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I am running a game with long-term established players. Our group numbers five, including myself. We have a very clear non-adversarial, non-hierarchical GM-player dynamic: we tell a story together, and the GM should be having as much fun as the players. The GM should also not be worrying more than the players about the direction of the story. In essence, the role of the GM in our games is to keep the group's and the story's cohesion, and ensure both stay in line as we play. As GM, I am more often in the position of helping our table navigate safety, trust, and boundaries, than I am ever 'running the show.'

If I have any outsize role in the story, it's because players often look to me to help patch holes in a way that feels good - not because they expect me to dictate the story per se. This is a unique dynamic, and it's not one I've experienced at many tables. It works well for us, and it works well for my (near-exclusively freeform) RP style.

When a player who is new to our table arrives, either at the beginning or the middle of a campaign, frequently I encounter a mismatch in expectations. This mismatch has occurred regardless of the incoming player's experience playing role-playing games in general. In the past, I have seen the following:

  • A new player expects me to create literal dungeons (note: we do not play D&D): areas of the map that the players then crawl.
  • A new player expects me to personally act as the world in general, or as a specific hostile force that they are supposed to overcome, conquer, plunder, etc.
  • A new player expects me to take the reins on telling the story personally, and finds the level of narrative control the table hands them uncomfortable or unexpected.
  • A new player expects me to be at least in charge of describing scenes or characters in detail.
  • On occasion, a new player has found it odd or uncomfortable when I ask another player at the table (not them!) if they would like to play an NPC.

In short, new players to our table often expect us to act like a hierarchy: there is me, the Master of the Game, and there are the players, my subjects, of which they are one. But this is not how our table tends to work. In the past, I've had significant trouble communicating this to players in advance - the entire style of gameplay seems completely unfamiliar to some, and I have trouble giving them any sort of touchstone for understanding it.

How do you help players new to your table, who seem to be struggling, understand that your game is not run in a hierarchical way (with the GM at the top and the players beneath)?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Such a stellar question. How do you usually come across the people you invite - are they friends, strangers on/offline? \$\endgroup\$
    – Akixkisu
    Aug 10 at 0:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Akixkisu A bit of a mix. The 'core players' tend to be years-long friends and regulars - folks we know the style works well for. New players tend to be our friends, personal invitees, or temporary participants. In general, we keep games to folks we know in person. And - thanks :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Slate
    Aug 10 at 0:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ Do you generally work in one particular game system? Is it a game like Fate or one of the PbtA games that mean into shared narrative? If so, there might be system-specific tools available to you. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ben Barden
    Aug 11 at 16:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ @BenBarden Freeform - we do not play with a system, or at most a few simple rules of our own devising appropriate to the story we are telling. \$\endgroup\$
    – Slate
    Aug 11 at 16:48
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Figure out and pitch your game to your players beforehand

"Non-hierarchical" is a standard way of describing the convenient approach in TTRPGs. In a classic game a GM still should neither command players, nor expect specific actions from them. It is never about players being "GM's subjects".

Also, a typical GM is clearly non-adversarial. Little to no games expect the game master to be a players' opponent. Usually, a GM's goal is to ensure that all are having fun, not to "win" the game.

So maybe describing your playstyle as non-adversarial and non-hierarchical is misleading. You should figure out what the real difference is, and focus on it when talking to new players.

The classic approach assumes separation of concerns — the GM controls the world (but not the PCs), while the players control their characters (but not the world). This approach allows players to feel exploration and discovery in a mysterious world, while the GM can be amused by unexpected actions made by individual characters. There is a line between GM's responsibility and players' responsibility. Even classic narrativist games like Apocalypse World tend to prevent the GM from crossing this line.

It definitely can be crossed at some tables though, but you should establish this in a clearer way, since many players feel uncomfortable when a game they started to play becomes too different from their expectations.

For example, if I play a game and the GM asks me "describe what this guy says to you", this NPC stops being alive for me. I'd rather preserve my suspension of disbelief, leaving NPCs to the GM.

Find answers to these questions before the game starts:

  • What is the player's role? What is a player responsible for? What should and should not a player do?
  • What is the GM's role? What is a GM responsible for? What should and should not a GM do?
  • Is there actual difference between players and GMs in terms of responsibilities? What is it, exactly?

