What to Call the Game Master?

The original title was Dungeon Master, but you can’t really use that outside of the Sword & Sorcery genre of D&D (and also probably for IP reasons). Therefore, other games needed to find other titles. Some more success than others.

Note: I didn’t bother to do much (read: any) research on this, so I didn’t burrow through a mass of games and find their titles. Instead I just use the ones I can remember off the top of my head. Which actually isn’t very many.

Another note: When I talk about the titles, I’m not talking about the role the game actually gives them, I’m talking about the role the title seems to give them.

First, the Finnish approach to these kinds of things is a bit different. Whereas computer is computer in English, the original meaning being a factory where mathematical charts were calculated, in Finnish its ‘tietokone’, the direct translation of which would be ‘knowledge machine’. Computer might be pretty close to what these things were back in the day, when they were used only for calculations, but now, when its all about processing information, our name is beginning to be pretty close to the truth (I don’t think were quite there yet, but soon).

In the same vein, we call our game masters ‘pelinjohtaja’, the direct translation of which is ‘game leader’. I ‘leader’ much more than ‘master’. Why? Master is someone who has control over something. Leader is someone who is responsible for guiding the human resources. Much more humanist approach and something I’d like to see in RPGs whenever I play. When I run I like to afford all the freedom I can to my players. There isn’t anything similar in any English RPG that I can recall.

… but the English titles do include some major fails.

I guess the first fail was ‘dungeon master’. If you are talking about ‘dungeon master’ with someone outside of the subculture, what’s their first thought? Yeah. I’m fine with that, but I don’t think many are.

The worst offender is referee, which is used at least in the old Marvel Super Heroes game (although I’m pretty sure some very early versions of D&D used it as well). It takes away all the power from the GM and gives him the role of just seeing to it that the players are playing fair. Not much of a position compared to other titles. Refereeing should be only one aspect of what you are doing.

Call of Cthulhu has Keeper of the Arcane Lore. Its flavorful, but again seems to put the GM into a weird role. Instead of caring about the story or the characters, the Keeper should be guarding certain knowledge, basically acting as a foil for the players instead of facilitating their journey into madness.

World of Darkness uses Storyteller. At the time I was actively playing those games, I used to like it, but now it feels one-sided. Here you are, telling stories, while others listen.

Ars Magica has the very similar, but better Storyguide. This seems to give much more leeway to players, who are not simply passive listeners in this case.

My favorite English title is Master of Ceremonies, which is used in Apocalypse World (well, that shouldn’t shock anyone who has been reading my RPG posts). MC doesn’t try to control what happens. He’s simply responsible for the flow.

Admittedly, as I’m going through these in my head, I can’t recall quite a few titles used in different games, so I’m inclined to assume they just call them game masters.

So, what should you call the GM?

The title should be flavorful and it should be descriptive. Many of the above fail in both categories. Not a good sign. Of course, part of this is about the evolution of the role, but the thing is that the evolution has actually lead to a place many people thought they were in from the beginning, so those awful titles are design failures.

Yes, I called them design failures, because one of the functions of design is to make the game such that it communicates well with whoever reads it. Talking about ‘mastering’ a game just leads the imagination into a very wrong direction.

What should you call the GM? I don’t know. I just know most of the titles used are very bad.

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