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How to Teach a GM to be a Player?

Okay, first off, I’d like to explain the question mark in the title. One: it’s one of the requirements of the articles here on En World. Two: it’s because even I don’t know how to do this. Okay, you can read the article now.

I think we can safely assume most GMs know ‘how’ to be a player. The real challenge is getting them to actually do so ‘properly’. Due to wielding ultimate power, most GMs have a hard time adjusting to the role of player. While they might know the books better than anyone, they also have a harder time adapting to the life of a player than anyone else; including non-gamers and small children.

The purpose of this article is not to teach a GM the rules of RPGs, but to try to give the new GM a chance to keep them in line, and teach them to be a proper player. As everyone knows, proper players stick to just one character, wait their turn, play by the rules, and get along with the other players and NPCs—for the most part.

It’s often not very hard to get a GM to try out being a player. Most GMs are eager to play the games they enjoy with others even if they must resign themselves to being a player instead of their usual role of omnipotence. The first step, getting them to play your game, is then accomplished. Step two will be much harder to implement.

Secondly, you must find some way to get the GM to give up his usual role as game creator and let you take over. If the former GM is offering up descriptions of the land, taking on the roles of important NPCs, adding elements to the game, changing the rules, skipping people’s turns, fudging the dice, or hogging the show; you have a major problem on your hands. Simply freaking out and yelling at the poor man won’t help, he only thinks he’s adding to the ‘spirit’ of the game. You must find some in-game or out-of-game way to make him see the error of his ways and game properly.

Given the incredible difficulty of step two, I’ll be offering several remedies below. All have been tested—none work. If you can actually find something to get a GM to take his rightful place as player, please let the rest of us know!

1. Shut up!

Telling the GM to simply ‘shut up’ is often the first remedy a new GM will come up with. The older, more experienced GM will be sharing his wisdom both on sports and the campaign world in general. If you yell at him loudly enough, he’ll see why he never let you GM before: you’re obviously too immature and irrational.

Trying to be the bigger man, the former GM will fall silent for five minutes. During this time, the rest of the players will heave a sigh of relief and get on with the game. The new GM will feel satisfied at a job well done, and begin several major monologues. Throughout all of this, the former GM will be observing the game. He’ll be thinking about all the countless ways his game is better, how you prattle on too much, and how all the other player’s strategies are far inferior to his own. At the end of five minutes, he’ll just have to break his vow of silence because of the utter stupidity of one of his friend’s actions.

Even if used effectively, this strategy won’t actually get the former GM to interact with your game world as a player. I think it’s safe to move on to another solution.

2. “I’ll only GM if you play properly,” or Threats


The second most commonly employed solution to the GM-as-a-player problem is to threaten the GM with exclusion from the game, or something else equally as nasty. I.e. “Play properly, or else your cat dies,” “Play properly, or I won’t GM,” and “Play properly, or you’ll wreck the game and you don’t want that.”

Being a reasonable guy, the GM will quickly agree to your terms. He wants to be in the game, after all. Unfortunately, this solution depends on the fact that the GM actually has a choice in the matter of playing properly or not. Most GMs can’t help themselves. When they see a scene which needs an extra dragon, they include one. They don’t do this out of malice, it’s just second nature to them. Fudging a 20 for a critical hit on the troll can also really suit the scene, and the former GM always wants to make a great scene.

Following through on your threat will either quickly end the game, or leave the former GM feeling helpless and abused. Like a dog who keeps running in front of semi-trucks, he just doesn’t understand what he’s doing wrong, and he can’t help himself.

So, threats are a good idea, but they assume the GM actually has the mental power to change himself. Hah, that’s likely…

3. Negative XPs

Some cunning GMs will try to teach their former GM how to be a proper player. This manipulation is often not so subtle. In-game punishments for a wayward GM can include, but are not limited to: character death, unfair rules variants, loss of wealth and magic items, suspension of powers, lack of basic equipment, disease, curses, xp penalties, and constantly getting attacked by monsters and falling into traps while the rest of the party gets on with the game.

A good GM will recognize the new GM’s need for absolute power and so will allow his character to be demoted and destroyed to no ends. After all, if he were the GM, he’d expect the same of any reasonable player. He’ll also quickly get the point if he gets xp penalties for trying to be the GM.

