The Big Picture: Everything You Ever Need to Know About Game Mastering

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If you look back at all the stuff I’ve done on this website that I’ve classified as “How to F$&%ing GM,” you’ll notice that there’s a sort of progression there. And that isn’t accidental. First, I started talking about the very basic skills. I called that s$&% “How to Run a F$&%ing Game.” And all of that crap was about the skills you needed to actually sit down and, well, to RUN game sessions. That’s why I called it that. F$&%ing duh. After that, I moved on to another category I called “How to Write a F$&%ing Adventure”. And that one was a whole bunch of crap about adventure building. How to design your own games. Now, there is a third category that we’ve only dipped into once or twice. And that category wasn’t even prominently featured. UNTIL TODAY. It’s called “How to Build a F$&%ing Campaign.” And you can probably guess what it’s all about.

Starting today, we’re going to move into bigger topics: campaigns and settings. That doesn’t mean I’m done talking about adventure building and game running. I’ll keep dipping back into those topics. And I actually do have a final sort of pièce de résistance coming for the adventure building series. But I feel like I’ve touched on all the major topics in adventure building. The rest is just details and advanced concepts.

Now, I WAS going to launch into a discussion about campaigns and settings and what they both are today. But I realized that there’s a much bigger, more important issue that lies not just at the heart of campaigns, but underneath absolutely everything. And it is the reason why – not to brag – this site is absolutely the BEST instruction manual for game masters of traditional role-playing games.

And, you know what? I’m not going to apologize for that. The “traditional role-playing games” thing. I mean, I’m not going to apologizing for being the best either. But, look, it’s no secret that I am not talking about your hoity-toity story games who think they are the only way to get a satisfying narrative experience in an interactive medium. And I’m not talking about those abstract as f$&% specialty games whose rules are three layers removed from any actual game fiction. I’m not talking about the elitist indie crap that seeks to elevate the medium. No, I’m talking about the standard fare. The Dungeons & Dragons. The Pathfinder. The Star Wars. The old school and the new school action-adventure games. The ones that CAN be great epic stories of mystery and intrigue, like that Game of Thrones thing the kids are all playing. And the ones that CAN ALSO be the dungeon-crawling fun of killing green-skinned evil-doers and taking their stuff. And the ones that CAN ALSO be tear-your-hair-out challenging tests of your strategy and gaming mettle. D&D can’t be anything to anyone, sorry. I’ve said that before. But it can be a lot of things. And it’s pretty easy to get to a lot of things from D&D.

Oh, and just because I talk about traditional RPGs and play traditional RPGs, that doesn’t mean I also don’t play (and even sometimes LIKE) other games. I play and run A LOT of games. I try a lot of s$&%. Anyway, I got distracted. My point here is that this site is unapologetically about teaching you how to get the most out of traditional RPGs, however you define “the most.” Deal with it.

Anyway, make no mistake: even taking into account my excessive wordiness AND my attitude AND my egomania, I am THE BEST place for GMing instruction. I know. Every goddamned day people e-mail me about it. Now, I don’t like to brag, but… oh, wait, I do like to brag. I’m bragging. Suck it every other GM out there on the web. I’m the best at teaching GMing. Everyone thinks so. Except the people who are wrong and dumb.

Okay, this Long, Rambling Introduction™ is going a little off the rails. Let me try to focus back in on my point.

My approach to GMing and to writing about GMing is part of what makes this site so helpful to so many. But, what’s funny is that I never noticed I had an “approach.” It wasn’t until I started writing and categorizing and discussing and explaining. And the thing is, I think the approach itself is SUPER valuable. That is to say, there are deep truths buried in my organization scheme. And its high time to spell some s$&% out. Especially because, when I start talking about campaigns, there’s some CRUCIAL terms that need to be discussed, defined, and separated.

What you’re about to read is basically how I see GMing and how I see RPGs. Or, at least, how I see them today. That might change tomorrow. My view is constantly evolving. And I’ve discovered a lot just by writing about it. Basically, this is partly a road map and partly a glossary. It will explain how I write – and how I will continue to write – about game mastering. But it will also explain a lot about how the game is put together and how it is run. A lot of the stuff is stuff I have said before. But summarized and organized differently.

Role-Playing Games

First and foremost, let’s just lay down the most basic of all definitions: what is a role-playing game and how do they work. That forms the basis for everything else we’re going to discuss.

What is a Role-Playing Game?

A role-playing game is a game in which players take on the role of fictional characters in a hypothetical universe. The players attempt to make the decisions that they feel their characters would make if they were real and if their universe were real. Those decisions are based on the characters’ motivations and the games goals. The results of those decisions are played out and new decisions are made.

Ultimately, an RPG is about choice and consequence. The players make choices for their characters and then deal with the consequences. And goals provide benchmarks for success and failure.

The Most Important Rule in Every RPG

There is one rule, one structure, that underlies almost every RPG that exists. It is the most basic process by which the RPG runs. And it goes like this. The GM presents a situation to the players. The players project themselves into the mind of their characters and decide on a course of action for their characters to take. The GM determines the outcome of those actions and describes the results, which becomes a new situation to which the players then respond.

