Game Masters and Positions of Power - Fri, Oct 8, 2021

Responsibilities of the Game Masters

A heavily debated topic, without a doubt. Lets begin with a quick review for the uninitiated.

Roleplaying Games (‘RPGs’)

A popular form of game, usually for groups. Players assume control of characters of their creation and enact out narratives. Often to keep the game consistent and reasonable a framework of rules and limitations are put into place which players agree to adhere by. Quite often dice are used as a form of randomization to enforce a degree of luck and chance to outcomes in order to simulate reality’s callous fairness. Even a master of a skill can occasionally make mistakes and a great challenge can be overcome by sheer dumb luck.

Usually RPGs come in two flavors. Centralized RPGs which have an appointed Game Master, and Decentralized where there is no appointed controller. Decentralized RPGs are out of scope of this article. Henceforth when “RPGs” are discussed we will assume this is specific to Centralized RPGs

Player Character (‘PC’)

Player Characters (PCs for short) are the in game characters within the narrative controlled by the Players. Typically speaking Players are allocated one character each, though there are certainly exceptions to this.

Non-Player Characters (‘NPC’)

All other characters in the narrative aside from the PCs. These are typically controlled by the Game Master, though there can be some degree of intersection (like when a PC has a pet, control of it may be balanced between Game Master and PC)

Game Master (GM)

The additional player that, unlike the rest, controls the narrative, universe, and all NPCs within. Typically the Players only can control their PCs, and everything else is controlled by the GM.

Usually the Game Master’s primary motive is to craft a compelling and interesting narrative for the Players to play within, using their PCs as the conduit.

Game Masters as the source of Truth

In most RPGs there exist a specific list of responsibilities the Game Master is entrusted with. Primarily their role is that of ruling (in the literal sense). Many RPGs can have complex and discrete rules that sometimes are difficult to memorize. It is a very common occurrence for players to confer with the GM on whether they can, or cannot, perform tasks or not within the game. “Can I do this?” and “Is this allowed?” are very likely the two most common questions Game Masters face.

At it’s core most tabletop RPGs are expected to be a communal participatory event. It is completely acceptable for a non-GM player to offer up specific rulings they are aware of within the game. However, nearly all popular mainstream RPGs also have a “Rule One” in their documentation indicating that above all else the Game Master’s rulings overrule all else (including the documentation itself), and all following rules purely are to act as a guidance.

Though it’s considered poor form to too deeply go “off script” so to say. Most RPGs rules are maintained by seasoned veterans of the medium, and the rules exist for a reason. But said publishers also acknowledge that too strict of rules can limit fun and creativity, thus the always present existence of Rule 1 in the medium.

The Controversy

There exists a common discourse on the topic of where a Game Master’s responsibilities begin and end. Do Players sometimes lean too heavily on their GMs for rulings, to such a degree that the burden of knowledge is entirely on the GM and the Player’s are not contributing at all?

Where do we, as a community, begin to draw the line between a Player who is, and is not, overburdening the Game Master with mental load?

To begin we should start by classifying Mental Burdens into a handful of useful categories, and break each one down individually.

Internal Burdens

Within the confines of the game, as mentioned above, the Players and Game Master are expected to adhere (loosely) to the rules. But because these rules can vary broadly, it is not necessarily reasonable for each Player to be expected to know all of the rules. However, it does seem reasonable to expect an experienced Player to understand the rules that directly impact their character.

Experience of the Player within the table’s rules is also heavily covariant with expectations of Internal Burden bearing. A brand new Player on their first game is typically not under nearly the same expectations as someone who has been playing the game for countless years. Players usually are quite accepting of new additions to the table and welcoming and willing to assist in quickly catching them up on how the constraints of the joint narrative work, what is allowed, and what is not.

Internal Burdens do not appear to be under controversy as the concept of Internal Burden within frameworks transcends Tabletop Roleplay. Nearly every game, sport, job, concept, and community has this same form of expectation and understanding, so it is for the most part considered a “solved problem”.

