The Changing Role of GMs

Listening to the RPG Circus podcast I was struck by something they said that I realised was blindingly obvious but I had never considered. In the olden days, GMs were the gods of the gaming table for one very simple reason – they had the rules.

In original D&D and up until 2nd edition, most rules were in a separate book with only the character generation and advancement rules in the players book. This was not just D&D. Aftermath! had a separate GM’s guide and I think others did (though no other examples spring to mind). Combat, magic items, dealing the environment and much more were all in the GM’s book. These rules, in concept at least, were only known by the GM and they alone decided how to arbitrate them.

In modern games, systems are a lot more streamlined with a focus on simple basic mechanics. This makes it easier for all the rules to be in the player’s hands with the DMG only used for advice to GMs about the rules and a few GM specific things such as experience points and encounter levels. The effect of this is to make the gaming table a lot more democratic with onus for knowing the rules shifting away from the GM to the group as a whole.

Newer players probably won’t appreciate that this concept did not exist prior to the mid-80s or the effect this change has had. But when RPG Circus mentioned it, I suddenly realised how much the gaming table has changed over the years.


  1. I was talking to Zachary (rpgblog2) about this the other day. There is a rule for almost everything now, so a DM can’t be as arbitrary and loose as he used to be with the rules because there will always be a player who’ll argue with him about it.

    The abstraction of older games translated to the table, now, the need for balance has included a roll for everything including tying a knot. Go figure…

  2. I recently looked through the old D&D Basic Game boxed set, and I’d forgotten how much wasn’t included in the rules. This certainly left a lot more of the power in the DMs hands. And left a lot to DM discretion because a player couldn’t just point to any book and say ‘Here’s how it’s supposed to work’.

  3. @NewbieDM – The codification of everything is not a new idea – Aftermath!, published 1981, had exhaustive rules for every situation. This not necessarily a bad thing, but I think the idea that rules are guidelines, a starting point for the GM, has been lost to some extent.

    One idea I’ve got knocking around in my head is a game system to be called “Vague”. This will have rules for everything but only very sketchy rules so the process of deciding exactly what happens is left to the GM / players to decide. The end result is that after a while, each group of gamers develop their own way of playing that is similar but different to every other group.

  4. Eh, not buying it. While the 1e DMG did have the to-hit tables, most of the rules it contained were special cases (things like “grenade-like missiles” and “aerial combat” while the meat of the rules, and all the spell lists, were in the PHB.

    That said, it was certainly the DM who new the rules and was expected to adjudicate them, as well as make the decision on when to apply them. The difference, I think, is that the players are now expected to play more with the rules. Faced with an unusual situation, a 1e player is more likely to turn to the DM with questions in hopes of finding inspiration or an overlooked opportunity. A 3.x player is more likely to scan a character sheet, looking for a feat or ability or magic item. A 4e player is more likely to turn to the rulebook, looking for a rule or set of rules that will yield an edge.

    It’s not so much that the GM has changed as how the players interact with the world. Before, that interaction was almost solely through the GM. Today, the rules have a much deeper impact on how the games are played.

  5. I have to agree with the “blindly obvious but never considered it.” It struck me after watching the series “Gold” ( as something obvious I’d never considered (since I was born in 1981). The DM in that acts much like my old school RPG mentors, hiding behind his screen, speaking in a raspy voice, keeping the DMGuide secret.

    “Vague” sounds better than AD&D (I hate to appear the hater), but I want both simplicity and mechanical strategy. Let’s call it “Vagueish!”

  6. YES! I can definitely relate. I actually rely on my players to keep me up to speed on a LOT of the rules. It’s too much work to come up with a decent adventure AND be a walking encyclopedia at the same time.

  7. Sorry, but I don’t think this observation is historically accurate. While OD&D (booklets, not Moldovay) might have been a vague, flexible rule system, (i.e., both GM and player had to guess what the rules were) by 1st edtion AD&D , rules attempted to cover most situations that came up in the game (and the choice of rules gives some frightening insight into what situations they considered common). By 1979, I certainly had to cope with rules lawyers who knew way more about the way things worked than I did. To say that the DM had priviliged access to the rules in the DM Guide was not the way it worked for me. My players all had at least as much knowledge of the DM Guide as I did (and when they didn’t know something, they would pretend anyway), and we all memorized the Monster Manual. In the end, I made up my own house rules mostly so that the players couldn’t argue with me.

    It is not my experience that not having rules for say, maneuvers meant that DM’s handled them in a more flexible way. Really, I think if a player insisted on doing something that wasn’t covered by the rules, the old school method was to have it automatically fail and mock the player viciously for trying for an unfair advantage. If you let PC’s get away with stuff like that, you were a Monty Haul DM that deserved to have your DM credentials taken away.

    I’m now more secure in my “GM authority” and appreciate player rule guidance for something like 3.5e. I think I wing unusual circumstances more than I did under AD&D, because I care more about a fast-paced adventure than being “fair”.

    I think it is true that beginning and intermediate level characters have an order of magnitude more official options under current editions than earlier editions. Under AD&D, your fighter could attack or not attack. Your mu and cleric had maybe two spells they could cast. No one had any feats or skills, except maybe one randomly assigned useless non-weapon proficiency. Plus, there was little customization within a class. So there wasn’t much need to consult the rules for player decisions under normal circumstances, which is different from today’s games.

  8. Chris, that’s a powerful bit of insight there – there is a shift in perspective since the early days of gaming. Even back then, you’d have players with encyclopedic libraries and knowledge to match yet the DM had much more leeway (which isn’t always a good thing).

    I think what’s changed is that enough people needed to know the special situations that WoTC said ‘Enough’ and gave them access to it. This is very true of combat options which in 1E ranged from ‘hit it/cast a spell’ to 3.xEs ‘aid another/bull rush/etc.’ and which in 4E customises each class and makes up half the PHB.

    A thought – as a DM, you can provide players with as much or little info as you feel fit. The players only need character sheets and notes on what their abilities usually mean. You can keep a copy of each book you need and if the players have a question, you answer it.

    Nothing stops you from playing that way except you and your players – it does need more organisation though. About the only other game I can think of where the players didn’t know so much about things is Paranoia and that was deliberate! I miss Paranoia…

    @Brian – Overbearing/bull rushing and object hardness are things which moved books from 1E to 3.xE. I’m sure there are others but those are the ones I recall offhand – 3E was when the migration began in earnest IIRC.

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