Playing as a GM

Bike Boy on a pole, by Torsten Blackwood

When it comes to my friends, I’m the GM. Any system, any timeframe, I’m the one who runs the games. Every once in a while someone will run a game, but it peters out after a few sessions, and I’m back behind the screen. I get it. Many are called, few are chosen. But I finally got into something more long term, playing in Ryan’s D&D Essentials game, and boy did I have a lot to learn about stepping around the table and playing. I wanted to share the biggest things I’ve learned about playing as a GM with you today.

Lesson #1: Shut Up

Bike Boy on a pole, by Torsten Blackwood

Credit: Torsten Blackwood

I had to learn to shut my mouth. Whether it was answering rule questions, coaching, or questioning rule calls, the lesson I came away with after my first session was to shut my pie hole. there’s this urge to answer questions that needs to be suppressed in the same way the urge to clap does when you’re holding a rope for a street performer. It’s not even a matter of “they’re the GM, so what they say goes,” it’s about giving them the space to actually be the GM. Nobody likes a backseat driver, and a backseat gamer is even worse. I’m much better now, six months into the game, but god damn if I wasn’t a bad boy in our first couple sessions. I had to have a stern talk with myself. Also, god forbid the words “Well that’s not the way I run it…” cross your lips. That is the worst kind of bullshit, and you know it, because you hate it when people do it to you. Offer suggestions well away from game and behind closed doors if you must, but don’t do so with any expectation that the GM will act on them, and treat them with the respect you’d like at your table.

Lesson #2: Know Your Stuff

In most systems, the GM is required to be familiar with an order of magnitude more rules than any individual player (and in some more than all of them combined), so learning what’s needed for a single player character should be easy. Don’t be struggling when your turn comes around, even if the whole game is new. To be fair, Essentials is as simple as D&D gets without being a board game, but even if it were Ars Magica, GURPS, or god forbid Rolemaster, the same applies. Take the time to know your stuff. My first turn I fumbled with my cards, but by my second, I had a pretty good order worked out, and started to understand what everyone else in the party could do. In a way, that’s the part that really seems like a vacation from the screen, but I occasionally get dismayed that I only get to play the one character (I thought about multiple personalities, but it wasn’t really constructive). There’s all these spare cognitive cycles, to the point where I’ve taken to bringing a notebook and jotting other things down while I’m in the D&D frame of mind.

Lesson #3: Lead by Example

The first two also fall under this, but this was the big one. I knew what I wanted from players, not just in terms of not being annoying jerks who questioned my every decision and who could take a combat turn faster than molasses on a winter morning. I want them to be engaged, to be listening, taking notes, exploring the world, and finding the things in it that make them happy. So I do my best to do what I’d want players to do, whether that’s biting at adventure hooks, having meaningful scenes, and of course, getting one over on the GM now and again. No one is in a better position to know what a player should be like than the GM. We all have our ideas of the perfect player, so be that player, rather than whatever you might have done. You know how to do it. Maybe it’s unreasonable, but it’s something to strive for. For me, that means developing strong relationships with the game world, so that’s what I’m doing, and not only am I having a great time, I’m helping everyone else have one too. Well, Ryan’s a maybe, You can ask him on twitter (@RhinoofSteel).

Those are the three most important lessons I’ve learned from playing as a GM. Sometimes things will happen that I feel are problems, but it’s just a matter of treating them as opportunities instead, even if those are opportunities to shut my mouth and lead by example. Everyone wins. To learn more about Ryan’s game, Vale Tales, you can check out the Vale Tales wiki, orĀ read about my character. If you’re a GM, how do you find playing? If you’re not, what is playing with a GM like?

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