That’s it. That’s every role-playing game ever.

The Role of the Rules

The vast majority of the rules exist to help the GM determine the outcome of actions whose outcomes are uncertain. The rules strike a balance between consistency and variable so that players can make reasonable guesses about likely outcomes but can still be surprised by the actual outcome. However, some rules provide an abstract structure to make the game playable and enjoyable.

The Game Master

At the core of the game is the Game Master. Without the Game Master, RPGs simply could not function as they do. So, let’s lay this out.

What is the Game Master

The Game Master is not a player in the game; the Game Master is a part of the system. The Game Master is a game mechanic. The GM exists because only a creative human mind is capable of responding to absolutely any action or choice the players can imagine. The GMs role is to facilitate the free choices the players make as participants in the story by responding to their actions.

Is Game Mastering Fun?

The Game Master should not view an RPG as a game, but rather as a performance. The Game Master’s role is to facilitate the game play of others. However, the Game Master should also find the experience satisfying. Many Game Masters enjoy the chance to entertain their friends, the fun of being the center of attention, the opportunities for creative expression, the surprises of an unpredictable narrative, and the challenge inherent in having a response for every action in a way that keeps the game moving in a satisfying way.

The Tenets of a Game Master

The Game Master’s role, above all, is to facilitate the core activity of every role-playing game: making decisions and dealing with the consequences. That requires the game master to deal fairly and consistently with the players so that they can make good decisions, to ensure that the players know that their decisions affect the outcome of the game, to show the connection between actions and their consequences, to provide goals and motivations to drive those decisions, and to provide a satisfying and enjoyable narrative framework for the game.

The GMing Hats

In the end, GMs wear three primary hats.

Running the Game

The first hat is running the game. When running the game, the GM presents situations, determines the outcome of actions, and presents the consequences of those actions. The GM also moves the action from scene to scene, provides goals, and provides a resolution for those goals. Every GM does this. In fact, this is the primary activity that would be defined as being a GM.

Administrating the Game

The second is the administrative hat. When administrating the game, the GM handles the organizational and social aspects of the game. The GM essentially functions as the president of a club or the coach of a sports team in this role. The GM must deal with interpersonal problems, disruptions of the game, and other social issues. This is something that every GM ends up doing at some point, even if they have players to help with things like scheduling.

Creating the Game

The third hat is the hat of creation. When creating the game, the GM is creating new scenes and situations, adventures, goals, characters, or even rules. While many GMs prefer to use the rules as defined and use published adventures, campaigns, and settings, those GMs will still find themselves occasionally acting as a creator in response to player actions. Those GMs wear the hat of creation off and on. Other GMs prefer to create their own characters, monsters, adventures, campaigns, and worlds. The hat of creation can be worn both at the table and away from it. When wearing it at the table, the GM is improvising small bits of content to fill some game need. When wearing it away from the table, the GM is usually designing larger chunks of content like scenes, encounters, adventures, and campaigns.

The Minimum GMing Skills

There are TWO skills every GM MUST master. They must master them early and they should have a strong grasp of those skills before they do anything else as a Game Master.

Narration

Narration is the skill of presenting clear, concise, and useful information to the players so that they can make good in-game decisions. It includes describing the situations the characters are currently facing and it also includes describing the transitions from situation to situation.

Adjudication

Adjudication is the skill of determining the outcome of player actions and choices. After a player has described an outcome, the GM must understand the player’s intentions (what they want to happen) and approach (how they want to bring it about) and then determine the outcome (did the player accomplish their intentions or not) and the consequences (how did their approach change the world). GMs have a variety of tools at their disposal. For simple actions whose outcomes are certain, they may simply decide on the outcome and narrate it. For more complex, uncertain actions GMs will fall back on the rules of the system. However, many actions will require them GM to make interpretations or judgement calls about the action, the situation, and the rules.

The Structure of the Game

Role-playing games have a nested structure and each structural element acts as a container for the element below it. Higher level elements provide context for the lower level elements, usually by providing motivations or goals.

Actions

The smallest chunk of a role-playing game that still counts as a role-playing game – the atom of the role-playing game – is the action. An action begins when a player states an action for their character to take. That action will include a desired outcome or intention and a method or approach meant to bring about that outcome. The GM will then resolve the action, describing the outcome of the action and determining the consequences of the character’s approach and how those consequences change the game world. The GMs resolution and description of the outcome usually provide a setup for the next acton.

Scenes and Encounters

Actions happen within the context of scenes and encounters. Scenes and encounters begin with a dramatic question, a statement of the character’s goals in the form of a question. The GM then presents the scene to the players, usually in some way hinting at the dramatic question or goal. If the answer to the dramatic question is uncertain because of a source of conflict within the scene, the scene is an encounter. The scene or encounter plays out as a series of actions until the dramatic question is resolved. Then, the GM provides a transition to the next scene or encounter.

