The role of the GM, when learning to run games: how much responsibility?

A fellow user here - @coelicidium - recently posted about starting a game of the Pool. Here’s a link (you should check it out - maybe you want to play): Let's Play The Pool---Towards the Night

As a result, we got into a bit of a discussion, and Syd posed a very interesting question. I’d like to turn that question over to the community, see what people think.

Basically, it’s this:

In the thread (linked above), I mentioned that one intriguing possibility is for the first-time GM to have a co-GM (who could play various different roles in the game), and volunteered some ideas about that. Another poster, Matt, said that the GM should also be aware and prepared for the burden for scheduling and facilitating, reminders, setting up a call, and so forth. This is also true.

So the questions, then, are:

  • How much responsibility does a GM have, when it comes to running a game? Is the GM expected to do everything?

  • Is it a good idea or a bad idea for a new GM to do so with “training wheels” on? (With assistance or guidance, that is, rather than doing everything yourself.)

Traditionally, GMs a) take the initiative to get a game going at all, b) do the planning, send the emails or messages, pick dates, reminders, and so on, c) host the game (whether in a physical space or by doing the logistics to set up a video call, host documents and notes, etc), d) learn and master the rules of the game, e) facilitate and guide the players through the process (e.g. explaining character creation, showing people how to make an account on Roll20, explaining how a spell works, etc), f) “run” the session itself from a social angle (welcoming everyone, asking for feedback, checking in on people), g) prepare the content for play - adventures, NPCs, a setting, etc, and h) “run” the session in terms of fulfilling their role as the GM (framing scenes, playing NPCs, adjudicating rules and outcomes).

(Probably other things I’m leaving out, too.)

I’d like to make the - hopefully not radical - suggestion that you don’t have to do all those things at once. (Of course, if it’s your initiative to get a game started, most of this or all of it will fall to you, but don’t just assume that this is how it always has to be. Most of the games I’m running these days, for example, have other participants doing the planning, or the hosting, or the maintenance of notes. And in some styles of play - especially OSR games, for instance - there are aids in place like prepared adventure modules. As a final example, I’ve actually run some games which took place a) at someone else’s house, who planned the sessions, invited everyone, and brought food, and b) without knowing the rules to the game - I would simply ask knowledgeable players at the table how certain things would be played out rules-wise, though I was the GM, and they would tell me what dice to roll or whatever else needed to happen. There are many possibilities, and ways this can work!)

What’s your take (dear reader)?

However, Syd’s second question is also interesting: is there an advantage to jumping in with no “training wheels”? Or is it better to learn one part of all this at a time? Or something in the middle?

I like the idea of trying out and mastering some of these skills on their own, individually. Why not have a host and a facilitator and a note-taker, or someone who will play all the NPCs in the game for you? Master one piece of the pie at a time.

Of course, the downside is sometimes that this isn’t practically possible. We don’t all have friends around ready to volunteer for such tasks. However, it’s also my experience that simply explaining that you’d like some help to reasonable human people generally works - after all, they understand the challenges and more than anything they want to play too. So it’s worth asking!

Does anyone else have thoughts, opinions on this, or experiences to share?

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Some other examples:

In my ongoing online game, another player takes care of scheduling and takes notes on everything that happens in play, then reviews those notes (reads them out loud) at the beginning of each session, as an introduction to the group. Very helpful!

I’ve enjoyed helping do “prep” for friends of mine running games in the past. They call me up, I help them prepare some material, then they go off to play. It’s actually quite a bit of fun - then I get to hear afterwards how things went.

For old-school D&D-style play, I’ve also considered (but never actually tried) a format where GMs/referees each prepare adventure modules for each other, so they’re each running someone else’s material at their table, making the role difference between adventure designer and referee even more clear, and creating more emergent surprises in play.

A thumbnail:


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Really good topic. I’ve been thinking about this myself a lot. I have (in the past) run a local GM’s Conference, typically aimed at established GMs, and one topic we always raise is “how can we help people who want to try being a GM but are facing obstacles on their own”.

