Forum changes: Editing of posts has been turned off until further notice.

Main Menu

You've Landed on Gaming Group "Park Place", Pay $15 Rent

Started by Paul T, November 26, 2006, 12:49:19 AM

Previous topic - Next topic

Paul T


I am posting as a result of some thinking I've done since reading the Gatecrasher thread. I'm afraid I don't have a real concrete thesis here, but rather a mix of related observations and questions. Perhaps there is a knot to untangle, here, or perhaps I am covering old ground. Bear with me, please. It's quite possible that you'll read this and think "duh, nothing to see here." Or maybe not.


In the Gatecrasher thread, the originator discusses struggling with feelings of "ownership" over his player group. When another gamer shows up advertising his game, the GM feels some worry about "losing" his players.

Clearly, there is some kind of disfunctional social dynamic taking place (although it is possible that it exists only the GM's head). In my own experience, I have seen a few different manifestations of this dynamic, and they hint at different possible causes or motivations. I'd like to try to dissect it a little bit.

I'd like to hear any thoughts from you, as well as any related experiences you may have had, whether they corroborate or contradict my thinking as presented here.

Case 1

In my early gaming life, there was one member of the group was always insisted on having the games take place at his house. He had a large and comfortable basement, so we rarely objected, and it eventually became a given that we would play at his place. Now, he was almost never the GM in any of those games, but having the game at his house allowed him to take some sort of tacit position of leadership. He never exercised this within the game, but it made him the center of the social group. Everyone had to go through him to connect to the other members; he was the hub.

This situation suggests to me that being the "GM" in a group may serve to fulfil some sort of need in a person to feel like the center of attention, feel popular, or simply as an excuse to be surrounded by people.

In this case, the GM feels that the game group is a social circle s/he really enjoys, and doesn't feel sure that the players would spend time with him/her outside the game. Another GM or another gaming group threatens the existence of the GM's social circle. It threatens loneliness. "My players will leave and never come back!"

Case 2

I was once part of a gaming group that met weekly. The games were fun from time to time (for me), but not consistently so. Everyone else seemed satisfied, on the surface, and rarely did anyone skip a game, but the players were also rarely there on time (it was not at all unusual for someone to be an hour late without offering any explanation), so that may not have been true.

One week, the GM mentioned that he was feeling pretty tired, and wasn't sure he could be there the following week. I suggested that I take over and run a one-shot. That went well, and eventually I began a long-term game of my own, which would alternate (every two weeks) with the regular GM's. Sometimes other people would take over for a week or two, as well. There developed a weird social situation where no one knew who was "in charge", although everyone somewhat like they should defer to the original GM, since we were "his group" and had committed to this meeting place and time with the idea that it was "his game". (To me, this suggests that the whole "indefinitely long-term" concept of gaming is a really awkward way to formulate a Social Contract of any sort, since no one is actually clear on what they're committing to, or when the commitment has been met.)

At some point I realized that the other games being run were not fun for me consistently. Enough so that under circumstances I might have left the group. However, when I ran my game, I at least had a chance of getting the sort of experience I would enjoy. At the same time, I felt that if I didn't show up to the other games, I would be betraying or insulting the other players.

There were never any major social problems, but there was a bit of undercurrent tension between whoever was GMing. It was subtle, but it was there: the current GM was usually hesitant to hand over the reins to the next, and whoever was up next often felt like that had to grab those reins forcibly. It never became overt enough that anyone ever said anything, but it showed up in small ways--maybe if Jim was GMing this week, he would "forget" to e-mail Bob to let him know that it was Bob's turn *next* week until the last minute, so Bob wouldn't know whether he was going to offend by sending out an e-mail inviting the appropriate players.

In this case, I think, it's pretty straightforward desire to make the game fun, to focus it on your Creative Agenda (in whatever form) that is driving someone to jump into the GM seat: I know that at the time I saw it as my only way of making sure (or trying to make sure) that I would have a fun evening.

I wouldn't be surprised if most of the people here on the Forge, prior to whatever realizations took place to bring them here, found that they were GMs much more often than they were players. My suggestion is that it might have been a natural reaction to dissatisfaction in gaming. Did you run games more often that play because it felt like your only chance to get what you wanted? e.g. "I don't like where this car is going! Let ME take the wheel!"

It would be interesting, as well, to hear how often this worked, and for who it backfired in some way! In my experience, taking over as GM and trying to get the sort of play I enjoyed seemed to have worked pretty well (everyone generally had a good time, as far as I can tell), but I suspect that was good luck rather than the result of a good method at work. For instance, if my idea of a fun game was completely different from the group's, it would have a been a total train wreck.

