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Roll Perception Plus Awareness: The Ecology of the Gaming Table

Welcome back to Roll Perception Plus Awareness. Although I tantalizingly promised last time to talk about the alternative to Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition that some have embraced, a tweet from Kate Sherrod, and a video pointed in my direction by SF Signal’s own John DeNardo has convinced me to go back to some basics. Today I am going to talk about the Ecology of the Gaming Table.

What do I mean by Ecology of the Gaming Table? Let’s unpack the title. It refers to a series of articles that originated in the early days of Dragon Magazine. The series of articles that began woth “Ecology of the…” were articles in the D&D oriented magazine that brought a view to the various monsters that populate the game world that went far beyond the hit points and other statistics you might find in a Monster Manual. The tone of these articles ranged from chatty conversations to serious speculation about the life of these monsters, and how a Dungeon Master could use these to make a richer dungeon and game world. They were a favorite of mine, and the online edition of the magazine oriented to 4th Edition continues that tradition.

Here in this column, I am going to talk about the roles of players and game masters. Being immersed in the world of roleplaying and roleplaying games so thoroughly, I assumed that everyone had a good idea of what players and game masters do. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a bad assumption.

On Wil Wheaton’s blog, he links to a short online documentary , 10 minutes along, that tries to explain why people play Dungeons and Dragons. Here it is. Go ahead and watch it, it won’t take long.

What I took from that video was something that was a secondary point–the amount of work that a game master does to create a game. And thus, I began to wonder if SF Signal readers who are not gamers have any idea how much players and game masters do, or what they do, in gaming.

And so here we are.

Keep in mind I am speaking in generalities, there are exceptions that I will mention briefly later, and definitely when I am talking about specific games.


Let’s talk about players, and player characters first. The role of players is to bring to life one or more characters, with their personality and their actions. As a player, your characters are your alter-ego, your viewpoint and window into the world. When you are doing something “In Character”, you are taking on that persona and doing something.

“Jelica the Dwarf is going to take a look at the strangely stone in the wall. What can she tell about it?”

OOC, or “Out of Character”, refers to when you are speaking as yourself. This can range from side comments about seeing Thor last night, to referring to matters at the game table, but not as your character.

“Hey, Jeremy, maybe you should have Meera use her Daily Power on that Momma Ankheg, now.”

Every gaming table has its own feel as far as what is tolerated. I admit that too much OOC stuff can detract from a game, if everyone is talking about things other than what is happening. It’s uncommon, though, to have GMs ban OOC conversation entirely.

As the above example indicates, though, since your character is a fictional construct, there is usually nothing stopping you from playing a character of a gender different than you are. Some players shy away from that sort of thing, other players embrace the idea. In some of the odder games out there, you are playing something very different than human, is playing the opposite gender in a human or a human like race that radical an idea?

During a game, a player is generally responsible for keeping track of the character’s status, health, and actions as I suggested above. In general, unless something is affecting you, what your character does or doesn’t do is entirely up to you. If you want to avoid the firefight going on in the Royal Palace on the planet Ginsberg III, and sneak around to find a route to the princess’ apartments instead? That’s your decision. You make it happen. “To do it, you’ve got to do it”. The game master or other players might suggest things, but the choices are yours. That’s your part in crafting the story, or if you prefer, you are the one who gets to move your piece on the battle map.

As an exception, for example, the FATE system allows the game master to tempt a player into having a character undergo a course of action, offering an in-game reward to do so, or pay a penalty to avoid doing it.

So how do you get started with making a character and being a mercenary guard on the Free Ship Beowulf, sailing between the stars with cargo?

Character creation, for a player, can vary widely from game to game. Usually the player is responsible for creating the character, no matter the method. Old editions of Dungeons and Dragons insisted on random rolling of numbers to slot into “stats”, and the player would choose other aspects based on those numbers. Newer editions try for balance by offering systems to choose a set of statistics to place as they see fit. Did you really want to play that lady Paladin and go around “Butt kicking for goodness”? Well, put the high score in Strength, for then, and make it happen.

Character creation, though, usually takes up the first full session of a gaming run, especially if the characters are unfamiliar with the system. In addition, although I haven’t discussed game masters in detail, yet, an essential element to character creation is fitting them into the game master’s world, or the ideas that the game master has already offered.

For example, if the game master wants to run a game where the players are in a milieu featuring an oppressed minority of elves in a burgeoning human city, wanting to play a bullying half-dragon living in the mountains may not quite work with the other characters and the game world.

At conventions, be they gaming or more general genre ones, gaming happens. You might see the gaming room on your way to get Stina Leicht to sign your copy of Of Blood and Honey. At conventions, with a limited amount of time to play, spending the time for players to build characters as I outlined above is sometimes limited. In those situations, players will be given or have a choice of pre-generated characters. These are characters which the game master has already created fully, sometimes to the point of a name and background, or sometimes the personal details are left for the player to add as she or he sees fit.

