April 16, 2021

The Difference Between Being Your Tabletop RPG’s Leader And Its Guide

Tabletop RPG GMs/DMs have a lot to manage when they’re facilitating stories. And sometimes, when things aren’t going their way, frustration can build and boil over to railroading and over-punishing players.

Today’s GM Advice is all about how shifting your mindset from being the table’s leader to the table’s guide can exponentially improve everyone’s experience at the table.

The Foundation of “Chaos”

I’ve written in this space that “going off the rails” is a good thing. A common tendency though for GMs/DMs 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-punishing players to try and get everyone back on track. They feel that ruling with an iron fist is the best 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 akin to a classroom filled with students who are required to learn a specific lesson plan. And you’re not the teacher who is judged by how well the students learn that plan. Instead, the table is simply a group of people who have decided to invest 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, that can be especially frustrating given all of the thought and effort that went into preparation. When that frustration builds, it leads to some of those more iron-fisted strategies of leadership described earlier.

Responding to Frustration

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

The critical distinction between leading and guiding here is the former arbitrates control and direction while the latter works and lives within the table’s context. A great guide finds ways to artfully redirect momentum within the story so that its arc bends toward their vision. 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/DM, don’t be afraid to have conversations with the players about table behaviors, flow, and 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. And certainly, you’ll find yourself feeling less frustrated and more invested in the story than ever.

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!