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The Game Master’s Balancing Act

A bit of an intro for the uninitiated. In role-playing games, the Dungeon Master (DM) as it’s known in Dungeons & Dragons, or Game Master (GM) as it’s known in other games, has control over the non-player characters (NPCs): the monsters, traps, treasure and, ultimately, the story itself. Ironically, even with all their power, the GM is at the behest of the players. You want them to feel like they’re in control of their character and can influence the world.

At its core, a role-playing game is interactive storytelling with rules. Games need to be interactive. As a GM, you want to create a story that maintains interest for yourself and the players. This could be a loose story to get the characters from one fight to the next or it could be a deep, complex narrative that requires planning and precision. But that’s not the GM’s decision to make by themselves. That’s the rub. The one thing the GM can’t totally control—the story—is the one thing that most sways how the game is played.

You’ll want to know the tone and style of the game you’re about to GM. The session before you start the story is called Session Zero, where you ask your players what kind of game they want to play. You might want to play a game with spies sneaking around and intriguing espionage, but that means nothing if your players’ first reaction to adversity is to fight it loud and proud. Neither of these styles is wrong, but they must match up.

Once you settle on a style, you must be mindful of the narrative. You control what the terrain is like, the NPCs and their motivations, but you don’t control what the players do or where they go. And when you do control what the players do or where they go it’s called railroading. Railroading leads to conflict. Conflict leads to spilled soda and Bob not showing up to next week’s session. Even if you have a beautifully crafted narrative, forcing a player to interact with it is like holding someone’s face in front of a painting at a museum when they’d rather head into the ancient weapons section.

If your players do decide to follow your narrative, carry on. But if they don’t, you have a few different options. You could simply move the beginning of your story to wherever they’ve wandered off. Be careful, though. This can break their sense of control if they discover that no matter the direction they go the same results will occur. However, they don’t know what’s on your notes. Try and make it seem like it was their idea all along.

Another option is to make the world move on without them. In books and movies events will wait for the main characters. In your world they don’t have to. Let’s say the players decide they’re going to save the prince or princess but then spend the entire session talking to a random throwaway NPC you put on the road to make the world more immersive. Well, just maybe that prince or princess gets killed, thus starting a war that the players are partially responsible for. This lets you maintain your narrative while letting the players know that there are consequences for their actions.

“Game Master” may have master in the name, but good games are a balance of power between the players and the GM. Work that balance. As you develop your skills as a GM, you’ll end up with games that head in surprising directions but are still a blast for both the players and you.

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