Every single RPG with a GM has a motivation to run the game, an agenda, for the GM. Most of those games would be better if they stated that agenda explicitly. Because beyond telling the GM what to aim for, these motivations tell the GM where their fun is coming from in the game—they tell the GM why they should want to play.
I don’t often think too much about the enjoyment I get from GMing, exactly. I will think about what I like or find fun about rules and mechanics, but a lot of the time that’s as much about “will the players enjoy these rules and mechanics” as it is about me. After all, I’m the GM! To some extent I will always hold my position as GM to be a purveyor of entertainment for the players. A host. My joy comes from their joy.
So it’s easy for me to forget about, or at least not consider, the things that make GMing fun for me outside of the players’ fun. But some specific incidents cropped up in a campaign of mine that got me thinking about how that game had an agenda built into it, never quite pointed at explicitly, but perfectly catered to how I find fun: “being the delighted observer.”
Adventures in the Time of Godbound
I’ve been running a lot of Godbound lately, and I like it a lot. Short synopsis: players are nascent god-beings with ridiculous superpowers that let them completely circumvent the normal systems of power in the world. They have the ability to destroy mountains and make cities float, to rewrite whole economies and create new cultural norms. The world they’re in is pretty awful, and the game winds up positioning itself as a story about how these nascent gods choose to use their incredible powers…while also occasionally coming up against titanic monstrosities and engaging in epic battles.
The game is based on the same d20-ish rules-lite system as other Sine Nomine games, and it’ll be familiar to anyone who’s ever played D&D. Attack rolls, hp, strength/dexterity/constitution/etc. It adds a few new base level systems, and a whole brand new set of systems for those god powers and their way of changing the world. Notably, there is no such thing as alignment in Godbound.
The significance, there, is simple—the game has very little in the way of solving discussions about right and wrong, good and bad. If a PC wants to convince an NPC of doing something, there are ways to do that, from skill checks to those crazy god powers. But if a PC wants to convince a PC of doing anything, there’s no real system in place. No “seduce or manipulate” move, like in AW. No Strings to pull, no Debts to call in, no Influence to wield.
So when the PCs wind up disagreeing about the right way forward, there’s no way to clearly cut through that tension, to zip to a resolution. And to me, as the GM and observer, that wound up being perfect.
Here’s a specific instance that came up in one game. The Godbound PCs had gone to investigate a scouting post that had gone silent, on behalf of their sort-of-adopted-hometown, Fidenza. The post itself was some ancient tower of incredible arcane artifice that no one knew how to operate. There, they found the Fidenzan guards dead, and eventually discovered the perpetrators of the crime trapped at the top of the tower. The perpetrators were essentially super-powered secret agents, the CIA of the nearby island nation of the Bright Republic, a place with its own modern-day-America-level magical-technology. That country’s power source is failing, however, and these secret agents were sent out to investigate a possible alternative power source, but keep it on the downlow so other powers throughout the world wouldn’t be aware. So they murdered all the Fidenzan guards, but wound up trapping themselves when they woke up the tower’s power systems.
The two secret agents told the Godbound, “Hey, we know you can probably beat us, but chances are we can hurt you pretty badly, too. And we’d rather go home and deliver our report on what we’ve discovered. So if you let us leave, we’ll leave, no fighting. You get to keep this whole tower, we won’t take anything from it.” And they meant it! But the Godbound weren’t having it, not after these two slaughtered a bunch of Fidenzans, and so they fought. One of the Godbound nearly died, but they subdued—notably, did not kill, but subdued—the two secret agents.
So now, they’re up there, in the top of an arcane tower, with two super-powered secret agents that nearly killed one of their own. They’re incredibly nervous about their potential to actually keep these two restrained. And the two secret agents have already expressed that they’re patriots who knew they’d be disavowed if captured. The two agents are willing to die for their home country, and they’ll keep trying to accomplish their mission.
And thus ensued an argument between the Godbound about what to do with these two agents. Kill them? Restrain them? Try to convince them to change their minds over long-term discussion? Hobble them somehow? Let them go?
