Sunday, January 4, 2009

Examining Role-Playing Mastery by Gary Gygax, Part V

Chapter 3- The Master GM

I think most of us blogging and reading tend to be game masters (or DMs, or referees, or judges, or whatever). Who out there is simply a player? I do think this is to our detriment, and I have a feeling that referees who don't get to play will tend to over-write their own material. That is purely conjecture on my part though. I also feel that players who often referee might have a tendency to be more demanding of their current referee, but again, conjecture.

Still, I think the last installment, if being read more by people running games than participating in them, creates a sense of expectation on our parts. We're the ones planning and statting and drawing (and maybe hosting), and all the people at our table just show up and enjoy? Unfair! To the mines with you!

But this chapter is for us.

The name of the first section of the chapter? "The Creator, Organizer, and Arbiter of All."


Some choice bits there:

First off, there is a lot of discussion about setting creation (or world designing as it's called), but absolutely none about using an existing setting.

And on with the quotes...

Players and GMs alike, take heed: Despite misguided perceptions to the contrary, the game master is not the enemy of the player characters! At least, he shouldn't be. Those unenlightened or unscrupulous would-be GMs who take this stance of hostility towards PCs (or worse yet, towards players) won't be around long anyway, for their players will desert them in short order. Who then opposes the players' game personas? The GM does indeed have the duty of effecting opposition and posing problems - but not on a person-versus-person or person-versus-character basis. He does this by playing the parts of the various beings who are adversarial to the PCs engaged in the challenge posed by the session - on a character-versus-character basis, to distinguish it from the other forms of interaction just named. In addition to being the architect of the world in which the PCs' adventurers take place, the game master is also the representative of all the opposing creatures, forces, and phenomena that strive to keep the PCs from achieving their desired ends. This opposition must be personified in such a way as to present the maximum challenge for PCs and their players while not being so overwhelmingly powerful that any PC who dares to resist or combat the opposition is smeared flat when he makes his first move. This approach is valid and important even in the first stages of campaign creation; for instance, a GM who designs a world where the environment itself is fraught with naturally existing perils is asking for trouble. The point is to challenge the PCs, not kill them outright.

Much is made by the high body count in "old school" gaming, and often it is described as "antagonistic" or "DM versus players."




The game master is the creator, organizer, and arbiter of all. His most important function during play, though, are more mundane. He is nature. He provides sensory data, and finally he fills in by playing the roles of living things the PCs interact with during the course of a session. With such an investment on an emotional level, the GM is prone to be something other than a disinterested party, although disinterested and impartial he must remain if it is at all possible. If the GM must succumb to a certain amount of emotional and preferential behavior - and it is virtually impossible not to do this - he should manifest these qualities not by desiring to see the PCs fail, so that the players become discouraged and (heaven forbid) cease play. Instead, he should be eager for the players to do so well with their PCs that they utilize every aspect, explore every bit of detail, and meet and overcome every obstacle that he has so painstakingly put into the scenario and the surrounding campaign.

The dedicated GM is not only an impartial judge of events, but at the same time he is an active force championing the cause of both the preservation of the PCs not bent on self-destruction and the continued satisfaction of players who do not seek to see the campaign ruined. Conversely, he has no ethical or moral obligation to keep a PC alive and viable if that character's player insists on leaping into the jaws of adversity - and he owes it to himself and the others in the group to discipline or dismiss a player who has a selfish and treacherous attitude towards the campaign.

See? Not an enemy.

Then he hits us with a rather unfortunate thing to say.

To be a truly masterful GM, the individual must have experienced extensive participation in one or more RPGs as a player.

I say unfortunate because many among us, I would guess, come more naturally to the refereeing role than the playing role... in my case, it's much easier to set up a game I want (and declare the language to be used) than to search out a game to my liking and hope I can understand enough to participate. I do wish I could play more often, and I do agree that my being on one side of the screen so often is a detriment to my efforts to excel there.

Then there's an evil, bad, wicked paragraph where Gygax comes out in favor of referee fudging for the players!!!!!

Crud. The last sentence of that paragraph:

If the party is in danger of extermination through no direct fault of their own and because a string of unlikely occurrences have all somehow come to pass, then this is the time for the GM to step in and set things back on the right track, or at least keep them from getting any worse.

