Game Masters

From gdp3
Jump to: navigation, search

Facilitators of game worlds, and of players' interactions with these worlds.

Games containing complex game worlds so complex that not all can be presented at once still need ways of letting players interact with them. This first became an issue for tabletop roleplaying games. These had evolved out of wargames and miniature games which had often dedicated game facilitators keeping track of hidden information. This role evolved into Game Masters (also called Dungeon Masters and Storytellers) responsible for improvising effects of players' actions and creating adventures, campaigns, and whole game worlds. With the appearance of computer-based roleplaying games, programs could replace people in the role of Game Masters at the expense of being able to improvise in response to player actions. To compensate for this, solutions where people and programs share the responsibility of being Game Masters have appeared.


Dungeons & Dragons was the first commercially successful tabletop roleplaying game and made use of Game Masters under the name of Dungeon Masters. This was soon quickly followed by many other systems such as Basic Roleplaying (including offspring such as Call of Cthulhu and Hârnmaster) and GURPS. The use of Game Masters have continued to be a standard design component in many of the releases which have followed since then, including Paranoia, the various games using the Storytelling System, and Fallen Reich.

The creation of MUDs, computer-based multiplayer roleplaying games using text, such as DragonMud and Kingdoms automated the mundane responsibilities of Game Masters as code but maintained Game Masters under the name of wizards to create new code and revise it as well as solve social conflicts. These Game Masters were recruited from the player base and could still continue as players if they wanted. The commercial massively multiplayer online games that followed (e.g. Ultima Online and World of Warcraft) kept the Game Master position but reserved it for employees.

The game Zendo has a Game master who secretly decides on a secret rule how differently-colored pyramids should be arranged to have Buddha nature. The players play the game by trying to extrapolate the rule from tests, and take turns being Game Masters.

The computer game Sleep is Death shows a somewhat uncommon use of Game Masters in that it has one even if it only has one player.

Using the pattern

Supporting Game Masters in game design consist of providing them with tools to run the game that allows them to shape the gameplay according to their, and the players', wishes. Common tools are an Narration Structures, pre-generated Characters that can be used as Enemies and provide opportunities for Roleplaying. The nature of these tools of course depend on the type of game but also on if the Game Masters are supposed to be people or programs, or any of the two.

One of the responsibilities for Game Masters is to enact Agents other than those under the direct control of players. This commonly includes Characters and Units that are the players' Enemies, but also includes Non-Player Characters and Companions when it is necessary to maintain Thematic Consistency. When done so, this guarantees Enforced Agent Behavior and can with human Game Masters also provide opportunity for Roleplaying as well as many more complex behaviors and functionality such as Open Destiny, Memory of Important Events, and Unpredictable Behavior.

Game Masters have great powers of how gameplay develops, including the Freedom of Choice to invoke Ultra-Powerful Events when wanted. However, this can also be used to give players' Exaggerated Perception of Influence since Game Masters often can allow completely new Abilities or modifying existing ones as they perceive are needed. Randomness can mitigate the power of Game Masters, but using open determination of evaluation functions, e.g. by rolling Dice openly, can hinders them from making Fudged Results to ensure that Narration Structures are maintained and Player Elimination is avoided. The powers of gameplay also allows Game Masters to provide Challenging Gameplay or make Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment to some other level of difficulty. This modulation of player chance can be used to give Balancing Effects so that Player Balance is achieved between players or Challenging Gameplay is provided for the whole group of players. Although this may cause a Red Queen Dilemma negatively affect Emotional Engrossment if detected, it may be a way to maintain Narration Structures without resorting to Ultra-Powerful Events. The power of Game Masters can cause rule arguments as rules are one of the few ways for players to influence the game besides the ways in which the Game Masters allow. However, Game Masters can also act as judges in rule arguments between players and negotiate Ability Losses for players to ensure Player Balance. Game Masters can also remove any concepts of a Limited Set of Actions as players can describe whatever they wish to do and the game master can determine the outcome.

Game Masters can often be also seen as being partly players since they get to perform many of the same actions as the other players. However, they are players with disproportionate Empowerment over the game due to their Privileged Abilities: they basically have full Creative Control of the Construction and maintenance of Persistent Game Worlds as their Player Constructed Worlds, and other players only have influence with the permission of the Game Masters. Further, all results in the game can be the Player Decided Results of the Game Masters' will. This means that Game Masters can modulate players' Perceived Chance to Succeed as they wish, including making them feel that some actions have no possibility of success or letting them feel that they have Luck; one way of specifically doing this is through Feigned Die Rolls. As they interact with the other players, often through Storytelling, Enactment, or Roleplaying, they promote the presence of Social Interaction in games and allow for Negotiation regarding all aspects of the games. Since the actions Game Masters performs as part of these activities can be tailored to the specific game instances and situations, Game Masters can easily provide Context Dependent Reactions. The information they provide about the game state can easily become Indirect Information if that is advantageous since Game Masters can often influence the presentation of the game state significantly, including lying. While Game Masters are Entitled Players, an alternative to Game Masters it to have less powerful Entitled Players, and these can be used in addition to Game Masters to offload the Excise that Game Masters often need to handle.