There’s a certain shared experience among conference attendees that was very common. Either we were of the personality type to “just try it”, or we came up in The 1980s In America Outside Of A Few Huge Cities, an environment where “being a good GM” just wasn’t an expectation because you could only collect a motley and varied collection of D&D books, had to hide them at the house of one or two players, and were absolutely not connected in any way to convention play or older players because a significant number of parents firmly believed (and still do) that it was Satanic. Nobody really knew what they were doing, and there was no means of finding out. There’s a personality type that doesn’t care about this and just jumps in. But many don’t have that personality type. Or they feel (often correctly) that leisure time is limited and contributing to a bad time is not respectful to their friends.

This led to us discussing what, specifically, the obstacles are, and what can be done to help people get over them. There are things to be done as a community (unfortunately we are all very busy and our available bandwidth for organizing these efforts is limited), but there are certain things we overlapped with the questions in this post.

  • In practice, in my region, today, yes, it is absolutely expected for a GM to “do it all”, including out-of-character organizing of location, time, and food and drink. (We have no public transportation to speak of here so players do have to physically get themselves to the game without the GM’s help but that’s about it.) There’s not even an expectation that a player will have ready access to the game texts. Often times the GM is the only one with a physical book and, empirically, only around half of players will have access to a digital copy. This is a huge obstacle that we are trying to address in our own circles. Even just someone whose job it is to take on the logistics of location and time, or snacks, or game text distribution and direction (“we’re gonna be in a big fight this time so be sure to skim the combat rules on page 92 before you come!”) can take some of the burden off a GM. To an experienced person this may seem small, but every straw comes closer to breaking the camel’s back.

  • Is it good or bad to use “training wheels” for some things? This is one that’s more of a struggle. In games where the GM is the creative director of play (and there are plenty of “non-traditional” RPGs where this is still true), you kind of can’t learn to do it without doing it. You can work on a film set to see what a director does, but actually being a film director is a combination of personality, goals, and priority, all personal and internal. Getting feedback and encouragement from experienced people (criticism, essentially) helps someone improve along with experience but the actual creative-director position really has to be practiced to be improved. All the other elements of GM management might be able to be offloaded temporarily or permanently, but not that one.

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Great post, Jason.

I agree with all of that, and also lived (a bit of) the whole “hide your game books, don’t tell the parents!” era.

To clarify about ‘training wheels’, in theory I think a new GM could engage in various aspects of GMing one by one, and learn step by step. Of course, you’d need the social connections to actually be able to pull that off.

But, in theory, you could:

  • Have a friend organize the logistics. (“I’d like to run a game, but it’s a lot to worry about at once. Can you set up a time and place for us next week?”)
  • Reach out to an experienced GM to help you prep for the game (whether it’s reviewing rules or reading a module or preparing NPCs or whatever)
  • Ask someone in the group to help look up rules and resolve situations in play, so they have that responsibility rather than you
  • Have a co-GM beside you to play all the NPCs at the first session, then take over scene framing and let you play the NPCs the next session (or whatever order makes most sense)

I’m not necessarily saying all this would happen at once, but you could do some combination of things like these as you learn.

I love the note on a player who reminds the group to “review page 92 for next week, guys!”, that’s a fantastic example of something great that rarely happens.

I also realize this thread has a “danger” of turning into “stuff good players should do” instead of “here’s advice for a new GM”, but I think that’s not necessarily the worst thing ever :wink:

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One Person Can’t Do It All

So, there’s an interesting post on Adept Play where Ron addressed the issue of the various GM tasks, in addition to authorities. He has strong views on the issue—which I share—and I think it deserves his treatment.

The quote I’d like to extract here is this.

What’s not viable is presuming that a person who holds responsibility or takes point for any one of them is also necessarily so for any of the others. What’s worse than non-viable, even outright abominable, is expecting all of them to go onto one person’s shoulders by default, with any other arrangement requiring cognitive and social effort. It is this abomination which is connoted and intended by the definite article, the game master (GM).

And I agree. A single person can’t do all of these things. At some point it becomes socially toxic.

This is not even considering the context of giver–receiver dynamics, or the GM being seen as Quality Assurance of fun—I think @LordPersi coined this expression?—which are going to add even more expectations.

Creative Tasks vs. Social Organising

It’s important in my opinion to distinguish between the social organising part of play and the creative tasks.