And as for me…
I loved it because I, as the GM, got to sit back and watch these players and characters wrestle with the situation, its morality, its monstrosity. It was fascinating to hear what they argued for, or against, and it was a great instance (from my vantage point) of the player and the character coalescing—no, the morality that the character was advocating was probably not the exact morality of the person behind the character, but at the same time, the players perfectly embodied the stance of their characters in that moment. The heroic duelist defender-of-the-weak who said, “No, we should try to convince them to change their ways. Or at least put them in prison.” The pragmatic captain (who’d been nearly killed by them) who said, “No, they’re too dangerous.”
I loved it because that moment was straight out of the TV show. I could see it, with those characters arguing about what to do, really wrestling with it, and how whatever decision they made, it would tell us a lot about them. Whatever decision they made, there would be intense consequences.
In that moment, I was able to inhabit the role of audience member—”delighted observer”. Not author, not producer, not director, but audience member. And the PCs were playing their roles to the hilt.
The Balancing Act
Of course, there’s a reason that I as GM usually take my enjoyment from my players—it’s because we’re there as a group, and we all want to have fun. So in that moment, when I was getting my own entertainment by watching those characters argue and push against each other, there was tension between my fun and the players’. They eventually became frustrated that there was no mechanism to solve their argument. The very thing that facilitated my own entertainment (alongside the awesomeness of the players themselves) was actually a point of dissatisfaction for them as the argument continued.
It becomes all the more important to know the GM’s agenda, the GM’s motivation for play and source of fun, so as to balance it on the massive plate of the game’s offerings. In this case, it was important for me to both take that time to enjoy the game providing me the chance to be the audience, while being aware that I shouldn’t just let it go on too long, for the sake of the players’ own enjoyment.
So do all games provide the GM with this joy, of getting to be a delighted audience member watching cool characters make impossible decisions? No, not all games, not that specific enjoyment. But if you’re lucky, the games will explicitly tell you or point you toward the type of enjoyment you can drive from them as a GM.
In some sense, I’m talking about GM agendas, and what they can be used for. Agendas are a concept I first encountered in Apocalypse World itself. They work kind of as the goal-posts of GMing—the things a GM should be aiming for with everything they do or say in the game.
The agendas of most PbtA games have play to find out (or some variation thereof) called out as a reason for play, and they’re dead on the money. Most PbtA games are served best by playing to find out what happens by virtue of their mechanics and their style of play—and by virtue of the fact that GMs of such games will have a better time being surprised by what happens along with their players, than needing to plan all those surprises in advance.
Godbound, too, functionally has the agenda of play to find out. It’s a sandbox game, which means the GM should be following the PCs in their endeavors, not creating a storyline that the PCs experience. Being a good GM in Godbound requires aiming at this agenda.
But the key here, for me, was a real reframing of the crucial nature of GM agendas in how they could operate. They aren’t always just goalposts for the GM to shoot for, to help guide you to be a good GM. They can be reframed to provide you with motivation to run a game. They can tell you where the fun is.
And that’s huge! A lot of the time, it’s fairly easy to tell if you, as a player, will enjoy a game. “This game is about Victorian dragons drinking tea and trying to get married while avoiding being slain by those pesky humans.” If you like the sound of playing a tea-drinking Victorian dragon, then you’re in! If you like the sound of a comedy of manners, then you’re in! And if not, then not. Pretty clear.
As a GM, that all can still apply, but there’s this other layer to that conclusion. Where players might be able to easily dive into the fun and entertainment of the game, thanks to how awesome it sounds like to play these characters, the GM doesn’t always have that. So GMs need to know, where does your fun come from, as the person running it? Does it come from the delight of watching these Victorian dragons finally achieve true love? Does it come from this need to craft, for each PC, the perfect other half that would satisfy their desire to marry?
That’s what these agendas can tell you. Thinking about how play to find out is an agenda in Godbound got me to realize that when the players were arguing and unsure of what to do next, I was on the edge of my seat and excited because I didn’t know what would happen! I was playing to find out, and that’s where my entertainment came in.
So agendas give us a clear sign of where our fun comes, as GMs. Which means that any time we are considering running a game, our first step should be to examine that game’s agendas. To figure out what they are. And through them, figure out where our fun is. Because if we can’t say that, then why are we even playing?