This took a few years to crystallise, but I came to the conclusion that I must reject the modern concepts of “Game Mastering” for any long or medium-term campaigns. Specifically, in no particular order:
I Reject Organising and Scheduling Games
On top of the session prep, I have stuff to organise in my life, that I’m already failing at, and this is supposed to be my fun night. You know who doesn’t have any responsibilities between sessions? That’s right - it’s the players.
I also believe this way plays into the player’s motivation better. Instead of being dragged away from some party due to the game night GM organised, you booked the GM and are now slightly more motivated to make the best use of that time.
I Reject Being Responsible for the Fun and Entertainment of Players
We’ve all seen the “actual plays” and I understand it. But I am not in the entertainment industry, and I have a day job. Doing a weekly standup/improve session is a huge stress for me. So, 3rd person narration it is, and that one drunken dwarf voice I do.
This one might sound grumpy, but I really enjoy having fun at the table. Stressing myself with “acting” and preparing it on top of everything else is one way to burn out.
I reject a singular responsibility of the GM as a fun-bringer. Ideally it should be a group responsibility. I had most fun when I run games where I was not responsible to bring one, and didn’t have that kind of social pressure that mainstream is spewing towards gamemasters nowadays.
Please bring your own fun. Same with snacks - if one person is a snack-bringer for years, one day instead of not bringing snacks, they will simply not show up.
I also prefer pro-active players that I don’t need to beat with a stick for them to engage, so this is a strong signal that it is on players to create fun, and I will follow suit.
It is important to note here that I do believe that GM/Referee is responsible for player wellbeing and that player wellbeing is more important than the game - just common sense as we have it in sports for example - the referee will stop the game if a player is signalling an injury.
The second important thing is if someone is playing as a means of therapy, I will not run for them. I’m sorry, but I am not licensed, and I already hurt many people while learning to do this.
I Reject Creating Stories and Plots
The game is at the table, not in my notebook. The fate is with the dice and with the players’ skill. I want to be the force behind the players, to follow along, react and guide, not to pull and push, not to conduct nor moralise.
I will create worlds and sandboxes, people and places, incidents and tensions, factions and gods, and whatever toy the sandbox needs.
The story though, is not mine to tell. I’m just here to referee, and sometimes to make things harder than they have any reason to be.
I Reject Theme Park Rides
A lot of the mainstream published material is crafted in such a way to challenge player characters (rarely players!) just enough so they experience the story ride from start to the finish. They are in essence an emulation of itself, an emulation of the “DnD experience”. GMs job in those boils down to guiding them along the road, one ride after another, making sure everyone is having a fun “DnD experience”, god forbid you to screw up the encounter math and get some characters killed. You would be a failure, or so claim experts on Youtube.
I don’t play these and I don’t like to run them. I understand they can be fun, but they are not for me. I like my absolute freedom, meaningful choices, risk of death at every corner, ability to choose the wrong corners, to create adventures at the table with my friends, play it for many years and many characters, remember it for life instead of until the next ride.
I Reject Rewarding Players or Their Characters
Whenever I reward someone I am influencing them in a certain way. Rewards are deeply integrated into human psychology, and humans are full of biases. That’s why I will not do it. Also, sometimes I forget.
I want a neutral system if the game needs one. Maybe it’s gold for XP, or the lifepath system, or just a questionary that players check by themselves. Or maybe sitting with friends, drinking beer and laughing is rewarding by itself.
I Reject Pacing the Game
I was really into this before. I was proud of my skill. I wrote about it. The only thing I will do now is set the length of the session. Four hours it is. After four hours I start making mistakes. If players don’t mind losing their characters by accident and put one more beer in front of me, I may stay longer.
It was after one session where 4 hours of real-time was spent mucking about a tavern row, all while the dungeon ready and prepped, gold and treasure all lined up, waited in vain. I let them muck about, roleplay this and that, sat there for 4 hours listened and waited. I wanted to cut them, I wanted to transition them, fade the scene, and move the camera. But I didn’t.
For a long time after I couldn’t decide if I did it right or wrong until it dawned on me that I should not be bothered with pacing at all. It is their game, it is their time. After all, they scheduled it, I am not responsible for the story, I am not responsible for the entertainment, and I don’t care they didn’t “earn” their XP.
We can do better as a group, and although I am quite good at pacing (as unfortunately I had to become), I should not be solely responsible for it.
