Over the last few days, disagreement over a Dungeon Master’s position has sprawled across several of my social media feeds, sparked by the assertion that the DM is another player rather than an different type of participant. One key point of contention was whether or not new rules systems had changed the role from player to not-player; I don’t think they have but I can see how it might seem that way.
I started roleplaying in the early dungeon crawl era, after games had become something other than purely tiny unit wargames but before games stopped being mostly focused on overcoming monsters and mechanisms. The roleplaying group dynamic was one person would be DM and create a dungeon using their roleplaying system of choice, the others would create characters and explore that dungeon, after one or more sessions the characters would withdraw with loot and improved abilities, and then someone else would create a dungeon, either using the same system or a different one. When the group played a system they’d played before, the people who weren’t running the dungeon might—probably would—bring back a character from a previous game; two characters who had met in a previous game might say they’d been adventuring together between dungeons or might pick up friendships/disputes, but the dynamic was still one of us has created a dungeon and each of the others has a character that is with the other characters to explore it.
Various systems released rules for what happened between dungeons: at first travel and village mechanics that were mostly just a tweak to the encounters and rest mechanics for dungeons; then separate social and economic systems that somewhat modeled things that weren’t killing monsters and solving byzantine puzzles. In parallel with these, the designers started to release pre-generated campaigns where there was an overarching story for why the characters went to various dungeons: instead of kill evil to earn gold and power, kill evil to recover the parts of a talisman needed to stop a greater evil conquering a kingdom (and thus earn gold and power). instead of controlling a character for a few sessions then being DM for a few sessions, then going back to being a character, one of us would running many sessions while the others played the same characters as part of a group that was more than allies of convenience vs the immediate dungeon. Then we might do a couple of sessions of plain dungeon exploring or someone else might run a long campaign in a different system.
Over time, the socioeconomic mechanisms caught up on the head start that combat and traps had from roleplaying’s start as a sort of wargame, ushering in games that didn’t just allow for worlds that had strong emotional connections, politics, and such but put them at the centre. I went from just playing various action-hero tropes heading out to swords-and-sorcery or gunslinger their way through one or more “dungeons” to also playing vampires struggling (or not) with having to prey on humans and with the machinations of other vampires. While I don’t recall any of the various games explicitly saying a group couldn’t pass the DM’s role around as often as they liked, the trend from a exploring a dungeon for a few sessions to striving to gain personal goals in a city of opposing vampire factions for many months vastly changed the volume of in-world secrets the DM needed to keep and for how long.
This in itself didn’t make the DM separate from the group, but horror and political games changed more than how long one person was DM: in any story, tension comes from not knowing what has happened or is going to happen; unlike in an action story where the character knows the monster is still going because they missed, in a horror story the character isn’t sure whether they missed or whether the monster isn’t harmed by ordinary bullets. Replicating that effect in a game requires either that the players are very good at keeping their knowledge separate from their characters or that the DM can overrule “success” without having to say why; even if the DM is relying on dice to determine the results, the way the others experience it has shifted from “you rolled 14 which is enough to hit but he rolled 15 for his dodge, so you miss” to “you rolled 14 to hit which you’d expect to hit but it didn’t and you aren’t sure why”.
Thus, the DM roles have gone from being just the person who tells you there are four goblins in the room and rolls the dice for those goblins for the next couple of session to include being the person who has—must have—the final say in what works or doesn’t. Having the DM be an inherently different role from being a player isn’t an objective rule but it’s easy to see how after months of having the same one person be ultimate arbiter of how the rules work someone could start to see the DM as “refereeing” rather than “playing”—especially if it’s a persons first experience of roleplaying so they don’t know there’s a range of possible roles the DM can fill rather than just “final arbiter of the rules”.
Of course the things a DM does are different from those of someone playing a character so their role is different; but the things a healer does are different from those a front-line fighter does and we don’t argue about whether people who choose cleric or people who choose barbarian are players.