Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends
We’re so glad you could attend, come inside, come inside
Emerson, Lake and Palmer – Karn Evil 9 (1st Impression Pt. 2)

When you get tagged as your groups resident Game Master, you often get the “Hey, what are you running next?” question. While its good to get lots of practice and mastery at the Game Mastering craft, its also good to sit on the other side of the screen every so often. Here’s why.

1. It always feels different on the other side of the screen.
We forget that GMs often have the big picture and that things are more evident. LIke a movie audience we see the things going on that the players don’t.  Too much time spent like this and you start to forget that those clues aren’t going to be evident to your players or that they’re not going to be on the lookout for the ambush because its so obvious. Oh well, they should have rolled spot checks, it was a dark wood and hard to see in. They should have been on their guard. Oh wait, you forgot to describe the wood as dark and hard to see in. That’s why they didn’t light torches…Players only have a flashlight, and thus are more prone to miss things. As the Game Master, you’ve got your 150 watt bulb and can tend to be blinded by it.

2. GMing is fun, but its nothing like playing.
NPC actions always have a purpose for the greater good of the story. Character actions only focus on the character, and his goal. They aren’t forced or required. While some of us enjoy the art of creating a world more than playing, playing is still less stressful, less work and tends to be more immediately satisfying. Its good to get that little break and prevent GM burnout. If you think of the GM/Player relationship as one of movie maker/movie goer, then you can understand how rewarding it is to make a great movie, but also how enjoyable it is to just sit back, watch and get inspired by someone elses work.

3. Playing makes us less limiting as GMs.
As I was playing in a friend’s game, I realized that there were places where I totally wanted things to just go my way. I didn’t want to lose the speech challenge with the head of the security force,  I wanted to be cool and talk my way past this obviously scripted combat. As GMs we try to keep a sense of challenge and difficulty, but as players we try to make our characters into the people that we want them to be. Character failure is inevitable, and it shouldn’t be dismissed, but there are certain areas where characters should just come out awesome. It’s a lot harder for GMs to see that when they haven’t played for a while. We feel like the player’s enjoyment is tied up in the twists and turns of the plot, the overcoming of the obstacles in pre-defined ways and the reaching of certain waypoints at exactly the right time. Really, the players want to have fun, and they tell you, in oh so subtle mannerisms, when they aren’t. If you spend some time as a player you can pick up on your own mannerisms, and then on theirs.

4. Someone else gets to try out the GM’s seat.
People who get good at GMing are often stuck GMing. I was my group’s defacto GM until I got some other people interested in running their own games. In some of these attempts the game often got handed off to me to complete, after they burned out, in some of the attempts the new GM took the reigns and ran for a looong time. No matter how it goes, getting the players to try something different helps the entire group.  They learn about what it takes to GM, they pick up on new skills and you get to play for a while. One thing I’ve noticed about groups with lots of GMs in them is that they tend to be more experimental and open to new game types.

5. Most importantly, it reminds us that the Game is actually there for the players, but that GMs are players too.
If you’re an experienced GM and you get to watch a noob GM step up to the plate, you realize that there are things you could be doing, as a GM, for your players fun, and that there are things they could be doing for your fun. If you let them pull off more things, they might get into your story more, because they feel they have more of a hand in it.  When it comes down to it, GMs are players too, and its the fun of the people at the table, and not their roles that is important.

So, long term GMs, when was the last time you played?  Does your group switch out every so often? What other lessons have you got from switching sides of the screen?

10 replies
  1. LesInk
    LesInk says:

    I know this is going to sound egotistical, but maybe it is. I played recently and realized that someone else in the group really CAN do a good job of GMing. Being the GM for too long can sometimes warp your mind into thinking you are “the only one”. It’s a bit humbling, but perhaps that was a good sign that I needed a break and to enjoy the fruits of someone elses creative mind’s eye.

  2. The_Gun_Nut
    The_Gun_Nut says:

    Every two weeks I run my custom psionics campaign (which I worked on, on and off, for about three years) for a very satisfying release (it’s done!). Every other week I’m PLAYING Exalted. There are things my friend running Exalted does that are obvious to me as a GM, and some things that are not. For some of it I just want to point out what’s going on, but then I get surprised because it’s not my game. The 150 watt lamp/flashlight analogy is pretty spot on, and I sometimes forget which one I’m carrying. It’s great to get out from behind the screen and just focus on one character.