I wonder how our definitions of "no direct fault of their own" would differ. "You sat in that room for four turns looking for a secret door, didn't find one, and now there's some nasty wandering monsters banging on the door!" :P

Of course, I say that in a case where the referee is going to let the characters escape (certainly I would think a referee should never let a PC succeed by fiat, merely at most prevent him from going out of play), that decision should be made and actions taken without picking up the die. I still stand by my belief that to roll a die is to accept its consequences, and that if you want something to happen that badly, just declare it so instead of going through the charade.

The next section is called Increasing the Excitement of Play, and it deals with the expansion and continuation of ongoing campaigns. The setup for the meat of the section is that ideas and direction can come from players, but the big line is "In all such cases, the superior game master protects the campaign first and foremost." Don't be bullied by the players, basically.

He then goes into a couple of weird tangents (weird since they seem out of place in a section about GM Mastery) explaining/defending his reasoning in not having gunpowder in D&D and not using a spell point system in D&D, using his players wishes for these things as an example of a referee standing firm to protect his campaign.

As far as his players wanting gunpowder, Gygax goes on about using kobolds armed with UZIs and "regenerating trolls plying bayonette rifles" as a way for "the harassed Dungeon Master looking for a way to put self-important PCs in their place." But, he concludes, "the game is medieval fantasy, and the spirit is magic, not technology." I guess the arquebus in Chainmail shouldn't be used then... ;)

The spell-point argument is actually well made. The meat of this argument is that the entire D&D magic system is built on the "fire and forget" assumption, and that certain spells are intentionally given lower levels than their power would indicate (I will guess that SLEEP is included here!), so a spell point system would overpower the magic-user. Gygax says there is nothing wrong with the idea of a spell point magic system, but the entire magic system would have to be written with the spell point system in mind from the start.

The role of the game master requires that a constant vigil be kept to see that the game campaign vehicle is maintained for use by the group for as long a time as they so desire.

So then, The Big List:

The Tenets of GM Mastery

1. The game exists to provide entertainment on an ongoing basis. The key words here are "entertainment" and "ongoing." The RPG activity must be entertaining (exciting, challenging, and fun at the same time), or else no one in the group will desire to continue participating. And following from that last thought, any role-playing game must be an ongoing, continuing activity in order for its full potential as a means of entertainment to be realized. Player characters are not created so that they can live through one or two brief episodes, and a campaign world is not designed for the sake of a few isolated hours of activity. If the effort that goes into playng is not to be wasted, the play must extend over a long period of time so that the effort invested can realize a return.

2. The individual campaign is an interpretive extension of the game it is based on, aimed at activity by a small group. The rules of a game describe a genre or a general situation in which game activity takes place. It is up to the game master to apply the principles and generalities given in the rules by creating a unique campaign environment in which those generalities are brought to life according to his sense of what sort of atmosphere will make for exciting and entertaining play. When he is creating his campaign, the GM must keep in mind that the realities of the world must be described in terms that can be appreciated and acted upon by a small group of player characters. If the world or some part is in peril and must be saved, the danger must not be something that can only be successfully combated by an army, because the players most likely do not (and should not) have an army at their disposal.

3. The creative interpretation of a campaign must remain within the scope and spirit of the game. This is a similar point to tenet #2, but different enough and important enough to warrant a separate place on the list. It has to do not so much with the campaign setting but with the nature of the challenges placed within that setting that must be met (and, ideally, overcome) by the PCs. For example, in an AD&D game campaign, the player characters cannot legitimately be chalenged by invaders from outer space, because that sort of challenge lies outside the scope of the game system. The challenge cannot be something that requires the PC to use the same methods used by the evil opposition in order to combat that evil (to be even "badder" than the "bad guys"), because that violates the spirit of the game.

4. The campaign is constantly undergoing modification through game master and player interaction. When the principal characters in a story (the campaign) are free-willed and have a multitude of choices regarding how to proceed, it is counterproductive - and, in fact, impossible - to preordain just how the events in the campaign will unfold. Any successful campaign must be flexible, and its creator must be open to changes - not only the changes that he perceives are necessary, but those that are directly or indirectly suggested by the preferences and actions of the players and the PCs. The result of ongoing modification is a campaign that at any point reflects and fulfills the desires and inclinations of the players as well as the GM.

