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It's Your Turn to GM

Isn’t it about time you stepped up and took on the load sometime to give your usual GM a break? Short answer, yes it is.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

In most surveys I’ve seen, the one thing pretty much every GM agrees on is that they’d like to play now and again. It’s good for any GM to experience what it’s like as a player, just as every player should know what it’s like to be behind the screen. Both will be better gamers for it. Now, some groups are lucky that there are enough GMs to swap around constantly. But I’ve known of plenty of groups where one person is always assumed to be the GM and never gets a chance to play, a responsibility that often leads to burn out. So let’s go through some of the usual excuses that get offered when the GM says they need a break.

“I Don’t Know What to Do.”

So, you’re new to GMing, that’s okay, everyone has to start somewhere! But you are not alone. Your usual GM will be in the group and they can help you with the rules. They can probably even help you figure out an adventure. But there are plenty of published adventures out there and most walk you through it.

Being a GM can be intimidating, but it’s usually not as hard as it might look and with a little hand holding you’ll be fine. You group will support you (or at least they should!) and you never know, you might actually enjoy it. One new GM I know was excited to realise that when you GM, it’s ‘always your turn’ and she loved that.

“I’m a Useless GM.”

There is only one answer to this - you need practice. But more often than not what this really means is "GMing is too hard." So maybe it’s time you did. Someone else has been making that effort for you week after week so why not step up?

If you’ve GM’ed before and not enjoyed it very much, that’s understandable. But even so, why not try game mastering a one off? You may have just had a bad experience and with the right game and group it might be completely different.

“I’m Too Busy.”

Your GM might be busy too! Now there are times when we have busy weeks. Work or kids can get crazy and you might genuinely not have any time. But for most weeks it’s not a question of time but priority. Your usual GM is expected to make time for prepping and running the game, so there is no reason you can’t put some time into gaming.

Running a game need not take that much time either. There are plenty of published adventures you can run as written for most games. Can you really not read ten pages of adventure in a whole week? Even if you can’t, read it as soon as you can and then run it that week.

“But You’re So Good!”

This sound complementary but it’s actually a lot more insidious. You are basically saying "you’re really good at this, so you have to do it forever," to say nothing of "you have to keep providing the usual high standard or everyone will be disappointed." If you don’t feel you are up to the standard of your usual GM there is only one answer: practice and get good. How do you think they did? They put the hours in and so can you. You don’t need to be Matt Mercer to run a good game anyway.

I should say in closing that if you really hate running a game or dread the idea no one can (or should!) force you. Not everyone takes to it and these games are meant to be fun for everyone. But it might just as easily be your turn to step up.

At the very least, you can be a better player and make effort that way. Support your GM with your attention and focus, and show the same dedication to the game they do, because that will make the game easier for them to run. Very few things are as disheartening for a GM as looking at a table full of players looking at their phones. The more effort everyone puts in, the better the game will be for everyone.
 

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Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine

SirMoogle

Explorer
That's my thinking, too, but I do see the distinction @pming is making between someone who is running the sessions because that's the part of the game they enjoy (or at least, a part they enjoy) and someone who is running the sessions because someone has to do it, or there's no game. I'm ... less sure that one needs to be into world-building and/or rules-hacking to prefer GMing (though I can believe others might feel that way) and I am inclined to disagree that someone who wants to see what the PCs do is somehow less than someone who wants to see the effects the PCs have on the world; at the least, those aren't anything like exclusive categories.
I can agree with that. So long as the GM is able to keep their players invested in the world by being invested in it themselves, and make the game fun for everyone, it's all good.
 

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Henry

Autoexreginated
Put me in the ”everyone should try it at least once” camp.
  • Not everyone has to be the best GM in the group.
  • It gives each person a chance to steer the group towards the type of game THEY would like to see at the table, which exposes the group to new ideas.
  • taking a turn as GM gives everyone at the table a different perspective of appreciation for the job of GMing.
  • And, finally, as mentioned by the article, it gives groups with a “regular” GM a chance to experience that other side of the table.
Every GM got to their current skill level the same way one gets to Carnegie Hall — practice, practice, practice. Therefore, there’s no time like the present for secretly-aspiring GMs to at least run a one-shot in a system they’re comfortable with.