Case 3

Case 3 is a variation on Case 2. A GM assembles a group of players to play "his game". The real tell here is that often this GM does not care who the players are! He just wants however many warm seats his game calls for. This is not like Case 1, where the GM desires the company or friendship of the players, or wants to impress some group (like the game club) by running a game with many participants. Rather, the GM sees the players as means to an end, where the end is his Creative Agenda (or something similar).

Typically, a lot of the elements of the game fiction, as well as rules, etc, are all set, and the players just show up and participate. Often, the GM will not care who the characters are, so long as they're legal (or not even that, if the rules used allow a large scope of GM fiat).

Note: A possible, functional version of this situation might be a playtesting situation.

I've played in some games like this, and had to gently bow out. I could tell that the GM already knew how things would go, and the players alternated between being limited participants and passive audience members. The GM was telling his story, and the RPG session was the format he had chosen. The players are a sort of captive audience, forced by Social Contract to sit there week after week.

(Now, I sincerely hope I have never done this. But I do remember that the last long-term game I ran (with the group described in the second Case) had something in common with this situation. The players were not people I socialized with outside the games, and while I enjoyed their company, I had no desire to see them in my regular social life. I showed up to the game because I really wanted to see what happened next. As a player, I rarely got that. As a GM, I could push and pull and try to move events forward, and often an interesting story would develop. So, I wanted to see where things would go, and build a story from player contributions. That game was, I think, generally very successful. However, I always had the feeling that I was really *more* interested in the story that was taking place than the players were. I'd felt that way in a lot of games in the past, as well.

I'm not sure what to think about this, yet.)

*Notes and Questions*

So, in the first case we have a social issue, related to acceptance/fear of rejection. In the second, we have a player trying desperately to get what they want out of roleplaying. In the third, it's the same desire, but approached with a very different mindset.

In any of these cases, it certainly suggests something is missing in the GM's relationship with the players--they do not appear to me to be friends who trust each other or feel comfortable communicating with each other openly.

Do these situations sound familiar? Have you seen any good solutions to any of them? How did they come about?

The whole concept of GM ownership as applied to the gaming group definitely needs to be challenged. Can it be teased out of the Social Contract somehow? How did it get there in the first place? Was it something in the game texts? I'm particularly interested in the possibility that they might look the same superficially. So, if you can see a solution to one of these situations, how do you make sure it's the right one?

Thanks for reading,

Paul T.


Hi Paul -

I've seen/been in all the situations you describe, though none for very long since junior high days at least.

With traditional RPGs - especially in more functional social situations (more is not a typo there) - the GM (a) is often the only one who really knows the rules and (b) puts in like 90% or more of the pre-session work. It's not unreasonable to feel like you 'owe' the GM something in that situation; the GM is essentially working to entertain you for free. Of course, the flip side of that is, you'd better be entertained, and some GMs aren't really entertainers who enjoy it, they're people on a power trip, or social manipulators, or whatever. It's like anything political, some people like the thing and the power it gets them, other people just like the thing, and other people just like the power.

Furthermore, there is a large skill differentiation of GMs in traditional RPGs. So much so that the 'egalitarian group' thing is really hard to pull off because in general nobody wants to play with the substandard GMs. It's like polyamory, it can start out fine in principle but the urge to pair off tends to win out in the end.

So there are some starting reflections.


Quick clarification on the previous post:

At the session, in a healthy RPG group (or at least most, there are exceptions to every rule at this level), everyone's working to entertain each other; it's not as if the GM is the sole entertainer at the session. But the work necessary to make that mutual entertainment possible almost all falls on the shoulders of the GM in the traditional game setup.

Simon C

Hey Paul,

Thanks for bringing this up.  I *love* discussion of social contract issues, and I think there's a tendancy on this forum to focus on game design issues, and to wave away social contract stuff as "ephemera".  It's my belief (and one of the major themes of my postgraduate research) that social contract stuff is one of the major influences on how a game gets played.  Far more than the rules of the game.  As Mike's thread on "Does System Matter" sort-of showed, the way people play is rarely a product solely of the rules as written.  Rather, people play with a large set of preconceptions, based on how their group has played previously, their expectations of the genre, and, overwhelmingly, the expectations of the GM.  To bring this back to actual play (before the Thread-Grinch gets me), I want to talk about the idea of status in gaming groups and how that relates to the GM position, in the context of the three examples you gave, and in terms of a fourth game that I was involved in.

