The Goalkeeper Doesn’t Decide Who Scores

Previously, I set out my theory for why people might have started to see the DMs of roleplaying games as separate from the players. Someone who wishes to remain a nameless spectre of looming contention asked me if it actually matters whether the DM is called a player or not. And, in fairness, a lot of the time it doesn’t; however, when it does, it can really make a difference to everyone’s enjoyment.

It is likely uncontroversial to state everyone involved in a game gains some responsibility for the experience of others; team games are, after all, vaunted by armies, corporations, schools, and many others as building bonds. However, what that responsibility is exactly differs depending on whether one is a player or a referee. So to with the dynamics of roleplaying games.

If the DM is a player, then their responsibility to make things fun is self-evidently the same as the other players. They might achieve their responsibility through different acts (in the same way a goalkeeper’s play is distinctly different from the other members of a football team) but their obligation and power is neither greater nor lesser than that of any other person at the table.

However, if the DM is not a player, their responsibility isn’t necessarily the same. Most of the time, this potential difference will only be theoretical because the DM and the rest of the group act like everyone is there to have fun and it never actually comes up. However, it can cause issues if perceived responsibility of the DM and other participants widens too much in one direction or the other:

  • Excess obligation: the fallacy that the DM should not merely seek to be fair and interesting when making rules calls and designing the world and plot but also prioritize the other participant’s enjoyment over their own. For example, changing their gritty horror scenario because a player wants their character to be a merry japester.

  • Excess power: the opposite fallacy, that the DM need not consider the other participant’s enjoyment when making rules calls and designing the scenario. For example, frequently having powerful NPCs do something really cool while the PCs watch rather than keeping the PCs in the centre of the story.

Ironically, the dissonance caused by one extreme can cause a DM to feel the negatives of the other. For example, a DM who fills sessions with set pieces that the PCs cannot influence feeling that the PCs just seem to sit there expecting to be entertained.

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