Even for those non-aspiring players, one may show appreciation to their GMs by bringing gifts to the table for them or the group; another way to show appreciation is also running a game session or two. both are equally viable, but one is giving not just the GM a gift, it’s giving yourself the gift of an experience and a new perspective as well.

And if you never work up the impetus to do it? All well and good, too, but I still advocate its benefits, for both the player as well as the group.

...and to reiterate this: Your first time GMing, you are going to suck. I (as well as Matt Mercer) wish to dispel the myth that anyone starts out awesome at it, because you’re human, and it’s a skill, like sewing, baseball, or driving a car. Everyone but perhaps the most ridiculous child prodigies sucked the first time they ran an RPG, and I’m pretty sure almost every active GM on this forum can share a story or two of how bad (yet exhilarating) their first GMing sessions were.
 

R_Chance

Adventurer
The last time I played in a game... 2nd Edition AD&D was new :D I like playing. I prefer DMing. I can understand DM fatigue and the need to have another DM / GM. And sometimes real life interferes in having regularly scheduled games for a time. I've never had DM fatigue, but there have been times when I just don't have the time for prep work and the game itself. Easier if it's a different system or campaign of course. In the dark ages of 1E I played in a game with rotating DMs... it had issues with different DM styles in what was, in theory, the same world. That's the only problem I see with that. And of course as long as the DM is willing and the players are happy and the occasional off night is not a problem, game on!
 

MGibster

Legend
I'm fairly certain that DM is the moniker used when running a D&D game, while GM is the generic term for anyone who runs any game.
There are a lot of oddball names for the GM out there.

  • Vampire - Storyteller
  • Call of Cthulhu - Keeper
  • Aliens - Game Mother
  • Delta Green - Handler
  • Cyberpunk 2020 - Referee
  • Deadlands - Marshal
A lot of us just use Game Master and Dungeon Master interchangeably. I haven't run Aliens yet, but I'm sure as hell not going to call myself the Game Mother. But the purposes of writing an article I'd probably use the more generic GM over DM.
 

pogre

Legend
I very much enjoy GMing - far more than playing. I force myself to play every once in a while just to experience the other side of the screen. Playing is pretty much a tool to improve my GMing. I agree that folks should try to GM at least once.
 

MGibster

Legend
I like both running and playing games, but in my experience the "Give the GM A Break" games almost never go well because in the eyes of the other players and often the GM it's seen as a replacement game. It's extremely hard to let the new game develop its own energy and group dynamic when there's already strong group dynamic in place.
I think it's healthy for any group to have more than one person who GMs from time-to-time. I'm the primary GM for my Sunday night group, but on occasion another person will run a campaign or less frequently a one shot. It can be nice to see a new/different GM step up to the plate because they might bring something different to the table in the form of narrative, NPC characterizations, or even the way they organize the campaign.

When a new game starts you have to let it live and breathe on its own. I think this is especially true when the GM of that new game is not an experienced hand or the game is a different game. Doubly so if both are true. The last thing a new GM or game needs is an environment where players are going to be constantly comparing it and judging it in reference to the game they are used to playing.
I certainly agree that the last thing a GM needs it being constantly compared to and judged against the previous person who ran the campaign. I try to game with people I like who would be supportive of one of their friends running a game. For the most part, I've found it quite enjoyable to game with new Game Masters.
 


ccs

41st lv DM
These articles are useless. They are a dime a dozen and this problem is not getting better at all. If anything, it's getting worse.

These are all just a bunch of words that sound pretty and look like they should work. But they don't. They have no effect on the problem whatsoever.

What about making the role of the DM more appealing? What about writing better DM-facing books? What about a cool youtube series that gives good advice? None of these things will ever happen in the current paradigm because non-player facing content doesn't sell.

Stop pretending like you care about this issue by paying lip service to DMs by writting these kinds of articles every couple of months. They have no effect on anything.