(Your) Case 1:  Game taking place regularly at one player's house: I think that this is pretty clearly a bid for status as "host" in the group.  It's interesting to think about what that status implies.  Clearly, as host you have limited power to decide who does and does not come to a session.  If you don't want someone in your house, it's hard for anyone, even the GM to gainsay that.  Now, you say that the person never exercised that authority in-game, but I'm interested in exploring that.  Status and social position often work at very sub-conscious levels.  Is it possible that this guy's position as a "kind of leader" in the group had an effect on the way the game was played? Not necessarily in terms of in-character interaction, but in the way that rules were interpreted, the kinds of games that were played, and in the way the other players responded to this guy's OOC suggestions?

(Your) Case 2:  You (kind of) taking over "someone elses" group:  I think what you're talking about is a really interesting instance of a social contract conflict caused by the way that in-game role (GM) is influenced by, and influences, out of game roles.  As the regular GM, the guy was in a position of status that was challenged by you taking over the role.  You use the term "creative agenda" to describe how GMs in this situation would take the position to fulfill their own desires in a game - people GM to ensure that their creative agenda was fulfilled.  I think this is certainly one reason that people GM, but, especially in the situation you describe, it seems that "creative agenda" is not what we're talking about.  I think that when people take over the position of GM, they're trying to run the game the "right" way, with the implication that not just their own, but everybody's fun will be improved by them running a game.  This is why, in my opinion, the GM is usually the most "high status" gamer in the group.  A player becomes GM because the other players accept that this person's way of playing is the "best".  I think a lot of disfunctional play is the result of a group who don't feel that the GM is running the game the "best" way, and that this can be understood as a status conflict just as much as a creative agenda conflict.  It's not just that people have different tastes, and that different creative agenda's cater to different tastes.  People's taste is strongly influenced (possibly determined) by the tastes of the higher status people in the group.  If a GM is running a game that's not to the other player's tastes, this isn't just a creative agenda conflict, it's a status conflict.

It's worth noting (in case I sound all morally superior), that I do this as much as anyone else.  I'm somewhat notorious for overstepping the bounds of the player role in games I don't feel are being run the "right" way.  I don't like it in myself, but I can't sit still and watch a game being run (in my opinion) badly.  Part of the reason I get away with this in because in my group I'm usually the GM, and usually the host.  I have the status to make my way of playing the "right" way.  Sad but true.

(your) Case 3: GM is the King!:  Definitely.  I see this a lot.  I'd like to think that this is less the case in the games I run than in some other games, and maybe that's true.  I don't think that, as in the case you described, a railroaded plot and illusionist play are required for this kind of situation to exist, but the two do seem to be associated.The key here is not about illusionist play, but rather that the GM's agenda is not about participating in a fun experience with other players, but rather in enjoying the status that the position of GM affords.  I think that in most (all?) groups, the GM position carries some status with it, and that it's usually high status group members who take on the role, and that that's not by definition disfunctional.  However, in this situation where the GM's motivation is primarily the status that goes with the role, that's a good recipe for disfunctional play.

(My) Case 4:  During my postgraduate research I sat in on a game played by some friends of mine, and took notes on their gameplay.  It was really interesting to be in that position, as it afforded me the ability to look at a lot of out of character interaction and see how it influence the in-character actions.  Interestingly, the most critical example of this I missed entirely, noting it as an irrelevant detail of in character play, until in an interview one of the players noted it as one of the most important parts of the session.

In this game, the GM was running Exalted.  He's something of an expert in the game, and he's run it a LOT.  He's not the group's regular GM though.  Rather, the usual GM is a much older guy who has been in the gaming scene for years.  He runs very enjoyable games, and is generally well liked, and looked up to as an "expert" gamer.  Consequently, his way of playing tends to be assumed as the "right" way to play.  In the game I watched, the GM was clearly running the storyline to cater to the backgrounds of the characters.  There was an overarching "plotline" that would take the characters through scenes that would play to the issues and ideas that were relevant to the characters and the setting.  Most of the players were on board for this.  This one guy though, the former regular GM, wasn't into this at all.  In his normal style of play, the players have a much greater degree of freedom to determine their actions.  He couldn't see an immediate reason for his character to follow the story arc, so his character spit off from the group, quickly derailing play.  He defended this action in terms of his own way of playing being the "right" way to play. 

Now, it's easy, especially in this forum, to describe this in terms of Creative Agenda conflicts, and to have done with it.  However, I think it's worth noting that this was also a status conflict.  In the games this guy runs, there's very rarely disfunctional play.  People accept his way of playing as the "right" way, because of his status.  Even me, when usually I chafe at playing in other people's games, because I'm funny like that.  But playing in another person's game, he felt it was best to derail the game in order to keep playing his way, the "right" way.  I think he felt that this was appropriate because his status allowed him to determine, over the head of the GM, the "right" way to play the game.  The interesting thing that happened here is that the game stopped, and they started playing in a game run by the usual GM.  Pretty clearly, the other players accepted (with some complaint), that they should go back to playing the right way.

