Game Mastery as Hospitality

 So I recall something I once heard about hospitality as folk art. Essentially, the story goes like this. During a point in time in American history, there were precious few women artists in the records. Scholar's scratched their heads at the lack of women being represented in the arts until one scholar found something really interesting: women's artistic expression was very abundant, just not in the ways which we usually think have a place in the museum, but rather in the home. 

Women had been actively and vigorously engaged in the folk art of hospitality. Home decor, food, quilts, blankets, hand-knit clothing, all things that only might show up for a moment or be kept as treasured artifacts for generations. There are two ways that we might see this: that art and art scholarship is sexist, or we might think of it another way: that this subtle art of women was too valuable to be put in old museums where it could not be used and loved.

So we might call this post Game Mastery as Hospitality as Folk Art.

So often, our focus when we talk about Game Mastery is how do we run specific games. People want to run 5e or Pathfinder or OSR games or what have you. But I think we need to widen our scope a little. Almost everyone in the OSR sphere has their own personal system, and if it not their whole-cloth system then they almost certainly have house-rules. In my last theory post, I talked about how each instance of Play cannot be replicated. I would also say that each Game Master is completely distinct and the way they run games is very distinct even when they are running the same ruleset. We live in kind of a tiered world at the moment. Game Designers are our highest on the totem pole, below them the Game Masters, and below them the Players. I say that Design is in anyone's hands and that anyone can GM. 

But, let's be honest, Game Mastery is something only a certain amount of people will do. Most people want to play or don't have the temperament to Game Master. That, to me, is just a recognition of reality. Even fewer people will actually go so far as to design and publish their own game. This reality, I think makes some people think that Design is this unreachable thing, and thus the gap between the Designers and the Game Masters persists. However, I'd say that this is mostly an artificial gap. 

Game Masters who are consistently building their own worlds will inevitably be Designing in one way or another, but they call their stuff homebrew while the Wizard of the Coast's stuff is "official." When I first saw someone say that they were running a "homebrew campaign" I did a double-take. I thought: "Do they mean they are running the game with their own system?" Nope. They just meant they were writing their own campaign material.

I can accept the utility of a term like "homebrew" for saying that someone has made something themselves and added it into a game system, but I see absolutely no reason to use "homebrew" to describe someone's own campaign. I don't even really see how you truly run your campaign entirely using "official" stuff. Once again, surely everything is a little bit "homebrew," then, right?

And that is where the truth comes in: Game Masters are not homebrewers, they are Designers, and they are more. The Game Master is engaged in the Folk Art of Hospitality.

I think Hospitality is a good way to describe Game Mastery for many reasons:

  • The GM's job is to make sure everyone is enjoying themselves.
  • The GM's product is the labor of their own individual artistic expression.
  • The GM's art is really only seen in products that are mainly useful in the moment.
  • GMing is usually passed down from generation to generation. One mentoring another.
These are all statements that I would say are also truthful about Hospitality, but viewing Game Mastery as Hospitality is not only descriptive but I would also say it ought to change the way we view the art.

For one, let's just freaking throw out the term "homebrew." It ought to be ubiquitous that your art is your own personal expression. GM's should embrace making their own systems that work best for them and their table or feel comfortable kind of throwing the rules out. You play with the GM because you like the way they run the game, not their rules. So long as the GM is abiding by principles that make things fun for everyone, why the need to codify everything? We might demand GM's write down their knowledge in tomes like begging Grandma for a recipe book, but that can happen later. In the moment, the game should flow, not from some book, but from the GM where it swirls around through the players to resolve itself as beautiful, ephemeral Play and recorded mostly as good memories just like Grandma's cookies.

Let every table be different, let every GM run their own unique system and present their own worlds. Let it be genuine and creative rather than relying on these corporate edifices to do what we can do for ourselves. If you don't like the way a GM runs, find another! Or do it yourself! We can use these published systems but let us not treat them as sacrosanct! They are cookbooks in Grandma's library. They are tools for us to use to flavor our own output, and, just as most Grandma's probably do, these books ought to be perfectly expected to be full of our own notes and alterations.

The idea of Game Mastery as Hospitality also shifts the focus of the GM away from telling their story to "hosting" their players. They ought to be empowered to make their own decisions and to have their own fun. You maintain and build your personal world and then you make sure they enjoy themselves during their visit.

To conclude: 
  • GM over system
  • GM's art is their own artistic expression
  • GMing should be about "hosting" the players: helping them enjoy themselves


  1. I think the GM as host model is a good one. I would also agree that as soon as a GM homebrews they take on parts of the designer role. I wonder is perhaps a three circle Venn diagram of player/GM/designer better than a heirarchy? Similar to music with audience, musicians and composers - they are all necessary, any two without the others is not going to work.

    1. I mean, in reality, there will be people that fit primarily into one of the three roles. That is clear. I do think, however, that people feel like GMs and Players can easily take on both roles, but a lot of regular GMs and Players don't feel like they could be Designers which seems to me to be false, considering they probably have done some kind of design already

  2. I really like this train of thought. Though recognizing a GM as creating art to provide hospitality makes me even sadder about times when I want to GM and no one wants to play.

    1. Aww don't feel bad! Grandma tinkered around plenty all on her own before anyone else ever got to saw what she had done. It is "at its core" a personal outpouring. Also, hit me up if you need players! I'd be happy to play!

  3. GM as the host, I absolutely get especially when the GM hosts the game at their home. Game mastering as folk art? Sure, when using the definition as 'utility' rather than 'exclusively decorative.' But for me personally, I think the facilitation part of the GM's job is the most important. In that way, you can think of the GM as being the host of a party and ensuring that everyone meets everyone else and has a good time. But the players have their role to play also. Unlike guests who are almost obligated to enjoy themselves and express their appreciation to the host, players must actively play well or the experience falls flat. So I think your idea of hospitality/folk art is in interesting analogy but like all metaphors can only be taken so far.

    1. I'd say that hospitality applies to hosts and guests. I think being "good guests" in a game context means being actively engaged in the game like if you were going to someone's house for a book club or a game night. They might have the responsibility to host you and make you comfortable, but still everyone's fun depends on how much each person engages.

  4. I like it. One difference for me is I used to go to my players' homes to run games. The only thing I could think of that was similar was something like a baby shower: a good friend comes to your place, has a lot of little mini-games prepared to amuse folks, they do their best to keep everyone involved having a good time, and the game itself isn't the point-- but our fun time together. It is also special, an event. But I like your metaphor for a lot of reasons, the comparison to being a host and preparing for visitors and making people feel welcome. Thank you.


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