The Pathology of Gamemastering

Let me start by saying, I love to gamemaster. I am good at it. I make sure everyone is involved and the pace is tight. If the game slows it’s because the players need time to think things through. But let me assure you, the pathology of Reliant Focus Play is rooted in some archaic and often lazy play styles. Video games have only made this condition worse.

When I say Reliant Focus Play, I am talking about the style of play where players await the gamemaster’s response to how well/poorly they succeed/fail. While this system made sense 30 years ago, roleplaying has grown up and we are all creative enough to figure out what a 16 means on a bribery check.

“Uh. Looks like he’s considering it. Uh. A few more coppers should do it.”

“Whew. Thank god you were here.”

People fixated on rules often develop this taste from too many encounters with (what they consider) cruel or arbitrary gamemasters. And while I can’t speak to all the anecdotal evidence of bad GMs, I will say that gamemastering is an art and no system will protect you from someone who is bad at “art.”

The old school renaissance is all about getting back to basics, rolling dice, and having fun. And I can appreciate those sentiments, but what the movement is failing to formalize is that it isn’t that modern games are bad, but rather than modern games responded to a change in the culture that put “ME” ahead of “US.”

Let me explain.

Gygax’s early visions (you can read this in any of his essays and design documents) was that D&D was supposed to be a cooperative experience, where the gamemaster challenged the players with innovative dungeons and traps and encounters and so on. It was a group-think process and kind of hippy if you analyze it for too long. Ironically, the entire indie movement is based on these principles without ever reading Gygax’s missions statements.

But as more and more bad gamemasters fostered more and more bad play style the environment changed. For starters, computer came along and all the anti-social, cerebral types could now crunch numbers in the bedroom with the lights down… real… low. Another thing that happened was games started to get crunchier. Remember, 1st edition is not crunchy. Basic D&D is not crunchy. Champions, Rolemaster, Chivalry and Sorcery… these games were crunchy. And popular. D&D was losing ground to games that offered something else. And then 2nd edition came out and gave SCA and Ren-faire cadets something to enjoy and now all of a sudden the camps are split. And players who wanted to roll more dice, control their character’s fate, and one-up each other with their min-max skills had an outlet. Gamemasters running games for these groups had to be more science than art, keeping up with all the mathematical possibilities of the game.

[Vampire would do some damage too, but let’s focus on grandfather of roleplaying.]

In 2000 when 3rd Edition came out, it was already 10 years old. The concepts were stale from an industry stand-point, though progressive as all get out for D&D. Finally, D&D would play like Champions with points and kits and feats and all this cross-over buying. 3rd party products would make sure there were a near-infinite supply of options.

Now, all of a sudden the bad gamemasters are an enemy players can beat. The next 10 years we would see power-creep drive more and more “old school” players from the environment. Osric, C&C, and similar OSR games drew people away from the table and drove groups apart. The number of fantasy D&D camps that exist now is probably around a dozen. Where 3.0 was supposed to unite all gamers, the subsequent editions — 3.5, 3.75, 4.0 — would fracture the hobby in THREE each time (those who move forward, those who stand still, and those who leave completely). Even among the OSR crowd, the options of “what to play” are endless.

Yet still, the constant tone of the old guard is simple rules. Make it up. Just get in there and play.

And this brings me all the way round to the Reliant Focus Play model.

Gamemastering is a fading concept. People will hold onto it for years to come, but it’s a pointless, thankless task. If the GM can just “make it up,” why can’t the players? 3rd edition and it’s followers are essentially competitive games. 4th edition is so clearly a board game that the 4th edition board games outsell the roleplaying game. Gamemasters running incredible stories and campaigns in these roleplaying games are doing it in spite of the rules, not because “the rule system is so elegant, it let’s me do anything.” Hey. Buddy. It’s a book. Put it down and guess what? You CAN do anything. Rules illuminate gameplay for games like Ticket to Ride to  show you what can be done within the framework of the game, because those games need framework. You can’t attack the train with your +3 sword. Don’t ask. These games only require FAQ because people continually try to do things NOT in the rules. Roleplaying games succeed in the face of all of this.

FAQs are filled with questions about power combos and ways of exploited clearly defined “spirits of the rules” and never about “how do I make sure everyone is having a good time?” So long as we continue to argue about this system and that system as if it were the rules of the game that stopped us from reaching the fun, we’ll always have people in edition wars and arguments over how this game doesn’t have realistic wounds. Etc. When books stop being tools and consumers just pay for veneer, there’s no confusion as to why the hobby and industry run on two very distinct tracks.

With or without a gamemaster, unless everyone takes ownership of the fun, nothing is going to break the cycles of continued lethargy. Blaming the system for not being “fun” is like blaming CBS for David Caruso’s cheesy deliver.

Epilogue: The desire/need to gamemaster can be underscored by any number of pathologies. I love to tell stories, but I also love building sandboxes to build stories in. For some gamemasters, it’s about control and details; minutia to the Nth degree. The list goes on. I could fill a book with advice and structure for gamemasters (in fact I have). At the end of the day, this post is about a lack of a shared language in regards to what we want games to do. If we want them to be less rule-heavy, then we have to give control up to an arbitrator. And if we want them to have seven-page character sheets with a list of combat options that length of the table, then be prepared for something more akin to a board game.

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