Here’s something relatively minor that nonetheless frustrates me every time I see it: the presentation of the (post-)PbtA game mastering principle “be a fan of the players’ characters” as axiomatically opposed to the (post-)OSR game mastering principle “be an impartial arbiter.”
Here’s an example from a blog post from a couple months ago:
Conceit #4: Game Master Neutrality
Those who run the game for the rest of the players are expected to act as neutral arbiters rather than be “fans of the characters” or “help facilitate great stories”. This is difficult for many people to do, so there are various mechanics (see below) in many OSR games that are meant to help facilitate this neutrality. I don’t really think true neutrality is possible, for the record, but using mechanics to determine things like how Monsters initially feel about you or when they flee battle go a long way towards achieving it.Widdershins Wanderings, “Cairn Crash Course”
As its name implies, the blog post in question is intended as a “crash course” introducing new players to basic OSR/NSR principles. On the surface, there’s little to examine here—if you’re a fan of something, you’re obviously not neutral toward it, therefore being a fan of the players’ characters is opposed to game master neutrality.
But what does it mean to be a neutral or impartial arbiter?
Being an Impartial Arbiter
“Cairn Crash Course” doesn’t tell us exactly what is meant by these terms, and complicates the matter a bit by hedging that “true neutrality” probably isn’t possible. Moreover, the mechanics mentioned essentially just boil down to the game master disclaiming decision-making to random dice rolls in some cases, which doesn’t really tell us much. However, another resource is referenced earlier in the post: the more-or-less canonical OSR text Principia Apocrypha.
So, what does Principia Apocrypha have to say about being an impartial arbiter? A lot, it turns out! The text is freely available in multiple formats, so I recommend checking it out, but here are some choice excerpts from the “Be an Impartial Arbiter” chapter:
- “As GM […] you are not an antagonist to the players or characters. Nor are you an author writing their story. Portray the world and embody its denizens genuinely, as they would react to the characters’ behavior. Don’t set out to tell a story, let one emerge from the characters’ interactions with the world.”
- “Don’t prepare a plot for the players to follow. During the game, observe how the players deal with a situation, and extrapolate the effects of their actions based on what you know.”
- “Establish situations with several actors or factions pursuing their own ends. Let the players’ actions affect this environment, and let the consequences affect the players in turn.”
- “Listen to that capricious muse, the dice. Relying only on your own imagination can become exhausting and predictable, and can feel less like a concrete world to the players.”
- “Feel free to let them know where most of your prep is, but if you expect them to zig and they zag, don’t constrain or re-route them. […] Find the excitement they see and embrace, too, the chaos of the players.”
Fascinating! Here we see a gesture toward the same “capricious muse” as detailed in “Cairn Crash Course,” but that represents a relatively small portion of the guidance. Most this is not quite what you might initially associate with impartiality, but has a lot more to do with not antagonizing the players, instead focusing on supporting their agency, playing out the consequences of their actions (or inaction), and reacting to them rather than forcing them to react to you.
Well, if game master neutrality isn’t quite what it might seem on its face, we certainly can’t assume we know what it means to be a fan of the player characters, so where can we turn to learn more about that?
Being a Fan of the Players’ Characters
Let’s start with Apocalypse World:
Be a fan of the players’ characters. “Make the characters’ lives not boring” does not mean “always worse.” Sometimes worse, sure, of course. Always? Definitely not.
The worst way there is to make a character’s life more interesting is to take away the things that made the character cool to begin with. The gunlugger’s guns, but also the gunlugger’s collection of ancient photographs—what makes the character match our expectations and also what makes the character rise above them. Don’t take those away.
