The Business of GMing

I find a lot of interesting parallels between GMing and Management. Not just in terms of how there are similarities between them, but also in terms of how people perceive them.

Work any amount of time in a technical field and you’ll discover that there’s a reason that people will keep reading Dilbert no matter how often it re-tells the same joke. Management just gets in the way of people doing what they should be doing, after all, and their motives are highly suspect since their priorities are not the same as the engineer’s. Management doesn’t get it, and they make the wrong technical decisions because they are not technical, and things would work much, much better if these decisions could be made by technical people because they’re not mired in this bullshit.

For a lot of people, this accurately reflects their experience. They’ve had the kind of management that inspires pointy-haired-boss stories, and as a result, that is what they expect from management. Statements to the contrary, talk of things like leadership or teamwork, are obviously just buzzwords used to manipulate those who don’t know any better.


Some people have had good managers. Bosses who step up for them, communicate when appropriate, and who do all the things to help make sure that their work is not just technically correct, but meaningful. They make sure shit gets done, and even when they push you, you get to the other end and thank them for it. They nurture their employees, and push them further than they’d push themselves. They bring people together in ways that allow the word “synergy” to be used without irony. It’s unhip to say it, but they lead, and in doing so they demonstrate that leadership is something much more nuanced than standing in front and shouting orders.

People who have had these managers want to repeat the experience, and they chafe hard under managers who don’t live up to this example. But they chafe even harder when no on is even trying to do these things because they’re just stupid management stuff. But for all this, the first group is likely to think the second group is delusional, or are sheep who aren’t smart enough to know they’re being misled (and the second group tend to look at the first like they’re talking nonsense).

You can imagine how well that goes.

But I mention this because the same can be said of people’s experience with GMs. Some have had nothing but pointy-haired-GM experiences, while others have had fantastic GMs. As with management, each group tends to assume that this is how the world works, and looks down their noses at the other people.

You can probably imagine how well that goes too.

Now, I like this parallel. Like GMing, management is an inexact science, and an IMMENSE amount of work and thought has gone into it. There are levels and types of management that require different ideas and nuances for how to do things right (a project manager is different than the manager of an autonomous team is different than the day manager in a call center) but there are still certain underlying ideas (like, say, TALK to people) that emerge throughout. This parallels GMing nicely, since running PTA is different than running D&D is different than running a LARP.

Now, we don’t have the language to talk about GMing the way people can talk about management, at least not yet. That makes a lot of things pretty rough, but I am finding myself thinking that it might be worth turning an eye towards business literature to help clarify the distinctions that we carry around, but don’t communicate.

8 thoughts on “The Business of GMing

  1. Robert

    I think you have an excellent point. I think that both GM’ing and managing are more art than science. And I agree that management has a better vocabulary for self-analysis than GM’ing. But note that there are several vocabularies for management discussions, not all of which are compatible.

  2. Deborah

    The thing about it is that people tend to respond to strong management – most especially the people being cynical and snide and dismissive of half-assed managers. Oh, they’re still snide and cynical, especially at first, but they also tend to try to come in out of the cold when they begin to sense that maybe, possibly, there’s something worthwhile over here. They just have a tendency to be, well, bluntly, skittish. This is really really true of folks who have been incredibly badly burned – and I think this is also a useful parallel. As a manager, all you can do with the situation is state, “Here, in plain English, is what we do and why. Here are my expectations of you. Here is what you may expect of me.” Accept that they will not take you at face value at first. Then back it up: be consistent, follow through and communicate concisely and clearly until they start to gravitate to that sense of structure and purpose. It will not always be fun; it requires patience and being reasonable no matter what, but it tends to be worth it.

  3. Jeff

    The thing about it is that *SOME* people tend to respond to strong management.

    Some prefer it. Some hate it.

    Some have had wonderful managers (GMs) and trust that system. Some have had nothing but shit managers (GMs) who abuse them…and subsequently don’t trust that system anymore.

    Lots of games have been developed with this in mind. While some games use GM fiat as their core, many have now been developed which almost eliminate GM fiat entirely.

    GM Fiat is based upon a system of trust. Once burned it’s hard to go back. It’s like a relationship.

    Managers/ GMs are people and no two are alike. Being burned by one doesn’t mean you’ll be burned by all of them. It’s not a failure of the system, it’s a failure of the individuals involved to trust (and uphold that trust).

    RPGs are ultimately social gatherings where we decide to use a system of trust (GM Fiat systems) or not. Neither is essentially right or wrong.

  4. Bill White

    It’s funny. When I was applying for an ROTC scholarship twenty-five years ago, the only real leadership experience I could point to was being a DM. I forget precisely what I told the interviewer–an Army officer in a Quonset hut at Fort Dix–but I know I mentioned that it had elements of teaching and getting people to work together.

    I wonder about relying on the management literature to give us the language to talk about the business of DMing, though. People are rightfully scornful of its tendency to rely on flavor-of-the-month buzzwords to hide the fact that life in organizations is about subordinating one’s own interests to those of the organization. A rational army would run away, as Larry Niven once said–although I recognize that that’s debatable.

    But I like the evolution away from GM-as-author/leader toward GM-as-coparticipant that’s happening within the indie games community, and I’d like to see us adopt a theoretical language that mirrors rather than masks that.

  5. Reverance Pavane

    I do think that business management theory is probably the wrong ethos to discuss good gamemastering in, although I can draw plenty of examples of bad gamemastering from bad management practice (such as a tendency to micromanage, failure to properly communicate, failure to listen, etal).

    Personally I find the best example to follow for best practice whilst gamemastering is that of a stage manager for a dramatic production, whose job is to ensure that the production flows smoothly.

  6. Andrew Smith

    As a manager and a GM, I’m glad you brought this up. The closest parallel I’ve found is not the GM as project manager or department manager, but as meeting manager. Find someone who can run a good meeting and watch how they do it.

    They get everyone involved, not letting the loud ones dominate the discussion.

    They ask the right questions to provoke the participants.

    They keep the discussion moving towards a resolution, a resolution that isn’t always known beforehand.

    They keep people interested in the discussion.

    They give the spotlight to the experts in the relevant field.

    And so on. A game is something like a meeting to solve a problem. It needs the right participants, and the right person to get the best out of those participants.


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