Types of GM…?

Thanks to the monster that is the Facebook news feed, I stumbled across a post today about Types of GM. If you do not feel like following the link, the post boils down to citing two methods for running a game and creating  three groups of GM from that.

The author’s bias seems to support a good amount of authorial direction by the GM, while allowing a small amount of player freedom of choice. The descriptions of the author’s three types of GM (Railroad GM, Sandbox GM, and Mix n’ Match GM) reflect their bias toward this common and popular preference of play.

As feedback was called for, this article has been written to suggest a different perspective on what might make a GM’s type.

While I suppose it is possible that a person might choose to employ one of the basic approaches described in the blog post as their standard MO, it seems like an idea that could use more development. What if what the author was seeing were not types of GM at all? What if instead, what was being seen was the effect of what those GMs were trying to do coupled with the effect of how the players interacted with each other, the events, and that GM? What if what was observed to be conscious choice was not a choice, but rather the result of the relative skill levels of those in the group coming together?

There are periods in game design where clear ideas about the GM’s role are reinforced, and there are periods where nothing about how to run the game in these terms is said. We seem to be in a period now where a whole lot about how to run games is being said, from a wide range of experience levels and perspectives on gaming. Like any hobby, there is much to learn, and what we play, who we play with, and for how long are as much determiners of what we learn as temperament. I am not convinced that the railroader, the sandboxer, and the mix’n matcher are types of GM, and the ongoing change in popular conception of the terms railroad and sandbox are just one way we can demonstrate the varying degrees to which experience and skill are being passed on in the hobby. Some gamers are frustrated with how basic terms like these keep being used as though they were opposites in the same technical category. Ask them, and they will tell you at length how one is a GM technique for running a scene or session, while the other is a form of setting design. If you ask me, I might tell you that it’s like comparing jogging to how you decorate your home gym. Changes like this annoy everyone in their chosen hobbies, but a person can only know what they have had a chance to learn. If we don’t share what and how we play, if we are unwilling to share our perspectives, then we must expect even the very language of gaming conversation to change around us.

A railroad: an RPG experience wherein the GM visibly or invisibly invalidated player choices so that a pre-planned event or series of events took place as planned.

A sandbox: a form of setting design tied together by detailed locations, not actions or events.

Key point: ‘railroading’ is the denial of player choices on a small or large scale. This can occur in a sandbox just as in a published linear adventure. It is a method of retaining GM control over the flow of one or more events. The method used to design the setting is irrelevant.

Understandably, lots of new GMs try to tell a story through the medium of the game because they believe that is what they are supposed to do. Some may continue in this direction for a long time. It becomes a problem when they do not know how to mingle their vision of that story with the actual choices made by the players, and the players are similarly lacking in ability to find their way into the tale. When described later, others would call the result a railroad as the experience from the players’ side would be that the GM didn’t want them to make the choices they made, and the GM would be left wondering how to “tell a story” if they can’t guide choices.

Over time and with some discussion or introspection, some learn how to play a little jazz within the session. Some people start out this way thanks to a good introduction to gaming, or natural predisposition. Using the “story” as inspiration and growing sensitive to the actions of the players so that improvisation and modification can happen, the resulting experience is a more collaborative one where choices matter, but a recognizable story is taking shape around the characters. This might happen within a setting defined only by story elements, or it might happen within a sandbox setting. What is important here is that all the members of the group have learned some ways to interact, and thereby have learned how to collaborate in the creation of a story. For some players, this might be too much freedom. For others, not nearly enough. The same goes for GMs. It’s not really the technique which defines these people so much as what they hope to accomplish with the techniques they consciously employ.

Story Setting: Some RPG settings are not developed outside of the point in a story arc in which the characters find themselves. Locations, people, events are all frames for the flow of the story. We can see the early dungeon-crawling efforts of so many 80s teens as an expression of this, where the session starts at the opening of the dungeon and once that dungeon is done, the group moves onto the next, with nothing in-between. We can also see one-shots, many short Call of Cthulhu mysteries, and other forms of ‘mission-oriented’ play here. There may be a vast amount of preparation or it may be mostly improvisation, but either way the only thing that ‘exists’ are the scenes, and the way from move from scene to scene is to follow or create the story.

Sandbox Setting: Some RPG settings are developed as an area to support the game. There is no intention for it all to be explored, and it is prepared to varying degrees of detail, to lend a specific feel to the fictional world in which the characters operate. Wherever they go, there is something there, and ‘life’ goes on all around them, and in interaction with them.

Another point of view from which a group might begin their gaming experience is in long-form, open-ended campaign play. Here, stories are noted in hindsight, after the fact. The idea is not to ‘tell a story’ or ‘run a game for a few months’ or the like. Here, the idea is that Friday night is game night and we will run the same characters as long as we can. The purpose is the playing of the characters through the events they choose to get involved in. The nature of this sort of game, and the techniques to maintain it, evolve over time as the group’s knowledge of each character, location, faction, ideology, etc grows and expands options.