  3. Kameron
    Kameron says:

    I just started playing in a new 4E game. This is perhaps only the third or fourth time I’ve been a player in my 25 years of gaming, and the first time it will (hopefully) last longer than a couple sessions. I’m really interested in seeing how another GM does things, and what I might learn. Like LesInk, I’ll admit to a somewhat inflated opinion of my GMing skills due to the length of time I’ve spent behind the screen. 😉

  4. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    @LesInk & @Kameron – You’re definitely both right. The more time spent as the sole GM of the group, the more inflated a sense of your own Game Mastering skills you get. Everytime I get someone else in my group to step up to the GM’s plate, I have to restrain myself from giving advice on the way I would do it. Sometimes they ask for it, but I think it is generally better to let a person forge their own path. I always love it when my players try GMing, and it is generally the time when I learn the most about GMing.

    @The_Gun_Nut – It’s always interesting to move from GM to player and have a different Genre/game style being played. I was running an Eberron 3.5 game, then it moved to one buddy running a Star Wars west end and then an old school W.o.D. game. Major shifts in thinking had to be done.

    The 150 watt vs flashlight is one of the best analogies that I’ve ever heard ala GMing, and its all thanks to Martin.

  5. Cole
    Cole says:

    Joining in as player is a great learning experience. I remember this one GM that really did a great job at describing the world we were in. He didn’t use any setting, mostly because he had such a fertile mind. I think a setting would actually limit what he could do. I could see everything in the world though his words. It was an amazing experience.

    That lasted only one session, but it was enough to teach me a lot about how to describe the world on my campaigns.

  6. Rafe
    Rafe says:

    I GM Burning Wheel and play in a D&D 4e game and a Mouse Guard game. The funny thing is that, yes, I gain a different perspective, but I actually enjoy GMing more.

    However, that wouldn’t be true for D&D or Mouse Guard. I just love the role that GMs play in Burning Wheel. I don’t want to direct everything, do hours of prep, be the proactive one or guess if people will be engaged. I want to facilitate fun for the players but want them to drive things. I’ll complicate situations and keep them happy by banging away on the facets I know about them (Beliefs and Instincts).

  7. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    @Cole – Did he not use any setting at all, or not use a setting that was pre-made? I know a lot of GMs who will start adding details on the fly, but have an idea of the setting beforehand. Description has always been a tricky point for me. I either want to flood description to immerse, or rely on outside examples and pictures, then let my players minds do the rest. I also try to ask them to describe some of the setting as well. “How do you see this dungeon?”, after I’ve given a general feel.

    @Rafe – The way you GM is the way I generally GM. I think some prep has to be done, but no plan survives implementation, so why try to reign it all in. Let the game write itself at the table, incorporate player flags and work with what is going on right in front of you.

  8. Scott Martin
    Scott Martin says:

    I’m lucky to be one GM in a group of several, in both groups that I play in. In my home group, we’re just starting up a Serenity game run by a player that we’ll play every other week beside our current 3.5 game that I’m leading.

    I’m very excited about character and concept– it’s a good feeling. That rush when you’re sifting character possibilities is wonderful… and easy to forget from the other side of the screen.

  9. Rafe
    Rafe says:

    @John Arcadian – Yeah, because it’s Burning Wheel, I generally come to the table with a list of their Beliefs and Instincts (with some ideas maybe jotted down on how to challenge them), an NPC or two (if they’re needed) and off we go.

    Due to the nature of the game (which you and other Gnomes may already know), players have tonnes of control over the fiction: They can introduce and name NPCs (successful Circles test and they say “There’s an old man by the name of Rilan who is a former army scout who lives on this mountain”) or shape the world and story by using a ‘wise’ skill (Rumor-wise: “I’ve heard that a man by the name of Gilrige is buying up merchant debts in the Warrens and his debtors are feeling uneasy…”). I freakin’ love it.

    Back on topic: I totally agree it’s tough to refrain from giving advice or whatnot. Some games encourage that (as I wrote about just above) but others are more “behind the screen.” I’m lucky in that I have not one but two former GMs in my BW game and they let me make mistakes, etc. They really embrace being players and not backseat GMs, so kudos. Having been there myself… it’s sometimes tough not to open my trap. 🙂

  10. ben robbins
    ben robbins says:

    This is spot on. Nothing will highlight your own bad GMing habits than watching your players GM. Seriously.

    We started a Run Club, and it while it was sometimes tragic to behold, it blossomed into more GMs and much better gaming all around. As the former de facto GM, I can’t begin to tell you how educational it was.

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