Today’s RPGaDay2021 prompt is “Throne” (though inclusivity would have been fun to write about as well). Though it would have been easy to write about campaigns involvings royalty or players questing to gain a throne for themselves, I think that for today’s prompt I’ll take it metaphorically and use it to talk about the position of the host in RPGs.
To start with, I’ll have to say that it’s a little odd that I use the term “host” for somebody who leads a gaming session. The most traditional word for that role is “Dungeon Master”, as it originates from the first Dungeons & Dragons by TSR. Interestingly enough, that term is actually trademarked by Wizards of the Coast, which means that other games have had to get creative. The World of Darkess RPG uses “Storyteller”, Apocalypse World games go by “MC”, and Burning Wheel uses “GM”, to name but a few examples. Others find a loophole by terming the host “DM” as an acronym without meaning; “Dungeon Master” may be trademarked, but “DM” is not. Clearly, there’s plenty of terms already for the role that one person in the group holds that differs from the others. I choose to use the term “host” because to me that emphasizes a core element of the role: making people feel welcome, at home, and comfortable.
The term “Dungeon Master” has antagonistic connotations to it. The players control specifically characters, whereas the Dungeon Master controls, well, the dungeon. It seems limitative in its scope: the DM is there to populate a dungeon, which is a set of combat challenges, and that’s it. Similarly, the Storyteller of World of Darkness RPG seems distant from the players. The term would imply that the story is independent of the players, existing by virtue of the Storyteller alone, and the players are invited into the story. The MC, or Master of Ceremonies, seems a nicer fit. It acknowledges that everybody is taking part in the occasion together, as is common in a ceremony (even guests to a wedding play a role in it, for example), though there will always be somebody who makes sure that everybody goes through all the steps (such as a wedding officiant, to keep with the example).
I want to see the person leading an RPG session to not be ruling over it like a monarch (see? I tied that “Throne” prompt into there!). While the person leading the session does end up making some final calls on what happens and what doesn’t, their executive power in that regard isn’t the defining point of the role. Rather, they are an arbiter in the true sense of the word (there’s a reason why the word “arbitrary” is derived from the word “arbiter”)—leading an RPG session is an anarcho-socialist move, as a group of people chooses to accept the ruling of one of its members solely because that person is the one stepping up to do the extra preparatory work for the others. That’s why the term “host” to me emphasizes more what it is that you’re actually doing. You’re there to help set the stage for something that the group as a whole has agreed to do as a team. The person leading the RPG is simply a primus inter pares for the group for as long as the group wishes that to be so. I guess if I’d ever write an RPG, “PIP” would be a nice name for the host!
Not to diminish the role of a player in an RPG, after all they’re also out there every session acting along with the rest of the group, but every player has to focus mostly on how their character responds to the world. The host of a session, on the other hand, has to handle everything outside of the characters. I’ve had times as a player where I haven’t felt good, was tired, or just didn’t feel like it, so I could just phone it in. I’d sit there, respond, and participate, but it was all low-key. The host of a session, though, has to be on stage all the time. All this is to say, I really appreciate the people I know who host games that I’ve played it. It’s a lot of work to do, and while it is a hobby, it’s still an investment to make. So, a big thank-you to the hosts out there!