(This is the second installment of Dice Tales, an ongoing series of posts about RPGs as storytelling.)
The participants in an RPG often get divided into two camps. On the one hand you have the players; on the other hand, you have an individual most commonly referred to as the game master or GM. I say “often” because not every game is built around this division, and in fact some independent game designers have made a point of breaking down that distinction so that every person at the table is an equal participant. Most RPGs still operate on a player/GM model, though, so that’s what we’ll discuss to start with.
Each player in the standard model has their own character to play — their “player character” or PC. (Yes, there are a lot of acronyms in this genre.) In some cases this character will be created for them, by the GM or the designer of the game, but more often players make their own PCs. This means pretty much everything it would in the case of a novel: deciding on the character’s name, what they look like, where they came from, what family they have, what their goals and aspirations are, whether they have any enemies, and so forth. Of course these things will change as the story goes along, but anything from before it begins is a suitable target for the player’s creativity. In addition to this, the player also has to make a “character sheet” for their PC, which is a representation of their character’s skills and other qualities in terms that interface with the rules. More about that next post!
The PC is the primary frame through which the player interacts with the story. Once the game begins, I speak my character’s dialogue and describe her actions (or act them out, if this is a LARP). I make decisions about what she will do. As she learns things, I try to piece together the information to figure out what’s going on in the plot. My PC is the only part of the story I truly control; everything else is out of my hands.
The game master has many different names, depending on which game you’re looking at. Dungeons and Dragons uses the term “dungeon master,” for obvious reasons; White Wolf’s World of Darkness games, with their greater emphasis on character and narrative, call this person the “Storyteller.” Nobilis, for idiosyncratic reasons having to do with the setting, prefers “Hollyhock God.” One of the early academic books on RPGs used the term “referee,” but I dislike that; I think it places too heavy an emphasis on the concept of rules calls, which are only a tiny fraction of what the GM does.
If each of the players is responsible for their character, the GM is responsible for . . . everything else. Any character in the story who isn’t a PC is an NPC, a non-player character. Unless the GM explicitly delegates an NPC’s role to a player or recruits outside help for a session or two, she plays all of those people — and that can be a lot. (In the game I’m currently running, there are almost 250 NPCs on the wiki we use to track things.) But it doesn’t stop with characters: the GM is also responsible for the monsters the characters fight, the layout of the buildings they enter, the weather, the distances between places, absolutely everything about the narrative environment that isn’t created or altered by the PCs. Even when those things are provided by the game (via a prewritten module, for example), the GM is still the one who introduces them into the narrative and deals with how they affect the story. Some groups and some game systems will give players more or less leeway to control the environment directly — for example, saying there is a useful object within reach during a fight — but the default is to leave this in the hands of the GM.
Rules calls are also an important part of the GM’s job. We haven’t talked yet about mechanics, but in brief, most systems of rules deal with the interaction between two things: the difficulty of a task, and the probability of a character succeeding at it. The latter is determined by the stats on the character sheet, but the former is often a judgment call on the part of the GM. Recalling a relatively basic piece of information should be easy, so the difficulty for that will be set low (whatever constitutes “low” in that particular system); recalling a more obscure one would carry a higher difficulty. It’s impossible for any game system to set forth the difficulty of every thing a character might attempt to do, so generally they settle for nailing down particularly important numbers (such as how hard it is to hit someone in combat), then give examples to guide the GM’s decision-making in everything else. Similarly, the effect of an action is often not precisely delineated, meaning that it’s up to the GM to narrate the result in context.
The other thing the GM handles is plot — sort of. When I ran a Scion game about the half-mortal children of gods in the nineteenth-century American frontier, I knew that the “metaplot” of the game, the top-level description of what the story was about, concerned an avatar of the Greater Titan of Hunger that called itself Manifest Destiny, which had corrupted Columbia and Uncle Sam, the new gods of the United States. Before any of my players even made their characters, I decided the game would involve them finding out about the corruption and then dealing with it in some fashion. What I did not decide was how that would happen. Maybe the PCs would purify Columbia and Uncle Sam, changing the trajectory of American history and imperialism. Maybe they would kill the two gods, changing history in different ways. What allies would they gather along the way? What enemies would they make? I didn’t know. I had bits of plot I wanted to include at some point; for example, I knew that sooner or later they would find out (somehow) that Columbia and Uncle Sam had, in the aftermath of the Civil War, imprisoned the southern demigods Dixie and Johnnie Reb. How that discovery would happen, and what the PCs would do about it? That remained to be seen. As the game proceeded, I shaped the plot in response to the players, taking into account their decisions and actions, and molding things in ways I hoped would entertain them.
Observant readers will have noted that the answer to the question “who controls the story” is “no one, and everyone.” Each participant — player and GM alike — holds one of the joysticks, so to speak, and the trajectory of the story is controlled by all their efforts together. This is a really important aspect of how RPGs work, and something that makes them radically different from novels even when the final product might look similar. Because of the GM’s role in coming up with the broad outline of the plot and adjudicating the results of actions, it’s easy to think of that person as a playwright, creating up with a story for others to experience. Taken too far, though, this is bad GMing, to the point where we even have a term for it: railroading. A good GM will present a problem, and be ready to roll with whatever solution the players choose. A bad GM will shut down all solutions but the one she’s planned for, coming up with reasons why nothing else will work (even if logic and creative problem-solving say otherwise). RPGs are supposed to be collaborative; that means each participant is contributing and has agency in guiding how the story plays out. The functions of the GM is different, but not all-controlling. In fact, some of the best experiences come when the GM says “here’s a problem; tell me how you’re going to deal with it,” and hands the steering wheel over to the players — but more on that in future posts!