One thing I hear frequently from my fellow GM’s is that they are always a game master and never a player. Allow me to drag out my soapbox and say that if all you ever do is GM then you are doing yourself a large disservice. You are, in many ways, limiting your ability to grow as a GM. If you want to run the best games possible, sometimes you have to get out from behind the screen and pick up a character sheet.
GMing is not Playing
There is a school of thought that the GM is also a player, just with a special role. There are times when this is true, but in terms of the experience at the table, the GM does not have the same experience as the players. Because of this difference in experience, a GM who only GM’s is missing out. You are in essence, only getting half of the story. It is like a director who never watches movies. They understand how to construct a movie, but have never sat through a white-knuckle action sequence, or a gut-wrenching dramatic moment. How can you create a better car chase if you have never experienced watching The French Connection or Ronin?
The Player Perspective
When you are sitting on the other side of the GM screen, things are quite different. From my time as a player, here are a few observations of what the player perspective provides:
- Player-specific rules – Players are not often as versed in all of the nitty-gritty rules and subsystems of a game, but one place that a player has to excel is in the mastery of the rules that surround their character. These rules: spells, powers, feats, class abilities, etc are what make the character shine. No one knows the in’s and out’s of a character class better than players.
- What you can and can’t see behind the screen – Players have a limited view of what is happening behind the scenes during a game. They don’t know the Hit Points of your monsters, nor can they see if you just improvised the last scene, or if it was planned out in detail. Players go off of what is presented to them, and then act accordingly.
- A feel for spotlight and lack of – Players are not always interacting during the game. When the spotlight is on another player, they become an observer. They are aware of how soon or how long it has been since they have gotten to act.
- Not knowing what comes next – While GM’s don’t really know what’s going to happen next, they are far more privy to the overall direction of the story and its likely trajectory. When you are a player, you have far less of an idea. There are times when you have figured it out, and there are times when you are in the dark.
- How much power players really have – Players have tremendous power within a game. When they cooperate they can drive a story to dizzying heights, and when they are in discord, they can grind a table to a halt. They are the driving force in a campaign. It is from their actions that the story unfolds. Think of it this way…there are no games without players, though there are plenty of RPG’s without game masters.
Improving your GMing as a Player
When you are a GM who is a player in a game, you have the opportunity to compare your experiences, taking what you know from being a GM and contrasting it to the experiences you are having playing the game.
We can learn from both playing under good GM’s and bad ones. Obviously we want to emulate and incorporate the things that good GM’s are doing, while learning what not to do from bad GM’s. As the player of the game you want to look at what the GM is doing and ask:
- Is this working or not?
- What actions is the GM taking (or not) in this scene?
- What is going on at the table around me during this scene?
- How can I incorporate this into my sessions (or avoid it)?
There are a great many things that can be learned while you are playing. I am going to focus on the good things you can learn, but you can learn an equal amount when these things are not done correctly. Here are just a few examples:
- Things to Look For: How the GM presents the scene, what types of descriptions they use, their body language, the tenor of their voice, and what details they present.
- Reflections: How does the scene make you feel?
- Take-Aways: Copy the effective techniques and look to how you can incorporate them into your own style.
Running Different Genres and Plots
- Things to Look For: What themes and tropes the GMing is using to make the session fit a certain genre (i.e. sci-fi, western, etc). What storytelling structures and techniques the GM is using to tell a specific type of story (i.e. mystery, chase, political drama).
- Reflections: What works about these tropes (or not) and how do they help everyone feel like they are playing in a specific setting or genre?
- Take-Aways: Use these elements, and ones related to them, when trying to tell a specific type of story or in a specific setting.
- Things To Look For: Is the story going at a healthy pace or is it lagging? Are things moving too fast to keep up?
- Reflections: What is going on in the story and in the game when scenes are going too slow? What is going on in the story when it is speeding? Why do the transitions work (or not) to move the story along?
- Take-Aways: Learn the techniques for how to transition scenes. Learn how to avoid creating scenes which bog down. Learn the techniques which speed things up and slow them down.
- Things to Look For: How well does the GM present information such as clues in a mystery, details of a culture? Are the mysteries the GM runs easy to follow (not solve)? Are there times when you feel clueless?
- Reflections: What is the GM doing to balance how much information is being provided? What information is missing when you feel clueless? What does it feel like when you are provided too much information at once?
- Take-Aways: Learn how to parse out information such that it is not overwhelming, and keeps the game moving forward.
Downtime and Attention
- Things to Look For: The parts of the game when your attention wains. Those moments in the game when you drop from character, get fidgety, start to check your phone/tablet/etc.
- Reflections: What is happening during the game when your attention lapses? What are other players doing at the table?
- Take-Aways: Is there something else the players can be doing at the table to help the game move along?
Conclusion & Question
While being a player is not my favorite role in a role-playing game (I will always be a GM at heart), there is a lot to learn about GMing by sitting on the other side of the screen. By watching what your GM is doing, looking at what works and what does not, you can pick up valuable techniques to make your games better.
Do you play as well as GM? What percentage of the time do you play? What things have you learned by being a player? Do you enjoy GMing or playing more?