I do care that this group might not be the best match for my sensibilities. They might’ve expected a theme park ride through a fantasy joy land, and instead I gave them three hooks and absolute freedom - and they just didn’t know what to do with it.
I Reject High Trust Systems*
*This is a bad term as it already exists for something else. What I mean by a high trust system is a system where players are required to trust the GM for the system to work.
In this vernacular Pathfinder would be Rules Heavy - Low Trust system. Cypher System would be Rules Light - High Trust system. What I’m looking for is a Rules Light - Low Trust system. There is a better term already coined for Errant: Rules Light - Procedure Heavy system.
This one took the longest to figure out. After Pathfinder I moved to Cypher System, and everything was peachy and fine, but I found myself drawn to OSR tenets to the point I wanted to run Cypher as an OSR game. I couldn’t figure out why, there was just a hole inside me that I knew I needed to fill, but I was not paying attention to the danger signs on the road ahead.
The realisation came after my spectacular failed attempt at the Ptolus campaign. It was a table of eight. Some new, some veteran GMs. I run it in Cypher. The party is in the tavern. I pull a GM Intrusion, and the player accepts - it’s a small scenario hook, no big consequences, no pressure - just a good old hook in a tavern. After the game, one of the veteran GMs accused me of being an antagonist. The argument was that they already had something going on - a problem with how to haul treasure from the dungeon (yes, it’s the dungeon I waited 4 hours for them to get to it), and by slowing the heroes down (by throwing a new hook) I was being an antagonist by the definition.
The realisation was that the veteran GM - my player, had zero trust in me as a GM. This meant that if I could not sell him a simple hook in a tavern, with a GM Intrusion (for which the player gained XP), I could not sell ANYTHING. I would have to build trust with him first, something for which I had no time, nor intention of doing.
So I left the group. I threw my notebook as they say. Later on, when I thought about this incident, it hit me that the GM Intrusion is a mechanical tool that is supposed to deal with trust issues - players can reject it and gain nothing, or they can accept it, gain XP and allow the GM to introduce a narrative complication. It didn’t work because the system assumes you already have an established trust at the table. Hence, Cypher System is a Rules Light - High Trust game.
When one loses trust in a High Trust game, it’s game over. There was no avenue for me to dig out of that. In Low Trust games rulings-over-rules has a fallback in procedures of play. High trust games are just the rulings.
I Embrace the Dice Gods
In one video for their “Best Game Ever” Kickstarter, Monte Cook claimed, “Don’t randomize the fun!”
In my “Cypher is OSR” post (it isn’t, but I apologised for the clickbait in the post) I quipped:
…A neutral “referee” has only one option which is to rely on random dice rolls. Cypher recognises a problem with this; random dice rolls are not equal to fun, or good stories.
Now I see it for what it is. You can’t have dice meddle in GM’s story. Whatever you prepped ahead the dice gods will ruin in one fell swoop. You don’t plead to the Oracle if you already know the course ahead of time.
For us who reject the plot, who reject the theme park rides dice are not just a necessity but they are also a force that brings chaos, story and fun to the table.
The hidden benefit of the Low Trust is that it’s not me who introduced a new scenario hook - it is the game procedure that says so. I am not an antagonist anymore, this is just how the game works.
Even further from just reflecting the hate from players it will also cause them to stop playing the GM and start playing the world. Anyone who had a long-time GM who runs on fiat will get to learn their tricks, learn their patterns, and start playing against that GM, which will further antagonize the relationship.
When I play my long-time friend’s games I can read him like a book, even when he is running published material. Last time he put up an encounter with some fucking monster flower that stuns but can’t kill, it took us hours to get out of that. I was properly pissed at him - as he didn’t think it trough, and instead of adventuring, we spent our evening trying to un-stun the party just to escape. I was pissed at HIM, you get it? It’s wrong. If the encounter was properly foreshadowed, for example with an overloaded die, and then materialised as a will of the dice gods, by a set game procedure, it would be a completely different story. We might’ve been prepared for it, we might’ve been able to avoid it, and at least we would only have ourselves and dice to blame, not him.
It’s a relief to get this burden of whirling thoughts and ideas out of my head, although I recognise I didn’t say anything particularly new. I will continue to use Cypher for small games and one-shots, but also forge some new paths ahead with this new mindset, hoping to learn new things and run better games.
Here’s to the epic campaigns and stories that last a lifetime!