“All you need is a good GM.”

Let’s put this baby to bed. It is one of those phrases that was and is said as conventional wisdom and when its said in a group, most gamers will just nod and bring up their favorite all-star GM story.

I think people believe that the Forge’s theory response is that a game’s mechanics can replace a good GM, which is untrue, not stated anywhere that I know of and is rubbish if it is stated anywhere.

Are good GM’s important to a fun game experience?


What is a good GM?

A good GM is someone who understands the techniques necessary to help facilitate a fun game, whatever that might mean. Someone who has been GMing the hell out of GURPS is going to have developed different GMing muscles than someone who has been GMing Sorcerer, just as someone who has been GMing Sorcerer will have different muscles and comfort zones than someone who has been GMing Burning Wheel.

There is a real danger in thinking that GMing one game makes you perfectly capable of GMing anything. The danger lies in GMing every game with the exact same techniques and editing out anything that is outside of you and your group’s comfort zone. I have noticed that many gamers are using house rules to make every game more or less run the same, to back up their strengths and stay away from rules that make them edgy because of personal experience with that kinda thing (be it player input, group chargen, whatever).

What about GM-less games?

Yeah, this is where it get’s interesting. We find that we still need a leader in a creative endeavor, whatever it might be. In games of Shock:, Polaris and Capes we still need someone to get gamers together, organize a time and know the rules inside and out. Creative endeavors need a leader.

There is also a kind of pendulum swing that I see, particularly after seeing a PTA brainstorming session go well, where every game should be a touchy-feely brainstorm-a-thon with everyone having input. It is nice when it happens but it just isn’t necessary for buy-in for every game.

It is just as valid for a GM to act as a strong leader and say, “Let’s get together and play a game in which you are both orc who have lost your horde in an elven attack.”

The smart leader, however, takes in player input too, so when one of the players takes a hated rivalry with an unmentioned Troll Warlord and states, “His army of trolls was supposed to strengthen our northern flank and did not show up, leaving us undefended against the Elven cavalry,” they take this kind of input and make it part of the game, rather than being a lame-ass and seeing it as an opportunity to assert dominance.

“Oh no, on the date of the battle, the Troll Warlord was in a fight against human mercenaries to the south, it says so in my game notes.” C’mon, man. There are times when you toss out an idea and no matter what it is, the player wants to play a ninja or a cowboy or whatever it is, time to just drop a -NO- and crush a concept. More often, things just need work and further communicating.

A creative endeavor needs a leader and different games call for different types of leadership, different levels of delegation and different responsibilities.

11 thoughts on ““All you need is a good GM.”

      • Yah, I think that was Julian in our Polaris group. We had at least two, maybe 3 copies of the game between the four of us, but he was best at “No, there’s a rule for this — ah, here it is.”

  1. Well put Judd. I’ve noticed that in all small group events such as Tabletop Gaming there is always a facilitator, even if the game itself doesn’t call for one. A lot of times it’s me, but not always.

    It’s nice to have someone who can ensure the flow of the game is optimal, as long as they do it delicately and aren’t overbearing about it.

    Similarly, a good facilitator is only part of the picture. Rules that accommodate what everyone wants, and players that accommodate the previous two. Then, BAM hat trick of gaming awesome.

    • Good facilitator/leader + Rules that are helping rather than hindering = a fun night of gaming (assuming there are no destructive jerks, a subject for another post).

  2. There is another danger of thought that I see people stumble into all the time. It is called ‘goodness by virtue’,rather than ‘goodness by acts’

    Goodness by virtue happens when you make the statement ‘Mr X is a good GM, therefore he runs a good game.’
    Goodness by acts is when you say ‘Mr X runs a good game, therefore he is a good GM.

    It seems silly a distinction to make, but I have seen so many unhappy players under the heel of these GM’s. They say ‘I’m a great GM so the players must be munchkins, rules lawyers, jerks etc.’

  3. Ha, that’s certainly true.

    I find that I don’t dislike the power of the GM, I dislike the powerlessness of the players.

    Or maybe power is not the issue…

    Years ago when I was involved with the gaming club there were a number of people who were such good players that they improved every game they were in. And not just by being funny or entertaining (which they were) they also empowered everyone else.

    They would invent cool ideas for other characters, point out fun things and help other people play. They also tended to have a way of making it seem like the GM was one of the players as opposed to some enthroned king.

    Much ado is made about good GM’s and very little is said about good players.

    Getting back to my point, design that empowers players is great, but the game really benefits when players step up.

  4. I am a good GM within a narrow range. Outside that range? I’m not sure. I could broaden in certain directions. I had to relearn everything when I gmed the Sorcerer game, and one day, I’d like to run that one again. That taught us a couple of things about what makes for a good gaming experience.

    –It is not enough to be interested in your own character. Everyone, including the GM, must be interested in all the PCs. This doesn’t mean “must like”. But, we need to find them interesting to watch.

    –Just as not all GMs should be running all games, not all players should be playing all games.

    I’m a mediocre GM of straight out Call of Cthulhu, I think. I think I even know why. In most CoC games, it is just fine for the PCs to go off the track and get eaten by the shuggoth. As a player at a convention game, I’m cool with that. As a GM, I try to steer things away from it. This is wrong. It means that there is one of two problems:

    a. I’m actually right, and the author of the scenario shouldn’t have put that shuggoth there.

    b. I’m focusing on the main story where the protagonists find out what’s going on, whether or not they succeed, when the whole point of the scenario is that there are other paths. If I’m not willing to see the game go that way, I shouldn’t be running that scenario.

    If I understand Forge / Indie philosophy correctly (to the extent it’s ever a single philosophy), it goes like this:

    Yes, good GMs are golden. Yes, group dynamics need to click. Now, there’s you, your friends, and a game. The game rules should be written such that they do not require the magic of a natural genius GM or telepathic players for a good gaming experience.

    That said, I tend to find that the right crowd will make things click faster for me than the right rules set.

    As for the orcs and the Troll Warlord, that’s a fairly complicated example, but that’s a post for another time (or my emailing you an essaylet I wrote for Alarums and Excursions).

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