As part of the Game Masters' power they can control when players can interact. They can ensure that Downtime or Lull Periods are shared equally by players by enforcing Turn Taking and insert Tension by introducing Ephemeral Goals with all players experiencing Downtime or Lull Periods. Looking at another scale, Game Masters abilities to modify Narration Structures as well as taking control over Player Characters make it possible to support Late Arriving Players as well as missing players for part or whole play sessions (a form of Drop-In/Drop-Out support).

Diegetic Aspects

Game Masters are often the portrayers of Game Worlds, and are especially important when they have Alternative Realities diverging much from reality. As such, they can ensure both Diegetic and Thematic Consistency even when improvising details, and can change details so they become Diegetically Outstanding Features as a way of Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment. Besides the Ultra-Powerful Events that unfold the Narration Structures, Game Masters can create similar effects by taking control of players' actions when the players are not consistent with the personality of their Player Characters or what is appropriate for the Alternative Realities. This is another way in which Game Masters can help ensure Thematic Consistency.

Game Masters are often used in games with Alternate Reality Gameplay. This to ensure that game instances can be adjusted to fit with the unpredictable events that often occur in them, and thereby both Diegetic and Thematic Consistency can be maintained. A secondary reason for this is to be able to react to interesting and unexpected ideas of players, giving them a form of Exaggerated Perception of Influence.

Interface Aspects

The interface aspects related to Game Masters strongly overlap with diegetic and narrative ones, and are describe in these. An exception is for games where the Game Masters cannot perceive the players, which may be the case in Pervasive Games and LARPs. For these cases, the patterns Artifact-Location Proximity, Player-Location Proximity, and Player-Player Proximity can give Game Masters the information they need to initiate gameplay events (although necessarily not the means to do so).

Narrative Aspects

Game Masters often have the responsibility of a game's Narration Structure. This may include Storytelling, either the telling of Predetermined Story Structures or improvising as part of Effect Descriptions, but may also be the creation of new parts so that a game can have Never Ending Stories. Sometimes they can include modifying Predetermined Story Structures such as Adventures and Campaigns if these not longer work as written due to players actions, but more generally Game Masters can both be modify and create Scenes. They can also negotiate so that the players actions are interpreted as Character Defining Actions.

They provide the most efficient way Cutscenes can be modulated to fit the players and the game state, since whole Cutscenes can be done by Storytelling and Roleplaying by the Game Masters themselves. They also guarantee Limited Foresight among the players since any Narration Structures can at any moment be discarded in favor of other plots or storylines. By doing so, they can provide Anticipation, Surprises (including Surprise Attacks), and Tension, as well as let players have some Creative Control of the developing story, especially regarding their characters through Player-Planned Development. This can in turn provide an Exaggerated Perception of Influence or actually share the influence of a Player Constructed World with the players.

Game Masters can also help players perform Anonymous Actions by letting them describe the actions secrets (e.g. through notes) which the Game Masters at a later point enact and thereby make it difficult to associate the specific events the actions caused with a player.


Game Masters is one form of Dedicated Game Facilitators, and lets players take on a specific Social Role with great Player Agency. As the role can switch between players for some of the games using them, they can also be seen as a way to provide Dedicated Game Facilitators in Self-Facilitated Games that are also Multiplayer Games. Through this, being Game Masters can be seen as roles and can give rise to senses of Role Fulfillment (besides the ones possible when Game Masters engage in more specific activities as Enactment, Roleplaying, and Storytelling). One of the primary consequences of using them is that the allow a game to have Social Adaptability but not directly under the players' control. Both this social flexibility and the more general flexibility of interpreting, adding, or changing rules allow Game Masters to provide even more Complex Gameplay than other Dedicated Game Facilitators can. They can also have their own Secret Goals to challenge players and direct gameplay towards certain outcomes.