Adventures

An adventure is a series of scenes and encounters that comprise a single, complete story. Adventures begin with a motivation or goal and a scene that presents that motivation or goal to the players. Adventures then play out as a series of scenes or encounters as the players pursue the goal. Once the players have accomplished the goal or definitively failed to accomplish the goal, the adventure ends.

And speaking of adventures…

Sessions

Sessions are not a part of the structure of the role-playing game, but they are a metagame structure nonetheless. A session is the real-life period of time during which the players and GM participate in a role-playing game. An adventure may be played out over many sessions or may take place in the span of a single session.

Adventure Path

An adventure path is a series of adventures that are connected by an underlying narrative. Adventure paths generally have an underlying goal or motivation that each of the adventures serve to advance, but the players may not be aware of the motivations or goals until an arbitrary point during the adventure path. An adventure path ends with a resolution of the underlying motivation or goal.

Adventures paths may be strung together as a series and may be unified by even more overarching goals and motivations. Adventure paths can be nested inside of each other infinitely, in theory, but there’s really no point in differentiating them further.

And speaking of adventure paths…

Campaign

A campaign isn’t really part of the structure of the role-playing game. A campaign is the sum total of all of the game sessions involving any sort of continuity between adventures. Usually the continuity involves the ensemble of characters and the setting, but through one or more adventure paths, there may also be a story continuity.

A note for older gamers: once upon a time, the structure of the game was action, encounter, adventure, and campaign. But the word campaign has become diluted over the years and is now often used to refer to both adventure paths, series of adventure paths, the overarching plots that connect adventure paths, and also to refer to series of adventures that are only connected through continuity, not by plot thread. Thus a campaign could be an adventure path, a linear series of adventure paths, a container that contains multiple adventure paths unified by a single motive or goal, or a collection of adventures about an ensemble with no unifying goal. Rather than try to redefine the term and force everyone to just listen to reason, I’ve decided to accept the fact that a campaign is just a whole bunch of adventures, however they are connected. That said, it is still MY personal habit to refer to adventure paths as campaigns. So I sympathize if you have the same problem.

Narrative Structure

Stories have structures and the most satisfying role-playing games follow that structure. Thus, it’s important to understand the elements of narrative structure. These are the elements that give stories their shape and flow.

Goal

A goal is something that the players and their characters want to accomplish and actually can accomplish. In order to be considered a goal, something must be achievable and it must be clear whether that thing has been achieved or not. There must be a benchmark. Goals may or may not be failable, but any goal that can be failed must be obviously failable. That is to say, the players must always be able to tell whether they have accomplished their goal, have not yet accomplished their goal, or have failed to accomplish their goal.

Goals may be personal, desired by only one character, or they may be desired by several characters, or they may even be sought by the entire group. Goals may be defined by the players for their characters or they may be defined by the game master as part of the adventure or adventure path.

Motivation

A motivation provides the drive for a character or player to pursue a particular end. A motivation represents the reasons underlying a goal. Motivations provide reasons to care about accomplishing a goal. Motivations are always personal and are almost always defined by the players for their individual characters. Characters may have several different motivations.

Some characters may lack motivations and instead may have long-term goals that provide them the impetus toward accomplishing short-term goals. The difference is that a goal has a definitive endpoint and a motivation does not, even when it seems like it does.

Incitement to Action

An incitement to action is an event in a story that defines the goal that the player will be working toward in the current adventure, usually by appealing to their motivations or long-term goals. The incitement to action defines the initial goal toward which the characters will be working in the adventure.

Tension

Tension represents the level of uncertainty that the players have in the outcome of their actions and how strongly that uncertainty is weighing on the players. In other words, it is how much the players are aware of the uncertainty of the outcome of their actions. At moments of low tension, the players may either feel that the outcome is not uncertain at all or may simply be able to temporarily ignore that uncertainty. At moments of high tension, the players may either feel that the outcome is quite uncertain or may simply have been reminded of the importance of the outcome.

Tension rises and falls throughout a story, but it tends to trend upward throughout the story. A good story moves waivers between moments of high and low tension, but the minimum level of tension is constantly rising. Tension also tends to rise and fall within individual scenes in a story.

Conflict

A conflict occurs when several goals, motivations, or desires come into confrontation in such a way that they cannot both be achieved. External conflicts occur when the goals, motivations, and desires are held by different individuals, forces, groups, or other elements of the story. An intraparty conflict occurs when those conflicting desires are held by the members of the player-character party. An internal conflict occurs when the conflicting desires are all held by a single character.

Climax

The climax is the point of highest tension in a story. It is the point in the story that comes immediately before the resolution. In most role-playing game adventures, the climax is a scene in which the outcome of the scene determines the resolution of the adventure. Well-designed scenes and well-adjudicated actions also have climaxes.

Resolution

The resolution is the part of a story, adventure, scene, or action that comes after the climax. During the resolution, the ultimate outcome is revealed and the players are able to come to terms with that outcome. The resolution usually involves a denoument or epilogue during which the players are able to rid themselves of any remaining tension.

