To me, being a GM means I tell the story the players' characters are in. I get the ball rolling, I set the plot in motion, I depict the various bystanders, antagonists, and supporting characters for the players, and I interpret what happens when the dice hit the table, or if they should hit the table at all, depending on the needs of the story.
I have never considered this a position of power. I have never considered myself some kind of god of an imaginary world. From the first moment I ran an RPG when I was six years old, my goal as a GM has always been to tell a good story and make sure the players are having fun. If there is any ego to running an RPG at all for me, it's in taking pride in the fact that the players around the table enjoyed the story I told them. I very much consider GMing a performance art.
The problem I'm running into, and why I write this blog today, is this: RPGs are changing, and with it, I'm afraid GMs are losing a lot of what used to make them GMs. I am proud of the hobby for its ability to continually evolve, but a part of me regrets that the "old school" of GMing may be over as I know it.
Modern role-playing games are beginning to monkey with the responsibilities inherent to the role of GM. Back in the day, it was the GM who said what happened, determined why it happened, and, with the input of the dice, the rulebook, and player decision, what happened next. Nowadays, things have changed. In some games, players can dominate whole regions of an RPG world simply by stating a thing as being true. In other games, a player's past can crop up at nearly any given moment and demand the spotlight during the adventure. In still other games, players actually have abilities that let them become the GM for a brief moment and establish details or alter the flow of the story. The appeal of this is quite obvious; players in modern RPGs have more control over the story than they ever did back in the days of the Big Red Box. RPGs have evolved into a process of collaborative storytelling.
Is that a bad thing? Of course not. Has it always been like this, to a certain degree? Yes, of course. But back in the day, there was a certain understanding: everything outside the players' characters was the domain of the GM. The GM was free to collaborate with the players, or not, as he or she so determined. Nowadays, there are role-playing games...very, very good roleplaying games...that actively tell the GM that the players get to say what certain things are or aren't true. In these games, the GM is becoming less of a storyteller and more of a referee. Hell; in some of these games, the GM isn't even supposed to roll dice!
I know many GMs must appreciate the help. Back in the day, the GM was sort of expected to be the one and only authority on any given subject within the game, rules or story-wise. I remember spending hours locked away in my bedroom, sorting through the boxed sets of AD&D's various campaign settings like a detective studying pictures of a crime scene. And, at the risk of sounding like a grandpa, that's the way we liked it, dangnabit!
I cannot stress enough how awesome I think some of today's modern, more-collaboratively-oriented RPGs are. Games like 13th Age, Numenera, FATE, Dungeon World...all amazing. But in virtually all of those games, the world is built upon the stories told together by the GM and the players. There is very little for the players to truly explore that's completely out of their hands. This of course is not a completely bad thing...it's just a sign of the times.