Useful? {shrugs} But the internets gotta be filled with something other than Memes, cat videos, porn & political nonsense/vitriol. Might as well be articles trying to get others to DM....
 

Zander

Explorer
It’s simply not true that some people don’t DM because they’re not prioritising it. There really are people who don’t have the time.

At my pre-pandemic RPG club, there were at least two players who were ‘on call’ for work. One was an emergency healthcare worker and the other an IT manager. Yes, they could have chosen not to be on call on game days but it would have damaged their careers and lowered their incomes. London, where they lived, is an extremely expensive city and they had to be on call a lot to make ends meet.

As for myself, I didn’t used to DM often at my pre-pandemic club because I was running the club. When you’re organising games for over 100 people across multiple venues, you can’t run a good game at the same time. There are always issues to resolve around the event’s management and trying to DM while attending to them is too disruptive for the game. I know, I’ve tried.
 

I like both running and playing games, but in my experience the "Give the GM A Break" games almost never go well because in the eyes of the other players and often the GM it's seen as a replacement game. It's extremely hard to let the new game develop its own energy and group dynamic when there's already strong group dynamic in place. When a new game starts you have to let it live and breathe on its own. I think this is especially true when the GM of that new game is not an experienced hand or the game is a different game. Doubly so if both are true. The last thing a new GM or game needs is an environment where players are going to be constantly comparing it and judging it in reference to the game they are used to playing.

My first forays into running games were in these sort of trial by fire "let the GM play" games. It was super stressful. Between the unrealistic expectations from my fellow players and the GM's (I hope) well meaning attempts to provide "guidance" (back seat GMing) it was damn near impossible to develop my own voice as a GM. It almost put me off the endeavor entirely.

I have not only experienced this first hand as a GM, but often seen it play out in groups I have been a part of. Sometimes it's the former GM who has trouble stepping back. Sometimes it's the other players who just want to get back to the game they are used to or "test" the new GM.

I'm more than happy to run a game for the same people, but usually I'll insist on a different hosting arrangement or night with the understanding the game I will be running is not a replacement game.
I think the big issue is the expectation of the replacement game. When I ran Legends of the Five Rings RPG (alternating weeks with D&D), I would usually need a month or two off between campaigns to refresh and prep for the next campaign. One of the players would run a mini-campaign during this time, but everyone knew this was only a temporary, usually lighthearted game that wasn't going to last.

I'm now wrapping up my 3rd 5E campaign, having run more or less continuously since the DMG came out. The upcoming game isn't a replacement game, however, but someone taking over my time slot. We run alternating campaigns each week, and the new DM has already run a campaign for the group. Our group's blessed with 5 DMs though, so we're definitely not the norm.
 




Jack Daniel

Engines & Empires
There are a lot of oddball names for the GM out there.

  • Vampire - Storyteller
  • Call of Cthulhu - Keeper
  • Aliens - Game Mother
  • Delta Green - Handler
  • Cyberpunk 2020 - Referee
  • Deadlands - Marshal
A lot of us just use Game Master and Dungeon Master interchangeably. I haven't run Aliens yet, but I'm sure as hell not going to call myself the Game Mother. But the purposes of writing an article I'd probably use the more generic GM over DM.

I prefer the original term: referee. In truth, I would feel more than a little silly calling myself a "Dungeon Master" out in the real world, and "referee," at least for me, serves as a good reminder of the standard of impartiality that I hold myself to while running a game.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
I prefer the original term: referee. In truth, I would feel more than a little silly calling myself a "Dungeon Master" out in the real world, and "referee," at least for me, serves as a good reminder of the standard of impartiality that I hold myself to while running a game.
You'd feel less silly if you wore a voluminous black cloak and carried a gnarled oaken staff carved with strange runes. Or maybe not. YMMV.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
I prefer the original term: referee. In truth, I would feel more than a little silly calling myself a "Dungeon Master" out in the real world, and "referee," at least for me, serves as a good reminder of the standard of impartiality that I hold myself to while running a game.
I have a player who made the ringtone for call from me on his phone "I am Dungeon Master" said by Dungeon Master from the 80s D&D cartoon.

