Monday, October 27, 2008

Is The GM A Dying Breed?

There was a time not too long ago where I maintained a large network of Game Masters that I’d played with over the years, both as a teen and then later in the military. We would shoot the breeze, talk about how the gaming was at our hometown or current assignment. Then, I began to notice some folks drifting away from the conversation—some of the best GMs I’ve ever know, no longer chatting up it with our little fellowship. Many did not frequent the ENWorlds and RPGnets and RPGSites of our hobby, but still kept those lines of communication open.

So, I decided to conduct a poll: was my list of GMs—some of the most dedicated and excellent gamers I’ve ever known—really shrinking? Over the past month, I worked at tracking down 34 Game Masters of my acquaintance—many in the military or now retired from service, many others online acquaintances hearkening back to my first forays into gaming discussion online circa 2000. The results were perhaps not unexpected, but were also not heartening. (I will note each GM here has at least 5 years of GMing experience, or has been GMing intermittently at various points over the past 10+).

In Relation To Five Years Ago, Do You Now GM More, Less, About The Same, Or Do You No Longer GM?
More 14.7 % (5)
Less 35.3% (12)
About The Same 26.5% (9)
I No Longer GM 23.5% (8)

Of Those Who GM Less Or No Longer GM, Do You Still Play Tabletop RPGs?
Yes, Frequently 20% (4)
Yes, Sometimes 20% (4)
Yes, Rarely 20% (4)
No 40% (8)

Choose Two Reasons That Are The Largest Pressure On Your GMing or Reasons You GM Less/No Longer GM:
Unable To Find Audience For Games I Enjoy 20.6% (14)
General Unhappiness With The State of Gaming 14.7% (10)
Unable To Find Any/Enough Gamers, Period 14.7% (10)
Family Considerations 14.7% (10)
No Longer Interested/Changed Hobbies 11.8% (8)
Increased Work Responsibility 11.8% (8)
Other Time Constraints 5.9% (4)
Ease/Fun of Electronic Gaming 5.9% (4)

What Is Your Favorite System?

D&D 3.5 20.6% (7)
AD&D 1e or Variants 11.8% (4)
Palladium/Megaversal (Rifts/Palladium Fantasy) 11.8% (4)
D&D 4e 11.8% (4)
Basic D&D or Variants 8.8% (3)
Storyteller 5.9% (2)
D6 5.9% (2)
Star Wars Saga 5.9% (2)
Rolemaster 2e 2.9% (1)
Rolemaster Standard 2.9% (1)
Classic Traveller 2.9% (1)
Warhammer Fantasy 2e 2.9% (1)
AD&D 2e 2.9% (1)
Amber 2.9% (1)

This is not meant to be a doom-and-gloom article, nor do I claim my poll is in any way scientific or definitive. But I will ask: how many of us are the lone or at least primary GM for our gaming group? How often do you get a break? Is your group (as sales would likely suggest) one of those not turned on by a shared-power or GM-less game?

What really shocked me is how many of them still wanted to GM or play—but time constraints, unhappiness with something in the hobby or an experience, or a dearth of face-to-face players was either severely reducing their GMing or eliminating it all together. I imagine a player survey would be much the same. Still, old news, right? Hasn’t this sort of stuff been making the rounds for years?

I’ve always held that being a GM is not for everyone—some players don’t want that level of participation, while others don’t like or can’t handle the involvement that position brings. But in a hobby where it has often become more difficult to find face-to-face players in our towns and cities, we should ask ourselves why we shouldn’t expect a similar decline in competent Game Masters.

We have more resources online for Game Masters than ever before! And the internet is doubtless a fantastic tool for this, but how much of it is getting that majority of “lost tribe” tabletop gamers? (I also contend that in my experience [and as the poll shows in this instance], the majority of gamers out there not hot n’ heavy online definitely tend to skew more towards grognardism, and it is not uncommon to find them still rocking out the same games they were 25 years ago. If there is an upside to this, it might be that there's a lot of folks out there who could contribute much to the Old School Gaming "Revival"--were they aware of it).

In the end, with the explosion of GM resources online, I have more Game Masters than ever before, from all over the world who I can bounce ideas off. But that doesn’t mean I don’t miss those who’ve fallen by the wayside.


wyattsalazar said...

3.5e D&D turned me off GMing forever. Or at least that's what I thought, until D&D 4e came out and then Maid: RPG came out, both of which have got me back behind the screen finally getting to use my stored up stories.

newbiedm said...

I think the survival of the hobby depends on the gm's of the world teaching the game and presenting it in an interesting manner.

No dm's=no games, and thats a bad thing.

The new d&d DMs guide has a section on playing without a DM...

Mad Brew said...

My group has two primary GMs, including myself. We tend to run one complete adventure before turning over the reigns.

Everyone in the group has tried to GM, but I think most prefer playing because either they believe they are not good enough GMs or they don't like/have the extra time it usually requires.

Jonathan said...

I am an island.

As someone who never hung out at FLGS as a teen, and who has never been to any RPG 'Cons; I've known very few GMs. In college, there was one other whom I knew - it was the first time I was ever a player in a game. Then in grad school I met two more (whom I also gamed with). So, in total - 'true' GMs? I would say I've known a whopping three. There have been the odd games where players of mine have asked to run a game, which I encourage - but so far they all jump back into the player's seat after 3 or 4 sessions DMing citing "fer fucks sakes that's a lot of work..."

So, since my experiences with the RPG gaming community have always been on the outside looking in, I guess I've been asking the question "Where the heck are the GMs?" for the better part of 25 years

Zachary The First said...

@jonathan--I'm sure yours isn't an isolated case--I'm sure there are many gamers in the same boat.

@wyatt: So do you believe there is any sizable populace out there that's just burnt out, taking a break, or waiting for something different to come along?

@newbie: I wonder how many folks "learn" GMing from another and how many decide to just give it a go. I think the biggest way GMs learn is just watching as a player.

wyattsalazar said...

@Zachary: I can't speak for anyone but myself. Pretty much everyone in my group was bummed out with 3.5, to the point where we started playing World of Darkness for a breather. And we HATE World of Darkness. However, new games and new experiences came out that rejuvenated us by breaking from what once was, but remaining familiar. Maid: RPG was like Wushu (which we tried and hated) done right, and we loved it. D&D 4e was a new way to play D&D, and we loved it.

So population...I dunno. I've never been good at speaking for any sizable portion of anything because I have the empathy of a can of soup. At least for me, by virtue of the players I could gather, probably got stuck in a cycle. The games that broke me out of that cycle where things me and the players around me knew, but refreshed, and in turn, I was refreshed.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting article. In my neck of the woods (outside Ft. Wayne, Indiana, not too far from you, I think), its gotten harder and harder to find quality GMs, even with the NearbyGamers tools and the like we have online. A lot of gamers play their game and don't dip online. That means fewer general-interest GMs.

Jonathan said...

@ Anonymous : "A lot of gamers play their game and don't dip online." See! Nail on the Head! Even more reason to bridge the gap between the RPG gamers who look for games/info/etc online and those who dont. [drum roll]Hence, the importance of the RPG Blog Anthology project as a means to bridge this gap.[lil 'tada!' trumpet]

Sry.. i just could not resist...

Ravyn said...

I've been GMing pretty much constantly for the last three years--I learned early on that I couldn't not-GM for prolonged periods of time--and one thing I make a point of is trying to get other people into the GM's seat for other games. I've got a success rate of about 25%--one person starting a rather popular long-running game--and then he brought in someone else who took a stab GMing...

We have a higher attrition rate, yes. What this means, though, is that we just need to encourage more people to try it.