A Thesis

Not Particularly Contentious: GM Skill/Quality strongly impacts quality of play experience.

Only Contentious In a Fake Way: Choice of game system strongly impacts quality of play experience.

My (Possibly Contentious) Thesis: As quality of GM increases, the impact of choice of game system on quality of play experience diminishes  (though it is unlikely to diminish to zero).

The Curious Question This Raises: Is the diminishment in importance relative or absolute? That is, does the choice of system stay the same while GM improves, so it’s a smaller percentage of a larger whole, or does the improvement in GM quality also diminish the impact of the system?

My Answer: A little bit of both. Relative diminishment actually happens, but I think some actual diminishment happens too, especially when the GM has internalized[1] the lessons of the game (and thus no longer needs to lean on the mechanics) or when the GM more strongly takes ownership of the rules to suit her own table.[2]

1 – There’s a great example of this in Tech Noir, a system which has, I think, Internalized the most important lessons from Gumshoe.  In my mind, Gumshoe’s biggest lesson is to teach the GM that there should always be information to move the game forward, and it has an entire clue and investigation system to make that happen.  Tech Noir skips that and just tells the GM that the players should always get a new piece of information.   While that’s a system example, I think it clearly illustrates the idea of how internalizing a system can produce similar outcomes without actually using the system.

2 – Now this is contentious, especially to folks who strongly support playing with rules as written.  Take it as a given that it’s an argument I’ve had many times, a position a respect, but an idea I disagree with.  If you disagree, then your answer to the curious question may be different, which is ok. 

18 thoughts on “A Thesis

  1. TheMainEvent

    When you say “quality of play experience” are you talking purely enjoyment of the participants (rather than the rules facilitating the play)? Follow up: your thesis would posit that a great GM running a D&D iteration that revolves around social investigation and mysetry will utilize the same toolbox (consciously or not) that he would have used in Gumshoe and thus the table experience will be of the same quality?

  2. Rob Donoghue

    Yes, so much so that it hadn’t even occurred to me that there might be another yardstick other than how fun/satisfying/enjoyable the game was. 🙂

    And yes, sort of.

    In some cases it might be what would normally be considered the toolbox – a collection of rules, tweaks and techniques that can be applied. For example, one super useful technique is turning failure into success with complications. You can apply that in almost any game, and if I were running a D&D investigation game and I didn’t want to have a “Roll to find this clue or the plot stops” situation, then I could easily apply that technique based on the situation.

    But after dong so for a while, I think the GM may have internalized the lesson so much that she no longer needs to actually employ the technique (at least not consciously) and instead simply designs situations so that there is no bad-play outcome to _require_ a workaround.

    The net result being that a GM can arguably make the experience as good as the best parts of all the games in her arsenal, which is pretty powerful (but also depends on the GM having a wide range of tricks, which is another topic).

    Make sense?

  3. Rickard

    It depends on how the game system is written. There are two things in a game system. Game mechanics and conventions. Game mechanics are things you normally think when it comes to rules, like OOA, flanking etc, but conventions tells you how to play the game, like “The player describe how to take out the opponent when she hits”, “You should only roll a die when it’s two opponents against each other” or “Every time you kick a door, a bucket of water will fall onto the kicker’s head”.

    A game master uses conventions and can transfer them between different game systems that concentrates mainly on just game mechanics. A game system that consist of a lot of conventions are different. Here the game master have to adopt her style to the game system.

    Game systems that mainly consist of game mechanics: D&D4, RuneQuest, Call of Cthulhu

    Game systems with conventions: Feng Shui, Apocalypse World, Mouse Guard

  4. Stephen

    Absolutely agreed. Some of the best games I’ve played in have been systems I didn’t really enjoy run by excellent GMs.

    My followup question is, given an excellent GM, is it better to have: a game with a system the players hate but the GM is really comfortable with or one the players like but the GM is inexperienced with and hasn’t internalized?

  5. Rob Donoghue

    I think the line is a lot more blurry than that, especially when you start really drilling into how mechanics are designed. Not to say that every mechanic is a well-thought-through approach to deliver a given experience, but in most cases some thought went into the effect the mechanic generates. That is to say, a well designed rule can meld mechanics and conventions to powerful effect.

    To illustrate, consider Rolemaster. It’s combat system is super detailed, super colorful, and very brutal. This is a function of the mechanics, but it produces a certain sort of play experience. Understanding how those mechanics and that experience interact lets you usefully take those lessons elsewhere (either as a GM or a designer). Vincent Baker’s designs are pretty much made entirely of this sort of unity, something often overlooked as discussion fo the games getis bigger than the games themselves.