Game Masters

Now, let’s talk Game Masters

Game Masters are known by a variety of names in games. Editions of Dungeons and Dragons old and new alike call them “Dungeon Masters”. This reflects the “dungeon delving” history of the early game. Other terms are all over the map. Keepers. The MC. The Judge. And, even, the Hollyhock God.

The commonest term, though, is Game Master. In my experience, many of the people who play the games with idiosyncratic names for Game Masters wind up just defaulting to using the phrase Game Master, or GM for short.

So what does a GM do? Many role playing games in the past had a section “What is a role playing game?” that attempted to answer this question for readers. Many modern role playing games eschew this section entirely, trusting that if you are, for example, reading Trail of Cthulhu, you know what a role playing game already is.

So, to quote from a game from years ago, 7th Sea:
“…the GM creates all of the people, places and things the characters will meet. He creates plots and situations for the characters to become embroiled in and improvises plot twists when the players prove to be too clever for his initial story ideas…the GM is part author, part improvisational actor, and part referee. Whenever a dispute arises about the rules, the GM must make the final decision.”That is quite a plate of responsibility, isn’t it? And now you can understand me when I say that there are far, far more roleplayers who are players as opposed to those who are GMs. It is not that there are more people who just want to focus on a single character. It’s that the role of a GM is one of a lot of work and preparation. Recall the online short that I referred to at the beginning of this post. Harmony agreed that the DM’s job is “an incredible amount of work.”

There are plenty of tricks and things that GMs can do to make it all manageable. As the introductory column in this series said, there are links between writing and roleplaying. A good novel has a big world that we don’t see all at once, even if its there, waiting, and can be dealt with in good time. Focus, keep the world on the characters, and suggest what is happening out of their purview when it is useful. Be ready for the unexpected. If Kunrad, Viola and Charran decide that visiting Nexus is not the thing to do, and instead want to travel to the Kingdom of Halta, well, I might have to think on my feet and be ready for it.

There are game masters who have a bad reputation of focusing solely on their ideas, their setup, the piece of the game world they want to run the characters through. In the above example, they might throw insurmountable roadblocks to discourage the characters from going to Halta. This practice is sometimes called “railroading”. While it is a way for a GM to limit their workload by forcing the characters down a particular path, it is at the cost of destroying any illusions of character autonomy.

In convention games, mentioned above, though, there is a limited amount of time and scope to a game. There is an implicit agreement between the game master and the players that the world, however theoretically vast, is in practice more limited. If the convention game focuses on the characters visiting a village and the vampire’s castle looming on the cliff face above it in the mountains, for example, it is presumed that a player is not going to want to have her half-djinn sorceress get a sudden desire to go all the way back to her desert home.

So a GM needs to balance player autonomy, player fun, his or her world, and the story all created, it can be a daunting task. Even a veteran GM can have self-doubts on occasion. Still, in that video you can see how much stuff the DM was giving to the players. He, like any other good game master, was getting jazzed on bringing the experience for the players to participating in. But not every roleplayer has the time, or the inclination to put that sort of work in.

Thus, as you might imagine, game masters are a limited but necessary resource. They are indeed in demand. But unless you are playing a game like Universalis that has no GM at all, every game has to have one.

Personally, though, as a roleplayer who GMs far more than he plays, I am like the DM in that video. I really enjoy building a world for the players to have their characters complete. My games are social experiences where, together, I create a fun and engaging story and experience for both me and the players.

About Paul Weimer (366 Articles)
Not really a Prince of Amber, but rather an ex-pat New Yorker that has found himself living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading SF and Fantasy for over 30 years and exploring the world of roleplaying games for over 25 years. Almost as long as he has been reading and watching movies, he has enjoyed telling people what he has thought of them. In addition to SF Signal, he can be found at his own blog, Blog Jvstin Style, Skiffy and Fanty, SFF Audio, Twitter, and many other places on the Internet!

3 Comments on Roll Perception Plus Awareness: The Ecology of the Gaming Table

  1. Rich DiTullio // May 23, 2011 at 4:00 pm //

    A fine breakdown of the traditional GM/Player divide.  I was glad to see a brief mention of games that have moved from that paradigm like Universalis.  I look forward to the eventual discussion of how some games help lift the burden from the GM’s shoulders and spreads the fun around. 

  2. Where I live nobody know what a role-playing game is, so I’m usually the GM (the GM that teach what rpgs are), but I am very different from the guy in this video. I almost never prepare my sessions, most of the times I don’t even use books, only a d6. When I improvise, not having but just hints of what we’re going to play, I give gamers a lot of liberty and share with them responsabilities like world building. The more I improvise, the more fun we get!

  3. Excellent overview of the hobby! I must admit when I saw the title I was expecting hear something about encountering D6 players lead by 1 dungeonmaster 😀

    I like that you refer to 7th Sea as well though, out of all the new(ish) game’s I’ve played over the last decade that one really seemed to shake up the players and the GM alike, we found ourselves playing to the gamesmasters likes and dislikes rather than the way we’d normally play, and I always found that strangely appropriate (afterall thats exactly what the actors in a movie have to do!).


    Anyway, thanks again, bookmarked this page and I intend to be back to show my geeky friends 😀

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