My journey as a GM

I had played a lot of different RPG’s before I encountered Dungeon World, and I really mean a lot. The reason I picked up Dungeon World in the first place was that it was mentioned some random place on the internet, a place I found because I was looking for a new group. I looked it up and saw that it had won the 2012 Golden Geek award, and then decided to buy it, just to see what the fuzz was all about.

I hadn’t played regularly for almost a year, so I bought it with no actual intent of ever playing it, but when I read it, I was hooked. I couldn’t say what it actually was that made this game seem like the holy grail to me at the time, but I can now.

In fact, it has nothing to do with the game itself, even though it is an excellent game in its own right. It was the spirit of the game, the endless enthusiasm it inspired, and the wonders it promised. It was the new paradigm. Well, new to me at least. I’ll get back to the paradigm later…

I have learned more about the art of GM’ing in the year I’ve known about Dungeon World than in my 9 other years of gaming combined. More precisely, I’ve learned what I think makes for a great game, one you will remember and hold dear forever.

What makes a game great?

So, I read through Dungeon World, paying close attention to the Move mechanics, because mechanics is what makes a game, right? Wrong! Wrong, wrong, wrong! Well, that was my first lesson; a game is so much more than its rules. And setting for that matter; the setting is just another set of rules, a kind of a context for rules, the assumptions about what the game tries to make work.

I learned that for me, the most important part of a game is how it enables and amplifies the social aspects of gaming; how it handles player input, how it lets the group tell a story that no member could tell on their own, and how it allows people to utilize the rules for the enjoyment of the group, instead of assuming that we should “ignore them when they get in the way”. Dungeon World was very upfront about this; if you don’t play by our rules, the game will probably not work as intended. It’s cool and all, but all warranties expire immediately.

Moves are central here. A player’s moves are a kind of leverage. They can be used to make an irreversible impact on the game, and there’s no fail-safes; the GM doesn’t have the authority that other games assume, he can’t veto something just because he doesn’t like it. For example, when a player discerns realities, then the answers the GM gives them is true and cannot later be altered, only added upon. This makes it really hard to keep the players in the dark about things, since they cannot be denied the roll to discover the information. If a move is triggered, it happens, no matter how many tears that are shed by the GM.

What I’ve learned from actual play is that the GM is just as much along for the ride as everyone else. Sure, the GM Moves are a lot more ambiguous and open-ended, but he has no authority over anything except “narrating in the moment”, telling players what they experience now. He is not allowed to actually decide anything else about the characters, unless a move explicitly says so.

The new gaming paradigm…

… is called “inclusion”. I always hated prepping, and Dungeon World gave me a very easy way to avoid making the prep that I didn’t want to do; it gave me a list of principles to follow, two of them being ask and build on the answers and draw maps, leave blanks. The game actually tells me to prepare less and ask questions whenever you are out of ideas! It tells me to say “yes, and…” to everything the players give me.

This makes games a lot more improvised, pushing it in the direction of “play” in contrast to “work”, as I felt Dungeons & Dragons always did. I GM’ed a game of D&D 4th Edition for one and a half year, I think, and the burden of being GM was tremendous for me. I couldn’t make up monsters on the fly, there were too many stats for that. I had to work out encounters prior to the game, which meant that I either forced encounters upon players, or made an enormous amount of prep that would never be used. In other words; work, work, work. And it was a mediocre experience, it wasn’t personal.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think D&D is bad, I just never ‘got’ how to GM it properly. Sadly though, I did it exactly the same way everyone else in my local gaming community did it; heavy railroading.

So the new gaming paradigm is all about “sharing the load” and letting everyone be equal participants. This was a huge, new thing to me. I always wanted it, but I never had the ability to formulate the wish. So, this is a thing that Dungeon World actually taught me; to go along with what everyone else did, even if it wasn’t what I would have done. They make something up, I build upon it. Yeah, it sounds bad saying it like that, but it’s successful GM’ing in a nutshell; let everyone contribute equally.

Where I went from there

I picked up a lot of really nontraditional games like Microscope, Fate Core, Fate Accelerated Edition, and recently I bought Fiasco, though I haven’t finished reading it yet. I also backed Kingdom because I thought Microscope was brilliant, and the elevator pitch for Kingdom was great.

All these games has one thing in common; they rely on building upon what other players give you, making something together that you couldn’t have made yourself. Fate might be the more traditional of the above, but it’s still not exactly a traditional game. It is very discussion based, the GM hasn’t really got any authority about the characters, and he hasn’t got any more authority about the setting than the players do, which is very nontraditional.

I also read a book about improvised roleplaying called play unsafe, and it taught me a lot about how to deal with this very upon-ended kind of play; how to start the game out, how to build on other people’s ideas and how to work together to make something truly great.

Where I am now

I’ve gotten to the point, where I’m comfortable running games without preparing anything, and I feel that the feedback from the games I’ve run have been a lot more positive for it. I’ve also become aware of what I like about roleplaying in general, and the mindsets that I’m looking for in other players.

I’ve also learned that making bad calls is okay, and everything can be taking back or mended. It’s not about making a masterpiece after all, it’s about having fun. And screwing with the players (and the GM) is as fun as it gets. Oh, how I love when a player totally screws with me, when he throws me a curve ball…

Where I’m heading

I don’t actually know where I’m going. Hopefully, I’ll get a real world group going and play some more Dungeon World. In person games are a lot more personal, and I’ve been going too long without that weekly game. Hopefully, I can find a group that wants the same things that I do, but alas, most gamers I know are of a very traditional breed. I’ll just have to sell it to them!

All I know is that I’ve become a much better GM over the last year, and I’d even dare to say that I’ve come very close to the GM I want to be; the one that rolls with whatever the players do, the one that tries to give everyone a chance to have an awesome character, one that actively work to include everyone equally. I’m not perfect, but I do try. At least I know what I would want in a GM, and I know how to do be that kind of GM.

The last year has been a journey in gaming for me, and I’ve learned a lot. I hope you have learned something from this as well. Thanks for reading!

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About Undreren

I'm a university student from Denmark, currently taking my candidate degree in Mathematical-Economics. I have played pen & paper RPG's since 2004, but my interest for the phenomenon sparked about 3 years prior to that. I'm an amateur programmer and knows Java and Haskell as well as some rudimentary HTML, CSS, PHP and Javascript.

2 responses to “My journey as a GM”

  1. Jack Colby says :

    Awesome that you have discovered a gaming style and game that suits you. Though I can’t help but notice what you describe sounds very much like how we play original Dungeons & Dragons. 😉 I think it just goes to show how RPGs lost their way over the years and are only now starting to rediscover what was lost, and understand how it was meant to work in the first place.

    • Undreren says :

      I think that, for me, it is was more a matter of finding games, with a design philosophy that struck closer to my own.

      I’ve played a fair bit of D&D, both 3.5e and 4th (especially 4th), but the rules were too cumbersome for me. Never played OD&D though.

      Dungeon World just really suit my play style. It promotes its principles through rules instead of “advice”, which I find enormously helpful as a GM.

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