paid-for games but I'd missed the idea that some players might be signing up to be delivered the railroaded experience because that's what they're ACTUALLY EXPECTING AND WANTING, because they've seen all the streams and shows and they want to be in that themselves. It's an interesting thought which be a contributing factor to something I've noticed in paid-for groups as a player which previously I've been absolutely baffled by.

    In a few paid groups I've been in someone else has offered to run a one-shot session to fill in, for free, if the GM can't run the campaign that week. The take-up has usually been small-to-non-existent. Except for me: I always volunteer immediately and enthusiastically to join in. Because it is a novel D&D adventure which someone whose game style I like enough to be playing with regularly is offering to run, at a time when we all should be available already. It's a chance to play with a different GM, play a different character for the night, try something new. What's not to like?

    Well, maybe what's not to like is that it is not delivering that curated, "this is what I expect from the YouTube videos" more GM-story-led, player-passive experience. Which given the players are signed up for a year-long paid campaign using one of the big WOTC books I can now see may be significantly less appealing to them.

    Much food for thought, thanks everyone!

    Cheers, Hywel

  9. #9
    I was a player and GM on various tabletop rpgs back in the 80s and 90s, and last year came back to D&D because of the covid lockdown. I noticed that ttrpgs had changed quite a bit from my previous experience.

    1. It's a LOT more multimedia than before. Players want music, sound effects, animated maps, etc. Back in the 90s, my gaming group didn't even use maps. I had 3 giant green laminated hexboards that I drew on with dry-erase markers.
    2. A lot of GMs now recommend doing "voices". In my old gaming group, we RARELY made up voices for NPCs. We changed our style of speaking, but I rarely did funny voices.
    3. In my old gaming group, perhaps because we were on AD&D 1st and 2nd ed, which were heavily influenced by war gaming still, and because we often played in a big group (I can remember playing with as many as 13 people), we had to be organized. When it was your turn, you kept it simple, brief, direct and then it went to the next person. Now, a lot of my players want to really describe EVERYTHING. In my old gaming group, we would have just said "I cast dancing lights". One of my players spent over 5 minutes describing her hand movements, making up gibberish vocal components, describing the pretty lights, etc., and I see a lot of players wanting to do that. It's no longer "I hit them with my longsword". They watch a few youtube tutorials about making roleplay more "interesting" and want to describe their sword, how they hold it, its ancestry, etc. Now, there ARE good points about helping players visualize action, but it's kind of new for me. I sometimes feel combat drags.
    4. Again, because AD&D grew out of wargaming, and you got xp ONLY by killing the enemies, there was a large focus on "There are the bad guys! Go get 'em!" and we really only ran away if we knew we couldn't handle it. My last gaming group literally ran from every encounter. If I wanted them to fight, I had to literally box them in, corner them, and force them to do it. Running away is great. Learning your limits is great. But sometimes you HAVE to deal with a bad guy to advance the story, and they wanted to talk their way past every bad guy, whether the bad guy could be fast-talked or not. I loved some of the creative roleplaying they did, but sometimes I just wanted to have a memorable fight.

    As far as being a GM, back in the 80s and 90s, we spent our money on sourcebooks, not adventures. Our adventures were ALWAYS homebrew, and we learned very quickly not to overplan those adventures because player agency could quickly derail the whole thing. I remember one GM, about an hour into the adventure, literally throwing his notes over his shoulder and saying "Well, there went that adventure. Let's go with it!" and ad-libbed the rest because we'd gotten SO far off-the-rails.

    I often had just a basic outline of an adventure, with a list of the main points, some monsters, the good treasure, etc. Nowhere near as detailed as some of the premade adventures I see now.

    I'm a bit like OP. My basic rules for GMing are:
    1. The players are the heroes. They should never be carried, and especially never upstaged, by NPCs.
    2. I want the players to win. Winning shouldn't be impossible, and it shouldn't be easy.
    3. I play my "monsters" as living creatures. Unless they're a zombie or a mindless construct, they won't fight to the death unless they think that's the ONLY chance they have to survive. I have monsters that run away, monsters that surrender, etc.
    4. I always create my adversaries with a background and motivation. If I put a wizard in a cave, I try to have a reason why the wizard is in the cave, why the cave is trapped, and why it's full of zombies, and I try to make it consistent.
    5. I try to let my players run the game. My job is to try to give them a strong enough motivation to hook them into doing what I want them to do, but still leave them feeling like they are the ones making the choices, and if they go off the rails, and I can't find a way to trick them back on the rails, I should just let them run and see where it goes.
    6. I try not to kill PCs, but my PCs have to believe I will, and if they start to act like they think I won't actually kill them, if they're really asking for it, I should give them a memorable lesson. I'll try to just maim them horribly, but if they die, they earned it.
    7. Anything I give them, I can take away. Never be afraid to take away a magic item getting in the way of the game, but hesitate before taking something away that the player comes to love. I gave my player a talking sword. It was a totally useless and annoying sword, dull as a butter knife, and an idiot. BUT, it could glow in the dark, it was cursed, so that it could teleport back to the PC whenever they threw it away. It could see in total darkness, and speak multiple languages. This player was AMAZING. He used to throw the sword down dark corridors as a scout. "See anything?" He put a ring of flying in the hilt, and turned it into a flying sword that could carry him. He eventually had the artificer add legs so it could walk, and when the campaign ended, he was working on adding arms, so that he could give it a sword, and then it would be a sword with a sword.

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