I think for the social organising tasks, the distribution will and can vary group by group. The important thing is not to throw everything onto a single person, or at least, if they do, that they do it willingly and not because there’s some sort of underlying assumption.

For the creative tasks (authorities + creative input for others), the individual distribution of authorities in play may be different game by game, or even group by group—realisations of a single game often have differences depending on the play practices of the group. It’s important to ackowledge it. It’s an asymmetrical role, but it doesn’t always have to involve the same functions every time.

I have a few more things to say, which will answer @Paul_T and @JDCorley’s good posts. But for now, I shall take my leave!

And great thread, Paul.

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A very valid point, and a common issue. I think, if anything, this is the worst part of typical gamer expectations. That’s harder than the other things; I’d advise new players/groups/GMs to nip that in the bud before it becomes a problem (from the start).

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I find it helpful to look at our hobby as you would any other social endeavor. Because it is like any other social endeavor.

If I invite you over for a dinner party, you should expect that I am handling the organization of the dinner party. Unless I ask you to bring food to share, you should assume that I am providing the food. You might bring a bottle of wine as a courtesy, but you know it’s not expected. If I say that you can bring a date, you know it’s not up to me to find you a date. If I tell you that it is a formal dinner, you should know you are expected to dress appropriately. When you show up, I fully expect you to act like a courteous guest, just as you fully expect me to be a gracious host.

The responsibilities of a GM are whatever is outlined in the text: preparing a scenario, writing up NPCs, whatever. An implied responsibility (that is often explicit in texts) is that the GM has mastered the system enough to run the game smoothly and guide players through at least the fundamentals of play.

Whether the GM has the duties of a host — like the dinner party example — depends. Did they pitch the idea of playing this particular game? Are they inviting the players over to their home (or other space they control)?

If the answers to these questions are “no,” then it doesn’t seem to me like it would be their responsibility.

If the answers are “yes,” then I would tend to assume they are responsible in some way… but it depends on the people involved. E.g., If the group has a regular schedule and always meet at Sophia’s house, then I would assume that hosting is Sophia’s job, whether she is GM or not.

As for the training wheels question, I think one can only learn by doing. But, assuming the other people in the group aren’t monsters, I’d hope they would offer any help they could. (Just like offering to help clean up or serve at a dinner party.)

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Agreeing with you, I suggest those two possibles situations.

  1. A game where the gm is not the personne who knows the rules best and is not teaching the rules. Relying on the group as a whole of more informed player to clarify procedures.

  2. A game where the gm is not the personne knowing the setting best, for a rich setting like, for instance, Glorantha. But Relying on another player or the griuptas whole.

If the gm’s role is, for instance:

  • to prepare a situation (which is not “world building”), typical example is, a dungeon.
  • to play the npcs.

Well he doesn’t need to be the setting expert for instance. He can asks inputs to player during the game, like while framing a scene “I think it would happen in the temple of a minor aspect of a main god, would you describe us a god that would fit and how the temple looks like ?”

Also, if we check the prep document that @froggyc showed us for a game of the pool, which is straightforwardly coming from Ron’s course" playing with the pool" at, well the starting document doesn’t have to be written by the gm. Like sorcerer’s one sheet, a player could write the main evocative aspect of the setting and basic situation then give it to whoever will prep the situation and play the npc. The Siege of Enrilise could have been written by a player, given to the gm, and the gm could easily fine tune the prep from that source and the player characters, texts.

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Someone Else Makes Up The Prep

The Siege of Enrilise has, in fact, not been written by me, but by @LordPersi, with only minor modifications on my part—mostly doing my usual thing with names and making the secondary world more verosimile by mapping it to real-world sociolinguistics. And he has in fact played in the scenario with me as a GM—we have also played it the other way around.

This is also the suggestion I give in Froggy’s The Pool.

Getting Setting Input

We’re doing the same thing in my Fantasy World game with @LordPersi and @Byakko. We’re playing in an East Asian fantasy setting and one of the players is a Japanologist and generally knowledgeable about East Asian cultures. I play as the World (the GM-like role) and often ask for his input on questions of setting.

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I have run Savage worlds after only having played a one-shot of it some years before, and I have taken a game of Hood from the game master, never having read or played it before. Or maybe read? In any case, my knowledge of the rules was quite cursory.

