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Random Thoughts of a Game Developer

Roles: An Excerpt

I know it’s been quite a while since my last update… mostly because I haven’t had time to work on Elements as much as I would like.

That having been said, below is an excerpt from the first chapter, discussing the Roles that members of Elements play groups take on.  This isn’t about the characters they play; it’s about the roles the members of the group take on to make the game go.  Of special import is the role of Arbiter, which to my knowledge hasn’t been used in an RPG before (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong – I’d love to know if another game has tried to do the same thing.)


Roles are the parts you as individuals take in the game. There are two roles that must be filled for a game to be played, and two other optional roles that can be filled depending on the game and the dynamics of a game group. A number of abbreviations are also introduced here, described for clarity.

The Game Group (GG)

Game Group (GG) is the collective term for all the people that get together to play Elements. Actually, it would be all the people that get together to play any Tabletop Role Playing Game (TRPG), although some systems use more prosaic terms like “Troupe” or “Cast”. The GG can be described as a group of people gathered together for a shared imaginary experience.

Game Groups are all different, and all come together for different reasons. The one thing they all have in common, however, is a desire to cut loose and experience something different from the rat race of daily life. A GG is usually composed of friends and friends of friends. Each person in the GG has a Role to play – at the least, one member must be a Game Master, while two or more others are Players. In some groups, one of the Players may also be an Adversary or an Arbiter. All of these roles are described in more detail below.


Players control the individual characters that are the heroes (and occasionally villains or victims) in a given game. They take on the role of a character, deciding the actions and behaviors of a single fictional person within the world and events described by the GM. They also put forward ideas about their character and the world, helping the GM to define the setting.

Most people participating in any TRPG are Players. Players have the least responsibility in a game, having to care only for the creation and control of their individual characters (Player’s Characters, or PCs). Players are also, to a lesser degree, responsible for creating a comfortable game environment for all the other players: this means paying attention to other people’s boundaries and not crossing them.

Players have a lot of fun during a game, but they have limited control over the events in a story. If you want to join up with a few friends and enjoy a few hours of imaginary heroism at each game session, and you want to live a vicarious life of adventure, horror, or what have you, then being a Player is your bag. If you would rather have more control over the setting, including all the background characters and world events, and you don’t mind doing the work, then being a GM might be more your speed.

The Game Master (GM)

The GM is the person designated to “run” the game. The GM takes on the role of all the characters in the game that are not controlled by Players – these characters are known as Game Master’s Characters (GMCs). The GM is also responsible for coming up with the conflicts the Player’s characters will face, setting the scene and describing what’s going on in the game that isn’t being described by a Player.

The GM’s job is a tough one. GMs plan out events in a campaign, set up Battle Maps (see Chapter 6: The Art of Conflict), control GMCs, and perform a lot of the behind the scenes work that keeps a game going. At the same time, the GM has to work to keep things more or less fair, and provide challenges for the Players to overcome without developing a “me versus them” mentality.

This role can be daunting, but it can also be fantastically rewarding. If you want to guide the other members of your GG through a story, and if you enjoy seeing others overcome the challenges you set forward, the the GM roll might be right for you. If, on the other hand, you’re seeking the supposed power of the position, and think you might be prone to exploiting it, or you want to play an individual character consistently throughout a given story, you should give the GM role a pass.

The two roles that follow are optional – some groups will benefit from having them, others will not. Whether or not these roles exist in a given group is up to the GM and the individuals who may be tapped to take the roles. If one or both of these roles is not filled by a different individual, all the responsibilities of that role fall back on the GM.

The Adversary

In some groups, especially large ones, the GM may have his hands full running the smaller things and handling the world itself, and may not have the ability to play the “big bads” in a given situation. That’s where the optional role of Adversary comes in. When a GG has one, the Adversary plays the role of major villains in a game, controlling their actions in combat and out. Adding to the challenge, the Adversary is usually also a Player.

An Adversary is essentially an assistant GM, taking on the pleasures and burdens of being the bad guy – or the opposition, or the antagonist, if you like those terms better. The Adversary may also be responsible for actually making the characters for the opposition, if the GM so chooses. Adversaries aren’t needed or even suggested for every game; only in games where an experienced (and mature) player can take on the role, and the GM wants to have someone take it.

Being an Adversary is fun, but it’s also challenging, since Adversaries normally run a PC as well as the Adversary’s Character (AC). Some games will not benefit from having this role filled, and the final decision as to whether or not to have an Adversary is the GM’s. If you don’t mind letting your PC fade into the background occasionally (since it would be bad form for your PC to always win against the AC you also happen to be playing), and you want to relish the chance to be an antagonist every now and again, you should jump at this role when it is offered. If you want your PC to be the hero of his own story, or you can’t let your character fade into the background a bit when you’re going up against a major antagonist, or you don’t want the extra work, this isn’t your thing.

The Arbiter

Sometimes someone in a GG knows the rules better than everyone else – including the GM. In such a case, a GM might decide that the group could benefit from having that person be the Arbiter.

An Arbiter is responsible for keeping track of the rules. If something comes up where some rules mechanic or another is in question, the Arbiter makes the call as to what flies and what doesn’t. Arbiters apply the rules of the game to situations, act as a reference guide for the other members of the GG, and do their best to keep things fair.

Not every GG will have an Arbiter. For some GGs, however, one player or another will naturally fall into the role, and having one can help ease GM – Player tensions by having an impartial judge for the rules of the game.

Being an Arbiter can be difficult, since it means applying the rules in a fair, impartial, and consistent manner. If you love the so-called “crunchy bits” of a system, you know the rules inside and out, and can be fair in their application, being an Arbiter might be something you’d dig. If you’re afraid you might not be able to keep things fair, or you aren’t completely comfortable in your grasp of the rules, then don’t leap at this role if it’s offered.

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2 thoughts on “Roles: An Excerpt

  1. For what it’s worth, it’s sounding like an RPG manual. Though reading it I wonder how we managed to plow through all those games we read as kids. Maybe the right circuits in my head have been blown. I don’t even read game manuals anymore.

    I know. Cullen’s being staggeringly unhelpful. Sorry.

    • Sorry it took me so long to reply. I understand what you mean, though. I personally find it difficult to read rulebooks at times, and I have an undying love for the hobby.
      I’m hoping that, after the initial play testing and into the re-write, I can tone down the stereo-instructions feel of the book, but outlining rules is always going to be a bit dry.

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