While they can avoid Player Elimination through Fudged Results they can of course also enforce Player Kicking and eliminations on their on whim. Game Masters are rare in Single-Player Games (but see Sleep is Death) because the human variety is not cost-efficient and the computer variety may be difficult to distinguish from the rest of the system. Given their power over the rules of a game, Game Masters can, together with the players, create Optional Rules. This can provide a Player Decided Rule Setup which can during gameplay also be a both Varying and Evolving Rule Set. Changes in rules by Game Masters is a form of Extra-Game Input since it is allowed but not regulated by game rules; the same applies to additions or changes in gameplay content done by them. Game Masters control over the rules also allow them to enforce Player/Character Skill Composites by modifying explicit rules by players' plans, descriptions, or Enactments.

Game Masters create the presence of Risk/Reward situations in two ways. First, they can provide players with situations where they need to make choices based upon Risk/Reward considerations. Second, many of the decisions regarding gameplay and narration they make are in themselves Risk/Reward choices since players may or may not appreciate them. Since Game Masters also provide players with the information they get in relation to the Risk/Reward, they also heavily can influence players' possibility to have a Determinable Chance to Succeed with the various options they have.

Game Masters are a dual relationship with Irreversible Events - they can both enforce them for any event but can also reverse any event by changing their ruling, even if the events were previously declared to be irreversible. Likewise, they can both allow Free Game Element Manipulation but invalidate any manipulation after the fact. More generally, they can perform Game Time Manipulation to retcon game instances or allow new actions to be performed instead of those previously done.

Game Masters can both create and remove Excise. They remove it from players by taking it on themselves and for this they can be seen as a form of Non-Player Help, but if people are Game Masters they of course need to do the work (e.g. keeping track of Character Sheets). In another paradox, Game Masters can both give players an Exaggerated Perception of Influence and remove it depending on how the judge the way the Game Masters use their power. By providing tutorship, the presence of Game Masters can provide Smooth Learning Curves for players and modulate their need in Memorizing rules and facts about Game Worlds.

Since they can provide players with information and guidance, or even take control over the players' Characters, Game Masters can be seen as a form of Player Augmentation. This, and the fact that players often need to go through Game Masters to perform actions in the game make it likely that players will be Competing for Attention of Game Masters.

Using Game Masters to control Agents of any kind automatically provides Enforced Agent Behavior, which for human Game Masters at least means enforced to follow their whims. It can also ensure that at least they maintain Diegetic Consistency.


Can Instantiate

Abilities, Anonymous Actions, Anticipation, Ability Losses, Agents, Balancing Effects, Challenging Gameplay, Competing for Attention, Complex Gameplay, Construction, Context Dependent Reactions, Creative Control, Dedicated Game Facilitators, Diegetic Consistency, Diegetically Outstanding Features, Downtime, Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment, Effect Descriptions, Enactment, Enforced Agent Behavior, Entitled Players, Evolving Rule Sets, Exaggerated Perception of Influence, Excise, Extra-Game Input, Free Game Element Manipulation, Freedom of Choice, Fudged Results, Game Time Manipulation, Game Worlds, Indirect Information, Irreversible Events, Limited Foresight, Limited Set of Actions, Luck, Lull Periods, Negotiation, Memory of Important Events, Never Ending Stories, Non-Player Help, Open Destiny, Optional Rules, Persistent Game Worlds, Player-Planned Development, Player Agency, Player Augmentations, Player Balance, Player Decided Rule Setup, Player Elimination, Player Kicking, Player/Character Skill Composites, Privileged Abilities, Risk/Reward, Role Fulfillment, Roleplaying, Scenes, Secret Goals, Smooth Learning Curves, Social Adaptability, Social Interaction, Social Roles, Storytelling, Surprise Attacks, Surprises, Tension, Turn Taking, Unpredictable Behavior, Ultra-Powerful Events, Varying Rule Sets

with Storytelling


Can Modulate

Abilities, Adventures, Alternate Reality Gameplay, Alternative Realities, Campaigns, Character Defining Actions, Characters, Companions, Determinable Chance to Succeed, Enemies, Free Game Element Manipulation, Memorizing, Multiplayer Games, Narration Structures, Non-Player Characters, Player Characters, Predetermined Story Structures, Scenes, Self-Facilitated Games, Single-Player Games, Thematic Consistency, Units

Can Be Instantiated By

Code, Humans

Can Be Modulated By

Artifact-Location Proximity, Entitled Players, Feigned Die Rolls, Player-Location Proximity, Player-Player Proximity, Randomness

Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With

Exaggerated Perception of Influence, Excise, Irreversible Events, Player Elimination


An updated version of the pattern Game Masters that was part of the original collection in the book Patterns in Game Design[1].


  1. Björk, S. & Holopainen, J. (2004) Patterns in Game Design. Charles River Media. ISBN1-58450-354-8.


Marcus Brissman, Martin Fredriksson, Carl Heath, John-Philip Johansson, Johan Peitz, Annika Waern