Why GMs Should Play Too

If you have encountered people in leadership roles, you will no doubt notice a difference between the ones who have done the job of the ones who they are leading, and the ones who haven’t. For GMs and players, its very much the same. I find that the journey from Player to GM, back to Player or vice versa tends to show in a person’s actions at the RPG table, whether they have consciously determined to learn lessons or not. But, I don’t think being a Forever GM does you any favours – the same as a director who has never acted – and since I have been a Player in a campaign for real recently, here are some things that I’ve picked up on to improve the way I GM.

Teamwork is a thing

Every time we enter a combat encounter in our campaign, I feel like I am playing XCOM – but in this version I only control one of the squad instead of all 4; the other 3 are controlled by other players; and there are varying amounts of enthusiasm to play the mission efficiently, narratively accurately, or just the way that is most fun. I think most players are in the Venn diagram of those three variables somewhere, but what the GM doesn’t really notice is how difficult it makes the encounters on top of whatever the enemies actually are.

This becomes apparent when there are a lot more enemies than PCs, and the action economy insists that Players use their turns very efficiently. Mostly because of my time as a GM I already read encounters in a different way, so I have a good guess at the most efficient path forward, but I also don’t want to be That Guy and tell everyone else what to do. The balancing act of any social game comes into play as you want to help others, but not overstep and ruin the fun. You see the way forward, but you don’t want to hog the limelight as you naturally can as GM. You want the party to act like their characters in combat as well as out, but you can only focus on your own character and hope they follow suit.

Relying on others is hard, and we have to do it all the time and sometimes it can be exhausting and not worth it. My character has big points in social skills and psychic powers making them the de facto skills monkey – my niche is well and truly carved out – but it still takes patience to let the other Players take the fun option rather than the smart one in their own areas. No, don’t worry about that large swarm of enemies I can’t deal with, if you want to heal up those wounds instead, have at it. They’ll hit you again next turn and we’ll be back to square one but that’s fine!

The GM is blessed and also cursed for they are on their own side, and no-one else’s. But that means that they do not have to utilise effective teamwork, probably the trickiest skill to learn in the hobby.

The highs and lows of a session

For the GM, the whole session is their stage time. Maybe, on occasion, Players will chat to each other and you will have a few minutes to check notes, but at every other moment, you need to be talking, listening, or watching. I am used to this, and I enjoy this. Having less than a quarter of the stage time as a Player is…disappointing. I always strive to stretch out the time the lights are on my character so they can do all the cool things I’ve thought of between sessions, or that pop into my head. To reveal a bit of character development here, a bit of backstory flavour there. Some inter-party banter, perhaps. But I keep it to a limit, and will sit back and let others take the centre for a bit. And this is something GMs never experience.

I always knew splitting the party was not recommended, but know I now why. I also know how to make it bearable, at least. It needs to be engaging entertainment for the other players, which means having things that they’re invested in at stake. You also need to keep it short, and punchy. I spoke to the GM beforehand to tell him what I thought would be a cool scene with my character, and he agreed, and it didn’t need to be more than fifteen minutes, but the other players enjoyed it too. I am a fan of vignettes and cut-aways and flashbacks to add more story to a campaign that the players can either take part in or watch, and because its just that scene, its punchy and only lasts as long as it needs.

Being within the party helps you notice what is engaging, and what makes you think now is a good time to browse Amazon for that electric toothbrush you’ve been meaning to get in another tab. But sometimes its person-specific, sometimes its time-specific, and maybe its just unavoidable game admin or lull. You can’t please everyone all of the time, and its the same with RPGs. However you can smooth out the variance by sitting on the other side of the table once in a while.

Player focus or lack thereof

I touched on player engagement in the last paragraph, but it warrants its own section just because it does not end at the table, and keeping players engaged and excited for the campaign is an ongoing GM task.

It begins as soon as you invite the players to join the game, and setting introduction and character creation begins. As we’ve already mentioned, Players are all different (!) and so require different amounts of help or direction from the GM outside the game. An example would be having a certain trait or characteristic that your character concept revolves around, and making sure that is able to be engaged with in the campaign. Another example is something that I like to do: remind Players that in a longer campaign, they may want to allow room for their characters to change and develop into something else! These things keep Players engaged especially with the mechanics of their character progression, and therefore with the game when not at the table.

This is to say that, its important to find out what is motivating your players (if there is indeed anything). If you are playing in a campaign where you cannot engage in the way that you want to, then something has gone wrong in the session 0, you or the GM have misinterpreted, or your GM is being a dick. Some Players are happy to be the supporting character who only gets out the tavern when their big hammer is needed, but the majority probably want something out of it; some fantasy to be realised. Players can help themselves of course by throwing everything they can at the GM until something sticks, which is precisely what I have done. But if they don’t, GMs should be prepared to reach out and coax something from their Players as it takes a knowledgeable and seasoned Player to know exactly what they want, and how to get it.

I prefer being a GM and that is tied in with my need to have more than three hours a week out of this hobby, but being a Player certainly has its own challenges and its easy to think the GM has the only hard role – being a Player is full of limitations and glass ceilings that GMs don’t notice, and you only do so when you take a turn in one of the other seats. Conversely, Players who have never GM’d will not see the world beyond what they know, and having a GMPC in their midst will blow open their perceptions on the role of a PC, as ex-GMs skip along that fine line between meta-gaming and narrative to maximum effect. Although as I mentioned earlier – and I shall leave you with this – if you do join your Players on their side to torment a poor new GM, do try not to be a massive show off.

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