Check for Traps
Judging the Game

Alexander Macris | 27 Apr 2010 17:00
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My last article began to explain the art of game mastering to aspiring GMs (gamemasters). My premise in doing so is that the growth of the tabletop RPG hobby depends on gamemasters to organize the play group, run the campaign, and judge the sessions. Because this is a challenging job, there is a perpetual shortage of GMs, and as such there are many people who would play RPGs if there were a GM to run them. With this in mind, I then discussed the origin of the Gamemaster role, and laid out the 4 functions of the Gamemaster:

  1. Judge
  2. World Builder
  3. Adversary
  4. Storyteller

I called storytelling "in many ways the least important" function, and assigned the Judging function as the first, basic role. I was planning to plunge right into a discussion of Judging in this column, but that has been postponed! First I want to respond to some comments I received on last column and explain a bit about my underlying premises on GMing.

It's Not Your Job to Make Sure People Have Fun
When I listed the four functions of the GM in my last article, two out of the first six responses said that "the real job of the GM is to make sure people have fun." Others have said this to me in conversation. Well, I disagree!

If you're the GM, it's not your job to make sure people have fun. The belief that when a player doesn't have fun it's the GM's fault has caused more GMs more grief and heartburn than any other myth in gaming. You can be an amazing GM, yet a player might not have fun. Because whether or not people have fun is going to depend on factors that are outside your control: How did their wife treat them on their way over? How was their day at work? How well do they roll the dice? Do they play the game as well as the other players? You can't control these things, and therefore you shouldn't feel responsible for them.

What you should feel responsible for doing is creating an environment in which everyone could have fun. Imagine that you are hosting a party: Your job is to provide the right mix of appetizers, drinks, ambience, and crowd so that people can have fun. It's not to act like a clown because Rob had a bad day at work. This is a subtle point, but if you keep it in mind, you'll avoid a lot of self-inflicted doubt and stress about your role.

The Agency Theory of Fun
So how do you create an environment in which everyone could have fun? Given that The Escapist has an extremely intelligent reader base, I hope my readers won't mind a theoretical answer to this question. It involves a concept that I'll call "the agency theory of fun".

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.

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