Dragon Heresy Sneak Peek: Roleplaying and the role of the GM

I tossed this up on the SJG Forums as part of a discussion on the role of the GM in gaming. So I figured I’d share here as well. There’s nothing terribly profound, I think, that hasn’t been said repeatedly over the last 40 years.


No game would be complete without an introduction to roleplaying itself – or at least it seems that way.

Roleplaying is interactive storytelling. You will take the roles of characters who are mundane and magical, mighty warriors and cunning rogues, wandering bards (also called skalds) that tell the stories of mighty deeds of heroes – perhaps even performing them yourself.

In a roleplaying game, you create a character, which is a collection of descriptive and game-mechanical abilities that provide the lens through which you as a player interact with the world that has been created for you to adventure in.

A useful concept in thinking about roleplaying characters is that of the avatar. Originally a Hindu concept, it was the physical manifestation of a god on earth, usually as a human or animal form. In a way, your character is thus an avatar, the physical appearance of the player in the world of Dragon Heresy, the tool, body, and voice that the player uses to interact with the world.

Throughout the text of this book, and the Book of Heroes, the rules and text will refer to the player and the player’s character (avatar!) mostly interchangeably. This is done for convenience as well as some degree of accuracy – while it is hopefully unlikely that the actual players will draw swords and axes to settle conflicts with each other and the GM, it is the players making the decisions for their avatars, their proxy in the game world.

The Role of the Gamemaster

The Gamemaster, or GM, provides the voices and actions of everyone but your other fellow players and your own character. The GM provides the plot outline, plays the roles of the men, women, monsters, and gods you might meet during the course of adventuring, and will generally set the structure and tone of the game.

Rule Zero

Through these rules, there is one assumption that is made tacitly, but will be stated here explicitly and is often referred to as “Rule Zero” of roleplaying: The GM’s word is final in all discussions about the in-game rules, especially while the game session is in play. The Gamemaster is, as the name implies, the master of the game, and if the GM wants to change a rule, or even bypass the use of rules for a particular scene, that’s the way it goes.

The Golden Rule

There’s an important corollary to Rule Zero in social endeavors like roleplaying. Derived from “The Golden Rule,” – do unto others as you would have others do unto you – and recently referred to and popularized as “Wheaton’s Law,” the less-colorful phrasing of which would be “Don’t be a jerk”.

Yes, the GM’s word is final, but abuse of this role will lead to tension and strife, and the most important part of the roleplaying game is to have fun telling great stories playing your characters with friends and people with common interests.

As a GM, your job is to provide structure, continuity, and inspiration to the game so that the players can live fast, engage in epic struggle, achieve noble successes, or failing that, at least die gloriously and memorably. In short – you are creating a shared play area in which your friends will also have fun. Take that seriously – but Rule Zero is, in the end, yours.

3 thoughts on “Dragon Heresy Sneak Peek: Roleplaying and the role of the GM

  1. Somehow, "Don't be a jerk" seems weaker than "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

    Sort of like how Google's "Don't be evil," when you think about it, is an extremely low bar to set.

    It's like saying, "As you long as you don't suck, you're okay" instead of "strive to be good." It's an okay minimum, but I've played with GMs were certainly weren't failing Wheaton's Law but didn't reach the Golden Rule, either.

    1. Not necessarily. Personally, I'd set it as a minimum, but say something to the effect of, do better. At the very least, don't be a dick. But strive for better than that.

      Most important is that the role of the GM is as you say – you create the space for a good game. Doing that as you'd have someone else do for you – that's really ideal. Don't do any crap that you'd not want to have done to you – not what you could put up with, but what you'd seek out. It's not about giving the game away, but providing the basis for the players to make the game great.

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