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Game Master

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"In D&D, there is no act more reckless and fraught with danger than that of outsmarting the DM."

Most Tabletop Role-Playing Games isolate one player from the rest to fill the role of the Game Master (or GM), who has four major "hats" to wear:

  • Author: The GM plans (in the loosest sense of the word) the plot of the story of which the Player Characters will interact; creating, adapting, or choosing the setting, populating that region with villains and other Non-Player Characters, and assigning them any necessary backgrounds, motivations, plans, and resources. Beware, as overdoing this aspect of the GM role can lead to preventing players from affecting the game with their choices.
  • Director: During the game, while each non-GM player typically controls the actions of one character, the GM decides the actions of every other character. The GM may also direct a particular NPC that travels with the party (commonly known as a GMPC), but this is open to abuse since the Game Master having a "pet" NPC may compromise their role as a neutral entity.
  • Referee: In most Tabletop RPGs, the rules are supplied to resolve conflicting situations (avoiding the "Bang! you're dead!"/"No, you missed!" quandary). The GM is expected to provide any necessary interpretation of those rules in fuzzy situations. The GM may also approve or provide house rules in order to cover these cases or provide a different gaming experience. And when that doesn't work, the GM can just supersede the rules-as-written and decide what works best for them.
  • Manager: The portion of GMing that takes people the most by surprise. The GM is typically the one to organize the game in the first place — finding players, scheduling sessions, figuring out a place to play, acting as a mediator, and balancing the needs and desires of all participants. The last bit may include having to divine the real desires of indecisive or self-deluded players.

The GM may be separated from the other players at the table by a cardboard screen that hides their notes on NPCs and upcoming events in the story; many games print custom GM screens, decorated with various tables and charts from the rulebooks, to reduce the amount of book referencing needed during play. Such screens have become less common — many GMs and players prefer to use their computer to create their own screen, if they ever use one at all.

Game Masters may be practiced actors, and some GMs are also talented vocal artists and authors — for some, they're skills that see a lot of use, and many games have come into legend because of a memorable GM-controlled NPC.

The Game Master may encourage a variety of game styles (ranging from dice-heavy hack-and-slash to semi-freeform roleplaying) and moods (ranging from the sadistic and adversarial to loot raining from the heavens).

The GMs in MMO Games (RPG or otherwise) are more like moderators with punitive powers but no ability to change the fundamentals of the game itself. They're the cops, in other words, whereas a Tabletop GM is the ruling deity of their world.

The concept of what would become the Game Master in role-playing games dates back to early wargames. As chess was evolved to more closely model real-world battlefield conditions, some of these games required one or more neutral arbiters to enforce the rules fairly among all players and keep knowledge that players would not have (concealing and discovering a force's movements on the battlefield being an intrinsic part of warfare). As RPGs grew out of tabletop wargames, this neutral arbiter became not only the adjudicator of rules, but the author of the interactive story.