Many modern narrativist games do have explicit answers to these questions. Also, there are many GMless systems which work in a similar way. In these games, every player still plays a character, but players have broader control over the narrative. I definitely suggest you to look through them for inspiration.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for pointing out that the things the OP describes as differences are actually standard to most games, so the points of difference must lie elsewhere. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Aug 11 at 21:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ I've slept on this answer and I think you raise some very good points... I will need some time to think about this answer before I am ready to formulate any other comment (or just accept!), but I wanted you to know I've seen it and appreciate it. \$\endgroup\$
    – Slate
    Aug 12 at 14:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Slate to be honest, I edited the answer a lot since that moment. I also linked an article about "the line" in PbtA games (which heavily assume the group story-telling). I hope the answer became better, although it is up to the readers. \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Aug 20 at 9:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ @enkryptor Repsectfully, I'm not sure I can support this answer anymore... "Open your mind to different TTRPGs and how they work" - I have been playing and running RPGs of different kinds since I was a young child. I do already well understand these nuances, and the typical expectations folks bring to the table about the GM/player split. My question is not about table culture, but about the communication problem. Specifically, "how do I prime someone new to encounter a table far outside their expectations - a balance an established core of players has settled on as highly favorable?" \$\endgroup\$
    – Slate
    Aug 20 at 14:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Slate thank you for being straightforward about this. "Open your mind..." was preceded by "you probably should" phrase, now removed for brevity. The very phrase assumes things about OP, which may not be true. Now I see the answer gains nothing from this phrase, so I've removed it. \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Aug 20 at 15:13
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This seems like the obvious answer to me. But just read them this post before they play.
You have outlined everything very clearly. And your post manages expectations, and informs new players about how your game will progress.

Your best course of action, is to explain it to them, the way you did here.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Maybe you could speak more to your experiences on it, but in mine just telling a player to not expect hierarchy and depend on a GM to flesh things out doesn't actually achieve much and I'm missing how much use the above post is towards that. And she does say that she's "had significant trouble communicating this to players in advance" which I'd assume means this has been tried and not found successful. \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    Aug 11 at 18:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't see how someone can read this post and need more information. I assumed that her previous explanation was verbal. I am suggesting she literally points new players to this post. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 11 at 18:42
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If you want to "show, don't tell" new players how this works, consider creating an example they can watch, listen to, or read. This example would probably be staged so you can make sure to cover each of your points above. It could be a video or sound recording (if everyone is comfortable being recorded in that way), or you could simply write up a sample dialogue that encapsulates a brief part of a session.

The Player's Handbook for D&D 5e has this in the Introduction. I would expect other games have this as well. You might collaboratively create this document with your existing group to both (potentially) allow a variety of viewpoints into the document's creation, and also in the spirit of how your group already seems to operate.

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There isn't a good way

Unspoken expectations are incredibly pernicious. When it comes to humans, engaging them in a way counter to their unspoken expectations, about a non-standard non-normal activity (like roleplaying) is always going to be difficult. Doing so while also playing a game that makes use of creative storytelling skills (high mental energy) is going to increase the difficulty considerably.

Successfully doing so will almost certainly depend on the individuals involved. Skills to modify expectation are soft skills, and hard to describe. Different individuals will have slightly different expectations and different means will work differently on each individual.

That doesn't mean it's impossible. However it does mean that setting down how to do so with some kind of step-by-step instructions will almost certainly be incorrect, very easy to apply wrongly, or ultimately unhelpful.

Instead, I'm going to say that this is a social communication problem, based around expectation, with some minefields in the form of those expectations already covering for/providing a framework to avoid embarrassment and dissonance. Approaching it in those terms, as a slightly awkward social situation like being stuck with your sister's fiancee who you don't like on a camping trip, may help solve it better than thinking of it as a 'roleplaying problem'.

However specific to roleplaying games, there are a few minor tricks that may help a bit (I'm dubious they help more than a 'bit' however);

  1. Give your game system a name and frame the actions you're asking for them to perform as 'part of the system'. 'Do you want to play Steve the Innkeeper' may lead to mind boggling in shock, but '

    • Okay as part of SNAVES, anyone can Bid to get the option to play as this NPC'
    • 'how does that work'
    • 'well I give you three Lines on the character and then you-'

    Assigning names to things you just use as innate narrative mechanics and vaguely pretending it's all part of some kind of actual system (even if you freely state it's something you thought up or even that it's not actually written down anywhere) will fit part of the existing 'rpg' profile - there's rules, you're following them (apparently).

