“It’s my game” is a phrase often uttered by GMs everywhere, and of this I am by no means innocent. It crossed my lips on many occasions in my younger days, and represents a terrible way of thinking about roleplaying games and the practice of GMing. Today, I want to talk about it and the way games are structured, and about why the phrase should be expunged from our minds.
“It’s my game,” while sometimes used to denote the particular game that someone is playing in, is more often expressed as a kind of ownership on the part of the GM. The implication is usually “It’s my game, so I can do what I want” or “It’s my game, and if you don’t like it, there’s the door,” which of course mean the same thing. There’s also a sentiment of “It’s my game, so you should do what I want,” that pervades the idea. While this can be the hallmark of a god GM, I think that it’s important not to be too hasty with that label. Players have a way of frustrating the GM, and often garner a certain delight from it (myself included). I see this as a cry of frustration, an effort to get things back on track (read the way the GM wants them to be) through authority rather than negotiation (we should really do a a whole series on negotiation, given how much I talk about and appeal to it. Someone remind me). And as I said, there are some deep problems with this sentiment. It’s time for an analogy.
It’s reasonable for a GM to feel ownership. They work really hard at creating new content and adventures each week, no matter what style of GMing they embrace. They own that. It’s the same as if you had to do a presentation each week, putting together slides and a talk, you own that. It’s your presentation. When people asked how you were spending your time, you’d say “I have a presentation to give.” But that’s only one sense in which it’s your presentation. During your presentation, when you’re taking questions and discussing things, you’d never reign in discussion because “It’s my presentation.” It’s petulant, for one thing. While you direct your presentation, you’re simply not in charge of what people talk about or how they react to it.
Similarly, the game is what happens when the GM’s content meets the players’ choices, and that’s not something that belongs to the GM, even if all the content does. It isn’t really clear that it belongs to any one person, because it’s the product of an interaction, not a single person.
But maybe that’s the wrong way of thinking about it. Maybe “It’s my game” because as the GM, I make all the big decisions about it. I’m the head honcho, like in a business. But if it is a business, it’s a small one, and in a business of any size, the person at the top doesn’t make decisions in a vacuum. They have a responsibility to the company to make decisions in its interest, not in theirs. They’re responsible to the people who work for them, and to the success of their enterprise. The CEO that says “It’s my company, and I’ll do what I want” isn’t someone who’s going to stay CEO for long, unless what they want is so staggeringly innovative that it changes the game entirely (new post idea, “You are not the Steve Jobs of GMing, and neither am I”? Naah).
So there’s powerful reasons for why it’s the wrong way to think about a game, but neither of those are the most important reason why the phrase should never be uttered. This is: it kills the players’ sense of ownership. All that work you do in getting them to own their actions and engage with the setting, you just set it on fire. It’s not their game. You said as much. The phrase doesn’t just disregard all the work that they’ve put in to characters, strategy, and interactions, it dismisses it.
Ultimately, it’s not your game. Not in the sense that you own it, any more than a song you play with your band is your song, or a cake that you bake with your spouse is your cake. Seriously. bake a cake with your spouse, and then turn to them and say “This is MY cake.” I double dog dare you. Don’t actually, because it’s a bad idea. That’s the best example, really. You’re not inviting your players over to enjoy some fine dinner that you’ve prepared for them, you’re inviting them over to bake a delicious dungeoneering cake together. Even though you provide the ingredients, at the end, the cake doesn’t belong to just you, it belongs to everyone involved. Share it.