Musings on Roleplaying

I recently submitted this article to Roleplaying Tips Weekly and Johnn Four (RPT owner) plans to use it in an upcoming issue. It’s basically just a few thoughts on the differences between traditional storytelling and RPGs.

I’d love to hear any feedback you have.

1. You write, but you’re not *the* writer.


In movie terms, the writer is the one person who begins with nothing and creates something. The producer, director, stars, photographers and the hundreds of support staff involved in the movie process take the writer’s idea (expressed as a screenplay) and make it their own. This is exactly like an RPG campaign. As a GM, you start with a blank page (or blank computer screen) and conjure up entire worlds, but for the game to work, the players have to make it their own.

There is a huge contrast, however, between the writer of a screenplay and a GM. A writer tells a story by dictating the actions of the main character(s). A classic definition of a story (from John Truby’s book, Anatomy of Story) is: “A speaker tells a listener what someone did to get what they wanted and why.” Classic storytelling, then, could be defined as telling the audience what the main character in the story does. Roleplaying games turn classic storytelling on its head. As a GM, the one thing you have absolutely no control over is what the main characters will do.

This means that, while you may do a lot of writing for your game, you’re not the writer. In fact, using the classic definition, the players are the ones that do all the important writing in a campaign.

2. You act, but you’re not the *star*.


This one may seem pretty obvious, but it bears thinking about. As a GM you’ll likely play hundreds of characters over the course of a campaign. No matter how Oscar-worthy your performance is, however, none of those NPCs is remotely as important as the Player Characters. The PCs are the stars and the best campaigns are built and executed with that in mind.

3. You are a lot like a producer.


The producer of a movie is the person responsible for everything that has to happen off of the movie set. The producer brings together the writer, director, actors, photographers, location scouts and all the other people necessary for the movie to work. The producer wields a great deal of power over how a movie gets made. To paraphrase Dustin Hoffman’s character in Wag the Dog, “if there’s no producer, there’s no movie.”

This role has some pretty clear similarities to being a GM. As a GM you are usually responsible for bringing all the parts of the game together and, with few exceptions, if there is no GM, there is no campaign.

Thinking of yourself as the producer of your campaign is a great mindset, especially between sessions. As a GM you may be responsible for:

– Coordinating the players.

– Arranging for a place to play.

– Choosing a game system.

It is important to remember that, like a producer, you may be responsible for many parts of the game but you can’t do it all by yourself. A great producer is a great delegator and the same thing applies to us as GMs.

4. You ARE the director.


If there is a single role on a movie set that most perfectly mirrors the job of a GM, it’s the director.

A director has to be a very good negotiator. The writer definitely had a vision, but the exact details of that vision may or may not actually make the best movie. A good director is able to preserve the vision of the writer without sacrificing the film as a whole. Similarly, actors tend to develop very strong visions for their characters. A great director allows the actors to delve into their characters and give the best possible performances, but he does it without allowing them to have a negative impact on other characters or on the rest of the story.

Like writers and actors, players have strong opinions on how the world should react to their characters. Sometimes this is expressed by min/maxing (the player who attempts to exploit rules and force the game world to react the way he wants). Sometimes it is expressed by trying to monopolize the GM’s attention (either by speaking loudly or interrupting other players). Other players attempt to mold the game world by arguing the minutiae of how rules should be applied. None of these tendencies are innately bad. In fact, each of them tells you that the players are committed to the game and to their characters.

Thinking of yourself as the director of your campaign is a fantastic mindset, especially during sessions. Directorial responsibilities you may have as a GM include:

– How each decision affects the campaign as a whole.

– How the rules are applied to each game situation.

– Managing relationships between the PCs.

– Managing relationships between the players.

– Ensuring the story the group is telling will be entertaining to the audience (where the audience is you and the players).

Like a director, a GM can’t control exactly how the main characters will play their parts; but he can and should make suggestions and reward actions that improve the story.

Now, if only RPGs allowed room for an editor… but perhaps that’s a different article 😉

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