I love a good Games Master (GM) section. I love reading them. Love the advice and seeing how others perceive the role. But are they really needed? I have one game that completely omitted the section altogether and I have other games where they just insert the advice directly into the text of the normal rules itself. What goes into the GM section that is needed and are there better ways of including it that does not need a whole new chapter?
There is an argument that would suggest that gaming books are too large. Hundreds of pages for sometimes very simple games. I am amused at the recent spate of D&D products that are pretty much the same size that they have always been and yet utilize a much simpler system than it has for a good 30 years. I look at their Dungeon Master Guide (DMG) which is 320 pages. Don’t get me wrong, of the three books that is the one that I just wholeheartedly think the greatest value BUT is the information in it all required? After all, one of my players that is never likely to harbor an intent to run a game bought a copy of the DMG because of the magic items. And fair enough, I think that sort of information should be available to players.
I find that a lot of the rules tend to get hidden away in the GM sections of the rules. It is true that a GM handles the NPC’s and all the surrounding characters that the PC’s interact with, but does that make the rules of social interaction a GM only thing? I don’t think so. The players should have a clear idea on how social interactions are handled just as much as they should know what things they can accomplish in combat and how it is supported in the rules. But the details of social interactions and how NPC’s respond to the PC’s tends to be hidden away in the GM section. Of course there are no rules stating that a player can’t read the GM section but why would they bother? If I am going to play a game as a player then I will invest the time reading the main rules but I will earmark the GM section for another time, my “to read” pile is huge.
On top of the NPC interactions the GM sections tend to deal with conditions, diseases, traps and a variety of other environmental factors. There are common tropes in every genre but surely a player’s character would have knowledge of these things so why not allow that information to appear in the general rules. In fact, to me, the best parts of a GM section, and perhaps the best argument for one, is the hints on how to run a game and handle the players questions and actions. Sadly though, there is little direct information in this regard in most of these sections.
Take, for example, Desiree. She is one of the other writers here at the blog and she has been playing and running games for a couple of years now. I first “met” Desiree while I was writing for the Pathfinder Chronicles. She had come across some of my writing and she started becoming an active comment maker. She started asking questions that could essentially be boiled down to “How do I GM?” She had read the GM sections and played in games but those sections just did not prepare her with the tools that she required. Like so many GM sections the books she was reading offered her the mechanics but not the know how. There was no discussion of how to handle what to do when a player is more interested in their iPod rather than the game or how to present hooks in a subtle way. There were mechanics about how to hand out experience and how to build an adventure or a campaign but nothing about what actually to do at the table when you sit in front of the players and they look at you expectantly.
One of the things that I always, always found valuable when I started to run games was the inevitable in-play script that they would include in the “What is Role playing?” These sections, normally about a page in length, taught me what I was meant to do and say. I ran games before I was ever a player so it was great to see the books supply that information to me. What I would have liked to see in the GM sections was not the rules on how much damage a 10′ fall into a spike pit trap did but what to say when a player wants to swing from the chandelier whilst playing a dirge on a flute to command an Ifrit that they had just summoned. To my mind, it is situations like that where so much is going on that the GM section should give a hand. It should be a place that you can turn to for help on lessening the load and handling the tricky, not more rules.
So there you have it, I do think that there should be GM sections, but I would prefer if most of them were reshaped into something much more useful. There are games out there that do it right but they are few and far between. Until all of them start offering that material though there are some great blogs out there where we can turn and see how others handle it. Keep rolling.