External Burdens

External Burdens refer to the layer of responsibilities that surround the logistical requirements for a group that wishes to participate to function. Specifically with regards to Tabletop Roleplay (and most other forms of games, sports, and communities), the individuals must solve the issues of scheduling, interpersonal relationships, organization, location, and often food of course. “Where and when will we meet?” “What are we going to have for food?” “Is Steven going to be there? I don’t really get along with him…” etc.

These sorts of issues exist in literally any form of social event and we all, as functional adults in society, should be comfortable navigating the waters of social expectations.

Typically most of these solutions are arrived at via a general form of consensus, and humans have adapted over countless years to the complicated act. It is a process that comes to us as simply as breathing. Whether its by someone stepping up into a leadership position, a decentralized vote, or other more… violent means, culturally humans have plenty of solutions to solving logistical issues in effective manners.

So why is it that unlike many other hobbies and communities, Tabletop Roleplay groups seem to suddenly short circuit this process and possess a seemingly illogical expectation of external burden management on the Game Master?

We don’t see Baseball hobbyists all simultaneously turn to the Umpire to solve their interpersonal issues, and we certainly don’t expect a Judge at a Magic the Gathering tournament to also be in charge of organizing where participants will go for lunch after the event is over.

So what’s different about Tabletop communities?

Transference of Persona

Psychological induction inevitably causes the two parties to get involved in the transformation of the third and to be themselves transformed in the process. (Jung, 1946, p. 199)

Transference is often defined as “The redirection of an individual’s feelings or desires for one person to another”. Typically, transference is something discussed amongst Psychologists and Doctors with respect to past individuals who influenced an individual and their feelings, presently having those feelings transferred to a new individual. We parentify people in positions of power over us, and infantilize those we have power over.

But what I want to discuss is the concept of Transference of Feelings between two different personas of the same person.

Game Masters, within the internal confines of the Roleplaying Game, are effectively gods of the universe. They control nearly everything and are in the absolute position of power.

Outside of the game, however, a Game Master is just another player at the table. There is no reason to expect them to have any form of external power over any of the rest of the Players. From a purely objective position, the Game Master should be treated as no more or less a player than all the others.

But this typically is not the case.

Very often players inherently elevate the external Game Master, the person, to a position of power for seemingly no reason beyond the fact they play the role of Game Master.

Why does this happen?

I posit that Transference in combination with Logistics compound to create this niche problem the Roleplay community faces.

Game Master’s very often must adopt an entirely different persona from their usual self within the game. The Game Master is a separate identity from their usual public self akin to a performance the player puts on for all to witness. It’s quite usual that they become more dominant and sadistic (typically in a caricature evil villain manner). There is a social contract players enter with the Game Master when beginning the game that the GM will almost undoubtedly be in charge of challenge, controversy, and antagonism. Narratives often have an antagonist, and if said antagonist is an NPC then the GM will be playing that role.

This separation of Game Master persona from the typical one the Player possesses is where the Transference occurs. The dissonance and yet harmony between the two masks the Game Master wears seems to make Transference easy for Players.

Why only Tabletop games?

In plenty of other games, communities, and sports we still have individuals in positions of powers within the confines of the domain. Judges, Umpires, Referees, etc. What separates them from Game Masters?

It all comes back to Rule 1. The moment you introduce the subjective elevated capability of a Game Master to curate the experience to their players, their rulings become personal. The potential, even if left completely non-utilized, warps the relationship of Player and Game Master to be substantially more intimate. It is extremely trivial for a Game Master to (even subconsciously) bend the rules (or neglect to) for individuals purely due to interpersonal and external reasons.

A quick browse of communities demonstrates this is a common occurrence. Problematic players get punished in game with narrative consequences. Its not unreasonable to predict that favored players will see the same in reverse, and you will also see accounts of “bribing” the Game Master.

Though for many a Roleplaying Game is low stakes, we must keep in mind for some it can have more serious impact. Slights within a games confines and pent up feelings over continuous problematic behaviors can eventually culminate in entire relationships becoming tainted or outright ended.

