ewilen (ewilen) wrote,

The history of the GM-as-God meme

Inspired by a thread on RPG.net (Misconceptions about Traditional Play) I found a passage from an interview with Dave Arneson very interesting. In the RPG.net thread I'd talked a bit about the traditional social authority of the GM, how in some cases it could extend to things like choosing the game system, making up the campaign completely on his own whim, deciding what to have on the pizza, kicking people out of the game, etc. And I referred to the hilarious stories of Al Bruno (scroll down to the editoriALs) as prime examples of that sort of stuff. As if, once a "group" decided to "play an RPG" with a particular person as the GM, that was taken as implied election of a dictator. In reality I rarely played under those conditions--the closest being the awful AD&D campaign I played as a college freshman--but the taste of it lingers, and I don't find it hard to believe that it's been more or less true of many groups. So how did this start?

Well, for one thing, it goes back before RPGs. I mean, in baseball we've got umpires who not only make judgments and rulings related to the on-field action, but also have the authority to throw people out for bad sportsmanship. And we all know that whoever owns the ping-pong table gets extra say. I don't think we can really trace it back to the origin. But here's a wonderful example from the dawn of the modern RPG hobby.
Mr. Arneson: [...] I had a weekend off, so I sat up reading books, eating popcorn, and watching the boob tube. I drew up a maze and populated it with creatures. Then the next time someone showed up for Napoleonics I said that we were going to do something different.[...]

Pegasus: So historical gaming did influence you when you set up Blackmoor.

Mr. Arneson: It certainly did. We established (in our historical campaigns) the principal of having a Judge who everyone listened to and who set up the battle or campaign. That’s where we were coming from, traditional wargaming.

Pegasus: It’s nice to hear about a campaign where people listen to the Judge. I’ve seen a lot of campaigns that are a little more chaotic.

Mr. Arneson: Yes, but it took a lot of forceful diplomacy on my part (the baseball bat helped). The games were held in my basement and I have thrown out disruptive players. That way I established the fact that I was in charge and when I talk you had better listen. Then when others would Judge, I could use my influence to back them up by saying "If you don’t listen to this Judge, I’ll remove you". Before I knew it, even I was listening to the Judge whether I liked it or not.

(All emphasis mine.)
Tags: roleplaying culture, rpg history
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