The point (after a lot of rambling): I think that discussions of creative agenda conflict often ignore the more important facet of status conflict, and that (controversial point follows) even our understaning of creative agenda is influenced by status.

Steven Stewart

Hi Paul,

I think this is a good read and good questions. I would like to offer some expierences of my own, but not really sure which case they fall into, so I will use letters.

First some background, as this impacts the game groups that I participate in a lot. The job I do entails me moving around a lot. Since 1998 I have lived in Tulsa, Houston, Aberdeen Scotland, Newcastle England, Back to Aberdeen Scotland, Doha Qatar, and now Tokyo Japan. The shortest location was the first Aberdeen (3 months) the longest is Tokyo Japan (close to 3 years).

To keep the post short, let just pull some highlights of group formation from actual play.

(A) Newcastle - Joined a "gaming club" group met every sunday. Play was lackluster at best, anyone who shows up gets to play kind of place. Had a rule for rotatin campaigns, but in the end every game felt (A) incoherent (B) not very sastisfying usually due to the lowest common denominator problem.

This play progressed into something else though. Two of the so 15 people, I "klicked" with. We talked and set up a regular game on Friday nights.(This was just when 3E was coming out). Games were much more sastisfying, and play a lot more coherent. For example we played for 10 or so sessions 3E, switched to 7th sea for 10 or more sessions, tried SW D20 decided as a group we didn't like it etc. This then grew into now what is a tradition that I have kept when I can to have some social events outside of the game group (such as Xmas party or something) but the basics were around gaming, in essence this small group out of the big group became my social circle where I lived.

I actually stopped going to the club on Sundays, but then I didn't feel like anyone was "wronged by that" because of the set up.

(B) I think there is another case. A case where a game group is formed specifically to play a specific game, I think this is functional provide the discussion takes place up front about what you are doing and how you are doing it. For example, I have done this for my Polaris game. I knew that my regular Japan group might not be interested in it, or if they were that it might not produce the play I desired. So while i have my "friends" group, I really wanted the priority to be different (not saying that the guys in Polaris group are not friends, just that the priority was different for crieteria of joining the game). So I have two groups now one that was formed to play, but became long standing friends, and though the play is not as coherent as I would like the priority of socializing right now tops the priority of coherent play (more this to come in the future on how we are trying to fix that).

The second group was formed for the express purpose of playing a very specific game, others need not apply and all that. So far it has been very successful. And there is the potential for cross over between the two groups. I plan on doing a similar thing in January for Inspectres, since my main Sunday group has expressed little desire to play that.In the "focused group" if something is not working out, I wouldn't hesitate to say, perhaps we need to break up the group, since its priority is the play first (luckily this hasn't happened). It could be the nature of the game (Polaris) helps to ensure that the play is more coherent than your Case 3. Additionally (as you are aware) because it is doesn't have a GM, it doesn't boil down to "advertising for my game". I made that clear when putting up the advert, folks would email and say when are you running the game? and I would reply, I'm not running it, I am simply hosting it since no one runs it, providing a place to play and the food. I don't buy all the food and wine just because I am hosting it, but rather because the other two players have to take long and (relatively) expensive trains to play, and I don't.

(C) Finally, I have a lot of expierence with 3. I think this is a function of moving on average about every 1-2 years. When you move into a community it can very hard "to break in" to a long standing coherent group. Your options tend to be people who are running a game and don't care who shows up (or as (A) in a club situtation where whoever show up plays regardless of social contract situtations. I espically found this extremly frustrating as a freshman in Uni. Where the long term players of the game played their "campaigns" that had been going on for a year or more. New folks who showed up were treated very nicely, but were given the "other" table. That could be a frustrating day, some of the people at the "other"table were vetrans of the club as well, the reason why they weren't at the table for the long campaign was obvious once you started to play with them (e.g. various social contract issues too numerous to mention). I had a similar expierence in Abderdeen as well at their game club. I was working offshore and so couldn't attend every weekly meeting, which meant I couldn't sign up for any long running games (I worked two on and two off). Every time I showed up I got stuck with the "others". In this case the others were a group of folks who played pretty much randomly (there was crazy ass shit going on in their games, I swear it was completly random - it was like they dropped some pcp or something before starting - it was like Nitro Fergueson or something) but had been doing so that way for a few months at least and very happy. After two or three meetings I stopped coming (I couldn't handle the wierdness that was going on in their game) as their wasn't any other option, it was not play or play with the group that had Draconians who talked like quant English farmers and did alice in wonderland wild ass shit, and who the DM gave 20 levels to make sure you couldn't do anything to them, who would just pop in.

