The Five Major Game Master Archetypes

Every experienced RPG gamer is familiar with certain Game Master stereotypes: the killer GM who wants to win at D&D, and the railroader who gives the players no free will, for example.  I’m not here to talk about those specific behaviors, but rather more broad trends that I feel are very common among game masters.  I feel that every game master I’ve ever played with falls into at least one of these archetypes a little bit, and some have taken these trends to the extreme in unfortunate ways.

1. The Writer

The writer is prepared.  She has a story to tell and has written it down in advance.  Most GMs fit this bill to at least a little bit, but the true writer-archetype GM has pre-planned everything in detail.  The villains have backstories, the NPCs have history, and in more extreme cases there’s a list of locations in town and inventories in shops.

At her best, the writer is prepared and has an awesome story to tell.  You can ask questions about the enemies, the history of the adventure, and there’s a rich world to explore.  If you play the writer’s game, you come out with a wonderful adventure under your belt and a well-developed player character who you will look back on and remember fondly.  You’ll also remember the villain and all of the challenges you faced.  However, even at her best a full-on writer requires some cooperation from the players to not venture too far out of the bounds of the adventure so that things can stay on task.  This means following plot hooks, mostly, rather than abandoning the journey into the dragon’s cave in order to pillage your own hometown.

At her worst, the writer is a hardcore railroad worker who gets angry when the players don’t stay on track, throwing up arbitrary barriers in their path or outright telling them that certain actions are not allowed.  You might get a good story if you do everything exactly as the GM expected you to, but even the slightest deviation may cause her to become flustered or even angry.

  1.  The Wargamer

The wargamer wants to fight with you.  I mean, not in person, like, he’s not going to punch you in the face, but he prefers to spend his time at the gaming table running combat.  This is also a player archetype, but in a GM it manifests a little differently.  The wargamer likes elaborate combat scenarios and big fights, he’s never without his battlemat and likely knows every ability of the enemy’s you’re facing.  You can also expect him to focus heavily on the letter of the rules even if it disagrees with the spirit, but he may be flexible when it comes to things that the rules simple haven’t covered.

At his best, the wargamer provides well run combat with a decent story as a backdrop.  You’ll know what is available to you in combat and everything will be very challenging, but also fair.  A good wargamer has a solid understanding of the rules and has pre-checked any spells or special abilities that he intends to use.  You can depend on him to answer questions about terrain, reach, and which of your bonuses are applicable against which enemies.  You can also expect honest dice rolling and balance with a good wargamer.

At his worst though the wargamer will provide little to no storyline or justification for your adventure.  What they pass for campaigns might really amount to a series of rooms with fights in them, followed by a fight with a particularly nasty enemy at the end.  Bad wargamers also tend to be unfair, putting players at a severe disadvantage and and then feeling proud and triumphant when his ancient red dragon eats the level four party.

  1.  The Abstractor

On the other end of the spectrum from the wargamer is the abstractor.  He is flexible, but also usually vague about what is going on.  Maybe this is because he doesn’t like to be locked in by a rigid description, and maybe it’s because he hasn’t thought of the details until someone asks him about them.  When you ask to abstractor if there’s a lever for a gate, or something to hook your rope from, or how an NPC is dressed, you can expect a lot of “Ums” in his response.  The abstractor may have a battlemat, but is likely to run at least small encounters in his head, relying on vague descriptors like “Yeah, you can charge the ogre.”  and “Sure, you can get into flanking.”

At his best, the abstractor can respond to situations on the fly in such a way that you never realize he’s just making stuff up as he goes along.  Usually this is because he isn’t, and he actually has a very clear image of what’s going on and uses his vagueness to adapt to player expectations.  A good abstractor is also good about coming up with rules when a player wants to do something off-book like latch his grappling hook onto a flying dragon to get up into the air.  He can do that because, after all, he’s not bound to the battlemat.

At his worst though, the abstractor is just lazy.  He clearly hasn’t planned anything ahead of time and is just convinced that he’ll figure it out by the time it becomes important.  Sometimes this is from lack of experience, and sometimes this GM really thinks its better this way.  He not only has to take a second to think about what’s in the room when asked, but has to think long and hard to answer basic questions about the enemies, such as whether they have reach or a bite attack.

  1.  The Sandboxer

The sandboxer likes to let the players guide the story.  She likes to create a world, be it a city, continent or kingdom, and wants the players to explore it.  She may give you some plot hooks and create some situations to involve you, but you’re free to ignore them.  Unlike the writer, who has a specific story to tell, the sandboxer wants you to do your own thing in her world.

At her best, the sandboxer gives you an amazing amount of freedom and adapts to whatever you decide to do very effectively.  Her world is built enough that whatever choices you make she can pull a logical reaction up rather easily.  She’ll throw in an event ever so often to engage you, and then build a story around the actions that you take and you will feel very much like you live in an organic world.

At her worst though the sandboxer is waiting for the players to tell her a story.  At this point she becomes gaming equivalent of the friend who, when asked where to go for lunch, says “I dunno, wherever is good.”  Expect to wait far too long for them to decide what’s going to happen next and be ready for whatever it is to be really haphazard and anticlimactic.Furthermore, expect the lack of coherence and continuity to be explained with something like “This isn’t that kind of game.”

  1.  The Moduler

They run modules almost exclusively.  They don’t want to write their own encounters or plan their own adventures, so they rely on adventure paths and pre-written adventures.  I feel like I should clarify that this isn’t always a bad thing.

At the moduler’s best, they will have a deep understanding of the adventure’s that they’re running.  They’ve read through it and know how to adapt to you going off of the rails a bit.  They understand the plot and if need be they can tie multiple modules together into a cohesive campaign, or they can run a giant adventure like “Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil” that takes you through several levels.

At their worst though these people rely on the book so much that they cannot adapt if you even try to do parts of the book out of order.  Rather than simply letting professionals create the world and plot hooks and encounters, this GM responds to everything with “Ok, let’s see what happens next” and is likely to be just as surprised as you are.

Honorable Mention:  Newbie

The newbie is still a level 0 GM, and hasn’t even gained class levels yet.  There’s no telling what archetype, or archetypes, the newbie will resemble as they level up and become more competent.  At their best, newbies are dedicated and diligent, taking all of the advice they can get and coming to the table with some preparation already done.  At their worst, the newbie hasn’t done any preparation or even looked thoroughly through the books.  However, everyone fit this archetype at some point, so while someone is still at this level they should be given some leeway.

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