I am not a fan of labels, but if I were to posit just three categories of GM intention, I might look at the deepest of their desires to be a GM – the story. Does the GM want to tell one, facilitate one, or discover one? A fourth type, the reluctant GM is a player doing double duty, and while important and very common, will not be discussed in this post.

So for three types of GM, defined as in the post to which this is a response by their relationship to the ‘story,’ I might say we have a Storyteller, an Improviser, and a Collaborator.

A change can happen when the group learns that they can explore a type of story in the same way that they have learned to explore a character. From the outside, this can look like the worst sort of railroad, but for those who can get into it, it’s a device of a different shape.

This shifts yet again when the group learns how to shift narrative control around the group either session to session, or within a session. Someone who began as a Storyteller, may learn that they are far more interested in being an Improviser, or a Collaborator. They just needed to know that such things were possible, and to know how to bring them about in a session with a willing group.

What can really bake a person’s noodle is when the group is composed of people who first started their journey in RPGs with a game rooted in a perspective or stance which used to develop in a gamer much later, or not at all. As gaming expands its markets and exposure, the ‘traditional’ big name first games of the past are not necessarily what gamers are going to have a chance to play first. Trying to balance the expectations of a group made up of someone who sees the GM as a novelty, not a default, with someone who sees the GM as an authority and story-shaper, will produce a very different game than what the GM may have hoped to do. Regardless, the casual observer will define that GM by what the game looked like from the outside, not by what they wanted it to be. It is the desired result which has a stronger claim to the type of GM a person might be, than the effect they managed to achieve with their current level of skill and awareness and the group they play with.

From my perspective, there is a whole lot more going on under the skin of our games than we as a community are willing to talk about. If you are interested in peeling back a layer or two of skin with me, this older article on how people perceive their games could be a place to start: Charting a Spectrum of Play.

8 Responses to “Types of GM…?”
  1. I am glad that my simple 400 word post managed to get you to post 2000 words on how wrong I am.

    First, I purposely made the post simple and short. It isn’t meant to be complete and deep. Go and read all of my post. None of them are super deep. They are all quick and to the point.

    Second, I am going to do a follow on post about this where I explore the different types of GMs that are less general.

    Third, you must have been bloody nuts to think that I was going to approve a comment on my blog that leads to your post gutting me.

    • Runeslinger says:

      Thanks for commenting. I am sorry to see that my post has made you feel defensive. You chose a topic that caught my attention and asked for the thoughts of others. This short post comprises my quick thoughts on the subject.

      That we do not agree is an opportunity for discussion and development of ideas. The comment I left on your blog was asking you a question, not challenging you.

      This post should have also sent a trackback link. If you don’t want to approve it that is certainly your prerogative. I can remove the link from this post to yours if you like.

      I am glad to see you will be taking another look at the subject. You will likely find people who enjoy your description of types, and you may find people who find the idea of type lists to be too divisive. We can’t please everybdy. I hope your post shows your real thoughts on the subject and that you will get satisfying engagement from it.

  2. We’ve discussed this on our respective blogs before, and I thought his post was a good entry into the subject. He choice of a screencap from “Zero Charisma” was an excellent choice and telegraphed his position well…but his hostile response (and a similar edit at the end of the piece) has the trappings of a GM who does not brook challenges to his auhority.

    It’s a shame. You’re one of the more collaborative and personable game bloggers on the web; I think he missed a real opportunity to engage.

    • Runeslinger says:

      I did not expect that sort of response. Had I known my post could be taken so personally, I would have written it very differently. I stand by what I have suggested, but it did not need to be a direct response.

  3. Hamenopi says:

    It is wise, sharing our experiences with gaming.

    My rpg worldviews aren’t the same as yours and our origin back stories are different. In fact, everyone’s experience is unique.

    Nevertheless, there are similarities in all thing so by collaborating, we can help others overcome hurdles and get advice on overcoming our own. Isn’t that great?

    It’s sad that your article was met with masked hostility but perhaps it just takes him time to fully digest the words. It did for me. Honestly, I had to take a break in the middle of it. Perhaps after a good night of two of sleep, your words will peculate through him and he will benefit from your advice.

    Or maybe he wont. But I did. And for that, I thank you

  4. NC Space Monkey says:

    Very interesting topic!

    Sadly it is derailed by the thin skin of the original article’s author. I dudnt see his post and was intending to look it up after I finished your article but after reading his reply I don’t think I need to read anything he has to say.

    For Runeslinger’s response I’d like to say that your ideas are quite deep on this and I’m going to think about it a bit more, comparing my personal experiences as a GM as well as those a player in other GMs’ adventures to see how much I would agree or disagree with your thoughts.

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