Pacing

The pace of a story refers to the ebb and flow of tension throughout a story as well as the speed and directness with which the story moves towards its resolution. A fast-paced story is one where the level of tension remains fairly high, for example, and wherein there are few extraneous scenes beyond those required to move the story from its incitement to its resolution. Pacing also refers to the skill of controlling the rise and fall of tension throughout the story and the movement of the story toward its conclusion.

Narrative Elements

Finally, every role-playing game also involves a number of narrative elements that aren’t directly a part of the structure of the game. Rather, they are ingredients.

Story

A story is the sum of all of the narrative elements of a game. It is thus a holistic and emergent aspect of the game. In role-playing games, the story is the game and vice versa. The story is akin to a cake. The GM and the players provide various ingredients and combine them through the action of play. When they are done playing, they have experienced a story. Thus the story only exists and is only a useful point of discussion after the adventure, adventure path, or campaign is done.

A complete story is a story that contains all of the minimum structural elements of goal, climax, and resolution in and of itself. An adventure is the smallest structure in a role-playing game that can be considered a complete story. Stories may consist of multiple complete stories. An adventure path is a complete story that contains multiple complete stories.

Characters

Characters are story elements that possess motivations or goals and can take actions toward those motivations or goals. Characters are often humans or human-like entities, but supernatural entities and even the personification of various forces can also be characters.

Setting

The setting is sum total of the world that the characters exist in and wherein the story takes place. The characters are all of the elements that possess motivations and can take actions. Everything else that inhabits the world of the story can be considered to be setting. Settings generally consist of a physical space of some kind, such as a city, kingdom, continent, world, or cosmos and the physical, spiritual, and supernatural rules by which that space operates.

And that brings us to…

Setting or Character

The definitions of setting and characters are very precise. And that precision is extremely useful. If the thing has motivations and can take actions that affect the outcome of the story, that thing is a character, even if it seems like an element of the setting. The world of Athas in the Dark Sun D&D campaign setting is often used as a character, not a setting element. If a thing either doesn’t have motivations or can’t take actions that affect the outcome of the story (or both), that thing is an element of the setting. In many D&D games, the gods are NOT characters, they are setting elements.

Themes

Themes are concepts and ideas that exist – or may exist – as a subtext within the game or story or. Most themes represent conflicts that are considered central to the human experience. The game or story provides a framework for exploring or discussing those conflicts, either accidentally or by design. Themes are a common element in almost all stories, even when the author did not intend to include them.

Tone

Tone represents a general sense of the moods or emotions evoked by a story, game, or by a scene within that story or game. The overall tone of a work represents the moods or emotions evoked by the work as a whole and generally tends to vary little throughout the work. However, the momentary tone can vary from scene to scene. In fact, the tone of any given story or game should vary from scene to scene. Often that variance will be along a spectrum defined by the overall tone of the work. For example, a game that has a mostly optimistic tone will vary along a spectrum from hopeless to hopeful throughout the work. Tonal dissonance occurs when a story element evokes a tone that is drastically differently from the overall tone of the game or story.

The Small Questions and the Big Picture

In the end, this whole big shebang began with two very small questions. Or rather, two very small discussions I was going to have. Well, one question and one explanation. The question was: “what is the difference between a campaign and an adventure path?” The explanation was: “why campaigns and settings are two very different things?” And then things ballooned out of control.

I think this may be the most useful thing I’ve ever written – not for other people, but for me. The problem is that it’s very dangerous for me to publish. Because, quite frankly, I can only go down from here. Almost everything else I have to say about running games, writing adventures, and building campaigns is just about moving around all the bits and pieces I’ve just defined above. That and mechanical minutiae.

In short, even though I’m going to start talking about building settings and adventure paths from here on out – and continue to talk about writing adventures and running games – I’ve probably just peaked. So, enjoy watching my inevitable slide down into irrelevant mediocrity. At least Yoda had the good sense to die when he taught Luke everything.

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46 thoughts on “The Big Picture: Everything You Ever Need to Know About Game Mastering

  1. ” I can only go down from here.” I respectfully disagree. I have 20+ pages of handwritten definitions not covered here that I have taken while reading all that has come before this post.

    I agree having your definitions listed out like this has made this the single most useful thing you have written (so far). The outline of this piece alone IS probably very close to the high point of what needs to be said and understood about the RPG.

    I already use significant sections when writing scenes for my game, and use the phrase “dramatic question” daily in my classes. This work is pretty important to me and my life.

  2. You’re not sliding into mediocrity. These abstract articles are good (and necessary) but it’s watching the way you are able to use the concepts in regards to minutia and moving the little bits around that I find fascinating. Well defined examples, or vague generic ones when you’re in that mood, are exciting to follow because you can see thru the bulls&$(# that trips the rest of us up.

    I for one am excited for things to come.

  3. It’s nice to see this clear outline of definitions. While all of these concepts have been touched on in previous articles at some level or another, putting them here in one place serves well to tie them together.

    What might be a challenge for you is after each definition section above (now, and going forward), provide links to other articles that pertain to that section. You already have this as part of the site navigation, of course, but here it would be very helpful – especially to someone new to the site.

