Wednesday, May 8, 2019

3 Types of Game Masters

As I mentioned towards the end of last week's Inappropriate Characters episode, I've broken GM differences into 3 basic types...

The first I'll describe is the Dungeon Master from beloved Saturday morning cartoon Dungeons & Dragons.

The Dungeon Master presents the facts, sets things in motion, and then pretty much disappears into the background until his presence is required down the road.  The RPG Pundit mentioned the "clock-maker God" as an example of this sort of GM.  Once he creates a world, his hands are off the wheel and things take their own course, according to the rules or the scenario or the GM's notes.

He's impartial, objective, and about as neutral as a GM can get.  Total free market... no matter what the outcome.  Is it discipline or ambivalence that keeps the Dungeon Master type GM from subtly nudging reality here or there?

The second GM type is Zeus from the 1981 sword & sandals film Clash of the Titans.

Zeus is more subjective, the campaign world filters through him, his perspective.  His hands aren't always on, but also never far from the wheel.  Yet, he still believes in letting go, allowing fate or free will decide which path is taken.  Zeus doesn't have a specific outcome in mind, but tries to maintain a fairness or equality of opportunity, according to his personal standards of ethics, morality, and aesthetics.

If you remember, Zeus has a few tricks up his sleeve.  While balancing the campaign world and all the characters in it, he feels justified tweaking the chances of a result or two in the name of either fair play or compelling story.  Occasionally fudging a die roll for the greater good.

However, Zeus is not a story-gamer.  He doesn't know how things will end up.  He hopes things will turn out well for those proving themselves worthy, occasionally exerting a bit of influence behind the scenes, but stopping short of pre-determining adventure's conclusion.

The third and last type of GM is the Wizard of Oz.

The Wizard of Oz is a showman and a conman.  He uses slight of hand, misdirection and railroading in order to get the end result he's looking for.  His GMing creates the illusion of free will and randomness, when in reality, he pulls all the strings.

The Wizard of Oz is the most likely to be a story-gamer, since that style of GMing is directly opposed to the traditional, old school approach (though many GMs in the 70's and 80's aspired to that standard).

Another aspect of this 3rd type is bluster, pomp, and pageantry.  Anything to build himself up, to make the all-powerful GM appear greater, wiser, and stronger than he really is.  His will is mighty and players should not test it, or else face his wrath.  Also, be prepared to confront several self-important NPCs (stand-ins for the GM himself) who shall not be fucked with.  You'd have better luck wrassling an ancient black dragon.

Please feel free to comment with your experiences, your opinion of the 3 types, etc.  Where do you fit in all this?



  1. This isn't a bad grouping of types, though it feels like it's missing some sort of blatantly adversarial type.

    I aspire to be the cartoon DM (though a much meaner spirited one than the spritely, kindly imp of the show), but many times I've felt more like Zeus, caring a bit too much about my players' characters. I don't fudge dice rolls, but I've crafted adventures tailored specifically to the PC group.

    [though I suppose it's difficult to completely divorce oneself from caring for the plight of the player characters]

    1. Hmm... I'll have to ponder the adversarial aspects of GMing. Not sure if that's a separate type since the GM has to be somewhat adversarial in order to provide challenges, conflict, etc.

      Thanks for the comment, JB.

  2. Interesting post.
    I also have three classifications of GM's:
    1) LAW GM - Works hard to develop and codify every possible aspect of the world prior to the game. Example The Tao of D&D who wrote a book about how much hard work should go into preperation.
    2) NEUTRAL GM - Broad spectrum between 1 and 2. Example just about everyone.
    3) CHAOS GM - Appears to do minimal work prior to the game preferring seat of the pants play at the table. Example D&D With Pornstars who wrote more than one module based on tables and things to do at the table to keep things moving.

    No judgement on which is best.

    1. I like that. Yes, that's a neat way of classifying GMs, too. I'd be pretty chaotic, with a dash of neutral.

  3. By "story gamer" you seem to mean Story Teller, Venger as in White Wolf games.

    I think I vary between #1 and #2 depending on the kind of game I'm running. I used to be pure #1, but nowadays if I'm running a 'cinematic' genre I go towards #2 - though I never fudge a die roll!

    1. I meant stuff like Fate and Powered by the Apocalypse games, but also White Wolf storyteller games, too. Lots of meta-plot and specific things happening at specific times throughout the campaign/chronicle.

    2. "Lots of meta-plot and specific things happening at specific times throughout the campaign/chronicle"

      That certainly sounds like White Wolf, but I thought PBTA was a story-creation game where the players create the story?

  4. Interesting how well it maps to this.

    1. Ok, I'll bite. Which is which according to Jeff's Retro, Stupid, Pretentious model?

  5. I used to be a mixture of Zeus and Wizard of Oz, trying to be more Zeus, but often ending a douchebag with power. Of course my intentions were to create a great story, but of course it was me who determined what a great story is ergo -> douchebag. Now, after two decades of dm-ing and after many considerations, I try to be the clock-maker. Old habits die hard but I see great value in this, I hope your blog and some other blogs will help me make this transition.