GM Ethics

As adjudicators of outcomes and interactions, GMs tend to be viewed as having more power than other players. Originally the GM was held to be the master of the game, as stated by E. Gary Gygax in a 2004 interview. I prefer to think of myself as a moderator rather than a master, working with the other players rather than being in charge in some kind of authoritative way, but regardless of what view you hold on the exact role of the GM, it seems reasonable to think that as an adjudicator, they incur certain ethical obligations to the other players. I want to spend some time on what I think these are, and provide some arguments not just for why honouring these obligations makes the game more fun, but why it is necessary to do so.

To start though, I have to do some groundwork in order to establish what I’m talking about when I refer to things as ethical. It could mean a lot of different things after all, and it’s not constructive for anyone if I just sit here and rant about how other people are doing it wrong without justifying it. Right now I want to define some key terms which are going to come up a lot.

  • Stakeholder: Anyone whose interests would be affected by an action holds a stake in that action in some way. The agent has an obligation to hold the interests of a stakeholder as a relevant consideration for that action by virtue of their having a stake in it. For example, a corporation has obligations to its shareholders who have invested in it, but also to its employees, suppliers, and customers, each of whom is a stakeholder in some way. To be clear, you are a stakeholder in your own actions, though you may not have the greatest stake.
  • Interests: We can call it concern, or utility, but either way if an action affects our interests, it either promotes them or frustrates them. Interests are what matter to us, the things which we seek out.
  • Best Practice: This is the standard by which we’re going to measure things. Imagine the best possible practices to have, and then evaluate an action or policy on how close it gets to that ideal practice. For our use, a best practice is going to be one that best takes into account the interests of all stakeholders.
  • Justification: One of the things these terms have in common is that they all require justification. We need to be able to explain why someone is a stakeholder, how their interests are affected, and why a particular practice is better than another one.

With that out of the way, I assert that players are stakeholders. Everyone involved in a game has a stake in it. Nathan Fillion has no stake in my D&D game, as it has no way of affecting his interests. The partners of myself and my players do, because they can be affected in ways (such as the time that the game occupies). Players have a stake in the choices they make in the game, as those choices are their only method of affecting or interacting with it. Whether those choices are about how they use the ruleset, what their characters do, or simply whether or not they attend a session, their interests are affected.

As an adjudicator, the GM has a large stake in the game, but the players have a larger one in the actions of the GM. The GM role is necessarily an exercise in power, and as such the GM incurs an obligation to exercise that power ethically, that is to say in accordance with best practice. The players, having considerably less say in the goings on of the game (they act on the game world through a single agent, whereas the GM has a potentially infinite number), have their interests affected greatly by the actions of the GM, in the same way that my nieces have their interests affected greatly when I exercise power over them, whether that’s to keep them from endangering themselves or simply making sure they get to bed on time. They depend on me, and players depend on their GM to undertake the responsibilities assigned to the GM by the structure of the game.

I think that’s it for today. I hope I’ve managed to sufficiently make a case for what the terms mean and why they’re relevant, why players are stakeholders, and what the balance of stakes (and thus obligations) are in GM decisions. If you feel that I’ve been unclear, or that it doesn’t follow, let me know in the comments below. Thanks!

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  1. […] Last week I laid out some terminology and some ideas that I want to use to explore the kinds of ethical obligations we have to each other around the gaming table. Specifically the relation between the GM and the players, but a lot of this is also applicable to the relations between players as well. I established how the players are stakeholders, and why they have a larger stake in the actions of the GM, because the GM can affect their interests in a more powerful way. This week I want to expand on that and talk about fairness, specifically fairness in principle. Why is it important to be fair, and what does it mean to talk about fairness? So what’s fairness? When I think of fairness, I think of three things: impartiality, consistency, and following the rules. If we think of the GM as a croupier at an honest craps table, we can see this. It’s not just the croupier’s job to make sure all of the players are rolling fairly, but also to ensure that they themselves aren’t influencing the results. If the croupier changes the results, we think of them as a cheater in the same way that we would a player using loaded dice. It’s the croupier’s job to be impartial not just between players, but between themselves and the players, because a table that openly favours the house isn’t a fair one. It’s a croupier’s job to be consistent in their decisions, for much the same reason. And croupiers don’t just enforce the rules, they obey them. In essence, they’re responsible for making sure that it’s a fair game. […]

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