After spending more time thinking about running versus playing, I realized that I’d only scratched the surface of what I think about the role of the Game Master / Dungeon Master (which I’ll just call “GM” for simplicity). A few other things to consider:
- Constant Activity: The GM nearly always is doing something. Even during periods in which the others roleplay among themselves, the GM can find themselves tweaking an upcoming encounter, thinking about what the antagonists are doing, or just trying to figure out what the hell to do now that the PCs have gone in totally unexpected directions! Meanwhile, players end up sitting quietly much of the time – especially during combat, in theory one the most exciting and dynamic parts of an RPG.
- Characters: While players focus in great detail on one character, the GM gets to spin up as many as the story can reasonably handle, and in much wider variation as we don’t have the restrictions that come with playing an adventurer who must get along with the other group members. If you have notebooks full of character ideas, then deploying them as NPCs can provide meaningful opportunities to explore those ideas.
- Experimentation: GMs spend most of their time creating complex situations and seeing what happens when players come in contact with them. That usually means chaos, of course, but it usually implies a sort of controlled chaos we get to manage.
- Variety: Trying to “play the world” works different mental muscles than playing a character. Even if the GM uses an existing campaign setting, thinking about the state of the world and the actions of the various forces within it takes the mind in a different direction.
- Aesthetic: While all players help with the game’s tone, the GM usually has the greatest single influence on how the game feels and what themes it will include. Of course, this can vary pretty dramatically; many GMs have found themselves trying to run a serious, dramatic campaign with a group that wanted a silly romp. So that doesn’t always work out!
Bonus: a turn-off
As I noted on Twitter, the social control factor actually frustrates me a bit. The social dynamic in D&D (and many other RPGs) leads to the group assuming the DM or GM should be the coordinator and the “adult in the room”. But that usually isn’t necessary at all. Everyone has the responsibility to make sure folks are having fun, and the person who’s acting as referee and storyteller already has enough stress. If somebody’s acting poorly, everyone should consider themselves part of the solution.