Who Drives the Game Forward? Whoever Steps Up
The fiction of tabletop RPGs is, at its foundation, collaborative. Rules and social structure shape who gets to say what about the imagined space, but the core appeal is that it's shared. Roleplaying games thrive on fruitful creative interaction between all the participants, mediated by useful structure.
Since it's a shared space, anyone can drive the game forward. All that's required is the ability to step up and make bold fictional statements — whether about the world, the situation, or just your own character — that engage the other players directly.
This really isn't the sole occupation of one person. Games flow best when all of the participants1 are involved in driving the story.
The Traditional GM Has To Step Up
A pattern in most RPG of the past and present is that the GM fills many roles. Oftentimes, the GM is:
- The main authority2 on the setting and environment. It's right there in the term "Dungeon Master"— the GM is the person who defines the environment we are exploring in play.
- The main author of the situation. This is an outgrowth of setting authority in traditional RPG structure. What's going on right now is treated as a feature of the setting, which is offered up to the PCs through vehicles like adventure hooks.
- The player who controls the antagonists.
- The main authority on the rules. Older D&D often refers to the Dungeon Master as a "referee;" anyone can read the rules and attempt to apply them, but the GM is the main authority on how to interpret the text in play, and makes on-the-spot "rulings," which involve both adjudicating interactions of existing rules and inventing new mechanics for peculiar situations. (Sometimes the GM is even expected to override the rules for the sake of realism or satisfying dramatic progression.)
So, traditionally, the GM wields a lot of power and does a lot of work. If they aren't doing this work, it's just not getting done at all — a team-oriented game like D&D is not really designed for the non-GM players to become the antagonists, for example. The game will just fizzle and flounder without the GM's active input.
This concentration of responsibility and authority means that typically the mantle of GM falls on the most invested player in the group, the one who's most willing to put in the groundwork to make the game sessions happen in the first place. Also the one whose head is full of ideas to share with the group — ideas that end up driving the game.
What Does Everyone Else Do?
Well, they're playing, too! They can be involved in the game in several ways:
If they step up as well, then you get a healthy back-and-forth where the GM stuff and the protagonists feed into each other. The protagonists and antagonists interact. The situation adapts to their motivations and their motivations adapt to the situation. Their actions change the world. Et cetera. Everyone is driving the game; the GM just has more responsibility to keep up their part (see above). Whether it's a purposeful series of dramatic events or more of an afterthought to a sandbox hexcrawl, the overall "plot" is very much the result of shared effort coming together in play.
If the non-GM players don't quite step up, then the focus shifts to the situation on its lonesome. The PCs still have to navigate it, but the relationship is much more one-way: the PCs' main role is to react and witness. The GM's scenario becomes the totality of "the plot."
Note that this behavior isn't necessarily a problem. It can be a letdown for the GM if they were hoping for more stuff to bounce off of, but there's nothing fundamentally busted about a player treating RPGs as cool storytime with audience participation rather than shared improvised fiction per se.
If the non-GM players want to step up but the GM won't let them? That's illusionism and rampant social dysfunction (but I repeat myself). This state of affairs quickly leads to frustration, boredom, and hostility at the table.
In my personal experience, the most common pattern is probably some mixture of players stepping up and sitting back depending on their particular mood, which results in the GM driving the majority of the plot without becoming the true sole author. Most of the game is determined by the GM's choices in defining the scenario, but the PCs still make critical choices or go off on their own side plots from time to time.
(So, what happens if you're GMing and you "write the plot" ahead of time? Well, now you've made the assumption that players won't push their own contributions very strongly, so you're locked into "GM-Lead Storytime" or illusionist "Disaster" mode, depending on the group. Make sure you know which one you'll be getting3.)
The GM's Role, More Generally
Okay, but it's 2013 or later! Roleplaying is, like, 40 years old and "traditional" RPGs don't represent the entirety of the hobby anymore. In the modern day, not every game calls upon the GM to be the sole author of the setting and situation, nor do all of them assume the GM will play the role of referee, teacher, or host. So, what are GMs doing in these new-fangled games?
For example, if we take strong character-driven play on the part of everyone else for granted, does the GM still need to "drive" anything?
Yes, because we're all supposed to be driving the game in our different ways.
Yes, because if the answer was no, this game wouldn't need a GM player at all.
In particular, the GM is typically the player with the best view of the big picture of play. A common paradigm is for the GM to be responsible for the game's overall objective4: the other players can focus on advocating for their PCs while the GM makes sure that the overall theme and flow of the game — Is the setting contributing to the desired mood at the table? Are the character's beliefs being suitably challenged?
The GM is a "bass player," setting the tone and rhythm for the other participants, the foundation on which we all build our fiction.
The GM is an instigator, introducing elements to spotlight and challenge the protagonists in ways that serve the larger themes of the shared story.
These are very much active, engaged, story-driving roles.
1 - Or at least most of the participants — I think there's actually a pretty viable niche for playing your PCs as "supporting characters" in RPGs, though it's not discussed often.
2 - "Authority" itself is kind of a loaded concept. It shapes how we think about "who says what" in subtle ways. I'll use it here because it's an accepted term and that's a different conversation I'm not entirely prepared to have.
3 - This is why trying to learn how to GM from published adventures, especially the "story-driven" ones, is perilous: they're pre-written for no one in particular. At best, you get a bit of canned prep you can reuse and repurpose. At worst, you are now exploring a story completely devoid of protagonists within the framework of a game completely devoid of choices.
4 - Related context: The Object of the Game vs Your Character's Goals, Recipe vs Game.