Angry wrote another post about the constant apparent lack of gamemasters among RPG players. Being a regular GM myself that has never been a problem for me, but then I also always was the one who initiated the groups in the first place and got all the players together in the first place, pretty much proving his point: New players are overwhelmingly introduced to roleplaying games by existing players and only when a GM is already starting or running a group. If there will be any game at all really comes down to there already being a GM. Old players may ask a GM they know to start a new campaign, but usually it’s all happening on the GMs initative. No GM, no game. Simple as that.
No matter how much companies advertise their games, it doesn’t matter how many players they get excited, only how many GMs they can reach. And they can’t get any new players to start playing any RPGs. The only way to get more people to play is to get more people to become gamemasters. GMs can train other GMs in the basics, but that’s nothing that companies can influence.
Now the question Angry is putting out in the open is how we can get more people to become GMs. Because as he correctly notes, running games is not generally treated as something desireable. It’s not usually “Who wants to be a GM?” but “Who is willing to be a GM?” If you are not already totally excited about an idea you want to run, people become GMs for a campaign because everyone else “refuses” to, or feels “unable” to do it. And I think here is the key to the whole problem. Running a game is generally perceived as being difficult, tiresome, and all around undesirable. If anything is going to change, we need to make games that are easy to run. And looking at the big names in RPGs we got D&D, Pathfinder, Exalted, Shadowrun, World of Darkness, and Legend of the Five Rings. And from what I am able to tell these are all really a bitch to run. Among the most work intensive and complex systems that are out there. So no wonder nobody wants to be a GM. Even I don’t want to run these games and I already am a GM of 15 years. Now D&D 5th Edition made a few little steps into the right direction, but why are all the big games what could be called Hardcore or Expert-Level games. These are games for players and especially GMs who already are familiar with the whole thing. For new people they are almost inaccessible.
The one shining light I can think of are the various B/X clones, because Mentzer Basic and Expert are actually the only truly introductory game products I’ve ever seen. This is a game that is easy to learn in half an hour and also puts a very light workload on the GM, and it actually makes a real effort to tech the game to new GMs. Sandly, there are now dozens of them of which most people have never heard of because they are made often by just one or two people at home who don’t have any marketing and rely entirely on nostalgia from very old GMs and word of mouth. Little honorable mention here to Barbarians of Lemuria, which seems to have gained some real popularity while also being rules light and not a B/X clone. Doesn’t try to reach new players either, though.
So to any company interested in bringing a new game to the market, please give a try to an Entry-level game that has rules which are designed to be simple and easy to learn. And also make a real effort to explain to people how to actually run a game. Because, as Angry had been explaining a while back, all the major RPGs suck at explaining how running a game actually works. They only explain how combat works and how to tell the players to make a skill check, and seem to believe that’s everything you need to know.
But what we really need is not just a game that has accessible rules, but we also need to make gamemastering appear as fun and nothing to be afraid of. And again, the big companies are largely to blame here. In particularly Paizo and White Wolf! Yeah, I am looking right at you two. White Wolf is the worst offender (didn’t they got bust and sold World of Darkness to someone else?), with the total bullshit idea of calling the Gamemaster a Storyteller! No, a GM is not a storyteller. That’s actually the opposite of what a GMs job entails. As GM your task is not to tell a story. The game is not your story. The job of the GM is to provide a playground for the players to play on and play with them. GMing gets really terribly hard when you try to make the players do what you want them to do so that the story can continue. And here I point an accusing finger at Paizo! Your adventures all suck! Except perhaps the first adventure of the Kingmaker series. Pathfinder adventures are these big books full of stat blocks and predetermined scenes. These look very daunting to new GMs because they are. These are not a help to running a game; these are an additional huge workload on the GMs which they really don’t need.
But everyone wants to be like Pathfinder and do these great epic storylines. But I say forget about these, especially when you’re a new GM. These are for experts and when you are able to deal with that much complexity, you won’t be needing all those cumbersome linear plot threads and overblown stat blocks anymore. And here is my other big advice for anyone who wants to change the gaming market and reach new audiences: Go back and look at some of the old D&D adventures. Some of the most interesting ones are ridiculously short and have almost no content other than a map and a few notes. True, many of these were dumb straightforward dungeon crawls, but for first time players and especially GMs these are really not a bad thing. And you can make things much more interesting and appealing to people who are not interested in treasure hunting. Strangely, the best adventures in that regard are from Lamentations of the Flame Princess, which is possibly as fringe and elitist as it gets, and caters to a hardcore crowd of grotesque horror fans. Yet all the best adventures I know have been released in this game line. James Raggis Better than any Man and Rafael Chandlers No Salvation for Witches are wonderful examples of how to make a playground on which there are other things to do than killing monsters and collecting treasures. And even though they have some of the most complex and unusual backgrounds that will make players come to some really difficult descisions, they are actually pretty easy to run. These adventures just tell the GM what has happened before the player characters arrive at the places and who the NPCs are and what they want. And then both players and GM are set lose on this playground and just play around in whatever way they want. It’s really easy when you don’t have to get the players to go to some specific place, talk to a specific person, and make specific descision. Worst case scenario the whole world ends in fire and everyone has a good laugh about how badly the players fucked this up. No deal. While thesr two adventures are certainly not something I would put into the hands of any new GM, the structure and philosophy behind them is exceptionally well suited for GMs because nothing can go wrong. There should be more adventures like these instead of the Paizo funhouse rides where you have to make sure the players keep their arms and legs inside the vehicle for the whole ride.
So that’s my thoughts on what could help to get more people to become GMs and introduce more players to roleplaying games.
- Target new games at GMs, not players.
- Write rules that are optimized for easy gamemastering.
- Produce adventures that are open ended playgrounds instead of linear prewritten stories.