  2. Simplify initial scenario. Dumb it down. Normally you run political intrigue with 5-8 moving parts and people know what to do via shorthand like 'Jim you want to usurize the pivot sidewonkwards yeah?'. Don't do that. Cut variables, simplify the in-game scenario heavily. Simplify the out of game scenario - ask people to do less narrative actions, and heavily explain what they are doing even if they already know. You're explaining it from step 0 to step 33 in way too much detail for the benefit of the new guy. Take more of the MC duties on yourself and simplify things to give the newer player a better chance to learn and also to acclimatize.

  3. Use dice rolls more. Dice are fun and easy to understand - high roll good, low roll bad. Involve them in things you'd usually decide by people dictating the narrative outcomes of the scene, or on things you'd normally not bother to roll for (the trained soldier shooting a target 20m away in good lighting from a braced firing position).

  4. Get help. You've identified this problem and put it into words. Get your table to do the same thing, and crowdsource the solution. Doing this stuff yourself can work but if the whole table is trying to ease people into your different meta it's probably going to work better. Keep in mind you might run into the problem in reverse - people not understanding how people don't/can't grok their current mode of play, because that's what they are used to.

  5. Godmode. Like anyone interacting with something they don't hugely understand, the new player will be more predisposed to fail. In D&D that means their character fails rolls or dies or whatever. At your table I'd imagine it's more that the group doesn't take up their idea and it falls by the wayside, or outcomes they don't prefer happen more often. Take that, shake it round, and turn it upside down. Have them win more. If necessary, have them win in a D&D sense (their character kills the enemies) and in the more narrative sense of your table (the party runs with their idea for the scene). Like bribing a child with sweets, players like winning. In the short term it will keep their interest, which might otherwise be turned off by the strangeness of your game compared to their previous experience. This will give time to potentially come to appreciate the more narrative tone.

  6. More clearly delineate the things you have control over and what the party/table has control over. It's likely not clearly delineated, possibly intentionally so - if necessary, make some fake delineations instead. It is a lot smaller of a mental leap from 'the GM controls the enemies' to 'the GM controls these specific factions' than to 'the GM controls whatever he feels like controlling, and so do the players'.

  7. Be willing to go through a lot of candidates. Being creative in real time with other people is hard. Narrative focused games require more of that skill than D&D. Add a cultural disconnect and a lot of people are going to nope out at the first hurdle. A significantly effective means to solve this is to simply be willing to just keep going through people until you find one that sticks, and not take anyone leaving/not showing up anymore personally. This is to a large degree true in roleplaying in any case - often you want to be quite selective about who you game with to make sure your investment of energy is repaid with interesting ideas and a good time.

Finally, you should keep in mind that what you're referring to - the role of the GM in your game - is the tip of the iceberg here. It's the obvious thing they point to, but the disconnect is subtler and broader and that is what is fueling the issues they are having. If it was just that the GM does not do things other GMs do, it would be less of an issue and I doubt you would bring it up as a major problem. However having seen exactly this disconnect quite a few times (both at my own tables and others) I can confirm that it makes games harder, causes players to drop out (despite enjoying the game by all reports), and is in general a cause of un-fun. I've noticed an uptick in this kind of problem recently, which I attribute to.

[..Rules-heavy DnD5e-as-combat-simulator is currently the major source of roleplaying game players and the culture of altgames that permeated the release of earlier editions of D&D has not made the jump that D&D has to mainstream culture. Most players now have not played Traveller and Conan and GURPS a few times to give them the idea that TTRPGs can proceed in a different fashion to Keep on the Borderlands and Dungeon of the Mad Mage. ]

In some cases I can refer to players who did not understand the concept of homemade adventures rather than store-bought. They had to have it explained several times and were edgy about the prospect, thought that it would lead to imbalance and bad times etc.

That is the depth of the difference of view that can be available.

To stop waffling, to solve your GM-role-view problem you'll likely need to at least interact with the broader disconnect of soft-rules narrative game vs hard-rules combat simulator game. That follows the usual rules of doing so which are complicated and hard to describe. Show don't tell, simplify, remember you know it and they don't, provide incentives, etc. Retreading that ground would go on for pages and pages, and there's reams of advice on how to teach and how to connect with people that aren't really RPG specific available in the world.

TL;DR - your problem is narrative vs combat simulator game style/experience rather than specifically GM-role. You'll probably need to put effort into making the game more accessible/understandable to people outside context to help combat this. How you do that is variable and the difficulty varies depending on the type of person.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'd suggest that you put your TLDR up front. It seems oddly positioned at the end. Or, if you are using TLDR to preface your summary of this lengthy meditation (which I enjoyed reading) maybe change the term TLDR to "Conclusion" or "Summary" \$\endgroup\$ Aug 20 at 18:54

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