GAMEMASTERING: Style or Evolution?
Youtuber Kevin Mason recently did a video on a subject that got me thinking, I encourage you to watch it, he identifies several styles of DMing and discusses the positive and the negative aspects of each. Here is the link so that you can go view it, Gamemaster Style: What Kind of Gamemaster are You?

Kevin Mason identifies four different styles:
  • Rules
  • Story
  • Fun
  • Balanced
It got me thinking, I have been all of these extremes at one point or another. When I first started out, I was very Fun. I catered to all of the player's desires and did whatever it took to get people to play at my table. That wasn't the only reason why I did it, there was also the fact that there was so much cool stuff in the DMG and I wanted to use it all at the same time! This, of course, got boring and convoluted.  It did help me figure out how lots of things worked, just throwing everything out there and seeing how things function. Sure the game lacked challenge, but it was a stepping stone.

What if the game is teaching itself to us? We all see these examples floating around, we suggest to new gamemasters to avoid traps and perils, usually from our own experience, but what if that is exactly what we are supposed to do? We learn more from making mistakes than we do from somebody telling us anything . . . at least I do.
My next evolution was one of story-telling. I wrote overly detailed notes and didn't realize that I was removing the players from the scenario. In essence, I was playing the game during prep. The story was great, and my players did enjoy this aspect of the game. Mastering this state is also one of trial and error. Spending 20-40 hours prepping an eight-hour session is a waste of energy. I learned by cutting back and experimenting with levels of story elements until I found one that satisfied the players, but was told not at the prep stage, but during play itself. If the players cannot interact with it, it isn't a game.

We buy modules, and we want a good collection of different styles. Sometimes we run them, sometimes we don't, but they are nice to have. They aren't all that practical though, by their very nature they are self-limiting, which forces the DM to either accept this limitation or start tinkering and molding modules to fit the style of the players, which eventually leads to writing your own material, and then cutting back until you are actually playing the game the way that it was originally designed to be played. At this point, I think that we start another evolution.

We discovered that the rules can either work against us, or for us. We become obsessed with them and say weird stuff like: If you aren't following all the rules to the letter, you aren't playing System X! We keep our story, but we force it to bend to the will of the rules. We become inflexible and this leads to predictability and stagnation. But, we have to know the rules before we can disobey them. This is a natural stage. Going back through the core handbooks and applying everything that we know thus far to the rules and seeing what complies and what doesn't. 

We are building upon our knowledge base, and the trick is to find players who will put up with our learning the game until we decide that enough is enough. Once we get tired of looking up rules all the time, being controlled by the system, being interrupted by mechanics that we feel offer nothing to the game, we get a feel for how these specific rules function and can begin improvising our own mechanics quickly, and in a way that complies with the ruleset itself. We have mastered the rules and can once again return to the beginning, applying what we now know into the structure of a fun game that satisfies all elements in a style and is ours. Balanced! We've earned the title Gamemaster, and can now come up with our own designs.

I don't think that any of this is a mistake. Perhaps, just as a player's character advances in level, so does the DM. I remember my mother once asking me what level of DM I am, just wanting to connect with me, but maybe she wasn't all that far off base? Perhaps DM's do have levels, we do evolve, and I bet you that we all evolve the same way. This means that the system itself is teaching us how to play the game as if it were self-aware and completely independent of us. A natural progression that taps into the human mind, and maps it.

There are, no doubt, more evolutions than just the three before we hit the stage of balance, or perhaps we go through a short stage of balance prior to taking the next steps of evolution. Maybe if we can figure out what these specific evolutions are we can better understand how our minds function.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it may make the journey too easy. Are we better DM's because we took this evolution with no outside aid of any kind? We had to fight for each evolution without the knowledge that we were evolving? Or, on the other hand, if we spell it out for new users, can we as a whole benefit by them applying the established evolution faster and beginning evolutions that we will never know?

The time required before fully exploring an evolution is individual, there is no one size fits all. We can spend years on an evolution without achieving any groundbreaking success at it, or cycle through a phase fairly quickly, easily mastering it. Perhaps when we say things, such as, "My style of DMing is Character-driven" we are detailing the personal evolution which we are currently exploring?



Unknown said...

I mentioned your post in my video:

RipperX said...

Very nice Jeffrey McArthur, and welcome to the blog! I left some comments under your video, thank you for cross referencing :)

Unknown said...

From my experience, the first draw towards being a DM is being the story-teller. They sit as a player and experience this awesome story that's unfolding with their friends and wants to create those same stories and more of them.
I think that is the major draw for a lot of new DM's and it's also why I think that "railroading" is something we hear about a lot, and over time as the new DM gains some experience, he learns how to create a balanced story; he starts creating worlds instead, and so the rules gets added, which might take an upperhand depending on the DM.
Lastly, I think "fun" is the wrong term, because noone's really having fun if everything is just handed to them - it defeats the whole purpose of the game I think. But I understand the dilemma, and it's also the thing I struggle with the most; I want my players to really feel in danger, without being cheap or unfair (judge/rules) and I ALSO really want them to feel rewarded for their hard work and surviving the danger. Striking a balance between these two is what I think takes the longest of the 3 ways to master.

RipperX said...

I'm a stingy DM in regards to magic items and money; I mean really horrible. I don't know if it is me or not; I hide magic items and treasure around, but perhaps too well. Rarely do my players find it, and they have never found all of it.

I also keep a leash on spending. I know how much money they have, which is weird because I've got no idea about anything else on their PC sheets, but I know that! I'll figure out ways to get as much money back as possible which I now feel limits their full potential as characters. How much is too much? I have began exploring this. We all have stuff to work on! I don't believe in Masters, only students.

Unknown said...

I want to be more stingy. Immediatly after a player goes "oh wow, this thing is really powerful" I think "I've made a huge mistake", because not only have one player an advantage over the other players, I might have taken away the thrill and sense of danger away from the party.

I think it all comes back to having my players engage and feel like both the world and their character is on the line, because that creates excitement, tension and immersion.

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