What Should the Game Master Fight For?

I have kicked off lots of campaigns as a GM, and none of them have been completed to my satisfaction.  Some campaigns withered as I grew disinterested, others collapsed as integral players left, and to my recollection none of my campaigns have completed.

I want to run a long-standing campaign, at least 15 sessions, to it’s conclusion.

Typically I spend quite a bit of time thinking about where things should end up – in 10 sessions – and much less focused on the present situations.

I don’t prepare adventures but prefer to act and react with the players and their characters.  Certainly I could create more challenging “set pieces” for the player characters, but I don’t know if that’s in my gamer DNA.

Burning Wheel builds on the assumption that you will “Fight for what you believe.” And the question hit me – What if this imperative is not just for the characters’ players but is for the Game Master as well?

What should a Game Master fight for?

First and foremost, we are all playing a game, and as such all participants should fight for enjoyment.  The short-term enjoyment of a single in-game moment, the medium-term enjoyment of a resolving story-arc, and the long-term enjoyment of character development and narrative closure.

A Game Master should fight to challenge the players and characters.  Guaranteed success is boring. In fact, my most memorable sessions are inevitably where situations spiral out of control, ala Fiasco-style, because success wasn’t guaranteed.  Typically these sessions are also very combat-lite.  A thinly veiled threat of splitting the loot 2 ways comes to mind.

Most systems I’ve played have two possible outcomes for a given roll…Success or Failure.  If I succeed, I am given narrative control.  If I fail, the GM is given narrative control.  There is no negotiation. No compromise.

I believe Apocalypse World gets it so very right by codifying that moves have a third possible outcome: Partial Success. Partial Success is a negotiated success…I get something that I want, but with a cost.  In the case of Apocalypse World, I’m negotiating with the rules.  In the case of Burning Wheel’s Duel of Wits, I’m negotiating with the table.

And lastly fight for what the characters and players believe in.  I struggle with engaging everyone’s beliefs.  In part this is a natural consequence of my failure to help shepherd character creation by not successfully conveying my campaign vision.  Also, beliefs are adjusted and change according to developing goals.  Keeping this information up to date is a challenge…especially if you can’t get confirmation from your game group that you are even playing that weekend.

In summary, understand what your players want then challenge and engage them via the story and the system.

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