When I was first playing Traveller, Dungeons & Dragons, Star Frontiers, and Rolemaster – the primary games we played together back in the early to mid 1980s – the expectations on the GM were lower than they are today.
Back then, we turned up and the GM ran the game as best as they knew how. By 1989, when I left home and went to University, the GM was using some miniatures and dungeon floor plan sections to help visualise the combat scenes… and everything else was verbal and conjured in the imagination by description. But the minis were a rare thing, really.
Today, as a GM playing on an online VTT, the expectations feel like they are vastly increased. Groups who enjoy using digital battle maps expect the GM to beautifully render their dungeons in high-quality and add visual effects, such as animated tokens and dynamic lighting. On top of this, many gamers expect the GM to voice act the NPCs and produce many other visual aids to help bring to life the campaign.
Players expect to see maps that I rarely ever saw back at the beginning. The idea of the players seeing a beautifully-drawn “poetic” map of the campaign world would have seemed laughable. We were lucky to have a pencil sketch of the immediate situation with a rough indication of distances. Where the GM used commercially available maps – such as the interior map of the starship in Star Frontiers‘ introductory adventure, “Crash on Volturnus” – we were aware that this was a luxurious exception.
While I think it’s wonderful that enterprising GMs who have the digital drawing skills have led the way in producing stunning props for their groups, the pressure on mere mortals like me has felt crushing. Over the years, I have commissioned maps and artwork to grace my tables with colour and beauty but in the grand scheme it rarely seems worth the effort when players brush it off as barely meeting their expectations.
I feel that the pursuit of roleplaying has, over time, become less accessible to anyone who doesn’t have the means to make or purchase a large collection of digital artwork. If you want to make your own world map for the setting of your own design, it’s on you to learn to use highly time-consuming apps or pay for a professional to render things for you. You suffer by comparison if you don’t.
In some circles, the appeal to the “Theatre of The Mind” is met with barely-concealed scorn and the complaint that you cannot expect all players to picture the scene without an actual image to reference is common. Of course, as with all things, this is not universal by any means… but the expectations of players do often seem very unrealistic.
The solution is to talk to players and help them to have more realistic expectations.
For me, given my professional and personal commitments, these kinds of expectations are not realistic. I don’t have the inclination to learn to use graphical tools long enough, with enough of an investment of time, to gain the skills needed to deliver. It’s simply not my forte, not my strength. But I have punished myself for not meeting these expectations for years. That has been a self-inflicted wound from which I am still recovering.
I sometimes feel that, as a GM, I am being pushed out of the enjoyment of roleplaying games by this incessant drive to be more than simply the guy who makes up a cool adventure, roleplays the NPCs (without necessarily doing voice or actual acting), and adjudicates the game rules. I suspect that a big driver for my own desire to ditch VTTs and bring things back to real dice, real character sheets, and deeper description has been a reaction to this trend for “more visuals, please!”
But of course, the reality is that when I feel this way I am accepting the premise of the expectations around me. I need to offer what I believe is enough for a good game. If players don’t like that, I guess they will vote with their feet. As culture changes, GMs like me are perhaps left behind and that’s perhaps simply the way of things.