Being a Guide vs. Being a Leader

Today’s #GMAdvice is all about the important distinction between being a guide and being a leader.

A common tendency for GMs when they’re seeing chaos at the table is to try and lead their way through the “problem.” They turn to railroading or unreasonably hurting/killing/over-punish players to try and get everyone back on track. They feel that ruling with an iron fist is the only way for the story to continue “as it should.”

The main issue with that approach is that it neuters the natural flow and creativity of the players, the lifeblood of a tabletop role playing game story. A TTRPG table is not a classroom, filled with students who are required to learn a specific lesson plan and you, the teacher, judged by how well the students learn that plan. Instead, the table is simply a group of people who have given their precious time to play a story together.

Admittedly though, some of the same behavior in that classroom – i.e. talking over one another/the GM, not paying attention, not buying into the lesson/plot, not respecting/investing in one another’s spotlight etc. – can apply to what happens at the TTRPG table. And when that occurs, especially for GMs who have spent considerable amount of their own time, effort, energy, and creativity to prepare a story that’s consistently not being respected they way they had envisioned, that can be quite frustrating. And when that frustration builds, it leads to some of those more iron-handed strategies of leadership described earlier.

My advice to GMs who find themselves in this predicament is to redefine for themselves the role they’re playing at the table. Instead of styling yourself the leader at the table, think of yourself as its facilitator instead.

The critical distinction between leading and facilitating in this context is the former arbitrates control and the latter elegantly works within the table’s context. A great facilitator finds ways to artfully redirect momentum within the story so that its arc bends toward their vision while honoring what the players are bringing to the table. This approach/method does not absolve players of being disrespectful. Instead, it arms the GM with the attitude and approach they’ll need to optimally meet the table halfway.

As a GM, don’t be afraid to have conversations with the players about table behaviors, flow, and also their wants & needs. Integrate that information into how you facilitate the story. Find the marriage between what the players are looking for collectively and individually and the story you’re trying to tell. Like in any relationship, keep the lines of communication open and constantly use the two-way feedback to improve.

Over time, you’ll have less contention, more invested players, and be hitting on the plot threads you’ve been craving. If there are any specific scenarios I can help GMs work through, leave a comment below and I’ll do what I can to help resolve!

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