    • This is exactly what I tought too. This master article should be featured has a glossary or something alike. Perhaps it should have its own category and links to all the other articles. It would improve navigation on this site tenfold ! You open the list, choose a topic of interest and follow the links. That would be awsome.

  4. This is a great intro. You should save this for the DMing book you may write one day. Very concise and lays out information and concepts in an easy to follow format. You haven’t peaked, this seems like a good foundation for future published work. Great stuff here!

  5. Appreciated seeing this here: “The Game Master is not a player in the game; the Game Master is a part of the system.”

    I’ve had a few battles over that concept.

  6. I’m happy in general that your site, you know, exists. I’m happier still that the outset of you making this website a full time thing is off to a killer start (if I say so myself, which I do). Soon as you turn all this stuff into a beginner’s book, an advanced book, a megadungeon book, a pure mechanics book, a biography, a rants book, a monster book, and an Angry GM Calendar ah la the Grumpy Cat/famous people quotes calendars, I can buy them all and be broke and be done with it.

  7. I’ve been reading this site for a few months now. This blew me out of the water. I love the systematic way that you laid out and connected concepts from all your articles. I have a feeling that I’ll be coming back to this article for years. Well done, and thank you for all the great work you put in. I truly appreciate it.

      • The lego bricks article was almost 2 years ago, though. As Angry said, he evolves.

        • This. I was right then. I’m right now. But that doesn’t mean I can’t change from one right thing to another right thing.

          Honestly, I’m growing increasingly of the opinion that the difference between scene and encounter is a little nitpicky. But I still stand by my assertion that an encounter is a scene with a conflict.

          • There are bound to be inconsistencies. All of these discussions are merely modelling what GMs do, for the purposes of teaching or illustration. Since a model can only be perfect if it is as complex as the system it is modelling, it must be simplified to be useful.

            Different models, making different simplifications, are going to be useful for different purposes. So you are likely to see definitional changes when you are using similar language to describe different concepts.

            Anyone giving this sort of advice is going to have to strike a balance between consistency of definitions to assist readers who might be confused by inconsistency, and clarity in discussing each individual topic so that the reader can fully understand it.

  8. Thanks for this. It’s very high level, and does make a good structural overview. Like a syllabus. College courses start out with a syllabus.

    I started a new campaign, so I wanted to compile some of your adventure building advice for easy reference. Like flowcharts and lists I can glance at while playing. I spent some time attempting to compile and cross reference your articles.

    I printed out an index by category. Then, went through some articles, wrote alternate article titles (because many times, your titles don’t remind me of what the article contains), and then wrote a brief summary of what I would find in the article — not detailed notes, although on some articles (TAG2 A$&%kicking Combats) I got carried away. Notes like “examples and practical aside.” “Scene Building II”.

    Then, I picked some articles and summarized them in detail, and then re-organized those notes.

    I built some flow charts, and tried to sort information into the categories Planning, Pre-Session, Session, and Analysis. Each containing a primary sheet of reminders, and a secondary “Asset Library” sheet.

    Note taking is good for the soul, helps you remember, and lets you rephrase in your own terms. While I made some progress, there is a really long way to go. I’m pretty sure cleaning up what you’ve already presented would take quite some time, as I know from personal experience.

    Imagine beautiful computer-created flowcharts! I thought it might make sense for you to make them, but I figured mine would be better and exclusive 😀

    FYI by definition you are a professional. You’re good at this, and you should feel confident and good about it. Anyway, things are what they are, and obscuring the central architecture to a series of great articles isn’t going to detract from them.

    So, I’ve studied a number of languages, and have variously tried to teach people to pronounce things or speak some of it or whatever. Like, French, because once my mother wanted to learn French. Sometimes I avoid saying something because it will give the wrong impression, sound too definitive, or something like that. Whatever pathological notion it is — “if I say it’s just XYZ, she’ll think it’s just exactly equivalent to this other concept she knows when it’s not” — usually I find beating around the bush and trying multiple colorful ways to describe it doesn’t actually help. A direct approach is much better I think, or at least it seems so in my experience.

    (What do I know about teaching? I have some cred. Not like, the world’s best, because I’m not a professor [yet? … I like being paid, which is not what happens quite so much in grad school] but you know, credentials just fine.)

    I’ve tried to teach people other things as well. Same thing. I’ve discovered people don’t actually learn very well. They don’t see things you tell them until they go try it for themselves, f#&% up a lot, and then reverse engineer what you told them independently by themselves. … This is called homework.

    Professors teach the same courses year after year and refine their teaching technique. They travel around and tell different fresh audiences how to XYZ. And try to imagine all the pathological things in students’ heads, and see if they can reach anybody. … However they can’t, they mostly just make students nod their heads in agreement, when they should be making skeptical minds learn everything about their argument so they can disprove it. Or something like that.

    Once upon a time, college educations were basically independent research, or so it’s said. You met with the professor, in a large class, and he pointed you at some books and said “go learn some stuff”. You might meet with the professor to clarify and get some guidance — a mentorship. And then at the end, the professor made up a test, and you either passed or failed. Now, college involves attending class, nodding while teachers talk, and getting the right answers to a constant load of questions. Which has its merits, but is a radically different type of learning.