But in both cases I had a fair deal of experience game mastering, and these both games belonged to the loose category of traditional games (that is, they can be understood from a background of having played other games often seen as traditional; this would not have been true for a more experimental game) and I had experience to apply.

This might not be a particularly easy road for a beginner, many of whom would like to have the self-confidence that comes from knowing what they are doing. Of course, a designated co-GM or other responsibility structure could help, but I doubt an ad hoc «Just come and lead the game, we will take of the rules» tends to reduce stress and lower the threshold, for many people.

I do in general agree with the goal of de-centralizing GM duties, but I tend to think more in terms of empowering and committing the participants to the shared activity. That this off-loads the GM is a side effect, not the goal as such; the goal is active and independent practitioners of roleplaying.

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Just my two cents, how I view my responsibilities depends on how badly I wanna get this game to play at the table. My subjective opinion is that it’s an immutable truth that if you want someone to help push your car, you need to be out there pushing it yourself. So it falls on the most interested of the lot to do all the labor.

If I am dead set on it, I’ll probably have to carry the group’s scheduling, rules, handouts, and all that. I probably really wanna play the game badly and I’ll do the extra labor to make it come to fruition.

If I’m only distantly interested, I’d prefer to read the rules as a player but spend my time looking for a campaign of it.

Perfect examples of what I mean:

Desperate to run it: Forbidden Lands. I picked it as my last west marches project and just got to drink deeply from its cups and run it ragged doing a one man army approach of GMing, handling the schedules, the retrospectives, updating calendars and faction turns, summaries in and out of game, etc. I did it all because I just loved that game and originally wanted to love that game.

Similarly so, I was desperate to love classic traveller. I made up my setting, The Gemini Trail, and did the rules and scheduling and all, but after only a handful of games I was like “yikes no let’s switch to something like Scum and Villainy but keep this game’s trappings.”

Now I’m looking at Classic Traveller again like “what if I tried you again? I really wanna love you.” but this time instead of moving heaven and earth to do all that mis-en-place for gaming, I’m just hoping a CT group will come along looking for a +1 and it fits my schedule.

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A couple years ago, my wife was interested in the game Bunnies and Burrows. But neither of us really wanted to do all the study and social work of being “the GM”. What we ended up doing was:

  • I read the rules of the game, figured out how it worked, made note of where the important tables were, etc.

  • My wife created a hex map for the game, by following the hex stocking procedures in the book.

  • Her brother went through the character creation and made a party of rabbits to play in the game.

Then when we played, we kept the same roles:

  • My wife described the world, and narrated what happened.

  • Her brother played all the PCs, deciding what they did and giving them each a (fairly minimal) personality.

  • I just sat there with the rulebook looking up rules and saying what dice to roll to resolve things. Sometimes I gave suggestions to the other two players.

We never played any more than the one time, but it was a fun, low-investment way to spend a few hours and I felt like we got to know the game pretty well in the process.

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I personally like to say that a person hosts a game rather than runs it, as I feel that TTRPGs can have many different roles that have you play some fundamental part in them. In traditional RPGs, often there’s a role generically called “the GM” and that person “runs” things, but in many other RPGs everyone kind of plays some part of the traditional GM role. Also, there’s a specific traditional function of the GM as the gatekeeper to the fiction, nothing actually happens in the fiction unless that person says so. This filter is often simply removed from more modern games, anyone has some direct access to the fiction. Therefore, I feel that skipping the word “runs” helps me think of TTRPGs as a broader variety of games.

However, I also think that ultimately every tabletop game has at least one host. For practical reasons, there’s always some gravitational pull towards one person who is making the thing happen. Several people can wear that hat for different responsibilities, but usually there’s a fallback person who’s there to catch everything. What happens when you ask folks to read that combat sheet before the next session and they don’t? Often the session still happens and the host bears the brunt of making the game work for everyone.

I can see how that main host doesn’t have to be the GM, especially in better games where the GM is a player too and the rules are transparent and not something that needs to be constantly adjudicated. But we should consider the good ol’ Czegue principle that states how it isn’t fun for a single player to control both a character’s adversity and the resolution of that adversity. So eventually the GM has to GM as specified by that particular game and have the final word, no matter what the main host may be advising.

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