Game Master Responsibilities

I saw a recent discussion about why Game Mastering is considered harder than playing. One reason is that there are many, many responsibilities that tend to default to the Game Master. Different games and groups will have distribute responsibility differently, but it’s common that if nothing says otherwise, these fall solely on the Game Master:

Master the rules

  • Learn the rules well enough to do all of the following:
  • Teach the rules
  • Decide which rules to engage and how
  • When someone takes an action in the fiction that engages the rules, understand and flesh out the situation well enough to set consequences, target numbers, or whatever else the system requires
  • Arbitrate rules disputes and have final say on rules questions
  • Fully stat out and balance challenges
  • Understand the subtleties of the game system well enough to create a fun experience

Be a host

  • Handle the logistics of getting everyone together on a specific date and time to play
  • Provide a physical space to play
  • Provide or coordinate food
  • Provide a digital space to play:
    • Pick a text, voice, or video chat solution
    • Figure out what to use for dice, character sheets, and any other play materials
    • Get everyone set up and comfortable with the tools picked
    • Act as tech support
  • Check-in on other players’ comfort, energy, and engagement levels
  • Make sure everyone else is having fun
  • Indirectly figure out what kinds of fun other people are looking for so you can give it to them
  • Decide when to take breaks

Be a moderator

  • Set expectations about the tone, subject matter, and style of the game
  • Distribute spotlight time
  • Moderate the discussion – make sure people stay on topic and get a chance to talk
  • Facilitate decision making – check if the discussion is going in circles and figure out how to unstick it
  • Arbitrate non-rules disputes
  • Set or frame scenes: decide the where, when, who, and what
  • Decide when to end scenes
  • Introduce and model safety tools and check-ins
  • Initiate the group’s transition from socializing to game time
  • Take notes
  • Keep an eye on the time, especially if people need to leave at a specific time
  • Lead a debrief or retrospective at the end of the session

Convey the fiction

  • Learn the setting well enough to do all of the below:
  • Teach or explain the setting
  • Describe locations and environments
  • Play NPCs
  • Play out their agendas and/or tactics
  • Do voices
  • Play multiple NPCs in the same scene or conflict and make them distinguishable
  • Be entertaining: clever, dramatic, funny, etc.

Put things in motion

  • Provide the main source of forward motion for the narrative
  • Provide resistance or antagonism to other player’s actions
  • Decide results and consequences of actions
  • Decide long-term or off-screen consequences of actions
  • When people look at you expectantly, say something that keeps the game going

Set the table

  • Own all the materials for play: books, special dice, miniatures, etc.
  • Prepare and maintain all the aids and materials for play: reference sheets, character sheets, maps, miniatures, props
  • Prepare a scenario, mission, adventure, challenges, etc, ahead of time
  • Remember what happened last session, and all the previous sessions
  • Maintain logs and reference material for everything that has happened
  • Bring the energy that we are going to play this game

(2021-04-05: Updated to add more duties from Gerrit Reininghaus’s excellent post, Sharing the Cognitive Load )