The other worst way is to deny the character success when the character’s fought for it and won it. Always give the characters what they work for! No, the way to make a character’s success interesting is to make it consequential. When a character accomplishes something, have all of your NPCs respond. Reevaluate all those PC–NPC–PC triangles you’ve been creating. Whose needs change? Whose opinions change? Who was an enemy, but now is afraid; who was an enemy, but now sees better opportunities as an ally? Let the characters’ successes make waves outward, let them topple the already unstable situation. There are no status quos in Apocalypse World! Even life doesn’t only hurt.Apocalypse Word (2nd Edition)
The section goes on for a bit more, providing refinements on previous game mastering principles, but that’s the core of it. Remarkably, this guidance aligns very closely to that provided in Principia Apocrypha—the game master is not intended to antagonize the players or their characters, but rather support their agency and show the world around them reacting to and reflecting the consequences of their actions.
Of course, the (post-)PbtA field is much larger than just Apocalypse World. Let’s take a look at a few other texts:
Be a fan of the characters
Think of the players’ characters as protagonists in a story you might see on TV. Cheer for their victories and lament their defeats. You’re not here to push them in any particular direction, merely to participate in fiction that features them and their action.Dungeon World
Be a fan of the main characters
You share the same agenda as everyone else: make each main character’s life not boring. As the MC, that often means introducing struggle and adversity into their lives. Just remember that your goal is not to thwart them, or to gain some sort of unspoken power over them. The whole reason you’re introducing struggle and adversity is to see how they change under pressure, to watch their brilliance and flaws bubbling up, and to enjoy their story. You’re not here to coddle these characters or to bully them. You’re here to be their fan.Monsterhearts (2nd Edition)
Be a fan of the PCs. Present the world honestly—things really are stacked against them—but don’t make yourself the enemy of the PCs. They have enemies enough. Be interested in the characters and excited about their victories.Blades in the Dark
Of these, Dungeon World‘s guidance is the shortest, least clear, and seemingly most friendly toward the player characters, but given this game’s popularity, I suspect this paragraph is the primary text upon which most of the OSR’s understanding of what it means to be a fan of the players’ characters has been constructed.
Both Monsterhearts and Blades in the Dark make it clear that the guidance to be a fan of the player characters is given in the context that you are also going to be the person playing their opposition. You, the game master, might be responsible for the non-player characters who would be the architects of the player characters’ destruction, but you yourself are not their antagonist. Monsterhearts even goes so far as to instruct the game master to neither “coddle” nor “bully” the players, which sounds an awful lot like neutrality.
You Are (Not) a Fan
So, we have two tabletop role-play communities using two different terms for roughly the same set of principles, but frustratingly, rather than being in conversation with one another, the terms are frequently treated as directly opposed. How did this happen?
For most of the 2010s, a contingent of OSR personalities existed which viewed it as socially and economically beneficial to drive as big a wedge as they could into the middle of the independent tabletop role-play community. They did this by deploying a familiar reactionary playbook of first ingratiating themselves to the in-group, then harassing members of the out-group until the reactionaries managed to provoke an attack, then decontextualizing that attack (and any other residual animosity) as evidence of the cruelty of the out-group. They did this to transform the OSR design and play community into something closer to a personal identity, which could then be more easily captured, marketed to, and ultimately gate-kept. The full history of this era of the OSR is beyond the scope of this post, but suffice to say that it terminated with the ouster of Zak S from the core of the OSR community in February of 2019, following a number of allegations of sexual assault.
The superficial dichotomy between “be a fan of the players’ characters” and “be an impartial arbiter” isn’t a coincidence; this rhetoric was designed to establish a wedge in communities that is so obvious on its face that it is never questioned. And that doesn’t mean that the OSR game mastering guidance is bad or wrong—to the contrary, it is imbued with rhetorical potency by being followed by genuinely good advice, and that potency has allowed it to live well beyond the era in which is was created. New OSR practitioners are captured early by this rhetoric and thereafter when they see another game that uses the supposedly opposing language, more often than not they simply assume the other game is doing something they wouldn’t be interested in.
I think we’re all pretty much stuck with this language at this point. There’s too much history on both sides, and until entirely new paradigms arise, we’re all stuck with what we have. But, we can stop compounding the problem by not presenting these terms—these communities—as opposed. It has been years since the collapse of the old OSR regime, but there is still much healing to do.