Listen Up, Game Masters– IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU!

I really, really mean that. The game you play, regardless of what you might think or what delusions of grandeur you might have, is NOT ABOUT YOU. Suck it up.


This post inspired by:

All of these posts come down to a singular concept: Agency. A quote from the last blog post I liked to: 
In philosophy, agency is the capacity for human beings to make choices and to impose those choices on the world. It’s my belief that in our everyday lives, humans in modern society feel an absence of agency. Most of our capacity for meaningful choice is illusory; our daily lives are routine, and our scope of choice limited by lack of opportunity or resources. Very few people really can “change the world” in even a small way. Almost all of us lock on to meaningless decisions, such as what football team to support, or what color to dye our hair, as a means of expressing our need for agency. Unfortunately, intelligent people – the sort most likely to enjoy an RPG – feel the lack of agency far more poignantly than most, and often experience existential depression as a result. If you’ve either felt, or know someone who has felt, existential depression, this will probably make sense to you.

Regardless of what fabulously railroady plot you have designed and scheduled, it’s the player’s right and honor to screw it the hell up. Period, end of conversation.

Even if the players have knowingly signed on for an inherently structured series of events like an Adventure Path, it’s still not the GM’s job to force the players onto a particular track. It’s our job to facilitate the game they want to play; it’s our job as GMs to work with the players BEFORE THE GAME STARTS so that we are running a game we will have fun running as well. But once the game begins, it’s all about them– it *has* to be, or the time you spend at the table chucking dice with your friends is wasted. If the choices their characters make have no way to change the story, then you’re not roleplaying– the players are merely acting out your pre-written story.

The real glory and magic of RPGs happens in the moment when you see the player’s eyes light up when they realize that a choice they made has MATTERED– seeing the results of the village they saved from rampaging goblins, watching the BBEG get taken down a notch (before the final confrontation), or just interacting with an NPC they know and care about– all of those moments happen specifically because the players made a choice, and that choice changed the world. It means you allow your players to fail, and fail HARD if that’s the way it goes. Whether from a bad dice roll or a poorly-made choice, the consequences of the characters actions MUST matter, which means that we as GMs must put our egos on the shelf as soon as we sit down to play.


We are here to facilitate THEM. Without them, we are lonely nerds reading books about the fun we could be having. The game isn’t about the GM, it’s about the players. Remember that first and always. Your game will be better for it.

Most roleplayers are SMART, too. They’ll figure it out with a quickness if you’re bamboozling them.



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9 Responses to Listen Up, Game Masters– IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU!

  1. Matthew says:

    No. It’s not all about the players. It’s a cooperative endeavor. GMs should not be trying to trick the players, and players should not be running around, trying to fuck things up just because someone on the Internet told them it was their god-given right to do so.
    Add this one to your list of inspirational blogs:

    Just don’t be a dick. Treat your fellow players (and the GM is a player too) with respect. Everyone should put a little effort into making the game better for everyone else.

    • Jason Dawson says:

      I agree with everything except your first sentence. It simply comes down to the fact that is the players aren’t enjoying themselves, the won’t play. How else is a GM supposed to enjoy himself other than facilitating a great game for the players, anyway? What other enjoyment are we supposed to be getting out of it?

      • Matthew says:

        If the GM isn’t enjoying the game then no one will be playing.

        Respect the fact that the GM is putting some effort into the game and go to the ogre cave sometimes. Meet the GM halfway when they’re trying to provide you with something interesting to do.

      • Of course “don’t be a dick” goes both ways, and the GM and the player need to set their expectations clearly to each other before the first die ever gets rolled. I say that clearly in the post. All roleplaying games require clear communication between all involved parties or the game is predestined to break down and fall apart.

      • Matthew says:

        I’m saying that the GM and the players are equal partners in creating a fun experience. The vibe I got from your piece was that the GM sets the stage and prays for the best, but once the action starts, what they want out of a game doesn’t really matter – they’re just along for the ride. So either it’s not as clear as you think it is, or we are not in agreement.

      • Of course it’s not black-and-white, cut-and-dried. But far, FAR too many gamemasters think that they know what would be best for the game and remove the agency and choice of their players by ramrodding a plot down the PCs throats. The GM isn’t “just along for the ride”, but he IS responsible to the players to make their choices matter– and the Quantum Ogre is an example of taking that choice completely away from them.

      • Matthew says:

        And far too many players think only about their character and what they want out of the game instead of what would make the game more fun for everyone.
        GMs need to give some control to the players and players need to take some responsibility for the bigger picture.

  2. Pingback: Agency? (Pheh.) I want Opportunity. « The Rhetorical Gamer

  3. Von says:

    My current crop of players are convinced there’s some sort of over-arching GM-controlled plot-on-rails affair going on. I don’t know what’s happened to them to make them think this, but there it is – they seem to think that there’s A Story going on and that I am somehow telling them this story.

    I haven’t the heart to tell them the truth. Their efforts to find it are quite inspiring.

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