5. The role of game master is that of an active neutral with duty first to the campaign, then the group, and then the game. First and foremost, the campaign must not only persevere but thrive. If it does not, then the group will founder and dissolve. Second - and a close second it is indeed - comes the interest of the group, specifically the player group. The members must be allowed and even encouraged to act in any way they see fit, as long as such action does not contravene the direction or the objective of the campaign. Third, but by no means unimportant, is the game system itself. The scope and the spirit of the game are inviolate and will remain so as long as the campaign remains dedicated to those ideals (as it always should). But the rules structure of the game is not and should not be immune to alteration. If the rules stress, for instance, combat over problem-solving, but the campaign and the group happen to lean in the other direction, then the GM is obliged to add to and delete from the rules structure selectively to reflect the aspects that the group desires the rules to focus on. In specific cases in which the PCs are in jeopardy because the rules of the game have worked against them through a rare succession of unlikely and adverse occurrences, the GM is within his rights to override the provisions of the rules for the sake of guaranteeing (for the moment, at least) the continued survival and viability of the player characters. In all cases, the GM must do his best to remain disinterested while retaining the power of absolute arbiter. If he allows his personality and emotions to creep into his methods of administering the campaign, he must do so with the intention of giving the PCs their best chance of success - as long as the players willingly and enthusiastically confront all the challenges that have been placed before their characters.

6. The game master serves best when he enables players to participate actively to their fullest.

7. Total mastery of a game system is desirable for game master and players alike. Self-evident on the surface, but a point worth elaborating upon nonetheless. A GM who has achieved mastery is in the best possible position to give the players in his group an exciting and enriching experience, by all the means and for all the reasons described elsewhere in this book. And the game master, who works so hard and long to provide players and PCs with the best he can give them, deserves the same consideration and the same benefits from the players with whom he interacts. A playing group composed entirely of master players plus a master GM has reached the pinnacle of RPG achievement. Once they have reached that peak, the members of that group should have no difficulty - and not incidentally, more than a little fun - in staying there.
Following this maxim entails designing scenarios that will test PCs without overwhelming them; that will require the involvement of every PC in the participating group; and that will implicitly encourage each player to play his PC role "in character" instead of being tempted or compelled to deviate from that role in the interest of gaining some short-term benefit. Everyone in the group, including the GM, gets the most enjoyment out of a role-playing game when all participants share as equally as possible in the activity and when they all remain faithful to their chosen or designated roles in doing so.

(sorry, the formatting is a bit wonky, I dunno what blogger is up to with that, but ah well)

This is where Gygax and myself aren't sitting next to each other on the bus anymore.

1. No one-shots or closed-ended campaigns for you! I can dig this... I have never set up a game with the intention that it will ever end... and the definition of "entertainment" is one I can't argue too much with, since in the end it's neither solitary nor passive.

2. Gygax's talk about scope and armies seems to me to be off-base by going so far as to say characters "should not" have access to an army... especially since the rules he wrote specify many characters getting an army at name level. Maybe he's talking about initial play or something, but AD&D, surely the most intensely Gygaxian game out there, suggests dominions and holdings as the endgame for a character. His friend Frank Mentzer (who seems to have been something of a right hand man of Gygax in the 80s) codified this even more in his BECMI series of D&D rules, complete with mass conflict rules.

His boy Conan never was involved in situations where he commanded armed forces, right? (or are the types of adventures Conan went on suddenly out of bounds for D&D?)

That Gygax didn't think of mass combat as part of AD&D is fair to say, else there would have been rules for it. That Gygax would think that the same is out of bounds for role-playing games in general, let alone any iteration of D&D, is simply ludicrous.

3. I agree with the basic statement, but the two statements Gygax gives to support it... hmmm... how do I say this... Gygax is full of shit.

Also of note as part of this is that earlier in the text Gygax notes that, "Because [AD&D] is so extensively detailed and reflects a fantasy milieu in world-scale terms, there is no meaningful level of character success that is achievable with respect to the world community."

Raise your hand if you agree with that one. Hell, raise your hand if you can even conceive how that can be the case...

For example, in an AD&D game campaign, the player characters cannot legitimately be chalenged by invaders from outer space, because that sort of challenge lies outside the scope of the game system.

Gygax made it a point to separate AD&D from D&D as entities, so we can ignore the technological aspects of Blackmoor, the mention of robots in the original D&D set, and certainly third party oddness included in the Wilderlands and Arduin. We can disregard Spelljammer from consideration because not only did it not exist at the time of the writing, but it explicitly made outer space part of the scope of the system.

But... uhh...


Gamma World conversion notes in the Dungeon Masters Guide.

... cross-genre madness was also encouraged by the Boot Hill conversion notes, not to mention things like an Alice in Wonderland excursion within Castle Greyhawk.

I can certainly appreciate that a student of medieval history like Gygax would suggest to keep genre purity, but it's a little rich that he would act like he ran his campaign in Hârn or something.