Finally with regards to the GM, everyone of those groups that I played in since 1999 has or had rotating GM's. I think to the point with the exception of the small group that met at my house in Newcastle (where I was 50% GM and the other two guys 25% each), they were also all equally spilit for the number of sessions of GMing. I exclude the surreal Aberdeen expierence, I am not even really sure how to clasify what they were doing, however, I was clearly the "player" in that situtaiton.   

Cheers for now,

"Reach out your hand if your cup be empty, if your cup is full may it be again"

Mike Holmes

I don't know that I've ever had the problem of "group ownership" that seems to be Paul's topic. But I did, not too long ago, have an issue personally with "story ownership." In my IRC HQ game that I run weekly, I have Thomas Robertson act as "Assistant Narrator." Basically he runs some scenes when I can't handle them all (we often run three or more scenes at a time). Now the thing is that he's fully competent to run the whole game, and on some occassions when I wasn't available to run, they went ahead and played without me.

Which wasn't a big deal. It meant that the game could progress without one of it's players - who just happened to be the regular narrator. The game is, in fact, designed around the idea that players can come and go a lot, and it shouldn't stop the game (to combat an artifact of online play where players do tend to come and go a lot). So this was all good.

In addition sometimes there were scenes going on - conversations mostly - that we decided to do by email so as to get more done between sessions. To combat the fact that IRC is generally slow (which is another problem with player interest). These required little to no moderation, I was just copied on the emails.

But then at one point it was proposed that people should just play the game whenever they felt like it. That is, if there were enough people together online at the same time that felt like starting upa scene or something, the idea was that they would just push things forward with whomever was available to be narrator being narrator.

And that's where I drew the line. At that point I said, basically, "This story is substantively mine. You're out of line if you push the story forward at an unscheduled time without me being present to participate."

I think that the other players may have felt that I was being somewhat hypocritical. Play always progressed if they weren't present to play, and, in fact, could proceed with just some characters during times other than during sessions. But I was claiming that if play was occuring outside of a session time without me present, or at least saying it was OK, that this was violating my rights with regards to the game.

Now, the only argument I can have about this is that it's "my game" in the sense that I created the ideas for how it works, I co-ordinate it, and, though I don't do a lot of prep, I do prep for it - I'm the one who, for whatever it's worth, knows the canon. Oh, and I work harder than any of the players to keep up in all of the scenes, as I have to participate in all of them.

I really do think of it as "my game" which other players subscribe to. Obviously, however, the other players don't all see it quite that way. I think they feel that it's a case of shared ownership of the game.

I could see a game in which the contract was that everybody owned the game, if this was made explicit at the start, and in which some of the duties were more evenly shared, perhaps. I'd even invite such to occur in the same game world as mine with the events shared between the groups playing. But that's not the same as saying that I'm ready to simply give up ownership of the story that's developed so far.

So is this a case of me being a greedy bastard? Or the social contract evolving beyond me as an unintentional result of some of the sharing that I've done? Is it automatically dysfunctional to have a model where the GM owns the play, and the other players are merely "subscribers?"

I don't think this fits any of Paul's cases - and the fact that it's online gaming may confound the issue somewhat. But I'm not just telling my own story - though it is about me demonstrating my GMing abilities (we all play for the social rewards). The players all freely come and go to other games. I play in games run by some of the other players. But somehow I feel that this case is somehow indicative of a border between functional ownership and dysfunctional.

Or am I over the line?

Member of Indie Netgaming
-Get your indie game fix online.

Paul T


Thank you for your input. Some interesting comments and ideas. Now, how do you think these types of shows might be a) encouraged or b) discouraged by game design? I mean both past game design and any current or future game design. That's really the topic that is particularly relevant to the Forge.

For instance, CCG's and multi-player online PC games definitely discourage this from happening.


That's very interesting! I think it is a variation of my Case 2, although that may be difficult to see because I crammed a lot of unrelated information into that description.

The medium (internet) makes it a much less disfunctional variation, though. In my case, I wanted to play the game because I wanted the story to progress. In your case, it sounds like it's the same feeling--like a group of friends are going to watch the next episode of your favorite show without you.

However, then you add in the factor that you put the whole thing together, through the sweat of your brow. I remember feeling distinctly unhappy as a teenager when I once designed a game, and my friends took it and played it, and had fun, but all without me.