    So, yes, Mechanics and conventions are both parts of a game system, but they are not the entirety of it and, more importantly, they are not so clearly separate as they may appear at first glance.

    1. Rickard

      I don’t know Rolemaster so that example unfortunable misses me. Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World are purely conventions, dressed up in game procedures (game mechanics). You can find another examples of this in Robin D Laws’ games, for example the investigator skills in Trail of Cthulhu. It’s not really skills per se, it’s a roleplaying convention (It’s not about finding the clues, it’s about what you do with them.).

      But I’m curious: what more, besides mechanics and conventions, does a game system consist of?

  6. Rob Donoghue

    @Stephen Hmm. That’s a tough question, and I think it comes to this.

    If the group is merely unfamiliar with the system, or even uninterested, then the GM can carry that weight. The idea is that if they play enough to become engaged, they’ll enjoy it, so the GM is helping th eprocess.

    If, on the other hand, the game is one that the players would not like, even if they completely “got” it, then it’s going to be an uphill battle, no matter how good the GM is.

    So, I realize “it Depends” is a bit of a cop out, but i think that’s the answer.

  7. TheMainEvent

    @Rob: Makes sense to me.

    Its very interesting argument, one that would suggest suggest to me that Excellent GMs (those that have happy games with happy gamers) need not buy new games, but only read up on new conventions and techniques from other games to hone their own evolution as a GM.

  8. Rob Donoghue

    @TheMain Event Hmm. So, I admit I have a bias that says nothing teaches you these things like running other games, but I must also admit there’s a lot to be learned from talking to people and reading useful stuff (S long as you then actually try it). The transition from technique to “Muscle memory” requires a certain amount of habit, and I’m not sure there’s any other route to that besides gaming.

    (Except maybe writing, which can produces similar-enough muscles to have some overlap, but it’s not 100%)

  9. kenkins

    I’ve often said that any game’s shortcomings can be rendered moot by a sufficiently creative table. While this is often a sufficiently creative GM, the rest of the players can make up for a lack of their leadership qualities via consensus.

    That is, people often look to the GM to run the game, but in practice I find it’s an agreement of everyone playing it with the GM having veto rights.

  10. Rob Donoghue

    @Kenkins I don’t disagree that that’s powerful, maybe even optimal, but it’s harder to speak to for a variety of reasons. Exactly what dynamic works really varies from table to table. I’m a big fan of empowered players, but I also have been burned by trying to help empower players who don’t want to be.

    So with that in mind, i speak to the GM just because it’s probably the most common lynchpin. That is, if you can tweak only one thing, the GM is probably the one I’d pick. Not to say it’s not worth pursuing other angles – far from it – that’s just the big lever in my mind.

  11. Paul

    @kenkins I disagree that any game’s shortcomings can be rendered moot by a sufficiently creative table, because there are frequently shortcomings that revolve around poorly-communicated expectations. It takes more than creativity to rearrange someone’s expectations at the table – especially while actually gaming and not just having a “get on the same page” intervention.

  12. Jason Pitre

    Interesting thesis, however I would respectfully challenge your thesis. From my perspective, GM techniques are part of the game system they are using. If the GM is applying techniques not commumnicated in the text, then they are playing a unique derivation of the original text.

    In short, if you play D&D using the GM skills specifically taught in Fate, you actually playing D&D Hack as if you were provided more guidance/advice. It’s not that system matters less, but rather that you have hacked your system to be more functional for your needs. Really, the GM doesn’t gain skill in running games so much as tailor all of their games to improve the experience.

    Just my alternative hypothesis.

  13. Rob Donoghue

    @Jason You are totally correct but I would take it further – Every experience at every table is a unique one. Even if two GMs at two different tables are playing “by the book”, their experiences will be unique and distinctive. This is an awesome thing, and one of the great things about gaming.

    A comparison would be a script of screenplay. Two productions of the same script may have a lot in common, but can still b drastically different, and this is a great thing. However, some writers are so uncomfortable with this that they fill their scripts with direction notes, trying to prevent that difference, and in doing so, they make their scripts suck more. Game designers are very similar, and are sometimes willfully blind to the fact that their creations stop being theirs once they go out the door.

    All of which is to say, you are NEVER running D&D, or Fate, or whatever. You are running the game you are running with the people you are running in with. The game system is in your toolbox, and it’s an important tool, but it’snot what you’re _doing_. What your doing is playing.

