One of my pervading practices as a roleplayer is based on the “one good player” hypothesis. I made an observation years ago while running convention games that “one good player can make up for a table of idiots.” I saw a lot of players and a lot games, and I noticed one experienced player could keep the entire group on track.

(I’m a bitter, jaded cynic and it took me years to come to terms, but I eventually dropped the “table of idiots” part of my original hypothesis. –dithering idium)

My observation developed into a hypothesis as I experimented with both my home group and convention games. I had at one time carried a firm belief that an experienced game master was required, but that proved not to be the case.

One good player is needed, no matter on which side of the DM screen they sit.

The sad fact is that if you are in a tabletop roleplaying group that has meant more than once or twice, you’re in the minority. There is a shortage of good players, and there is a shortage of good groups, despite the outstanding majority of players who are at the very least interested in roleplaying. One game can mean the difference.

If you want to share and spread the hobby (and many of us do), you generally want to ensure that everyone who comes to a game enjoys it, and that everyone who enjoys it wants to come back. I recommend game mastering to everyone… at least once.

My belief that a good storyteller was necessary to sustain a group, during one of my more cynical episodes, prompted the thinking that players necessarily had to be invested in “the story,” and by extension, their characters. This also proved incorrect.

I don’t remember what prompted the line of thinking, but at some point I remembered my leadership training from the Boy Scouts, and was encouraged to attempt a few leadership exercises on my gaming groups of the time. (Science springs eternal!)

People are very adaptable creatures, and despite their level of interest in a given activity, can be surprisingly cooperative in the presence of good leadership. If a leader is established in a group, people have a tendency to follow their example. Often, a game master has the most qualities of a leader but this isn’t always the case.

Developments in recent years, coming from both Wizards of the Coast and the RPGA have pushed toward the game master role towards one of a rules arbitrator or “judge” as opposed to the traditional storyteller, and I think this is right course – storytellers can and do appear on either side of the DM screen.

Oftentimes the best stories come from the players, and not the game master.

From my experience, the “rules lawyer” is usually best suited to the role of game master, though the responsibility for directing the narrative then falls on the players. The rules lawyer is often the most focused, prepared, and goal-oriented player at the table, which makes them well-suited to interpretations of the rules.

You probably don’t want the rules lawyer directing the story, and they honestly aren’t necessarily the best leader, either. Good for focus and even-handed decisions, but not as good for character or narrative.

There’s more data, more examples of this from my observations of players engaged in Arkham Horror and Elder Sign, two other cooperative, goal-driven games, and you can find more information about that on this very blog.