We must accept that the existence of Rule 1 changes the dynamic between Game Master and Player, and there is no way to prevent this.

Which means a given table must either abolish Rule 1 (which would likely produce a much less fun dynamic overall), or, we accept that it inherently produces Transference and learn to adapt accordingly.

On the Game Masters behalf this means heading it off before it occurs and trying ones absolute best to temper external burdens from influencing internal resolutions.

On the Player’s behalf this means coming to understand this phenomena and reflecting on it before it occurs.

Logistical Determinism

The second compounding reason that further reinforces the position of power for Game Masters is one of Logistics. Unlike the above Rule 1 Problem and Transference, this secondary implication is not nearly as easy to solve.

Simply speaking, Game Masters typically require a degree of planning and foresight to the external limitations of their upcoming session, to influence their internal decision making.

In other words, if a player is going to be missing the upcoming session the Game Master benefits from this knowledge ahead of time to adapt the narrative to match the new requirements.

And inversely, a new player joining the table also will have an impact on narrative choices made.

This typically means that the Game Master must be in charge of logistics and scheduling. Knowing who will be joining and when is crucial to the Game Master’s ability to plan their session accordingly.

This has important consequences however and naturally gravitates the GM towards a position of elevated power within the group. Once the Game Master is in charge of logistics they also become inherently in charge of gatekeeping access to the game itself.

To summarize, the need to plan games in advance naturally leads the Game Master to be in a position of choosing who is, and is not, invited to the game. And that means the Game Master now possesses the ultimate capability of easily uninviting someone from a session.

This is an absolute position of power at the External level, and once in that position it means natural responsibilities follow. If the Game Master can easily remove and add players to the table as they see fit, then it follows players will come to them with interpersonal issues that may require exercising that power for the net benefit of the group.

For example, if one particular player is being found to be problematic and players are not fully enjoying their time at the table because of them they may approach the Game Master and request they exercise their power over invitations to remove the player from the game.

This is why an Umpire, Judge, or Referee of a sport will not have the same forms of External Burdens. Baseball games typically have fixed team sizes and the Umpire does not need to have any form of logistical knowledge beforehand of how many people will be playing, nor who or who will not be arriving. In fact, typically these individuals have little to no actual connection with the players. A tournament judge may perform this job completely disconnected from the participants, often going on to judge at many different tournaments with different participants each time.

In fact relationships between the players and the ruling parties are often outright discouraged in order to maintain the integrity of the sport and avoid conflict of interest.

This elevating of responsibility can further become compounded when Location logistics also become the Game Master’s responsibility, and that is just another natural progression. Once in charge of Organization and Logistics, the Game Master will find that their burden’s become lessened if location is consistent and a controlled variable. The easiest way to control this variable is to either repeatedly book a place for the game to occur at (for example a Tabletop Cafe), or simply host the event at their own home.

And once the game naturally progresses to being hosted at the Game Master’s home their position of power once again further elevates. They not only posses the capability of neglecting to invite a player to the game, but the capability of forcibly banishing a person from their property.

Closing Remarks

Fundamentally speaking, Tabletop Roleplay is a much more logistically involved and intimate hobby and it can be difficult to navigate the interpersonal and cultural expectations of responsibility.

Game Masters are already inherently in an Internal position of power over their players in the game itself, and when compounding that with the inherent External position of power they naturally gravitate towards for Logistical efficiency Transference of their Internal power and responsibility to their External is easy.

We as both Players and Game Masters, and as a community as a whole, must keep these factors in mind and react accordingly if we wish to nip problematic behaviors in the bud. It is unfair to continuously burden Game Masters with external issues that do not directly involve them.

A Game Master exercising their logistical power over a member of the group should always be handled as an absolute worst case scenario. Players should be expected to do their absolute best to try and resolve these issues on their own outside of the game first and only seek out a Game Master’s aid as a last resort.