A gamemaster has many different jobs to perform before, during and after a gaming session. They must plan out adventures, portray and make decisions for all non-player game aspects, provide any necessary narrative, interpret the rules when ambiguities crop up, settle disputes, and keep the group organized. On top of this, they must make a serious effort to make the experience fun for the other players (and depending on the group, this can be a Herculean effort).
This sub-Chapter discusses the major functions of a GM. Beginning GMs would do well to read each section carefully, so that they may learn a little about what they can expect and what traps to avoid.
Referee and Organizer
A GM must act as an organizer and as the game's referee. These are probably the hardest jobs that a gamemaster has to perform: getting a group together to play in the first place and then being impartial in the event an argument breaks out. It can be quite a little juggling act.
The GM's role as an organizer is often overlooked. After taking the time to put together an adventure, it's usually their job to find people willing to play, schedule a time and a place for a gaming session, and make sure all players and materials are ready to go before the session begins. Juggling the schedules of several people can be very tricky, particularly for larger groups. Having an agreed upon time to meet each week (two weeks, month, etc.) can help limit any major problems, as can having a backup location or two available in the event the group's main meeting place is unavailable.
The rules of all tabletop RPGs are supplied to resolve conflicting situations, but try as they might they usually don't cover everything. It is another of the GM's jobs to provide any necessary interpretation of the rules in fuzzier situations. When a situation arises that calls for a GM's judgment, there are several places they may turn to. First, they can look for rules that may apply to the situation; the vast majority of situations that will arise during the course of a gaming session can be found somewhere within the Core Rules. If that fails, the GM may discuss the situation with the players and, with their help, formulate a house rule that covers the situation. GMs may also use their best friend, the rule of favorable conditions. If the situation is favorable to a PC, add 10 to the DC of the roll. If the situation is unfavorable, subtract 10 instead.
Gamemasters should be judicious and diplomatic when one of their rulings is debated by one of the players. If a player's argument sounds reasonable, the GM should be gracious enough to re-consider their stance and re-evaluate their decision. If their argument has a hole, the GM should point it out to them and give them an opportunity to re-consider their objection. All parties should have ample opportunity to argue their side of things and should work together to find an amicable solution, something that will occur only through intelligent communication. If a player continues to ramble on with no coherent argument, the GM must be willing to stand firm in their decision; if the player then gets angry about it and says they don’t want to play the game anymore, let them quit. A player group shouldn’t have to suffer because of one cry-baby player; that player shouldn’t be playing the game in the first place and they won't likely be missed after they're gone.
Gamemasters must not be afraid to rule against a player, particularly in the case where they were having their character do something reckless or stupid. On the flip side, they should not be too harsh on a player, or give them challenges their character cannot overcome on a regular basis. Being too soft or too hard encourages what is known as meta-game thinking, which is what occurs when a player decides on an action based upon the way the gamemaster is running the game or based on their own knowledge of the system's mechanics, rather than having their character do what they would most likely do in a given situation. This kind of thinking suppresses genuine roleplaying; the goal is for the players to tell a story, not to think they're playing a game. GMs should keep a careful eye out for meta-game thinking during gameplay and be ready to take action to curtail it if necessary.
The referee job can really get hairy when an argument breaks out between two players. The job requires that the referee arbitrate who is in the right and what happens because of it. GMs must be respectful and very careful about how they go about handling these situations as players may have their feelings hurt in the process and, in some cases, these kinds of arguments can end friendships (which is always a major buzz-kill). If in doubt, a GM may always poll the other players for their opinions before making a final ruling. Secret ballot is an excellent way to do this, since no one person can be singled out and blamed for a player's fate (and anyone who doesn’t respect the group’s opinion is, again, a cry-baby who shouldn’t be playing the game in the first place).
Above all else, a GM must be respectful in their dealings with other players. No questions ever asked of a GM should ever be answered with the words "Because I am the GM". That will end their days in charge of the group's adventuring faster than anything else; they might not even make it to the end of the adventure...
Player arguments are just one of a series of aspects that may arise during the course of a gaming session. For tips on handling other irregularities that may arise, see Chapter 10.4.
All RPG adventures are really stories. True, they are dynamic and have an uncertain outcome, but that is part of what makes RPGs in particular so much fun. Part of the GM’s job is to present the basic outline of the story and to guide the players as they finish it through the actions of their characters. Being a good storyteller is critical to successful and enjoyable role-playing.
The best way for a gamemaster to tell a story is for them to place themselves in it as an omniscient narrator, and to think about how they would personally perceive the situation at hand. This mind set makes it easier for the GM to articulate the current scene to the players and help them get a feel for what's going on. At the same time, they should keep in mind that they are not the center of attention. Quite the contrary; they are little more than an observer. By this same token, it is not the job of the gamemaster to describe the emotions of the player characters - that job must be reserved for the players themselves.
Being the storyteller should be the most entertaining of the gamemaster’s jobs. After all, there can be a lot of satisfaction in taking the time to prepare an adventure, getting it ready, and then seeing it come to life. If a story is told well, the players may want a follow-up adventure, or to see a notable NPC in later stories. They may even talk about it for years to come afterwards; it all depends on the GM's skill in telling the story.
Non-Player Characters and Other Sources of Interaction
As part of the storytelling functions of a GM’s job, a GM will have to emulate everything with which the characters are interacting, be they non-player characters, creatures, pieces of technology, and so forth. This means that the GM will be required to perform some acting. A good GM must emulate whatever it is that needs to be emulated, using the same mannerisms, quirks, sounds, etc. to the best of their ability (i.e. if they are attempting to portray a computer, they should sound like it; if they are portraying a villain, they should talk and gesture like that villain). It's important for a GM to not be afraid and stay in part for the sake of immersion. The worst that can happen is that the player group gets a good laugh out of it, but even then, they get a sense of what is going on in the game.