That said, the GM will also feel he should get xp awards for doing ‘helpful’ things with your game system and rules. If he doesn’t receive these just rewards, he’ll find something lacking in your game and won’t hesitate to point it out to you. Also, even though he’s been getting penalized for trying to be the GM, he’ll keep trying to do it in an effort to improve the game, despite the costs to his own character.

This strategy would probably work if the GM thought like a player. However, the GM’s whole mentality is to focus on the ebb and flow of the entire campaign world, and not just the character he happens to be playing at the time. This weird set of priorities makes this strategy somewhat less than effective.

4. Respect

This strategy is more an element of who you are, than an actual stratagem that you can employ at will. Your former GM probably respects you no ends as a fellow person and player, but to truly keep him in line requires that he acknowledge you’re a better, older, and more experienced GM than himself. Secretly, all GMs think they’re the most experienced and competent of all GMs on the planet. This makes getting respect even tougher.

A senior GM with more years of experience will have the respect of the former GM. He’ll recognize that this person is older than him, and could probably punch him in the head really hard. He’ll try his best to bite his tongue and keep with the theme of the game.

During game-play, this strategy will probably seem the most effective of all those mentioned so far. However, after the game, the GM might comment to the other players (in private) about what he felt lacking in the game. He’ll explain all the things he would have done differently, but didn’t bother to mention during the game. Secretly, he’ll always feel like he should be the GM.

5. Show her who’s Boss

If you’re former GM has been in the business any length of time, she’ll probably still feel it’s her right to be the boss of the game, even if technically you’re the GM. At the start of the game, you can make some loud announcements about how the new rules in your game will be run and explain your zero-tolerance policy. A few swift blows from your rubber bat, or some massive experience point penalties will quickly show your former GM that you mean business.

This strategy differs from ‘Threats’ in that your aim is not to punish the GM for being a GM, but to show the GM that you’re in charge and you won’t take any flak. The best way to do this is to create a few arbitrary rules and then enforce them every time. It doesn’t really matter what rules you make up, but you must make them different than how your GM usually runs the game. For example, you could outlaw the Fighter Class and implement a spell failure chance for all mages. You could also ban combat from your adventures.

Your former GM will understand what you’re trying to do, but he’ll take it the opposite way it was intended. He’ll think it’s a sign of weakness, not strength. He’ll view your arbitrary rule changes as a feeble attempt to be different than his usual, awesome games. If you copy all his usual rules, he’ll think you’re mimicking his great style. Either way, you don’t really get anything.

This strategy sounds like it would be good, but tends to fail. Your GM always thinks she’s the boss, and there’s not really much you can do about it. It’s like trying to get your employer to pretend she’s your employee. If you can pull this off, quit GMing and go for a pay raise instead.

6. Giving him Everything or Giving Up

This last strategy can be called ‘giving the GM everything’ or simply ‘giving up’ if you’re not one to mince words.

Because the former GM secretly thinks he’s the best at everything, if you reward his character with the most treasure, experience points, magic items, and have NPCs falling over themselves with awe at his awesomeness; he’ll be well pleased. Everything is as it should be.

While the GM might still find a few minor flaws in the game, he’ll be happy in the knowledge that he’s so good at the game that being a player holds no challenge for him. He’ll make it clear he prefers to be a GM, but its livable being a great hero.

The GM will make it his goal to become ever more powerful. He won’t settle for the usual upper echelons of power, but seek even higher heights. If his character isn’t completely breaking the game, he won’t be happy or satisfied. At the point where the new GM chucks his books out the windows in frustration and vows never to be GM again, the former GM will be happy with his job-well-done as a player.

This strategy is known to work, but it ticks off all your other players, and it’s liable to drive you insane. After all, if you’re not quitting out of frustration, your former GM will still be striving to drive you over the edge with his power-mongering.

Step three, assuming you’ve made it this far, your problem now is getting your GM to return to being a GM. It’s possible, though highly unlikely, that you’ve trained your GM to like being a player better than being a GM. If this happens, are you really better off? If you like being a GM, then you can count yourself lucky. If you just want your old GM back, you’ll have to beg him to run a few games. Don’t worry, controlling the universe is heady tonic and it shouldn’t take long for your GM to get back into the swing of things.

I’m sorry this article doesn’t really give you any answers. Getting a GM to be a player can be a tough thing. If anyone has any funny stories about GMs as players, feel free to share them in the comments below.