    You may have finished the central idea for a corpus, but it does NOT MAKE SENSE to feel that somehow you are done. First of all, you have to finish the corpus. And then you could refine it. And then secondly, you have to think of new ideas. Duh! You know that. Why are you telling us? Keep up the tone and pace.

    When I talked about people not learning, and see commenters saying things like “I like to see the examples”, that’s a request for input patterns to try to recognize. People have to recognize the patterns for themselves. You can help obviate the patterns, but you can’t transplant wisdom. I think it’s impossible. And you have wisdom on these topics.

    And anyway, you wrote two articles that were basically the same thing — one was “Coding a Scene”, and it followed one asking about “WHERE & WHEN”, “WHO & WHAT”, and “HOW”, and they were both great. They both presented things in different lights and contexts. And context is what you have and other people don’t. Besides the knowledge.

    And I’m positive you can draw more out of the stuff you already do than you are currently doing. Meaning, exploring new aspects of things you already do.

    Don’t even think about giving up! Break new ground instead!

    • For some time now I have been thinking on doing exactly that: categorizing every article and put them into a flowchart. But I see you have already done this, and much more. Sir, I am envious.

      I would like very much to have access to your notes, but this way I woldn’t really learn much, would I ? (Yes, I read your Wall of Text. And as someone in the academic field, I am inclined to agree with most of it.)

      Anyway. I suppose I am going to put everything on a binder and start to take notes. As they say, better later then never.

  9. “The Game Master is not a player in the game; the Game Master is a part of the system.”

    I’ve got some quibbles with that statement, though I think my problems are handled by the next bullet point: I’m tired (and, from past articles, Angry is also tired) of the “I have fun if my players are having fun” philosophy of GMing. While I don’t think you’re running a good game if you’re enjoying yourself but your players aren’t, I think the reason a lot of people avoid GMing in favor of playing is this idea that “RPGs are fun for players and hard work for GMs and the only enjoyment you can have as a GM is vicariously through your players’ enjoyment.”

    I’ll probably still keep putting forward my claims that the GM is a “player” as well, but a player of a totally different game, and one that doesn’t look that much like a game at first blush: the players are playing FuMa, while the GM is playing RPG Maker 2.

    • I can’t find it right now, but Angry has said in earlier articles that the GM is a player, but defined it in much the same way you did: that they’re playing a different game.

      I think because of that, i’s easy to NOT call them a player and think of them as part f the game’s engine; you can’t sit four players down at a table and begin with no GM.

    • I believe Angry’s previous position was something on the lines of the DM being a player whose character is the whole world. I’m not willing to split the Cult of Angry over this evolution.

      • The problem is I like Mark Rosewater’s assertion that the difference between a toy and a game is a goal within the framework of the activity. In fact, I believed it so strongly that I wrote about it before I heard him say it (Winning D&D). And, here’s the deal: the GM doesn’t have a accomplishable goal. The GM isn’t ever done. The GM doesn’t win. And no, FUN =/= GOAL and FUN =/= WIN. Games have win-states contained within the game: save the princess, solve the murder, bankrupt the other players, get to the finish line, whatever. Games are fun to play, but they have measureable goals.

        Thus, to remain consistent, I have to accept that the players are playing a game, the GM is playing with a toy.

        • Exactly – for the GM to be a player they must have a “Win” condition – and there just isn’t one. Would we call the referee on the field a player? Of course not. And yet the referee is on the field participating in the match. But they’re not playing.

        • I’m afraid this might devolve into a semantic discussion of the meaning of the word “Win.”

          If you define “win” as an in-game objective, “overcome the obstacles,” “do better than the opponent,” or whatever, then yes, GM’s don’t win, because there is no “win condition” defined in this manner.

          However, I’d like to counter that the GM does have win conditions. Granted, they aren’t as clearly defined and outlined, but they are nevertheless present.

          1. Do the players want to continue playing? If the players want to continue the game after a session – i.e., they show up to the next session, one might say the GM accomplished a “win condition.”

          2. Did all participants have fun during the session? Perhaps in a convention setting, where there is no “next session,” were the players sufficiently entertained, that they felt they got their money’s worth and was their time well spent?

          3. Did you, as the GM, succeed in presenting the story elements you wanted to present, in the manner you wanted to present them? Especially for on-going stories, but even true for one-off sessions, you, as the GM, might have had some story that you wanted to get to in the game. One might consider this a “win condition.”

          4, Did my monster horde defeat the heroes? That’s not a win condition, nor is it even a good measure of accomplishment. Sure, players might consider defeating the horde part of their win condition, but as GM, your job is to make it a challenge, not a cakewalk or a hopeless cause. If you succeeded in creating a decent, relevant challenge, one might describe this a “win condition.”

          These are all “meta-game” level conditions. But they are still conditions and they can be judged as such.

          Robert brings up the sports metaphor. I have been involved in hockey in multiple levels – as a player, an on-ice official, an off-ice official, and as a coach. In each role, there are win conditions, however some are less obvious than others.

