The Gamemaster’s Art

Welcome to the Downes School of The Gamemaster’s Art. Your card is The Magician, because gamemastering is a continuous act of Merlivingian will. Only leaders and scholars survive.

In this series of articles for Florida Geek Scene, I will be discussing what I have learned of this most complex and subtle art in the many years since I started with pen & paper RPGs as a young player, bent over a copy of D&D 1st Edition’s Unearthed Arcana, discovering Barbariansin the kitchen of a house trailer where my Dungeon Master hosted her campaign not far from the south shore of Lake Erie. It was in that house trailer, leafing through DM Kat’s Dragon magazines, that I first saw advertisements that marked a change in the course of this geek’s life. They said, “Shadowrun. Where man meets magic and machine. Coming soon.” That one has been a favorite ever after.

Since then I have run many campaigns in many different systems and editions. I have played a few, too. I have seen many of each die. And now I get to write about all that here. The first lesson for gamemasters is as follows:

You are not the enemy.

Players, especially beginning players, almost inevitably make the mistake of thinking that the person at the end of the table saying, “The ork biker anvils out a blast of buckshot! Roll Reaction plus Dodge minus your wound modifiers!”, is their enemy. But you aren’t. You can’t be. Being their enemy is unworkable. You as the GM fling thunderbolts down from Olympus. If you were trying to kill the players, they would be dead. It would be like smashing an ant with an asteroid. “You’re dog shaman goes down to the Stuffer Shack for a Tastee Freeze. There are two great dragons in there. They hate you. Go back to character creation.”

But it’s your face above the GM screen, dealing out the thunderbolts and the buckshot. So it’s easy for the players to think that they are fighting you, and when five people at a table think a thing, it’s very easy for the sixth to fall into that opinion, too.

But don’t. The relationship between the GM and the players is not adversarial. You are not a killer; you are an entertainer.

An entertainer who kills, of course. As a GM, showrunner, and merciful god, you will have to swing that axe now and then. But remember: you aren’t trying to beat them, you are trying to enchant them, to make them ask, “What’s next?”, to make them willing to have and win an argument with their spouse so that they can come back next week.

And instinctively, that’s what your players want. Try this experiment at the Pathfinder table – say, “Hey, I’m the gamemaster. I can send a mated pair of Dire Tigers stalking amid your 2nd level bedrolls.”

At least one of your players will cry out, “No you can’t!

Yes, you can. And a Lich can hold their leash. But you aren’t going to, because it wouldn’t be any fun. And you are an entertainer.

I have often seen GMs scowl when players succeed. I have seen GMs say, “Shit…OK, eight more goblins come running down the hall,” handwaving in reinforcements to nerf the victory. Don’t do this. It robs the players of their triumph, which is no fun. It’s not your job to frustrate the players. If they do well, applaud. Don’t say, “Oh, yeah? Well, then more come in!” Say instead, “With an arrow in his stomach, the goblin bandit lurches desperately away from you, shrieking, ‘Flee! All is lossssst!’”

The players will love it. They will be entertained. And you can study that battle to design the next one. Watch this space for future lessons on the next battles from the Downes School of the Gamesmaster’s Art.


Brian Downes
Author: Brian Downes View all posts by
Brian Downes is a writer who lives in Orlando, Florida. His novel, The Berlin Fraternity, about a man who hunts vampires for the Third Reich, is available on the Kindle and through He enjoys pen and paper roleplaying games and geek culture. He clearly remembers waiting for The Empire Strikes Back to hit theaters, and vindicate his opinion that of course Vader was not Luke's father. You can't trust Vader's word!

2 Comments on "The Gamemaster’s Art"

  1. Clockchalk June 3, 2014 at 3:33 pm - Reply

    Very informative, good piece.

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