A few clarifications on this thread:

-I am not personally suffering in any way because of such problems. My gaming situations these days are much, much healthier (although rare).

-I used the term Creative Agenda above, and I wish I hadn't capitalized it. The _words_ describe exactly what I meant to say, but the _term_ as coined here isn't quite applicable. I was trying to explain that the GM, sometimes, might run a game because s/he wants to enjoy a particular type of story, and prioritizes that over the social aspects of gaming with actual human beings.



Simon C

Quotehow do you think these types of shows might be a) encouraged or b) discouraged by game design?

Good question!  I don't think I have any particularly insightful answers to this, except to say that perhaps one of the things that encourages this is the false divide between "the rules of the game" and "suggestions on how to play".  I think games that have rules about how to play the game that are explicitly recognized as rules, that reinforce a particular style of play, can help to reduce conflicts about who is playing the "right" way, or at least to make those conflicts about rules rather than about status.  Specifically, I think games that emphasise more player control over the direction of the game might encourage less feeling of GM ownership, though that style of game is not to everyone's taste. 

On the other hand, sometimes I think suggestions about how to play the game can encourage a feeling of GM ownership.  The introduction section of many older White Wolf games seemed to encourage the perception that a game was the creative product of the GM, with help from the players, and it seems likely that this would lead to feelings of ownership.



1) on intra-group status issues.  Sure ok these hapen.  Should we address them?  Depends, if our stated goals are to understand RPG then no, in fact we are doing the correct thing in distilling those conflicts that are specifically RPG-based out of the mishmash of interactions of these necessarily social events.  Fundamentally other peoples lives are not solvable problems for us, and no amount of RPG advice is going to overcome some genuine social conflict.

2) I don't think GM ownership need be construed as unhealthy, disfunctional, or indicative of an unusual motive.  It may be that the GM player does have some status-related motive but even if that is the case would they be conscious of that themselves?  Surely the players actions in the game are also attempts to gain or convey status by contributing to the CA, demonstrating  whatever virtues are appropriate, just as wearing types of clothes or pursuing certain careers could be construed as status goals or means. 

A sense of owenrship can be suitably explained by the differing workloads, and the fact that the GM's workload is preparatory and therefore risky.  If the players turn their noses up and walk away, the work invested in prep is wasted.  Of course the GM wants to see their work accepted, be validated.
Impeach the bomber boys:

"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci

Mike Holmes

Quote from: Paul T on November 28, 2006, 12:43:45 AM
The medium (internet) makes it a much less disfunctional variation, though. In my case, I wanted to play the game because I wanted the story to progress. In your case, it sounds like it's the same feeling--like a group of friends are going to watch the next episode of your favorite show without you.
Well, to be clear, it's a case of them wanting to create an episode without me as one of the writers. When I've been a writer on almost every previous episode.

QuoteHowever, then you add in the factor that you put the whole thing together, through the sweat of your brow. I remember feeling distinctly unhappy as a teenager when I once designed a game, and my friends took it and played it, and had fun, but all without me.
If it was a case of them having never played with me, as I've said, it would have been non-problematic. If somebody wants to play in the world I've set up or something, they should feel free. It's that I've been involved in the creation to this point so heavily, and that people feel that they can push the creation ahead without me.

Again, this could be seen as hypocritical, as it's a tenet of the game that there is no other player for whom the game will wait. That said, a small difference, I wouldn't push a full session of the game at a time other than the appointed meeting time. If they don't show, then they've had the opportunity to be there, and passed. As I've also said, if I don't show to that time, that's fine, too. I've missed my opportunity to be there when the game goes forward.

The only thing that I have a double standard about is play outside of the appointed time. I don't want people playing when I'm not even aware that they might be doing so. Coming to the next session and them saying, "Oh, by the way, we played last night, and killed the king!" Though I do allow players to move things forward in their own scenes outside of play.

Given that the players in these cases only control their characters, however, maybe you can see my point. My "character" is "everybody else." And, just like all the other PCs, it's only allowable for somebody to play that character when I'm not present when I am scheduled to be.

Member of Indie Netgaming
-Get your indie game fix online.

Ron Edwards


Well, this is one of those key moments, that I knew would come one day. I'll now bust out some stuff I've been organizing in my mind for a few years now.

The first concept is that "leadership" and "authority" are not the same things. I'm going to use leadership to indicate a sort of elected or consensually-recognized social status, involving looking to a given person's judgment about stuff. The key point about being a leader is that one can't grab and hold leadership; it is only granted, and it's always subject to revision by the led, at the very least through suggestions and even through non-painful transference of the role. That's important.

