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In role-playing games, the game master or GM is the organizer, storyteller, and arbitrator. He or she prepares the game session for the players and the characters they play (known as player characters or PCs). The GM describes the events and decides on the outcomes of players' decisions. The game master also keeps track of non-player characters (NPCs) and random encounters. The game session (or "adventure") can be metaphorically described as a play, in which the players are the lead actors, and the GM provides the stage, the scenery, the basic plot on which the improvisational script is built, and all the bit parts and supporting characters.
Each gaming system has its own name for the role of the gamemaster, such as "judge", "narrator", "referee", "Games Operation Designate" (G.O.D.) or "storyteller", and these terms not only describe the role of the game master in general but also help define how the game is intended to be run. For example, the Storyteller System used in White Wolf Game Studio's storytelling games calls its GM the "storyteller", while the rules- and setting-focused Marvel Super Heroes Role-Playing Game calls its GM the "judge". The cartoon inspired roleplaying game Toon calls its GM the "animator." A few games apply system- or setting-specific flavorful names to the GM, such as the Hollyhock God (Nobilis), or the oldest "Dungeon Master" (or "DM") in Dungeons & Dragons.
The term game master and the role associated with it originated in the postal gaming hobby. In typical play-by-mail games, players control armies or civilizations and mail their chosen actions to the GM. The GM then mails the updated game state to all players on a regular basis. Today, the game master is nearly always associated with role-playing games and that is what this article will continue to focus on.
Being the GM requires extra commitment and responsibility than simply playing the game. GMs may run their game as frequently or infrequently as they wish; some gamers meet once a week or once a month, others only two or three times a year.
GMs may choose to run a game based on a published game world, with the maps and history already in place; such game worlds often have pre-written adventures. Alternately, the GM may build their own world and script their own adventures.
A GM can easily run one-shot, unconnected adventures each time their gaming group convenes; in this case there is no connected plot, and the players can choose to play different characters in each session. However, a devoted gamemaster can string many such adventures into a campaign, in which the same heroes fight many different monsters and a few recurring villains, gaining treasure, reputation and power as they go. Such campaigns can last for years, even decades, earning a great deal of loyalty from their players, even as some players join or leave the game along the way.
A good gamemaster draws the players into the adventure, making it enjoyable for everyone. Good gamemasters have quick minds, sharp wits, and rich imaginations. Gamemasters must also maintain game balance: hideously overpowered monsters or players are no fun!
Just as there are good GMs, bad GMs also exist. One of these is the rare but well-known type known as the "killer GM". This type of gamemaster enjoys killing the PCs, meaning that the imaginary character "dies" in the same way a character in a novel might -- they cannot go forward in the story, short of in-game mechanics like magical resurrection. The GM might get satisfaction out of creating monsters with very powerful game statistics, or designing fiendish traps that are virtually impossible for the characters to escape, but such a GM is likely to have trouble keeping players coming back for more adventures. Long-time role-players joke about their experiences with bad GMs (for example, see this list of "The 28 Types of Game Masters").
An example of a GM's duties, set in a fantasy universe
Days or weeks (or, in a worst case scenario, minutes) before a game session, the GM decides on the plot of the adventure which the players are to face.
Choosing a monster that will be tough but not deadly for the current power level of the characters played by the gamers in her group, she decides that the heroes are going to rescue a young prince kidnapped by an ogre. She makes a map of the ogre's lair, makes notes about the ogre's game statistics, and decides whether there are any other challenges (such as terrain or weather) that the party must face. She creates a memorable NPC, the prince's hideous and hysterical nanny.
On game day, the players gather around a table at the GM's house. The GM reminds the players of the game's setting and picks up the story where they left off, with the characters travelling on the road after their last adventure. She describes the woebegone nanny's appearance as she runs up to the PCs on the road and begs them to help save the prince.
As she knows that the PCs consider themselves to be good and noble heroes, the GM can expect them to agree to aid her. Since the trail will be cold before they can return the nanny to town, they must bring her along as they try to follow the tracks of the ogre. The GM asks them to use dice to test whether they succeed at using their tracking skill.
The GM also uses whatever acting abilities she possesses to "act out" the character of the nanny, wailing and fearful and clumsy, making sure that the heroes don't get the advantage of surprise. This also leads the PCs to interact with the NPC, "acting out" their own parts as they try to convince her to be quiet. This helps to create a deeper role-playing experience, where the player, instead of saying, "My character tells her to be quiet." or even "I tell her to be quiet." is led into role-playing with the GM:
- Player (as Hero): "Please, please ma'am, you have to settle down, we don't want the monster to come after you too, do we?"
- GM (as Nanny): "Oh, but my boy, my POOR BOY! That precious little MAN, he's going to be EATEN UP!"
- Player (as Hero): "Please, lady, you've got to be quiet!"
In a straightfoward adventure, the tracks lead to an abandoned watchtower, and the fighters in the party engage in combat with the waiting ogre -- again decided by dice-rolling supervised by the GM. A good GM will ensure that this part of the game is kept quick and lively, with decisive rulings, fast-paced game turns, and energetic descriptions of the ogre's actions and the results of the players' decisions.
Meanwhile, the nimble burglar in the party climbs up the back of the tower, frees the prince from his ropes, and lowers him to the ground -- again, the GM determines how difficult these actions are and requires dice-based skill checks of some kind.
If she wanted a less straightforward plot, the GM might decide that there was no prince -- that the nanny was merely a human or shapechanged accomplice of the ogre, sent to lure unwary adventurers off the road so they could be robbed, killed, and eaten. In this case, the GM would be challenging the ability of the players to see through subterfuge and solve puzzles.
Either way, if the GM has chosen the level of difficulty well, the characters will have a good test of their abilities and wits. They will take a few injuries and be unsure of success, but with some good planning, teamwork, and bravery, will most likely overcome whatever obstacle the GM has placed in their path.
At the end of the session, the GM sometimes offers rewards: the characters may discover the ogre's treasure hoard in the tower. Based on how well they completed the adventure, the GM may give the players various types of "points", which vary in meaning depending on the game system. Often, they can be used to improve the character before the next adventure, preparing them to face even tougher foes.
Gamemasters in online games
A gamemaster's duties in an online game are unlike those of a traditional gamemaster in a tabletop role-playing game. A gamemaster in such a game acts less like a traditional gamemaster than an administrator in an online community. A GM in such a game is either an experienced volunteer player or an employee who enforces the game rules, banishing spammers, player killers and cheaters. For their task they use special characters with special abilities like teleporting to players, summoning items and browsing the player logs to help them in their moderating tasks. Gamemasters in MUDs are often called "wizards". Gamemasters in MMORPGs are usually employees of the game's host or developers of the game themselves.
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