Words We Use
I've been thinking a lot about the words we use to describe running games and how they direct the style of game running - or don't. Back in ye'olde days D&D had a "Dungeon Master." The DM was someone who designed or used existing maps of dungeons with traps and such. But very quickly the role of the DM grew to being so much more. The DM wasn't just designing dungeons, but building worlds. If you go to any convention you'll find oodles of panels about world building. There was also an expectation that the DM would have intense knowledge of the system and rules. the DM was sort of a little god of the table. (Of course these are broad generalizations, and I wasn't there, so I'm extrapolating from what I've heard from others.) But even in the bad old days of basements and TAB, the collaborative story telling element of TTRPGs was at odds with the mechanics. DMs have always had that "final say" to overrule the books in order to tell a compelling story.
Over time the DM language was shifted more towards the GM - a Game Master. Rather than being responsible for running the crunch and designing stories, the runners were now more broadly responsible for the game. And I think that has changed things for the better on the whole, but it's also made certain aspects of running more difficult. As a GM the runner is also expected to "manage the table" and "deal with the players" in a way that folks (perhaps rightly) didn't trust the DMs of old to. The modern GM has to negotiate all sorts of positive changes in the game community. Many of the cis-het-white-male narratives and perspectives have been tempered by more interesting, challenging stories that explore more complicated issues. And the GM isn't just responsible to running the game, but also making sure that players are safe and having fun.
This isn't some transition that came about overnight, and it certainly doesn't apply to every gaming group everywhere, but it's not unfounded.
More of the new games coming out emphasize the collaborative story telling, removing much of the game design burden from the game master, allowing them to be more responsive and flexible. Rather than a DM writing up a massive campaign, they can run players through a campaign module. Rather than a DM developing complex settings and worlds, the group builds the setting and adversaries. And, sure, there's still tons of old school GMs (like myself) who just don't play those kinds of games, but the "indie" game scene is becoming less of an alternative game culture and more of an adjacent one. Sure, no single "indie" game company can stack up number-wise to WotC or Paizo, but if you look at the number of non-d20 games available, it's a pretty sizeable chunk. And a lot of the more alternative-systems are heavily influenced by d20 systems, but almost all of them have some sort of gamified RP mechanics to reward/force roleplay and storytelling. The issue is that the more "real" we make games, the more likely we are to bump into things that have real impact. An in-game consequence might touch a real-world hurt unintentionally, and we need to find ways to address that to make sure it doesn't happen again. And I don't think any of this is bad, but I do think it is changing the unspoken expectations of game runners.
And new systems try to give their game runners a different title, like Storyteller, Director, etc, but at the end of the day, most people just call them the Game Master. And I'm not sure that the expectations being placed on modern GMs are particularly reasonable. Now in addition to building a compelling story or digesting complex modules, GMs are also expected to be stewards of people's game experiences without good tools built into the community regarding establishing expectations and communicating about problems.
Yes, I know, there's that one thing with lines and veils. Awesome. I love it. It's good. It's not what I use, but I'm glad it exists and it's at least getting people talking about the issues, but it still lays all the responsibility on the GM. The GM now has to remember everyone's triggers/lines/veils/hard-stops/whatever-you-call-them and make sure that nothing in the game ever comes up to hurt someone's feelings. And while that's a 100% admirable goal, it seems unfair to expect players to show up with dice and enthusiasm while the GM is responsible to running the game, the npcs, the world, knowing mechanics, developing stories, addressing in-character conflicts, out-of-character conflicts, maintaining table culture, making sure no one gets sad or hurt, protecting themselves from the same things, and also trying to, like, you know, have fun.
I don't think the old way or the current way are inherently better than the other, but I think it's telling that the Dungeon Master and the Game Master have very different responsibilities, and I worry that the Game Master's task list will grow ever longer. And it's great that players are being communicative about their needs, but, perhaps the community can find better ways of working with each other rather than lashing out at each other. Maybe the Game Master shouldn't be the Game Wrangler and Emotional Steward. Giving folks the benefit of the doubt is really important, because I don't think most GM's intentionally harm their players, and I don't think most GM's actively want people to suffer silently. I think most GM's just want to have a good time hanging out and playing games with their friends. I think most GM's just really want people to have fun and are willing to donate their time and energy to making that happen for the people they like. And I think players should feel empowered to both express their needs and be respected. But the relationship between player and GM goes both ways.
Perhaps Facilitator or Runner feel more appropriate than Master. I don't think we'll ever get the "Master" out of the vernacular, but I don't think it's a bad idea to at least change how the community thinks about the role of the GM. This stuff is supposed to be fun, right?