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What is the GM's job?

Universalis doesn't seem to need a GM, and it does just fine.

Consider combat:

As a GM, I was always frustrated when my players were unable to come up with anything more interesting than "I swing my sword at the foe". I felt compelled to come up with color text for combat myself. Yet I also felt I was taking some of the best parts of the game away from my players.

On the other hand, I find it very hard to relinquish control of the game to the players.

I know that John has been experimenting with systems where the players exert more narrative control.

So my question is - what are the core responsibilities of the the GM? When you GM, what do you see as your main job? What do you expect of the players?

Using my superior resources to come up with new things to throw at them, then being enjoyably surprised by the way they react and act.

Doing my best to keep those new things tied back to what's gone before, so the whole thing feels organic.

Taking their ideas (usually as expressed offhand, through banter) and making them interesting parts of the game.

Some GM-tasks:

- Provide adversity for protagonists
- Establish boundaries of imaginary content (define situation)
- Rules interpretation (referee)
- In-game-world time management
- Start/stop scenes
- Back-story creation
- Conflict creation
- Color commentary (narration embellishment)
- Play NPCs
- Pacing (real time)
- Ensure protagonist screen time
- Authority over what information can be acted upon by which characters
- Authority over internal plausibility
- Social manager of who gets to speak when
- Arbitrator of disagreement among players

Some games put all of these tasks in the hands of one player. Some don't. Most are simply silent on the subject and let the group sort it out for themselves -- to lesser or greater degrees of success.

Roleplaying games don't need a GM to work. But they do need to have those tasks managed by somebody, or several somebodies. You'll notice that even Universalis still includes all of the tasks listed above.

Some Forge posts that touch on this topic:
GM Responsibilities
Director Stance

That's a great list. I hadn't really thought about time and pacing management as particular tasks, but I realize now that a lot of the effort I put in during game time is aimed at managing those two aspects.

Last night John and I talked over the Universalis game from earlier this week, and one of our conclusions was, oddly enough, that Universalis actually does seem to need a GM, or at least someone with GM sensibilities to help guide the players. Otherwise it's hard to get people to commit to firm statements of facts and to commit to playing out Complications (where the dice-rolling part comes in), and you're left with a lot of wishy-washy back-and-forth ideas and hints that make the game lose its way.

Yep. "Provide adversity" and "Conflict creation" are two biggies. If no one steps up and does those in a game of Uni, things can fizzle.

John's list is very good. I don't have much to add. I had a conversation with one of my groups recently about what they thought were my responsibilities as a GM and what were the players, and the results were quite similar to that list (minus a few things we didn't even think about). It was a worthwhile discussion that I think will pay dividends with the group - thanks for the idea.


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