Renaming the Game Master is a popular option to add a dash of custom flavor to a game:
  • Dungeons & Dragons: "Referee" was the original term used in the very first version (published in 1974 by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, may they Role-play In Peace). "Dungeon Master", or "DM", arrived with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which the game has stuck with ever since. It is from "Dungeon Master" that Game Master rose to become the generic term for such a player in a tabletop RPG.
  • Traveller, first published in 1977, still uses "Referee".
  • Alien: The Roleplaying Game calls the referee the Game Mother, after the master computer from the original film, which handily still shortens to the common "GM".
  • The One Ring calls its game master the Loremaster, after the in-universe term.
  • Free League's Blade Runner RPG uses "Game Runner".
  • All three Star Wars RPGs use the simple "Gamemaster".
  • Pathfinder officially uses the generic "Game Master". Given the game's status as a spinoff of D&D 3.5, however, many groups continue to use the more flavorful "Dungeon Master" from the parent game.
  • Ars Magica: "Storyguide"
  • "Chronicler" in Witchcraft and Conspiracy X: Unsurprising, given that the same company adopted both games.
  • Ghostbusters (West End): "Ghostmaster".
  • HeroQuest and Descent (Fantasy Flight Games): Both board games cast the Dungeon Master as the Heroes' actual antagonist, the former as the Big Bad (Zargon or Morcar, depending on where you bought the game), the latter as the Monster of the Week, called the Overlord.
    • However, Descent's Road to Legend supplement has the Overlord act much more like a traditional Evil Overlord, with evil minions and a plot beyond "kill the other players".
  • Nobilis: "Hollyhock God"; yes, it's a weird game.
  • Paranoia: "High Programmer"...sort of. The text actually usually calls him the Game Master, but the GM's section is labeled "Ultraviolet" clearance - which is the clearance of High Programmers.
    • Lampshaded in the 25th Edition corebook on High Programmers: Unlike all other books, there is no GM section, since the High Programmers are the PCs, here. Instead, the GM notes get sprinkled around, with the PCs being told to please not metagame, thank you.
  • Space Opera (Fantasy Games Unlimited): "Star Master", or "SM".
  • The World of Darkness, Exalted, and Scion (White Wolf): "Storyteller".
  • Toon: "Animator"
  • Spycraft (originally Alderac Entertainment Group, then Crafty Games): "Game Control" or "GC".
  • The "Aedile" in F.A.T.A.L..
  • "Host" in Ironclaw, Jadeclaw, and other games from Sanguine Productions — a term that deliberately emphasizes the Managerial hat in addition to the others. Even if the "Host" isn't inviting the other players into his home, he's inviting them into his world.
  • The '70s third-party supplement vendor, Judges Guild, got its name from the assumption that the DM was the game's "Judge," but it never caught on as a generic term.
    • Yet they still insist on calling the DM that even today, in a rather Anvilicious manner. They really don't ever give up, do they?
    • Though TSR themselves used it as a term for the GM of their Marvel Super Heroes role-playing game.
    • Games Workshop also got in on the judicial action, with "Judge Master"s laying down the law in the Judge Dredd role-playing game.
  • "Director" in the RPG adaptations of Buffy, Angel, and Army Of Darkness.
  • In Castles & Crusades, they use the term "Castle Keeper."
  • "Marshal" in Deadlands.
  • "Leon" in Midnight Madness.
  • "Zombie Master" in All Flesh Must Be Eaten.
  • The "Nightmare Weaver" in Panic.
  • "Zero Meister" in Spaceship Zero.
  • The 1980s company "Pacesetter" (currently out of business) always came up with a term that would fit the initials CM. For their horror game Chill, it was "Chill Master", Star Ace games were run by a "Campaign Master", and Timemaster had the "Continuum Master".
  • "Dispatcher" in the Ninja Burger RPG (second edition). Though, in this game, the GM takes on a more proactive role in the game and is an actual party member for all intents and purposes.
  • 7th Sea simply calls it the Game Master... but in the book Los Vagos (detailing a secret society run by a Captain Ersatz version of Zorro in Castille, Spain's Fantasy Counterpart Culture), it's called El Maestro de Juego...which is just Spanish for Game Master. (Said book contains a lot of Gratuitous Spanish.)
  • DragonRaid uses the generic-sounding (but not actually very common) "Adventure Master."
  • The Red Dwarf Roleplaying Game calls them the "AI", and encourages a bit of acting on their part beyond the norm.
  • Call of Cthulhu and all related games use "Keeper of Arcane Lore," usually abbreviated to just "Keeper".
  • The CRPG themed "Console" and "Super Console" calls him the "CPU".
  • Games Workshop games:
    • Known as a "Gamesmaster" in the Warhammer RPG Gaiden Games Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and Warhammer Quest (when using the optional roleplaying rules).
    • In Necromunda, the Outlanders supplement for 1st Edition of the game and the Necromunda: Gang War books for 3rd edition introduced rules for campaigns run by a Game Master known as an Arbitratornote . During such campaigns it is the job of the Arbitrator to organise games, keep track of campaign turns, introduce random events and generally make sure that all those involved in the campaign have the most fun possible.
  • "Host" in Castle Falkenstein, to maintain the 19th century drawing-room atmosphere. Similarly, a PC is a "Dramatic Persona".
  • "Overseer" in Fallout Pen and Paper.
  • As Model United Nations has been described as LARPing in suits, and crisis committees — in which you have constantly-changing topics of discussion — require direction, the equivalent position to Game Master is the "Crisis Staff" (a collective GM of 3-5 members, typically) and the players are "Delegates".
  • "HoLmeister" in HoL.
  • The Producer of Prime Time Adventures.
  • "Mythguide" in Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth.
  • "Raconteur" in Holy Lands.
  • Since 200+ people are playing at the Otakon LARP, there’s a staff of GMs, usually with specialization in certain areas, and two Co-Head GMs. There is also a special player category called “Specialist”. They are players that have proven experience and knowledge that allows them to be a little more involved in creating complicated plots with other players, utilizing limited "Manager" and "Referee" roles.
  • Ryuutama places the GM as a "Ryuujin" (a dragon that gathers the stories of mortals to nourish its eggs) who acts as the party's unseen guardian angel. Interestingly, Ryuujin level up alongside the players, and each colour has abilities related to different kinds of stories, giving them aspects of a Support Party Member.
  • Stupor Powers says the Game Master needs a cool title to go with his (or her) position, and thus gives them the moniker of The Big Mac Daddy. (Even if they're female.)
  • "Game Chief" in Planet Mercenary
  • "Master of Ceremonies", short "MC", in Apocalypse World. The term was specifically chosen by the author to deemphasize the traditional Author hat of the GM in favor of Director and Referee roles ("ceremonies"), in accordance to The Forge's philosophy that maintains that authorial control must be spread evenly across all game participants, rather than concentrated under the GM. Many games Powered by the Apocalypse continue to use the term for this reason, with some notable exceptions:
    • Monster of the Week, however, homages Cthulhu and uses "Keeper" (short for "Keeper of Monsters and Mysteries") instead.
    • Spirit of '77: The DJ, evoking the old school 1970s radio DJ's who spun that groovy vinyl.
    • Thirsty Sword Lesbians, not wanting to pass up a pun, dubs its GM the Gaymaster.
    • World Wide Wrestling calls the GM "Creative" i.e. the driving force behind maintaining Kayfabe and booking matches in a wrestling promotion; it makes the GM sound like an actual collective, if one reads Creative as a team of writers rather than an individual.
  • Speaking of The '70s, Spectrum Games's — the same company behind Cartoon Action Hour — latest game, Retro Star, which focus on the decade's televised science fiction series, calls the Game Master "the Showrunner".
  • "Game Moderator" in GUMSHOE games.

Alternative Title(s): Dungeon Master