Years ago, I religiously read Ray Winniger's Dungeoncraft column. It is a treasure trove of insights into GMing Dungeons and Dragons, with many relevant insights for other RPGs.
Ray Winniger names the three responsibilities of GMing:
- Providing effective descriptions.
- Determining how to resolve the outcomes of the characters’ actions.
- Deciding when you should automatically reveal information and when you should force the players to specifically ask for information.
There are likely other assumed responsibilities (i.e. keeping player attention), but the outlined responsibilities are at the core of an effectively run role-playing game.
This afternoon, my twitter feed had a very enticing tweet from Ryan Maklin concerning “The Fate Pot” and player-on-player compels. In it, he references the idea of the Fate Pot, a collection of Fate tokens that can be used by a player to compel another player. Fate already allows players to compel other players, but they must expend their own precious currency to do so. Ryan highlights a tremendous advantage of the Fate Pot:
[Wayne Coburn, the GM,] said that we were free to compel each other, taking coins from the [Fate pool] rather than using our own. I thought this was brilliant–the GM has to spend a lot of bandwidth keeping track of things to not notice every moment worthy of a compel.
Further democratizing how a character is pushed/pulled through the narrative in essence frees the GM for other tasks: describing the world and determining how to resolve action. It frees up the GMs bandwidth.
Which ties into my academic understanding of Apocalypse World (I have yet to play this game). In Apocalypse World the Master of Ceremonies has a very clearly defined method for resolving action. The MC cannot throw a punch that does measurable damage until a player has acted. Once the player has acted, the resolution is shared between the acting player and the acted upon player. So the MC can focus on “barfing forth apocalyptica” and revealing information.
In addition, Apocalypse World is the first system I've encountered that keeps dice rolling strictly in the other players’ domain. And the benefit of this? Freeing bandwidth. No need to worry about making opposed Stealth and Observation tests. The Master of Ceremonies can focus on framing the situation and reacting to the character's action.
So here we are, investing energy in freeing up a GM's bandwidth. Dungeons and Dragons 4E has focused on making the Dungeon Mastering easier. They have worked to reduce prep time, continually refining stat blocks, and encounter presentation. Which illuminates a general understanding that it ain't easy being the Game Master, Dungeon Master, Referee, Master of Ceremonies, or Games Orderly Director.
I wonder how a person's mental agility changes overtime for those that run a role-playing game versus those that don't. A longitudinal study would be quite interesting.