The challenge cannot be something that requires the PC to use the same methods used by the evil opposition in order to combat that evil (to be even "badder" than the "bad guys"), because that violates the spirit of the game.

Earlier in the text Gygax was explicit about his view of what the spirit of AD&D is:

This is a fantasy RPG predicated on the assumption that the human race, by and large, is made up of good people. Humans, with the help of their demi-human allies (dwarfs, elfs, gnomes, etc.) are and should remain the predominant force in the world. They have achieved and continue to hold on to this status, despite the ever-present threat of evil, mainly because of the dedication, honor, and unselfishness of the most heroic humans and demi-humans - the characters whose roles are taken by the players of the game. Although players can take the roles of "bad guys" if they so choose, and if the game master allows it, evil exists primarily as an obstacle for player characters to overcome... Each character, by virtue of his or her chosen profession, has strengths and weaknesses distinctly different from those possessed by other types of characters. No single character has all the skills and resources needed to guarantee success in all endeavors; favorable results can usually only be achieved through group effort.

I'll leave it up to you guys to decide whether Gygax's best work follows this 1987 interpretation of AD&D's spirit or not. I'll also leave the applicability of examples such as Robilar, Erac's Cousin, and all the other evil characters included in the Rogues Gallery up to you. Surely I'd believe that Gygax preferred more high-minded action in his campaign (but obviously did not forbid evil characters), but doing otherwise being against the spirit of AD&D?


4. No comments, really...

5. The second half I've already discussed, but I like that it's quite clear that the needs of the campaign override the whims of the players. You don't have to go to the extremes of kobold commandos and changing spell point systems to see where sticking to the core concept of a campaign is a good idea.

6. I see this as a "don't put the screws to the players' concepts," but there's something about this wording that is both overly restrictive yet unclear in its meaning. I think, "make adventures that allow all classes to have something to contribute" isn't a complete reading of what this means...

7. I think he's meaning "mastery" in terms of what this book is saying, not "rules mastery" in an annoying rules-lawyer way... even though a thorough understanding of a game's rules is part of mastery in the first place. I'm so confused...

So I think Gygax really nailed it when he went on about what players should do to improve their game, but things are far more muddled when it comes to actually running games. I think it's also clear, even in the context of the excellent player suggestions, that despite the book's claim to general RPG relevancy (and the GM chapter here has a lengthy example of an early 20th-century San Francisco action-adventure campaign), when it comes down to it Gygax is talking about Dungeons and Dragons with all of the important points of this book. Not that it's a bad thing, and I bet there were reasons why he couldn't just write a book about Dungeons and Dragons (even though that name is plastered everywhere in the book, including the cover, an argument could be made based on the words printed in the book, if not by reading between the lines, that the book is about the hobby as a whole), but it doesn't help the clarity of the book at all.

We'll be back tomorrow with the next chapter The Group: More Than Its Parts. There are nine chapters in all and I really hope none of the rest generate as much commentary as these Player and GM chapters... eeeeek.


  1. Gygax came down on the side of "fudging" in the DMG as well. That is not to say the altering of the dice, but a more favourable interpretation of their meaning.

    I think Expedition to the Barrier Peaks is very different from a full scale alien invasion, but it is also important to keep in mind Gygax's genre distinctions. AD&D is by default "swords & sorcery", but it can be altered to support other genres of play. The rules for the incorporation of Gamma World and Boot Hill are given their own genre designations: "mutants & magic" and "sixguns & sorcery", respectively.

  2. Barrier Peaks isn't a full-scale invasion, but given the implications of what's in that module (mind flayers and bullettes as aliens, for example), one can argue the invasion already happened since mind flayers can be quite the long-term enemy.

    I also think it's so picky to present a module with a crashed spaceship and then act like it's only OK because it is crashed. And presenting cross-genre rules (no matter the label put on them) in a core book that can be argued to be the author's ultimate masterpiece, only to some years later argue more for purity... it doesn't seem right to me.

  3. I think you are just taking it too literally. I do not think Gygax is arguing for purity, but for genre distinctions. In a typical AD&D "swords & sorcery" game the expectation is that there will not be an alien invasion, nor machine guns, or other things that do not suit the genre.

    That does not preclude introducing those things into the game, it just speaks to the default. Check out page 57 of the DMG for some more thoughts on this subject. Bottom line is that these are discrete genres, and their mixing or introducing facets of one into the other does not make them any less discrete.