Gamemasters, what do you really think about your players? And players, how do you feel your gamemaster actually thinks about you? The assumptions about players that a GM brings to the table can up the level of awesome and make the game more fun for everyone, or it can make the game a tedious chore and a total buzzkill. What it all ultimately boils down to is a matter of trust. Does the gamemaster trust his or her players?
Assumption 1: Players cheat. All die rolls, from character creation to in-game play, need to be made in the open and witnessed. In some cases, the gamemaster might need to make some or all of the rolls. Every ability the character has much be documented in an approved rulebook, where the GM can see what it does and how it does it. All power ultimately resides in the hands of the GM.
Assumption 2: Players are creative and collaborative. They can be trusted to make decisions and do things without the GM hanging over their shoulder all the time. If they fudge things once in a while its going to be in favor of the story — just like the GM will fudge things once in a while. They can make up new abilities within guidelines, and can work with the GM and other players on interpreting things. The GM is just another member of the team.
Why This Matters: You can probably look at the above and pick out systems you like or dislike and which fits into what philosophy. You can probably categorize styles of play as being one or the other. And it’s true, some games lean more in one direction than the other, and some philosophies of play are based more on one assumption than the other. Yet a gamemaster can come in and push a game more deeply either way. It may work, but it may not.
First, the GM’s assumptions need to fit the game. If a GM brings Assumption 1 to a game of Fate or Risus, where the players are making up their own Aspects and Cliches and largely defining what they do and how they’re used, it could be a disaster. Yes, the GM gets a say and can reign in abuses of the creative freedoms imparted by those systems, but it is still a say, not the say. Allow the player to do it, but set some limitations, add in consequences, and make the die rolls for success appropriately difficult.
Second, the assumptions on the gamemaster’s part might not reflect the actual behaviors of the players. For new players there might be a need for more structure and GM control. Those players might also feel pinned in by strict interpretations of the rules, especially if they want to do something not clearly and concretely covered in the rulebook. Some players like knowing with certainty how an ability is defined and how they can use it.
Ultimately, the GM needs to be able to adapt his or her style to suit the reality of the table. My suggestion is to adopt Assumption 2 as the default position, and retreat to Assumption 1 as needed. Even then, it should be in the contexct of Assumption 2, that the GM can and will assume control only to guide the player and nurture them until they are able to take on a more collaborative, creative role on their own.