Thursday, February 20, 2014

Do GMs need to be Gods or Martyrs?

I've noticed a trend on the web that makes me feel like burning out just reading it. Line after line about how the players are everything, that you are there to entertain and that your own enjoyment is last on the list of every one of your player's needs, and that running games (especially LARPs) need to be considered in a business model of the customer (i.e. player) is always right and that your every effort must be going toward your customer (i.e. player's) needs with your cast rolling in second and yourself last.

Umm, does anyone else see how unhealthy an attitude that is?

Apparently a couple decades ago the GM would treat themselves like a God. Heck, I've even had my players refer to me as 'God' and the 'All Powerful', which always makes me both amused and uncomfortable in equal measures. I know that around these parts its meant to be a compliment so I don't mind it but it's certainly not a perspective I want to encourage.

But on the same note, I'm not a businessperson. I'm not here solely for *your* entertainment. I am a real person with real feelings and desires who is not getting paid for a job that requires a lot of hours of effort and work. I don't like the idea of treating your players like they are entitled to all that blood, sweat and tears, and that you need to feel grateful that they rock up each week. If you treat them like that, they'll start to believe it and all hell will break loose.

And by hell, I mean burnout.

You see, GMs of various stripes are entertainers. They do feel driven to entertain others. They want to spin stories and/or set up encounters which provide a fascinating outpouring of creative energy but that also comes at a price of energy and time (and oftentimes tasks that the GM may loathe like book keeping or researching). The players aren't entitled to that energy. They rock up, sit down with their sheets, and start playing.

Of course, the players shouldn't donate their time and effort to a game that bores them or a GM who uses it as an ego-boosting exercise. The players don't have to put up with boredom, irritation or bullying. If they don't like the game (or the GM), they can and should leave and find something that better suits them.

But that still doesn't make them entitled to the GM's time and effort anymore than the GM is entitled to have players come to the table.

Rather than demanding gratitude and subservience on the side of the GMs or the players, why can't we instead look at it as a two-way street? Be grateful for the joys others bring into your life *and* be mindful of your own needs. If we could do that we would have a healthier attitude.

We'd have players in games they want to play and GMs mindful of the boundaries of their own role so that they don't make things unfun for the players. We'd have GMs running games that they want to run and players mindful of the many energy sucking bad habits they can avoid to ensure that the GM keeps rocking up session after session.

Even in a LARP, professionalism in conduct is a good thing and keeping a businesslike attitude will help when monitoring expenses but thinking like a matyr who isn't worthy of anything, as though you should be endlessly grateful to your players, just makes the hard work harder.

News Flash: Your players aren't paying *YOU*. They're kickstarting an event. Do they want that event to be a success? Yes. Do you take final responsibility for the responsible management of their funds toward an entertaining time? Yes. Do you also have to mind your authority and ensure you don't harm other people's fun in the pursuit of your own joy? Yes. Does this mean you must ignore everything *you* want to do and make the job about as unfun as possible in the pursuit of the ideal game?


So nudge someone else to manage rules for awhile and don that monster costume for a brief skirmish or have that epic NPC death scene if you want to. If that'll recharge your batteries then your players won't begrudge you for it. Players complain about spotlight theft not because the GM should never enjoy a moment in the sun but because it is so easy, so very easy, for the GM to set up events so that they take all the spotlight and all the credit.

With great power comes great responsibility ... but this is a game so go have some goddamn fun while you're at it!

Else the GM seat ends up empty and NO ONE wants that.


  1. I agree neither one is a healthy attitude, not least because most of the time you're gaming with friends and I don't think setting up that kind of dynamic is a good way to go about friendships.

    Seems to me GMing is much more like putting on a nice meal for your friends. The GM puts in a lot of work behind the scenes (which is mostly invisible) deciding who's a good combination, picking recipes, getting ingredients and trying out stuff, making arrangements and all that jazz. They also have a lot of responsibility on the day, getting the actual meal done while handling guests, keeping an eye on social dynamics, watching out for anyone who's not eating and maybe offering alternatives on the fly... sure, the guests have responsibilities too, and they get to wonder whether they'll like the food or conversation, but it's a big difference.

    Some people like putting on meals and others don't. There's no obligation on anyone to return the favour, and of course some people are way better placed to hold dinner parties than others. That being said, that keen chef doesn't have some kind of obligation to do dinners either. It's not unreasonable for them not to put on the kind of meals they don't enjoy cooking or eating, even if other people do. If the visitors don't seem to appreciate the food - maybe snacking beforehand, always toying with the food, complaining about it, audibly wishing it was something else - then the chef is perfectly justified in feeling aggrieved. At the same time, visitors aren't obliged to eat in hushed awe, devour every morsel while never giving any hint that more would be nice, and eat whatever's presented to them regardless of personal tastes or diet.

    GMing is a substantial commitment. Some people like the kind of stuff you tend to do as a GM more than others. Some people can't imagine themselves as GMs or are intimidated by it, so never GM, but might still be great to have around as players. And some people just can't put in as much time, energy or attention as others for personal reasons. But a good satisfying game needs everyone to share in the responsibilities, contribute what they can, and appreciate what the others bring to the table.

    1. Your dinner party metaphor is perfect, absolutely perfect. It best represents the kind of commitments and expectations one can put on one's players. It also creates metaphorical examples of how players can help, should it be mutually satisfactory. Some players will want to repay you by doing the dishes or hosting it at their home if they have a lovely big kitchen and table but no cooking skills or have all the ingredients (books, minis, etc.) but no cooking skills or might sometimes make the entree (co-ST in small bits), might serve the meal for you (technical staff) or even be the table host (cast member in a LARP) by keeping the conversation simmering while you're in the kitchen.

      While they're under no obligation to do so on an individual level, they may occasionally do so if the need is known and if the GM is a gracious 'cook'. Even if one person is putting in way more effort that another it's still a collaborative exercise. And let's face it, most GMs enjoy that effort so we can't pretend it's all a chore.