    So yes, I agree, but even moreso than you propose. 🙂

    That said, it need not be a hack. It can be, but that’s not necessary. D&D gives me a certain amount of guidance for how to make a perception related roll, but my experience with other games allows me to do it better while still staying well within the bounds of D&D.

    Certainly, it is possible for an individual GM to move closer to a model where all games are just flavors of their personal house system, and that’s fine, but that’s definitely not what I’m talking about here. It’s a genuine function of skill and experience, and while that skill may lead to hacking, there’s no obligation.

    That said, some of this falls under the umbrella of rules as written – the idea that it’s not a matter of GM skill but rather one of system tuning is one that hinges on the primacy of system, something I’ve long since made my peace with not accepting. 🙂

  14. Leonard Balsera

    So, I tried to post yesterday to this, but my post got eaten somehow. Here are some observations from my own play that make it difficult for me to give a simple response to your thesis:

    * You seem to be suggesting that there’s a definitional “good GM”; as written, I don’t think I agree with that. A system suggests its ideal practices. This is a little bit like what Jason’s saying. Certain techniques introduced into certain games actively disrupt the experience for the players, like trying to set PTA-style stakes in In a Wicked Age, for example. I’ve seen plenty of instances where someone I consider a great GM brought their mojo to a particular game, and it went south because of mismatched assumptions.

    * One of the things I consider a critical GM skill is choosing the most ideal toolset for the game she wants to run, especially now that the market has such an awesome variety of tools available. When a GM is really good at A, B, and C, and chooses a tool that primarily does X and Y well, she’s already on less than ideal footing. The process of sorting out what to ignore and what to keep is disruptive to play for a little while at best, and actively un-fun at worst, especially as the tangled web of player expectations get thrown into the mix.

    In either of the above cases, I’ve always noticed the shear – a GM that brings habits from one game can screw up another by making assumptions, and a GM using less than ideal tools can bog the game down until the group settles on their particular totemic construct. Cue a montage of every “story-focused” D&D game I’ve ever been in. That doesn’t mean it’s always been a dealbreaker; usually what happens is the people are invested enough in one another that they work their way painfully toward the Frankengame that’s going to give them the best time.

    I guess what I’m getting at is, I’m reading you as presenting GM skill and system impact as independent variables, when I consider them highly dependent variables. A game system (a good one, anyway) tells you its best practices. A good GM chooses ideal tools.

  15. Rob Donoghue

    @Lenny I think there’s such a thing as a good GM. It’s a collection of skills, and it’s not exempted from the same measure we apply to every other human endeavor just because we love it. But I also think that, like all such thing, it invites definitional arguments, which make for lots of heat and negligible light. So, I just put it up there that I think there is such a thing, and that like any other field, there’s a lot of depth to the idea of it.

    That said, I think it’s very easy to confuse a being good at GMing a certain game as being a good GM. There’s overlap, certainly, but the differences matter more the closer you look. It’s totally possible to mismatch, and doing that is a mistake – a false note, a slipped stroke, a screw up. A single mistake doesn’t keep someone from being good at what they do, but it also goes into the equation.

    That said, we come together in agreement in that, yes, one of the key skills that makes a GM good is the ability to pick the right tools for the job. But as with Jason, I suggest it goes a bit farther. Picking the right game system is a blunt instrument. It can get you maybe 50-75% of the way there, and that’s pretty damn good, but filling in the rest takes fine tool work. It’s theoretically possible that a given system will be a 100% match to a specific group and situation, but more often the group just shapes themselves to the game because the GM isn’t filling the gap.

    And that’s fine. Those are good games, and people have fun, which is the most important thing for that game. But it doesn’t teach us much, and it just increases dependance on other people’s tools.

    1. Leonard Balsera

      Yeah, I agree with you. Apparently, I tend to focus more on trying to figure out that interdependence, which makes it hard for me to change my mental model around.

      So, instead, a question: That “fine tool work” you’re talking about strikes me as largely involving the managing of people, their input, and their expectations. Is that one of the places you’re going, re: defining the skills of a quality GM?

      (Hint: A future post where you unpack that would rock on toast.)

    2. Rob Donoghue

      Yep. Understanding people (and understanding stories, as it relates to understanding people) is the big thing.

      And, yeah, I’m slowly working towards it. The pieces that make up a “good GM” are something I’m hitting with a lead pipe to see if candy comes out.


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