Whereas I'll restrict authority to a division-of-labor level. A lot of things need to get done in this particular endeavor, and you do this, and I do that, he does that other thing, and when X comes along, he and I will take care of that as well. This is best understood, I think, as a way for a person to know he or she does not have to do a certain thing, yet can rely upon it being done. One of the implications of looking at it this way is that challenging authority is not really done, not if everyone's doing his or her job, and suggestions are emphatically only suggestions.

So this thread is, I think, about leadership. OK, brace yourselves, because I'm now going to take the concept of "the GM" and stomp it into the dirt, at length, and coming up an hour later to slit its throat to make sure.

Just a list

What sorts of leadership and authority are associated with this concept of "the GM"? Here's a quick rattling-off of what I've observed.

GMing as social organizer
GMing as host
GMing as rules-owner and introducer
GMing as creative leader
GMing as social/procedural leader
GMing as player with specific authority

The interesting thing is that you can remove the illusory-centralizing concept of "GM" from all of these, and in doing so, a number of insights emerge. The first is that many of these can be disconnected from one another, i.e., don't have to be the same person. The second is that within any one of them, the role/function can shift from person to person without causing terrible traumas. The third is that that gaming terminology and traditions have fucked the whole thing up by nesting these functions in precisely backwards order.

I'll break the above into two basic concepts.

The real-people, social leadership roles

Like any social activity, role-playing does need (1) an organizer to ensure others' presence. It does need (2) a host (even in a public place, one person typically acts as host!). Finally, it does need (3) someone to own and suggest a particular rules-set (i.e. "game").

All these are pretty straightforward, but I want to make two points about them. First, none of these three sub-parts have to be the same person. Second, people often see this social concept as a result or subsidiary of the next concept, whereas in fact the two are not necessarily even related, and if they are, it's perfectly all right (perhaps better) for the connection to operate the other way 'round.

The real-people, creative leadership roles

1. Role-playing does need a creative leader as a kind of overseer, either at the start or ongoing or both. This is a very difficult topic and I anticipate a lot of incomprehension. What I'm talking about is someone who, formally or informally, is looked to by the others as a reliable judge of what to do, or how it's going when under way, in aesthetic terms. This is why, for instance, I have always said Sorcerer works best when one person, at the outset, really has a strong notion of the look, feel, and general (if unstated) questions, when suggesting it to the others. But I also want to stress that this kind of leadership is not dictatorship or controlling at all. It wholly depends on the others (i.e. it's informally "elected") and in many cases, it actually shifts around person to person, which is quite functional and may depend on different people's personalities and expertise.

2. Role-playing does need a social/procedural leader during play itself. This is absolutely key, especially for games that around here, we call "GM-ful," like Universalis or Polaris. The rules might say, "Now the person to the left takes the next turn," but in practice, someone real is actually monitoring whether this happens and reminding others, or correcting them. As with the above one, some groups arrive at a more communal version of this role, but my point is that it's a necessary, important role. I anticipate that people are going to have kittens over the idea that this role (procedural is being split out from the above one (creative, as well as split out from the owner of the physical book, but oh well, I'll brace for it.

The within-the-fiction authority roles

In the thread Silent railroading and the intersection of scenario prep and player authorship, I outline four types of authority that always occur during role-playing, and make the key point that they often get smushed together by assumption, when they don't have to be. I also make the point there that when one gets distributed differently from what other people are used to, they might flip out because the only alternative they can imagine is total absence of authority, i.e., anarchy.

For present purposes, though, I am saying that any organization of authority can itself be placed within this scheme of leadership I'm outlining ... but notice that I've put this third (at the bottom), and you should think of it as subordinate to the two types of leadership above it.

All right, now for the difficult part

If any of these functions are to be centralized in any formal way, then the order I've put them in (top-down) should indicate which supercedes which, looking at any two of them. And that going the other way is rife with potential social/structural flaws.

I suggest that nesting the concepts from bottom-up causes problems for extremely basic social reasons, not specific to role-playing at all. Here's an example.

Let's say Bill is a good procedural leader, but happens not to be the person who holds situational authority in a particular game, who is James. James is thus nominally "the GM," and part of his job (in this game and group) is to set scenes and play NPCs. So, James goes ahead and sets a scene or has an NPC do something, but in a fashion that doesn't fit with what's been done or understood to be done so far. Bill steps in and says, wait a minute, that's not following the procedure, let's back up a minute. Wham. Power-struggle.

Why? Because, I suggest, everyone inherently knows that a thing is only fun insofar as someone doesn't violate the procedure everyone else thought was the way to do it. James' authority over doing it is inherently not the same, and not as powerful, as whoever-has-authority over how to do it.

