The GM: Lost Between Campfire and the Screen

After any amount of time as a Games Master you begin to form a definition of what it is you do. For myself, I have come to see a GM as a figure caught between historical means of storytelling. On the one hand, a GM sits about with a group of rapt (or more likely rambunctious) listening as he weaves a tale an tries to make it feel real and entertaining, much like a storyteller once did. On the other hand, a GM must shape his story to evoke emotions and reactions, know how to manipulate the party to give the best entertaining experience, working as a modern television or film crew. There are great distances between the two, and it will vary from GM to GM which way they lean, but I feel no GM can escape doing both, unless they forsake story altogether, which for those who prefer to run plunder campaigns is often the goal. But as long as there’s a story to be told, a GM finds their role a complex one.

I believe this is true for any GMing work, but it is particularly for the games I am familiar with, D&D (several editions) and Pathfinder. These games focus on a fantasy setting that is close to the mythical tales and legends of human civilization. A good game of D&D can all the drama and fantastic heroism of Beowulf, or the more modern iterations of it, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and David Eddings  Belgariad series. These games set up and require a similar fantasy aesthetic and they encourage similar characters. The heroes are inevitable human, being portrayed by human players, yet often with fewer flaws than most humans as the players try to create the best characters they can. Who wants to play Jim the sci-fi aficionado when one can play as Kalthro, the muscular noble barbarian warlord? Or the incredibly horny knight Gaston who always carries a banner depicting the unrelenting beauty of his nude form? The villains are evil as the GM can make them, with monsters bred of our deepest fears (or craziest imaginings if we are looking at frogemoths). When we create and tell a story in this setting, we are shaping that kind of mythical tale. We even tell it as tribal societies or medieval bards might have, sitting in small groups with the warm pizza and character sheets replacing the camp fire.

Yet, there is that other side to it, and it begins with an important difference between that ancient storyteller and a GM. A storyteller may have told original tales, but the majority were part of an oral history that they were repeating or a retelling of an event they had witnessed. However, today storytelling is about new creations. Let me preface my next point by saying that it should be noted that storytellers have always used exaggeration and a creative license with their tales, I still see a difference between this and more wholly creative creations. (Yes, I’m aware of the “Nothing is truly original argument”, and it is annoying, so please do not be that guy.)  I’ll also admit the media recycles a great many stories as well, and published adventures can give a GM bring a GM much closer to that storyteller’s role, I think many GMs end up doing far more in an effort to present original stories.

Any source book for table top gaming will suggest that a GM takes on many roles. The storyteller is one, but there are a host of others, and this is where the ties to the modern collective storytelling by committee of television and film emerges. A GM must be the writer, director, set creator, possibly the music director, and, if you are like me, voice actor for a host of NPCs. Almost every aspect of the creative process is in the GM’s hands. This is necessary for the GM to create not only a unique world and story for the players to experience, but a world and story that will work as the GM wants them to. A world and story with surprises and discoveries is far more entertaining for players, so that is one goal of a GM, but beyond that, I want to make a story that plays off my players, my audience. Television and film have learned how to do this frighteningly well (watch Doctor Who to see what I mean), and a GM must as well. A player may love an interesting world, but when you know they have a fondness for a character at place, a GM can inspire emotion in them. Should that beloved character be captured, they’ll feel fear, excitement, dislike for the foe. This really adds to their experience and is rewarding for a GM to see. Additionally, a GM has to recognize that players live in a world with massive amounts of media. Basic tropes are expected by them. How many times has your group expected long before the villain double-crossed them that such a betrayal was coming? A recent example I faced was players turning down the chance even touch piles of gold and jewels in a crypt based upon their belief that it must be cursed. It was, but they only avoided it due to their knowledge of the trope of cursed treasure. Therefore, what the GM is doing is far more than an ancient storyteller in this respect.

But, is it really that far away? No matter how many roles a GM takes on, he still is one individual, not a committee. Additionally, an ancient storyteller is nonexistent today as a result of the need for modern stories to have an awareness of the media landscape they are a part of. As a result, TV and film play to the audience as a GM does, and as an author does. The author (let us focus on just those writing in the fantasy genre for this discussion), like the GM, I see as an evolution of the storyteller. Both have a place on the spectrum between single oral storytelling and the height of storytelling by committee for mass audiences. They share the individual responsibility for creating the entirety of their world and story. They do so aware of the audience and that audiences approach to the work. They aim to appeal to that audience. Most importantly, both draw from that fantastic mythical culture, leading to stories that both mediums are so well known for.

Interestingly enough, I have always noted an author’s imprint on D&D in particular. While D&D’s rules mechanics grew out of table top war games such as Chainmail, much of its roots in the fantasy genre was inspired by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. It was this influence that moved D&D away from the historical settings that had long been a part of table top war games and into the fantasy realm it is known for.  To this day Tolkien’s imprint on the game can be clearly seen, particularly if one notes the racial descriptions of Elves and Dwarves. If you have ever seen Shamus Young’s DM of the Rings you know how easily Tolkien’s work can be translated into a believable campaign of a table top RPG. In the second comic it is even referenced that Lord of the Rings created ideas now seen as cliché’s in fantasy RPG’s, such as meeting in a tavern. Tolkien created a world and story drawing upon ancient fantastic myths. He created his own world of Middle Earth, a far more elaborate world than many a GM’s world. He invented dynamic characters and wrote in a unique voice for each. He told a compelling story, one that readers became invested in. The fall of Gandalf will always be a poignant moment for me, and it is a moment like that I try to create for my players. I do this as Tolkien did, because it fits the story, but also because it will impact the audience, drawing them into that story.

Tolkien, Eddings, Terry Brooks, Terry Goodkind, and other authors like them stand between the storytelling methods of the ancient bard and modern media crew. They are the missing link between the ancient storyteller and the GM, and probably a close creative relative. There is a reason so many players of D&D have or once has an interest in Tolkien’s work or other fantasy genre stories. These are often the gateway to D&D, as Tolkien’s works were a gateway table top gaming past through in its evolution from war games to D&D. (Please note, table top war gaming soon took on its own evolutions which I adore, but that’s another discussion.) GMs have an interesting task then. They have the creative storytelling duties of an author, the need or media awareness and manipulation of media tropes and clichés shared almost all forms of modern media (print included), as well as the need to draw on the fantastic myths for inspiration.

However, one defining feature of a GM is the one most all other mediums I have mention have left behind, and that is the performance of the story before a small audience. Literature, television, and film all seek to share their stories with as many individuals as possible. However, the GM retains that more intimate approach of the ancient storyteller. That gives a GM a much better ability to connect with his or her audience, an aspect of GMing and table top gaming I truly enjoy. It is as much about connecting and sharing in the entertainment the story provides as it is about the story itself. I have always thought this was one of the most important parts of being a GM, and as a result, I am not surprised by the fact that even Tolkien did this. In fact, he originally told The Hobbit as a bedtime story to his children. GMing is about taking the connectivity of that ancient tribal storytelling and making it a modern creative storytelling process alongside literature, television, and film.

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