          As a player: Obviously, I want to win the game. But even beyond that, I want to play my best, which may include scoring goals, getting assists, or staying out of the penalty box. (I suppose there are those who want to get into the penalty box!)

          As an on-ice official: Wearing the stripes means I want the game to be as fair as possible for the players. I have to make sure the game is played within the rules and be ready, able, and confident when I have to enforce the rules. The other officials and I are considered a “team,” and we share these goals. We “win” when the coaches and players of both teams tell us, after the game, “Good game, ref!”

          As a commissioner: Like the on-ice officials, I have to create a fair and equitable environment for all the teams in the league. The “win” for this position has to do with the completion of a successful season, on budget, and free of controversy.

          As a coach: For most levels, it’s about winning games. However, I coached house-league youth teams where winning wasn’t the focus. Winning games is nice, but I gauged my success on seeing the kids develop their skills and gain game knowledge, and the “win” for me was seeing the children come back the next season, and/or move up to higher level leagues.

          When you define “win condition” to only include the activity within the constraints of the game, not only are you severely limiting the conversation, but you exclude many participants from consideration. We are all motivated to participate at different levels for many different reasons. By nature, we (as humans) tend to be somewhat competitive, so saying that there is no win condition for certain participants, I think, is disingenuous.

          • At the risk of extending this discussion longer than it probably should, I would point out that the GM has no “in-game” win condition, only “meta-game” win conditions, effectively personal goals they may accomplish whilst running the game.

            As such, they cannot win the game itself.

            Even if you consider the GM to be simply playing a different game than the Players, the GM cannot win the game itself, they can only win the different game.

          • This is not a semantic difference.

            Truly imagine that the DM is a CPU running the D&D simulation. That’s the set-up.

            “1. Do the players want to continue playing?” – this is a completely different question. Does the player keep playing Super Mario Brothers is a different quesiton than did the player beat Super Mario brothers.

            “2. Did all participants have fun during the session?” Again, different question. Is Super Mario Brothers fun is a different question than did you beat Super Mario Brothers.

            “3. Did you, as the GM, succeed in presenting the story elements you wanted to present, in the manner you wanted to present them?” Yet again, a different question. Does super Mario brothers have a good user interface is not the same question as did you beat Super Mario Brothers.

            “4, Did my monster horde defeat the heroes?” This is just the same quesiton asked in the negative: did you fail to beat Super Mario Brothers?

            All of these have measureable outcomes, as you say, but they have nothing to do with the point.

            I am also a coach (soccer/rugby/wrestling). I think you’ve gotten that part wrong as well.

            If a player wants to play their best, then the queston is “did you play your best?” This is a different question than “did you win?” The objective of the game is to win.

            Officials can’t win. They can call a good or bad game, but that is not winning or losing.

            Commissioners can profit. They can’t win.

            “However, I coached house-league youth teams where winning wasn’t the focus.” – I’m sorry, but you’re wrong here. The objective of every game is to win. The difference between house and rep is how much emphasis you are willing to place on winning. Changing your emphasis doesn’t change the objective, it just changes how much you care (relatively) about it. For example, I coach house soccer, and the fact that I care more about being fair to the players on my team than I do about winning the game does not mean that the objective of the game has changed. I just place less importance on it. It’s still the primary purpose of the game.

            “Winning games is nice, but I gauged my success on seeing the kids develop their skills and gain game knowledge, and the “win” for me was seeing the children come back the next season, and/or move up to higher level leagues.”

            This is just saying that there are bigger, more important things than winning. This doesn’t change the fact that winning the game is the objective of the particular game.

            “When you define “win condition” to only include the activity within the constraints of the game, not only are you severely limiting the conversation, but you exclude many participants from consideration.”

            You’re wrong, here. The limits are already there. A game is already constrained to the particulars of the game. Only the teams can win (the refs and the commissioner cannot). Nobody is placing the limits there. It’s where they are.

            “We are all motivated to participate at different levels for many different reasons. By nature, we (as humans) tend to be somewhat competitive, so saying that there is no win condition for certain participants, I think, is disingenuous.”

            This is nonsense. The next time someone asks you who won the Red Wings’ game, tell them the ref did. Nobody could honestly say that, because we all know it’s B.S.

  10. If only one article was to be read on your blog that would be the one.

    However I feel like I’ve just watched one of these anime episodes where they sum up all that’s been going on since the start of the story arc and don’t bring anything new.
    I understand that it helps you fix things for you and also for late catchers, it’s also a good base to start a new chapter. But still, whenever I start to read one of your articles I expect to have some new things I’d like to try or some new inspiration by the end of the article. But it didn’t happen this time so I can’t help feeling disappointed…

    • How can you be disappointed?

      this single article brings together all of his previous articles (well, most) into one dense information dump. Unless you already took a million notes, and organized them in a way that makes more sense to you than this article does, there’s no way you can’t derive some value from this. The refresher is worth gold alone.

      • That’s because I run my games my own wrong way: not everything in there is relevant to me and the parts that are relevant are still fresh in my mind. Hence, disappointment.