However, in this case (gaming), everyone shares the same verbal illusion or delusion is that it does ("situational authority over the fiction emcompasses procedural leadership in general"). So James gets mad and everyone gets nervous, because (a) they want James to do his job, but (b) they do trust Bill in his understanding of the procedures of how Bill should do it. So now it's cognitive dissidence - by supporting Bill, they mistakenly think they'll undermine James in his function, but by supporting James, they correctly know that procedures will now be up for grabs, and they don't want that either. The whole concept of "the GM" then blankets this mess and turns it into an indigestible, stinking hummock.

If I'm right about that, then the worst-case scenario would be ...

a) Calling a person "the GM" because he or she holds the bulk of the four types of authority.
b) Then assuming that the same person, because he or she is "GM," automatically is the social/procedural leader; and continuing up, the creative leader (i.e. we smush the three creative subtypes together)
c) OK, now we look up to the social level and automatically smush all three social subtypes there together too (social organizer, host, rules-owner and suggester).
d) And finally, since this "GM" exists as a total helmsman over the smushed-together creative level, it is now presumed that he or she is also the main person involved in the smushed-together social level.

Gee, that's funny, the worst-case scenario seems to be what a whole lot of people do. So either I'm entirely wrong and all those people are happy as clams, or I'm pointing out some very negative embedded traditions in our hobby that should be reconsidered as soon as possible.

So, Paul, what I'm seeing in your post all seems like grappling among the various types of leadership, and your focus seems to be on the negative versions - a person hosting because they want attention, for instance. I tend to take a more benign view, that hosting is part and parcel of social activities, and only problematic when someone is being dishonest or weird about it. However, I am also saying that in gamer culture, a number of deeply-embedded and assumed fallacies have led to such dishonesty and weirdness taking root more commonly than they otherwise might have.

What do you think?

Best, Ron
edited to fix link

Eero Tuovinen

Excellent, Ron. I'm just tonight struggling with the issues you outline so elegantly over in my own playtest thread. Very helpful, a fortunate synchronity. I understand what you say here, and will have to think on the implications to my design for a while. Especially the order of authorities is important, relevant stuff for laying out a game for presentation.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

Paul T


That's very interesting, and makes a lot of sense to me. I'll have to digest it a bit more, but on first glance it seems to me that my more recent gaming experiences, which haven't suffered from problems like the "Cases" I described above, are all either:

a) organized top-down, rather than top-down, according to your outline,, or

b) have a clearly outlined separation of those areas of leadership that everyone is on board with (ex: Jill will be hosting a game night at her place on Friday, we're going to playtest Bob's new ruleset, and Grace will be the GM, as well as contributing the setting/scenario).

Such a breakdown is interesting in the context of game design, since, given a classification like this, we can try all the possible combinations and see if any have never been used before, then look through those to see which ones might be fun. I've never played a game, for instance, where one player is in charge of setting up Situation, a second in charge of playing the characters (effectively exercising plot authority), and a third player has the authority to introduce new rules into play whenever his or her turn comes around.

Now, does anyone have any ideas or experiences to relate in terms of turning disfunctional situations into functional ones? Ron's model gives us some ideas on how to create one from scratch; what about fixing situations already in progress?



Paul T


In your online game, when the other players have gone on to play without you, was it:

a) They set up a time to play, invited you, but you couldn't make it, and they went on without you.


b) They just played without letting you know?

Also, did you ever run a game that not everyone was aware of, or that was scheduled at a time when you _knew_ certain players wouldn't be able to make it?

I'd be interested to get to the bottom of this situation you describe. Maybe there's no real "solution", but I'd like to dig a little further and see what we come up with.


Simon C

Ron, those are some interesting ideas.  I have some questions:

1) Your essay seems to portray one way of assigning leadership roles as "bad", and others as "good".  Do you think it might be more productive to look at this in terms of goals and outcomes? Your "worst case scenario" seems like a bit of a straw man.  I'm not debating whether or not the traditional GM role can have negative effects, but rather suggesting that it would be more productive to look at what effects each model of leadership distribution has.  Given that the traditional model of GM is a popular one, it would be surprising if it didn't have some positive effects.

2) Your list of leadership roles associated with being GM doesn't include pre-existing statuses that I think are important to how the role is normally percieved.  Things like "most experienced gamer", "the person everyone likes" or any other social status indicators.  A lot of dysfunctional groups, specifically the one I talk about in my above post, are the result of tension between the GM role and these social roles.  Have you left these out because you see them as outside the scope of game design, or because you don't think they're relevant?

Overall I'm really excited by the ideas you've brought up, and I'd love to see how this could affect game design.