Trusting the Game Master

Two weeks after the exciting conclusion of our latest Dungeons and Dragons campaign, Scott heaved a great sigh.

“I’m so glad,” he said, “That I don’t have to be in that asshole’s head anymore.”

For the past 4 years, Scott had acted as Game Master (or GM) to our game. Most of our group of six each made a single character to interact within the jointly-created fantasy world, but the GM set in place the circumstances, challenges and all other characters populating that world. The GM is part host, part teacher, part narrator and part foe. It’s one of the trickier storytelling skills a person can master, tucked neatly inside one of the dorkiest activities known to our civilization.

In our game, Scott played every bystander to be questioned, every archeologist who wanted rescuing from a brain-stealing alien, every Elven sovereign who disputed our right to interfere with Fairyland's affairs, every gremlin, and ghost and, yes, dragon. And occasionally a ghost dragon. That was a harrowing evening. He also mandated the rules by which the Players’ Characters could act - anything from how high we could jump to what precisely happened when the Wizard’s magic failed catastrophically. Spoiler alert: nothing good. While the other five of us played the good guys in our own private fantasy epic, Scott played every other element.

The “asshole” Scott was talking about was the ultimate villain in the story we played - a masterfully shrewd, arrogant, and destructive dumpster fire of a person who managed to out-maneuver us until the very end. It was Scott’s job to embody this adversary with enough complexity and integrity to keep the rest of us immersed in the story, and to play him with enough acumen to create a satisfying challenge. See, the GM doesn’t oppose the other players exactly - they don’t want you to lose - but they do want to make the game difficult enough to stay interesting while also rolling out the plot at the ideal pace.

There’s a point here, I promise. It is this:

If there’s a chance of a greater consciousness running our world, I like to think of it as a cosmic Game Master. For one thing, it’s comforting to pretend that something out there is keeping track of the rules of this place. I certainly am not. All I know are my own abilities and motivations, and that there are people around me I consider allies. I know my story is developing parallel to those of my party members, that we tackle problems together in pursuit of goals that should push the plot forward. Sometimes we fight dragons, sometimes we negotiate alien political intrigue. It doesn’t look story-shaped to me, but perhaps from a more distant vantage the tale is unfolding perfectly.

If I can allow myself to trust that there is something seeing this big picture, I find I can relax into the experience of living. My perception of the present feels richer, my engagement in the narrative more wholehearted. I can push my luck, make crucial errors, and chew the scenery on the stage of my life. And I can do all of it knowing that I’ll always be pulled back to the essential thread of my story. The real secret of the Game Master is that they are not there to tell you how to play, they are there to hold the world in place so that the players may lose themselves in it entirely. The position with the greatest control - played right - is there to allow the greatest freedom. They want you to win, and they want to make sure that the winning is as fun as possible.

I think any big-U Universe must serve this same function.

And so, when this character I call Kat fails to meet her goals, (or when someone, say, challenges her to single combat,) I can let myself believe that even if it was an unforeseen complication, the event will be folded deftly into a greater adventure. It makes me excited to learn the next plot twist, to meet the next person I don’t yet know is crucial to the narrative, to complete the puzzle that will open the next door.

And when I see people doing terrible things in the world - when I find myself and my allies embroiled in a battle for the very soul of our planet - it helps me to think that someday some unfathomable GM is going to sigh and relax and say “I’m so glad I don’t have to be in that asshole’s head anymore.”