Musings On Master GMs
How To Spot A Master GM
I’ve been around the RPG hobby now for quite a few years (when you see “years” read “decades”) and in that time I’ve come across a few very talented, very knowledgeable, and very sought after RPG Game Masters (GMs), and recently I’ve got to wondering what makes these individuals so good at running games. Sure, there are plenty of good GMs around, and there are even a reasonable number of great GMs out there too, but what is it about those special few individuals that we are justified in calling them Master GMs? This essay is the result of my considerations and observations on the subject and my attempt to define what well may be the indefinable qualities that go into making someone a Master GM.
So here goes.
Honor And XP
First of all, nobody who is a genuine Master GM ever calls themselves that. Sure, they’ll quietly acknowledge the accolade when others consider them worthy of the honour, but they’ll never claim the title themselves — He who claims to be a Master GM proves himself unworthy of the title by his own hubris.
As can be expected a Master GM has a vast amount of experience. They say it takes at least ten thousand hours to get really good at something, so of course a Master GM will have simply oodles of time under their belt. But just because a given GM is old (and crotchety — maybe) that doesn’t automatically make them a Master GM; I’ve known one or two Master GM’s who were only in their late 20’s. Still, no Master GM never had several years of experience running games.
A sure-fire sign that your GM may be a Master GM is how well they know their game setting. If they can rattle of places and names, events, and occurrences at the drop of a hat, and make you believe that not only do they know what they’re talking about but even that they’ve actually been there… well, then they’re a good candidate for the Master GM title.
Hand-in-hand with their knowledge of their game world is knowledge of the game system. A good GM knows their system forward and backwards, inside and outside, and upside down and right-side up. A Master GM knows not just their system, but lots of systems. They can discuss the subtle differences between first and second edition D&D; second and sixth edition Shadowrun; and the various editions of Traveller. They’ve run Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Runequest, Middle-Earth Roleplay, and Earthdawn, or if not those particular games then an equivalent selection of others.
Master GMs tend to be creators: either they’re creating adventures, creating their own game world, or even sometimes creating their own RPG. Master GMs tend to create because nearly all of them have a love of creating things for others to experience; they gain immense pleasure in presenting to others their creations and in having others enjoy and explore what they’ve presented. They also derive great pleasure in presenting challenges to not only the Player Characters but to the Players themselves, helping them grow and develop as gamers.
Leadership And Bardic Lore
Master GM’s tend to also be nurturers and mentors, guiding those who are new to our hobby or less experienced then themselves. It’s not unusual for a Master GM’s gaming group to have newbies being brought in and nurtured in our hobby, for Master GMs have the ability to balance the needs of the experienced and the inexperienced to make the whole better.
Another sign that your GM may be a Master GM is the depth of their knowledgeable in areas not traditionally associated with RPGs. Here I’m talking about geography, history, cultures, psychology, climate science, astronomy, ecology, and a host of other disciplines; for a Master GM desires for their games to be as realistic as possible and a good working knowledge of all of these fields and others helps a Master GM in creating that “willing disbelief” so necessary in their Players — people will accept almost anything if its presented to them in such a way that it maintains “internal consistency”. Conversely, nothing will jar a Player out of their enjoyment of the game more then discovering inconsistencies with rules, settings, or styles of play.
Master GMs tend to also be Master Players, but only rarely. Most Master GMs will not play in others’ games unless they too are being run by a Master GM. In this Master GMs can be thought of as “alpha males”, and most alpha males are too competitive to “submit” to the authority of another GM when they themselves can “do it better”. However, a true Master GM has no trouble playing in another Master GM’s game as the will to become a better GM overrides this natural “alpha tendency”. Most Master GMs are secure enough in their own GMing style to be open enough to learn from another Master GM. This is one thing does does separate the Master GMs from a “regular” GM.
The Players in a Master GM’s game are always in a quandary: they always want to take each path presented to them by the plot, for the Master GM has the talent and skill to make all paths seem to be “main paths”, and their Players always wish they could “reload” the game to try out the paths not taken.
Related to the above is the fact that a Master GM almost always has more Players wanting to play in their game(s) then there are slots available. Master GM’s rarely need to advertise for Players (unless they are starting up a brand new group) for word of mouth quickly spreads when a slot in a Master GM’s game becomes available — and Master GM’s normally have a waiting list of potential Players anyway.
Freedom Of Movement
Master GMs show a particular talent in getting their games and their carefully constructed plots “back on track”. All GMs know how to “railroad the Players”, either subtly or blatantly. Great GMs can make such “railroading” seem as if the “railroading” was the Players’ idea. But a Master GM can make it appear as if it was all part of the original story anyway, and that no “railroading” has taken place at all. If you’ve never been “railroading” in a game then you’ve been gaming with a Master GM — even if you’ve never realised it!
Seeker Of Knowledge
The Master GM is always learning something to help make themselves better. Perhaps this is by playing new game systems to examine new mechanics or story-telling techniques. Perhaps it is by taking a creative writing course to help them write better stories. Perhaps it is reading something in sociology or history or some other discipline to add that extra layer of verisimilitude to their games. Perhaps it is taking an acting course. Or reading RPG blogs. Or perhaps it is all of these.
Whatever it is, Master GMs are always always striving to improve, to provide a better story, a better experience, a better game. It’s one reason Master GMs are so humble — there’s so much more to learn.
Aura Of… Something
Finally, there’s that special something that is practically impossible to describe; that something that every Master GM has that is different from all the other GMs out there and different even from other Master GMs. That something that we all recognise when we see it but which can’t be read about or written down or recorded in any way, but which some posses naturally and some learn by osmosis.
So if you’re lucky enough to know a genuine Master GM then treasure that relationship, because your gaming is so much better for it. If you find yourself in the presence of such an individual then sit back and listen to whatever sage advice falls from their lips, and refrain from supplying your own, for in being a Master GM they have earned the right of your respect, though they will never demand it.
If someone you know is worthy of the accolade then be not timid in bestowing it upon them, but also be not too generous and bestow the distinction upon all and sundry, for in doing so you cheapen both the accolade and yourself.
If you desire to become a Master GM yourself — and there is no more nobler a goal for any GM — then hopefully this essay has placed you feet upon that path. Walk it well, and when the path fades before you and you are forging it anew, then you will know that you may indeed be worthy of the title: Master GM.
I welcome others’ points of view on this subject, whether you agree or disagree, or have other qualities to add or stories of a Master GM you know, so if you’d like then I encourage you to join the discussion below and share you views and stories.