I’m getting in just under the wire here in the US for this month’s blog carnival, which is being hosted over at RPGBlogCarnivalLogocopyCasting Shadows.

This month’s theme was “Taking Charge”, and I found the various pieces regarding this a bit odd — almost none of them seemed to address what those two words — for me — implied. How and who takes charge in a role playing game campaign or session.

I’m, I suppose, pretty old-school in some ways, when it comes to the role of game mastering an RPG. I started playing around 1979ish (give or take a year; I honestly don’t remember) with the old box set of Dungeons & Dragons. The role of the DM, in those days, was antagonistic toward the players. You crafted a dungeon or other environment in which the players attempted to find treasure, kill monsters, or do some event that was central to the setting. You populated the play space with traps and opponents to challenge the players in what often seemed like a blatant attempt to do their characters in. The players were more the DM’s opponents; the character sheets might have stats, but ultimately, you as a player tried to outthink the DM. However, ultimately, the “DM was God” in those days.

I never really cottoned to the idea of gamemaster (note the shift of term) as antagonist. I wanted to craft situations and plot lines that the characters could respond to  and alter. Our little game group moved quickly out of D&D to TravellerGamma WorldTop Secret and James Bond — settling in mostly on JB:007. Despite the move to a more narrative style, as some might call it, the GM was still the guy that built the world, presented the adventuring opportunities, and ran the opposition. The GM was still in charge, and the players were still trying to overcome the obstacles he or she set.

The idea of balance of power between the player and the GM started to take a hold in the 1990s, and I found it tied to the White Wolf games of the time, where the gamemaster was more a arbiter, and the bulk of the “action” was interpersonal interaction. This idea of GM as simply a judge or just another player is particularly popular in the indie games of recent years. The players have the power to not just react to the story, but often to use mechanical aspects of the game to change the outcome of events or even the storyline itself. The GM is not in charge. Sometimes, they don’t even exist.

You can imagine what my preference is: I like a strong GM presence or involvement, but ultimately, the players have to do something…and that drives how the story unfolds. So how does a GM take charge without creating, as a recent commenter stated, “hack novelists [sic] shitty drama”?  You can present an interesting setting (in a lot of the bigger games or licensed settings, a lot of that legwork’s been down for you) or atmosphere — something particularly good for sandbox games — and incentivize the players to go after the adventure bread crumbs you drop by tying those adventures to their character’s motivations. If you are playing in a game where the characters are part of a hierarchical organization, this is relatively easy — a character in a military unit, a government organization, etc. has to follow the instructions of their leadership, or they get canned/court martialed/ or similarly penalized. They can riff on how they do something, but they are still running through the scenario.

Depending on what kind of game you are playing, taking charge could mean extensive planning and NPC creation — particularly useful in more crunchy espionage or mystery games. It could be wrangling the players to show up for game. I will usually toss out a “who’s in?” email once a week. We all know we’re playing weekly at a certain time and place, but sometimes schedules change, venues must be shifted. Knowing who is showing up is essential to knowing what you are doing as a GM.

But what about the other players..? How do they take charge? 1) Know your character and play them. Don’t sit on the sidelines (unless it’s someone else’s turn to shine at that moment. 2) Grab onto the clues or opportunities presented to the character and do something. Don’t sit there drinking Mountain Dew and eating pizza…play, Have fun. 3) Sometimes you’ll know where the GM is trying to get you to go. If the players don’t want to go there, try to give the GM some kind of opportunities to help you go elsewhere. If you want to figure out the plot, or get to the big fight scene the GM is trying to get you into…go for it. Embrace the story and the fun that creates will help everyone move the story alone. You won’t have to take charge — it’ll just happen.