GameMaster – What’s in a Name?


Our first roleplaying purchase was GURPS 3e Basic Set, but the first one we played was HackMaster 4e. These days HackMaster 5e is my system of choice for combat-heavy fantasy, and GURPS 4e for is for everything else. One thing they have in common is the term “Game Master” (GM), so I tend to use it rather than the game’s specific term. Even though I have run or played D&D Encounters since season 1 back in 4e, coming up is the first time I have ever used the term “Dungeon Master”.

Players who started with Dungeons & Dragons frequently use DM regardless of the system, and I’ve known World of Darkness fans who nearly always use “Storyteller”. There are lots of other terms used by various games, but those are the most common I’ve seen, with GM dominating the pack.

The nice thing about those three terms being so prevalent is that you can use whichever you prefer and everyone will know what you’re talking about. But have you ever thought about what they actually mean?

Let’s start with original: Dungeon Master (DM). Since the game is called “Dungeons & Dragons”, the term makes sense, especially because back in the game’s early days the DM’s primary job was to create the dungeons and control the monsters within them. What I don’t understand are the multitude of games that use DM yet don’t feature dungeons – some of them aren’t even fantasy games.

One of our friends runs World of Darkness as exclusively as my wife does GURPS (he ran a single session of Shadowrun 4e once) so I’ve played it quite a bit. It refers to the GM as the Storyteller (usually abbreviated ST if at all), which has always bothered me. Why? Because it makes it seem like the GM is the only storyteller at the table, when in fact all of the players are telling a story together.

At its simplest the GM’s job is three-fold: to create the setting, to put obstacles in the PCs’ way, and to be the final arbitrator of the rules. So the GM must master the rules of the game and act as a bit of a ring master, making sure each player has a chance to show off in the spotlight. That’s another reason why Game Master has always been my term of choice: it succinctly describes the GM’s job while not tying it to any particular genre.

While I may inwardly cringe when people say “Dungeon Master” when talking about my latest GURPS sci-fi game, I’m not going to deny them their right to use whichever term they like – Shield Monkey is one of our favorites – as long as they extend the same courtesy to others. Many of our D&D Adventurers’ League players use DM simply because D&D is the only system they know, while Lura and I use GM exclusively, but no one ever so much as bats an eyelid at the difference. So in the end it doesn’t really matter what term you use as long as everyone’s on the same page.

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