Sometimes its best to just embrace the silly.
 


Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
There are a lot of oddball names for the GM out there.

  • Vampire - Storyteller
  • Call of Cthulhu - Keeper
  • Aliens - Game Mother
  • Delta Green - Handler
  • Cyberpunk 2020 - Referee
  • Deadlands - Marshal
A lot of us just use Game Master and Dungeon Master interchangeably. I haven't run Aliens yet, but I'm sure as hell not going to call myself the Game Mother. But the purposes of writing an article I'd probably use the more generic GM over DM.
Arguably "Dungeon Master" is the most oddball of them all.
 

MGibster

Legend
Arguably "Dungeon Master" is the most oddball of them all.
You make a valid point though I believe Game Mother is equally as weird. Most of the other words for GM have some application to life outside of gaming. Other than an indication that someone might be into some unconventional adult fun time, you don't typically hear someone talk about Dungeon Masters outside of gaming. But it was coined by the real OGs back in the '70s so I'll give it a pass. I believe the term is related to master of ceremonies as the DM is the "official" host with various responsibilities including adjudication of rules, controlling all aspects of the world save for the PC's actions, and is generally responsible for making sure things go smoothly. I suppose we could have called it a Dungeon Protocol Officer instead. In fact, I'm going to write an RPG about the importance of social graces and politeness and the GM will be the Protocol Officer.
 

Some people don't have the temperament to be GMs. They're too passive, anxious, lazy. Or can't step back and be an impartial adjudicator of a game. However, it would be good for the game groups - and the hobby in general - if more people gave it a shot. At the very least, it would make them appreciate the GM(s) they do have.

The industry does a poor job of on-ramping the task of being a GM. The format of adventure material has changed little in 40 years, besides making the content even more text-heavy and verbose. Indie and OSR publishers are making inroads with formatting that gives primacy to ease of use at the table. But adventures by the big publishers still expect the GM to memorize whole chapters of content, or make extensive notes and summaries. For most WotC campaign books, you can find player-made play aids online that do the work of summarizing chapters, presenting flowcharts, tracking NPCs, etc. The fact these have to be made at all speaks to a failure of design by the publisher.

As for support for GMs making their own adventures, WotC provides nothing besides some general advice in the DMG. No plug-and-play locations, lairs, maps, encounter tables, settlements, or NPCs. You’re in you own.

GM advice online is helpful. It's also intimidating. When a potential new GM goes to a Youtube channel for GM advice and sees 50+ videos with topics ranging from building pantheons to managing tactical combat to developing engaging NPCs, they can be forgiven from asking themselves what they've gotten themselves into, and backing out before they've even started.

The wealth of material meant to train GMs has paradoxically made the baseline of what we expect a GM to be today - system master, world-builder, tactical genius, actor, screenwriter - more daunting to inexperienced GMs. I started playing D&D when I was 9, and was DMing (and creating my own adventures) when I was 10. This was not unusual at the time. The reason the game was so accessible is because the expectations of what it meant to be a GM were far lower. On Thursday night I would sit down with a piece of graph paper while my parents watched Magnum P.I. in the background and draw a dungeon. The following night, while my parents watched Dallas, I would populate that dungeon with monsters, treasure, and cool stuff. On Saturday, I was ready to run my new dungeon.

D&D and other RPGs may have moved past simple dungeon-crawls as the default mode of play. But that format is unsurpassed in the ease with which it helps new players ramp up as GMs. It doesn't even have to be dungeons - you can have very simple play structures and ease of use with formats like the one used by Beyond the Wall. The problem is that the default by the big publishers to epic save-the-world campaign, deep NPC backstories, complex factional rivalry, etc. present a daunting barrier to aspiring GMs. I've been a GM for 40 years, but I doubt I would have become one (or at least started as an adolescent) if I was introduced to the hobby with today's adventure and campaign paradigm.
 
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