I'm a young Gamemaster. Young in years of experience that is. So I have much to learn. Recently I was asking myself, what my job is exactly as a gamemaster. How do I approach my sessions?
This contradicts a bit the opening sentence of the Dungeon Master Guide from D&D 5th Edition:
It's good to be the dungeon master! Not only do you get to tell fantastic stories about heroes, villains, monsters and magic, but you also get to create the world in which these stories live.
But maybe on second thought, both positions are not so different after all. It is how you interpret that sentence. And maybe the word storyteller is the issue and not the idea behind it.
The gamemaster is NOT a storyteller
As always, I start to dig deeper into the rabbit hole and begin to research. Is this something new? Is this something completely groundbreaking and changes how we play Roleplaying games in the future?
Not really. The ideas behind the videos from Dungeon Craft and MM&D has been stated in the past:
- Storytelling As a game Master with Peter Warren (Dimension 20, 04.09.2021)
- Conflicted and Misaligned: Storytelling, Conflicts and Morality (The Angry GM, July 2017)
- GREAT GM: Storytelling within your RPG Game (How to be a Great GM, 13.08.2014)
- 5 Storytelling Tips for Game Masters (WASD20, 23.08.2013)
- (RANT) The Dungeon Master is Not a Storyteller in Dungeons & Dragons (the DM Lair, 07.11.2020)
But wait a minute. Most of these Postings have storyteller in their title? Wasn't this suposed to be that the GM is not a storyteller?
That is my point. The word is just so poorly chosen. If you listen to these postings (some of it are longer, but the central point comes across often in the first few minutes), you will find out, that most of them reiterate similar points.
The gamemaster is there to present a situation that the players have to resolve. In essence:
- The gamemaster creates conflict
- The players approach that conflict
- The dice decide the outcome of that conflict
On one of the videos you can find a comment that reflects this.
I think the most important difference between GMing and writing is that an author poses dramatic questions to their audience which the author then answers, while a GM poses dramatic questions to the audience (the players) which the audience themselves answer.
And you can find similar comments on multiple videos and articles.
The story emerges from these conflicts. The most memorable moments come from conflicts and how you approached them. "Remember, when we faced X and then you did Y. Epic." is probably the most common words uttered when we talk about a memorable event from a campaign. The important part was not who we fought or why. But how that specific situation resolved, good or bad.
I think one prominent example of how a conflict creates a story is the keyfish incident from Critical Role (I heard that it is quite the popular show). Warning there are minor spoilers for campaign 1.
For those that are maybe not so familiar: Keyleth, played by Marisha Ray, is a D&D5e druid.
This situation is talked about even years later by the players. Whenever a bad decision is taken and it ends disastrously, the player will say: "Rember the time when Keyleth jumped the cliff." And everybody laughs in acknowledgement.
When you analyse the situation, you could see a pattern emerging:
Conflict: There's a 1000 feet high cliff
Approach: Jump off the cliff
Outcome: You fall down, but ...
Conflict: Cliff has an angle, you will hit rock
Approach: Use magic to push off the side to get more distance
Outcome: You succeed, but ...
Conflict: You're not sure if it is enough
Approach: Use magic to turn into a goldfish
Outcome: You take a lot of damage as you hit the ground and die
At every point the player was able to make a choice. A different approach might have had a different outcome and the resulting story would have been different.
If the Gamemaster would have been a (true) storyteller, the players agency would have been removed. The GM would maybe describe the whole situation as: "You fall down the cliff. As you fall down you see the cliff is at an angle. You hit the rocks and die." The player is unsatisfied because there was nothing that could be done to prevent the fate of the character.
You can just barely hear it in the video, but after the untimely death of Keyleth you can hear probably the most important words (paraphrased):
"Should I have turned into a flying creature?"
"That was up to you. Your choice."
And I think that is the key message, the message that many others have repeated over the years: Do not remove the players choices from the game. The resolution of the conflict is in the players hand, not the gamemasters.
And this is where the gamemaster is not a storyteller.
The gamemaster IS a storyteller
So is this the end of it?
As we (might) have established. The gamemaster design conflicts. But is that enough? Would twenty combat encounters played after each other make a good story? Probably not.
When designing these conflicts, a gamemaster still follows a familiar structure in storytelling in the campagin. There is a moment of exposition, an inciting incident, rising and declining action and a resolution or denouement phase. Classic Three-act structure.
To bring back Critical Role as an example. In the last episode of campaign 2, Matt Mercer specifically says: "We're now in the denouement of the campaign." Can it get any more concrete than that?
And when you listen and read the material available on how to be a better Gamemaster, you will notice that a lot talks about that specific structure. And you will notice talk about different types of conflict. And you will notice talk about how to design such conflicts.
By choosing specific conflicts a gamemaster tells a story. Different conflicts result in a different story. In the story above, the cliff could have been at no angle. The resulting story would have been quite different as it presented the player with different choices.
The gamemaster is a storyteller. But so are the players. That is the point that maybe most of the videos and articles do not stress enough. And this is where I realized my confusion lied.
Maybe in different words: the gamemaster proposes a story and the players realize it.
What does that mean in Solo-Play
Apart from gamemastering with an actual group, I also play RPGs solitaire. What does that now mean in sense of story telling? I'm gamemaster and player in one.
Well not quite.
I think in solitaire play, one needs to let go the inner tendency of gamemastering in order to bring the session into a specific direction.
Conflicts should be generated by some sort of Oracle. A device that brings back the uncertainty, that tries to emulate the gamemaster and in turn emulates someone that creates conflicts.
This is where I struggle at the moment. I can't let go fully. Somewhere deep down I still want to control the conflict and with that the story. I think I even stated that often in my podcast: "I have an idea for something to happen, lets see if the dice lead me to that situation." I already have a conflict in mind and just wait for the dice to agree with me.
It might be interesting for the audience, as they do not know of the conflict to come, but removes something for me from the experience. In the end I am trying to tell a story under the pretence of a role-playing game.
I think there is a thin line between playing a game solitaire and telling a story. In the community you can often see the term Authoring game for this exact reason. And people are maybe using these tools to write a book, taking the oracle as suggestions or inspiration.
It comes down to personal preference, I guess. As most things in life, it isn't clearly right or wrong. It helps to tackle these ideas and learn from them.
To find my identity as a gamemaster. And maybe help to find yours.