The tactical GM crafts many combat encounters, arranges miniatures on a battle mat, and tells short-burst stories that they weave into an arcing storyline with character progression. They also often follow the early D&D trope that as characters become more powerful the game morphs into a tactical army game rather than tactical game involving player characters.
The storytelling GM crafts a game world, arranging civilizations poised at the precipice of conflict. They craft intrigue and mystery, and spend a lot of time worrying about character motivations rather than a character's combat ability. The encounters come as they come, some combat will inevitably occur as the game proceeds toward final (often global) conflict and resolution.
These are generalizations and there is a lot of cross over, and I'm certainly not saying one is better than the other.
Both types of GMs (the best of them anyway) let the players make all of the decisions about where to go and how to handle any encounter that they stumble into. Both try to craft adventures that are challenging (potentially involving intrigue, mysteries, tactical combat, puzzles, riddles, etc..) and are fun for the GM as well as the players.
I met a third type of GM recently, and he nearly shattered my two styles theory and certainly changed the way I see role-playing games. He told me:
"The only thing that matters is what [the player chooses] to do... The story isn't something that play is focused on developing. When the unconnected events are related later they [might] take the form of one... [but that's not the GM's concern]."He also implied that by making decisions about the game world I'm making advanced rulings on what can and cannot happen in the game, taking those choices away from the player. In his mind, a GM's job is only to adjudicate the player's choices, not to create or run a story (either in the form of encounters or on a grander scale).
This GM has himself taken a tumble down the "making decisions about the game world that limit the players' choices" slippery slope by deciding what monsters will populate his dungeon, what traps he'll install there, and what treasure resides there.
How is the GM who creates kingdoms with rich governmental structures, trade routes, and deep interpersonal relationships between NPCs any different from the GM who populates a dungeon? How is a GM that designs the crises that befall a character who tries to interject him or herself into those interpersonal relationships any different from the GM who decides what kind of trap to put on a chest? The scope or setting changes slightly, but nothing else.
Most of all, what is wrong with telling a story if that's what your players want? Why is telling a story through the medium of a game setting a faux pas? They are, after-all, called role-playing games.
Let me break that down.
Game: A form of play, played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck.
Playing: Engaged in activity for enjoyment and recreation.
Role: A character assumed for a play, movie, or (in this case) game.
A game in which you are playing a role. But, he was telling me that all that matters are the decisions that the player makes (not even the player as a character, or the character as a member of a group. The player alone, no role necessary).
The problem I have with this type of GM is precisely that this style of play necessarily prizes player skill over role-playing. He insists on calling his hobby role-playing, but despises the very process. I'm not asking him to stop what he's doing (and ostensibly enjoying), but I'd love to see a different name applied to it.
I would call him an "old-school gamer". Not as a slur, just an observation of a genre of gaming that is currently making a resurgence. These old-school games often contain only trace amounts of role-playing (i.e. If your character is an elf then your 'role' is simply to make use of your character's Infravision and can Detect Secret Doors abilities). "Now, grab your ten foot pole and your mirror, roll up some hirelings, and let's clear out this dungeon."
Please remember that when you are at your gaming table and I'm at mine we should feel free to do what we and our players enjoy. Whether we're telling a story or not let's avoid telling people they are "doing it wrong" just because they enjoy rolling more or fewer dice than you do, prefer intrigue over combat, or prize player skill over role-playing ability.
However, this GM managed to offend me mightily by implying that I'm a bad GM for telling a story while running a game, and I ask for your forgiveness for the following micro-rant that breaks my own rules about friendliness and tolerance.
"You can keep your no story-telling allowed, no role-playing desired old-school game. I want to part of it. I ran those kind of games when I was 16, and my players and I outgrew them."As a GM I happen to enjoy telling an interesting story and challenging my players' skills (both tactically and their role-playing ability), and as a player I want to take on new and exciting roles to help me learn what I can from experiencing the game world in their skin.