        Call me a divergent opinion, it doesn’t mean that I’ll stop reading the blog, it means that if I keep not getting new stuff I’ll go elsewhere to see if I find some. Just like players on MMORPGs. So ok you did your auto-join tool for dungeons, it’s handy when people want to make a party or for new players who want to do old dungeons but since I’m in a guild I don’t care, so now please bring me new content.

  11. This article is what every single dungeon master section is missing. I’ve paid money for products that have given me far less.

    Now if ONLY you had the secret recipe for concentrated dark matter… then I’d be so happy.

      • You take a quarter pound of reasons
        And a half a pound of sense
        A small sprig of time
        And as much of prudence

        Oh sorry. Wrong recipe. 😉

    • I was just re-reading FFG’s Edge of the Empire Core Rulebook and while it’s not as general as this it’s 1000x better than WotC’s PHB & DMG in explaining the roles and objectives of play.

  12. Very clear and useful information.

    Angry, i´d like to translate some of your content to spanish (argentinian slang indeed). Is for personal use, and share it with friends. I will not share it in any media without your permission. In spanish. In my language, there is no advice for gamemastering at all. Can i do that?

  13. “Administrating the Game

    The second is the administrative hat. When administrating the game, the GM handles the organizational and social aspects of the game. The GM essentially functions as the president of a club or the coach of a sports team in this role. The GM must deal with interpersonal problems, disruptions of the game, and other social issues. This is something that every GM ends up doing at some point, even if they have players to help with things like scheduling.”

    I have problems with this attitude and a lot of GMs out there would say that no interpersonal problems are not your job to deal with nor is the social aspects or even organizing.

    This can create burnout, people feeling inside that there is a problem but since the GM doesn’t sort it out they feel it won’t get solved and quits, it makes the GM feel they have more pressure then they probably should. Also the GM might not be the best person to deal with a lot of these thing, if the players don’t also schedule themselves you have no game, if the players don’t control and expect the social order to be a certain way you will get problems.

    • Tough s$&%. You want to be the leader of a group of people, this is part and parcel of it. Either you deal with this crap when it happens – PROPERLY, OUTSIDE OF THE GAME – or you watch it trash your game. And yes, I realize that other people have to AGREE to a schedule, but someone has to be willing to SET the schedule. And whenever there is a social group, the buck has to stop with someone.

      Yes, everyone has a responsibility to the game, but the GM has the AUTHORITY and the DUTY. That’s part of GMing. And trying to whine that it shouldn’t be is just another “GMing is too hard, why do I have to do all of this…” whine. If you’re not ready to deal with it, you shouldn’t – YOU CAN’T – be a GM.

      For more information, see this: The Third Lesson: Costly Opportunities and Harsh Realities

      • While I agree that the role of the GM as Angry describes it, I believe it is possible (although not always desirable or optimal) to split off/share certain gm duties to/with another person. I know I have done it once in the past:

        I was running a game as part of a larger club, and as the second gm of a game group. The president of the club and the first gm of that group were both players in my game. When another player was causing problems, they went to those people first (which I wasn’t super thrilled about for the whole DUTY/AUTHORITY issue). In any case, the club president, primary gm, myself, and the problem player had a meeting (resulting in removing the problem player). But the primary authority in that meeting was not me.

        That being said, I suppose it could be framed as the club president (and to a lesser extent the primary gm of the other game with this group) had the same DUTY that I did, but their AUTHORITY was over me, rather than over my game, and they used that AUTHORITY to get me to use my AUTHORITY over the game.

        The end all of that is that I think it is possible to potentially split off different gm duties, or at the least have multiple people contribute towards the duties of the gm, some of whom may be players, by splitting gm the gm role by task type. I still think that is inefficient and potentially a cause of massive problems (if any one person slacks on their part of the gm role, the whole gm group fails, so the game fails) and also some logistical issues. At a bare minimum, all members of the gm team would have to be able to work together very closely.

        Anyways, thoughts?

        • Teetengee, even in that case where there’s a club and rules, it is still *ultimately* your responsabilty on the table. I mean, in that case the president ruled in the same you would’ve ruled, therefore you accepted it. But what would’ve happened if they came to another decision? Would you have still run the game and keep going all the same considering that other players(or maybe even you) had a problem with that player just because the club president said you have to keep him/her? That would’ve created a shit of a game. So even if the president sort of stepped up, it was still on you to accept his decision. Or run a crappy game until no one wants to play anymore.

          I mean, sure, RPGs are a team effort and dealing with a problem player should be discussed as a group, but in the end it always fall on to the GM to make a decision. The administrative hat might not be desirable for the GM, but the reality is, in 99% of the cases, it will be on you. Even if other players step in, they only do so because you allow it.

          • @Charlie,

            Yeah, that seems reasonable. Just to further clarify, in my situation, I was ambivalent about keeping the player at the time (see no one coming to talk to me about the issues they were having with the player), and the pres/primary gm were the ones pushing for it. My main point was just that it is in fact possible for the gm to allow players or other individuals to step in. Just because it is the GM’s responsibility doesn’t mean they can’t delegate (carefully).

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