 

Comments

A

amerigoV

Guest
Heh - I am not sure this is a truism, but one guy in my group used to GM pretty much all the time. Now, due to travel and just having more GM experience people in the group, he has settled in to more of a player. One thing I noticed is going from having all the information to just what is fed to you can result is some interesting outcomes. Maybe the best way to think of it - he is way too trusting of what an NPC/PCs say ("never trust the undead" became a lesson learned for him :)).

I find giving some admin tasks to them helps - write up the log (creative outlet), track initiative/conditions, sketch out the map, and look up occasional rule stuff help take the edge off the "former-GM shakes"
 

Phototoxin

Villager
I like playing, but I do worry that I 'join in' too much or try to add too much 'story' as I know it's what I like my players to do.
 
You miss a massive option:

Put the other GM's skills to use. Map lightly, prep lightly, and encourage everyone to add details done by the world. (The route used in Dungeon World and other Apocalypse World family games). Use them as a Fixer in Leverage. Play something like Fate where they have some narrative control or 13th Age where they have a hand in the worldbuilding at the start through their One Unique Thing or Backgrounds.

Or in short stop locking the game world down, stop being an entitled DM, and stop deciding it's your way or the highway. Your game will be richer, more detailed, and both easier and more satisfying for you if you make it more collaborative and use rather than try to fight the skills of everyone else at the table.
 

Sir Knight

Villager
In a sense, I agree with Neonchameleon. The essay is awesome but is specific to one particular scenario with one particular type of gaming. Suppose that you and your gaming group(s) are just playing things where the GM is NOT a deity in the flesh: the game played will determine the "power level" to which the GM becomes accustomed.

Or even beyond the game played, there's the question of how the GM interacts with the players in person. In recent years, after almost every scene I've run as a GM, I've been chatting it up with the players about the plot and mechanics that got us into this situation. The players are already a little bit on the GM side, and that's the level of fluidity we're comfortable having in our sessions. Making a GM more like a player afterward isn't too hard.

And obviously my post is also specific to one particular scenario with one particular type of gaming.
 
What I struggle with as a player is simply a desire to expedite the game. I can see what the GM is doing, and I can see what is bogging stuff down, and I have to bite my tongue not to start "GMing" the other players while the GM is preoccupied with something.

I think what has helped is for me to simply ask my GM, "What can I do to help make your job easier?"

Being given an assignment to do things such as *be* the rules lawyer (or at least reference librarian) or be given an opportunity to take over playing NPCs that might be accompanying the party, can go a long ways to keeping me inline. ;-)

Of course, I'm also a big problem-solver, and I see things such as "game comes to halt while rules looked up" or "players not ready to take their turn when initiative comes around" as problems to be solved.
 

Luce

Explorer
Play a different system then the one DM has mastery in. Once the rule mastery is negated, and the system assumptions are different it is easier for former DMs to transition to players. On one hand their pride and game running style is not threatened in their choice system. Also if they are not much more experienced then the other players there are no assumption based on previous plays to be changed (whether conscious or unconscious) E.g. conspicuous statues are always hostiles and often gargoyles. There are plenty of options out there. The system differential may be just slight (mid evil Fantasy rpg to another) or greater (fantasy to sci-fi or even horror).
Now, I know that plenty of GM read other game systems, both to broaden their horizons and to pick up new rules/ sub-systems/ plots/ NPC ideas. However, if they have not actually played (or played just a bit) there is no pre- established expectations to change.
Also, it is nice change of pace as well as a way to establish (as a DM) your own niche of specialty. Now I am not saying that once you pick a system you have to run it exclusively. However, it allows for a perioud in which to establish both DM skills as well as gain acknowledgment as a good DM (related to 4 Respect). During that period (few months) the old DM have time to mellow out and get into player-only mindset.
 

Orius

Villager
Any halfway decent GM would cut the new GM some slack and not ride his ass in the middle of the game.
 

Vyvyan Basterd

Villager
My biggest hurdle to becoming a good player after a long stint as sole DM for our group was dealing with attention span. Going from near-constant involvement in the game as DM to more limited involvement as a player of a single character was tough. My players went so far as to say I was a "terrible" player because I just could not keep my attention on the game. I got better. Playing games other than those I GMed definitely helped.

As for issues of riding the newbie, I never came across that. I treat any GM how I want to be treated (even though I don't always receive that treatment). I don't want the game bogged down by niggling little rules arguments. So I don't do that as a player. I may ask once if the GM intended to deviate from the normal rules. I may remind them of something that's been forgotten. But if they decide to go a different direction I let it slide so we can move on.
 
