I hear a lot of talk that Game Master’s are supposed to be impartial. The image of a judge comes to mind. Someone who sits above personalities and who has no motivation on any side of an issue, no personal stake. The GM’s role, many would say, is to serve the rules, the system. If he’s serving anything else, there is no neutral arbitrator. Resolutions become unfair.
I don’t subscribe to this school of thought. I think the GM should have a stake at the table, owing his allegiance to the fun. Certainly the priority should be to the fun of the players, but I think it’s valid and even desirable that the GM be watchful for his or her own fun.
Of course, that’s my two cents. I asked The Game Master Brain Trust their thoughts on the subject.
At Fear the Con 2, Mikel Matthews ran me in a couple of games. When I asked him, he said, “Being completely impartial is as boring to the players as it is the GM.”
“The GM is as much a part of the group as anyone else,” Said The Podge Cast’s Luke Meyer. “It’s not only a bad thing if he’s not having fun, it likely means the game is going to be short-lived.”
I listen to my friend John talk about the games he runs and I wish he didn’t live in another state so I could play, too. “This type of GM style was the original.” He observed, “It came from back in the days when RPGs were still very near to the wargames that spawned them.”
The internet’s Andrew Webb agrees, “I believe this ideal of the Dungeon Master as an impartial judge grew out of the early days of D&D which tended to feature a much more adversarial relationship between the DM and players. If you read Knights of the Dinner Table you can see this type of relationship parodied between the DMs (BA, Nitro, Earl, etc) and their respective groups.”
“The goal was simulation above all else,” John clarified, adding, “I abandoned this style somewhere between the time that I grew a mullet and grunge was just getting popular.”
My buddy Josh believes that a GM should strive for impartiality among players. “A GM,” He offered, “Who plays favorites or routinely singles out a particular player for punishment is probably doing it wrong. The GM is not, however, required to be an impartial arbitrator between the players and the rules.”
“The GM isn’t impartial when they’re coming up with the adventure,” Mikel explained. “They have an idea and one they outline… so that the players are challenged and have fun. We don’t expect them to be impartial at that point, why should we expect them to be impartial during play?”
He went on to suggest that, “Left 4 Dead works because the Director is out to get you. It gives you time to rest and throws mobs at you if you’re moving too slow. It motivates the players to keep moving.”
“Maintaining impartiality regarding the rules implies that there is some standard, One True Way of applying the game rules.” Josh described, “When the rules for a given situation are clear, administering them is easy; but the rules of all roleplaying systems are imperfect, and so the GM must act as more than a simple administrator of the rules. A GM must occasionally make judgment calls, interpreting the spirit of the rules and filling in the inevitable gaps in any system. And the first question a GM should answer when making a judgment call is whether or not a given solution makes the game more or less fun for everyone.
“A good GM,” John shared, “Needs to look not for the opportunity to get the rules right, but to leap on the chance to make a cool story. It’s a fine balance between focusing on the story and railroading, but it can be done. If hand-waving or fudging die rolls result in the story progressing in a way that everyone enjoys, I say go for it. I’d also say do it sparingly, but do it. Too much, and there’s really not a lot of need to have anyone but the GM at the table.”
“GMs need to keep things running smoothly,” Luke cautioned, “And adjudicate quickly and fairly so that the rules don’t bog down play.”
I recall in one of The Podge Cast’s Kingdom: The Next Generation campaign recaps, Luke shared his effort to goad a player into taking a less-than-wise action. I remember laughing at that, thinking that we GMs don’t always have to the better angels of the player’s nature. Sometimes, it can kick the fun in the ass for the GM to be the voice of the guy with the pitchfork.
We all have that voice in our head like Larry’s Evil Conscience in Animal House that tells us to do things we ought not do. Many players are reluctant to let that voice have a say at the table, while turning up the volume on their wiser counselor. Is it not then the GM’s responsibility to advocate on behalf of little guy on the player’s shoulder giving bad advice?
The Game Master Brain Trust seems to think so.
“The fun of the table always trumps the rules,” Dr Meyer said.
“Screw impartialness. If I want impartial,” Mikel suggested, “I’ll play a computer game where everything is already laid out for me. We’re creating a story together here, let’s do our best to make it interesting.”
“Story, story, story!” John declared. “Not rules, rules, rules! Imagine your players packing up after the game. Would you rather hear them say, Man, that was a great story! or Man, that was a knowledgeable and impartial adjudication of the rules! I think we all know the right answer.”
Yeah. I think we do.
Or as Josh said, “When in doubt, the GM should err on the side of fun.”
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