I'd say you have good advice if a problem arises, but I disagree with the premise. Most DMs I've known have been really good players. As a DM myself, I'm very aware of what behave causes problems for a game at the table, and when I get a chance to play I try really hard to avoid being "that guy."
 

DMZ2112

Chaotic Looseleaf
I'll take the opposite position of many of the commenters here: if a player can't handle a heckling dungeon master at his table then he has little business pursuing dungeon mastery at all. We've all had to suffer a bad dungeon master at one time or another. Why encourage more of them? Dungeon mastery is a skill, and like any other skill it has to be honed.

The points in this article are perfectly valid -- if last-ditch -- weapons in the dungeon master's arsenal, although I would point out that they apply to any and all varieties of player entitlement, not just a "misbehaving" dungeon master.
 

Challenger RPG

Villager
@amerigoV : Ha ha, I bet there's a pretty good story to that 'never trust an undead' bit.

I think the idea about giving the GM some administrative tasks is great. I'll definitely pass that solution on to the DM who gave me the idea for the article. The DM in question has said I'm a royal pain as a player and that's something I can't totally disagree with. However, this idea is excellent. Thanks!

@Phototoxin : I'm like that as well in spades. Also, as a GM I like to reward the players who contribute to the 'story' of the game even if they're a little loose with the rules and campaign setting when they do it. I guess that could just be my 'style' of game mastering. You're not alone, anyway.

@Neonchameleon : You're bang on with this suggestion. I'm kind of kicking myself for missing this option. I think that's a great idea. I've been meaning to check out 13th Age for a while now anyway, maybe this is a good excuse to take the time to learn the system.

I agree with you about the collaborative advantages of world-building, but in the position of the player in those games, I didn't feel it was my right to question the DM shutting my input down. That said, I can't exactly say I'm a basket of roses as a player either. Regardless, it's a great suggestion. Thank you.

@Sir Knight : That's pretty cool. I think it would be really neat to game with a few players who'd all had some experience with game mastering. It's also neat you can all chat about mechanics and plot during the game. It sounds like you have a really cohesive group of fine players.

I also agree that every game system and group of players is different. I'm sure I haven't covered all the solutions (or even the good ones!) I've just used what I felt was employed most often on the rare occasions when I've been a player instead of a GM. One of the players-turned-GM thinks that the situation is impossible, but I thought it would be neat to write an article about it and see the great solutions people came up with.

In my particular case, we tend to play a lot of D&D and my own invented game systems. However, at some point or other I've forced most of my players to play just about every RPG I can get my hands on. Some of my fellow GMs tend just to prefer D&D.

@Sword of Spirit : I totally agree with you. Thanks for the great suggestion about asking the GM what can be done to help out. The next time I'm a player, I think that's a fine thing for me to try out.

I'm also a kindred spirit when it comes to problem solving. I also have a pretty hard time sitting quietly when the GM is distracted for what seems like half an hour. On one occasion, I was known to have created and played out a 15 minute subplot with another player while the GM was up to something else. When the GM found out what had happened, the GM wasn't terribly impressed. I still get ridiculed for that, and it was years and years ago.

@Luce : Another great idea. Playing a different system sounds like it could work really well. Some players turned GMs have a favorite, but I think it would be something good to try out.

@Orius : I tried. :p

@Vyvyan Basterd : Kudos on that. I've been called a terrible player on more than one occasion, and sometimes by players who I really respect. I have to admit that I sometimes earn that title.

As for attention span, I guess I've also had that problem. In one particular game, I actually became less and less engaged in the game until the point where I stopped reading (an unrelated book) and wandered off. It was actually kind of embarrassing seeing as I'd begged everyone to play, but I just couldn't keep my focus on the game.

Throughout the 5 hour session, I was a 0-level farmer the entire game forced to be a servant to a crazy old wizard. Apart from failing miserably at the basest of tasks, I wasn't really allowed to do much. I guess you could say I was spoiled by playing 1st level heroes all the time, and that it was a great role-playing opportunity. However, there wasn't even a single battle in the entire time I was playing (and I'm still 0-level in that game as far as I know). The other players enjoyed themselves immensely so it must have been just me.

Mishihari Lord: Kudos on trying not to be 'that guy'. I think most good GMs try to do the same, but it sounds like you've succeeded.

I'm not sure I actually agree with the advice in the column, as most of it has basically been used to try to keep me in line as a player. However, thanks for saying some of it was helpful (if not the premise).

@DMZ2112 :

Well, I guess I agree and disagree.

To some extent I agree that a GM needs to have a tough skin to do his job. Some of my players say they'll never GM me as a player, but that can make it hard for them to GM games. I know I might not be the best player, but if we work together (and not against each other) I think the only way to pull it off is to keep trying. If you just quit, you can never succeed.

The part where I disagree is with the points in the article being perfectly valid. I know I'm the one who wrote it, but they were mostly tactics used on me by other GMs. I guess I may have come up with a few of them myself, and it's good to know they can be helpful. Also, it's interesting you should say they can be used against other kinds of player entitlement. I'd never thought of that, but it's quite true.

***

Thanks for the great comments, everyone! I'll definitely be passing on this info to some players-turned-GMs. I really like the idea of giving the former GM administrative tasks in general whether playing NPCs, handling combat mechanics, or whatever. I do agree that part of the problem seems to lie in the massive shift of 'game-time' involved with turning from GM to player and administrating would be a great way to soften this major shift until the GM could adjust to his new role as a player.

That said, I'm the GM, you got a problem with that?

(Above sentence is a joke and should not be taken seriously).
 

Oryan77

Villager
I'm not so sure that these issues are DM related issues any more than just being a "bad player" issue. Most of those examples reflect a guy that is simply a bad player and he could have easily never DMed a game in his life. Being an experienced DM or not is really not an excuse or a reason for him being a bad player under a new DM.

The most common issues that I've seen from experienced DMs turned player is hogging the spotlight or rules lawyering. Although plenty of players do that, DMs seem to have a hard time adjusting to the game as a player by not doing that. Even so, dealing with him is no different than dealing with any other problem player. It could actually be easier after you've openly discussed it with him, because he can relate to the problems he's causing.

Or in short stop locking the game world down, stop being an entitled DM, and stop deciding it's your way or the highway. Your game will be richer, more detailed, and both easier and more satisfying for you if you make it more collaborative and use rather than try to fight the skills of everyone else at the table.
That's your opinion and is in no way the truth. I've played in games where the DM gave absolutely no thought to his game world and simply relied on what the players would do during a session. Either because he thought he was being a better DM by running a "sandbox" game and expected us to help in world building. Or because he was just lazy and thought his game would flourish just fine for the simple fact that we have characters & want to adventure. In either case, these games are almost always a flop and extremely boring. I've yet to see one last long term. I'm not interested in world building as a player or creating adventures and plots for the DM. That's your job as DM as far as I'm concerned. All I ask in that regard is to let my in-game actions have an affect on the game-world.

I'm kind of curious to know what you think being an "entitled DM" entails. Most players I've seen that have issues with a DM wanting to run his game world without players dictating to him what should or shouldn't happen/exist were "entitled players". I agree that collaborating can and does enrich a game. But a DM may have limits to that collaboration that are perfectly valid. The problem arises when players refuse to except that and can't let go of their own control or selfish wants. It's more likely that a player can still have just as much fun in that game than it is for a DM to have just as much fun DMing in a way that he doesn't want to.

Collaboration for me is defined by me asking for PC backstories so I can get ideas to add in to the game. Or asking the players what sort of adventures they want to play in, what kind of locations they'd like to visit, or what kind of creatures they want to encounter.

If I don't want the player to create a new god, or have his PC be the son of a god, it's perfectly fair. If I don't want the player to name his PC "Bud the Weiser" cause I want the game to be more serious than that, there is nothing wrong with that. If I say he can create a new town where his PC was born and raised, then great. If I don't like that, it's part of our right as DM to say, "Sorry, no." I see no harm at all if players ask for that sort of stuff. The harm comes from him complaining when the DM isn't digging it.

Putting some limitations on player control doesn't mean the DM is "locking down his game world." It's a perfectly valid style of DMing and I've never had less fun as a player because of it. Provide me with some rules, give me a good adventure with roleplaying opportunities, and equip me with some cool loot and stuff to kill, and I'm good to go.
 

Cthulhugh

Villager

Tangentially related to the last line in the OP we have a
DM who still thinks she is a player.We all appreciate the hard work that goes into running a game because most of the players in our group are current or former DM's. We have the problem in that our DM constantly interjects her advice on what strategy to employ during the players turn.

The fight scenes often become laborious as she seems to be trying to run both sides of the screen at once.
 

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