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 Good Players = Good GMs

Which came first? The player or the GM? [1]

Which came first? The player or the GM?

Last weekend I was at Origins [2], and now a week later, I’m finally starting to recover. While I’m old enough and wise enough to realize I can’t stay up all hours and do ALL the gaming, I still stay up too late, get up earlier than I should, and try and get in MOST of the gaming. Beyond games, the other convention joy that keeps me coming back year after year are the people. Several late nights were spent just hanging out and talking shop with fellow players and GMs. This year, one common theme that struck me was how important good players are to good GMing.

Without good players, running a game can become just too tedious to make the effort worth it. Of course, without a good GM, players will eventually find something better to do with their time. I suppose we could get into a bit of a chicken or the egg argument here. Which comes first, the good players or the good GM? Do good GMs create good players, or are good GMs only born when they get a table full of good players? I’m sure the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

Since we here at the Stew focus on all things GM, it’s understandable that we’ve covered many ways for GMs to nurture a table of solid players. Just searching on the word ‘players’ will pull up a ton of great articles offering advice on how to do everything from making better roleplayers [3], introducing [4] them to gaming, staring them young [5], and so on. I’ve also touched on this topic elsewhere, discussing that sometimes it can actually help the game to play favorites [6] in moderation. Learning how to encourage and embrace your players is a core skill for any GM.

On the other side of the table, when an amazing player sits down, it can completely transform and elevate your game. Good players make running the game simultaneously easier and harder. It’s easy because you know whatever you throw at the players is going to turn into awesome, but it also gets harder because their skill and enthusiasm challenges you to stretch even further to give the best game possible. Good players make me want to be a better GM.

So what is it that players do that help their GMs?

Good players understand they’re part of a game and know how to make choices that advance the game while still staying true to their character.
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Invested in the Game: As a GM, it’s horrible to bring your game to a table and see only disinterested, blank stares looking back at you. Good players bring an engagement and investment to the table that lets the GM know they want to be there and play the game. Enthusiasm about their character or even the game itself can be infectious enough to get the other players similarly invested. They keep the distractions to a minimum and are always ready to jump into whatever you throw at them.

Know the Rules but Respect the GM’s Calls: Players that know the rules but respect the GM’s decisions are invaluable. They help keep the game moving forward by knowing what needs to be rolled and when. They’re a resource for the less experienced players, freeing up the GM to focus on running the game rather than teaching rules. Rules lawyers slow the game down arguing about rules, but these are knowledgeable and flexible enough to speed it up.

Share the Spotlight: Not only do good players get invested in their own characters, they also get invested in the other characters at the table. They willingly give up the spotlight and know how to draw the other players into the game. Everybody loves getting their time in the spotlight, and it can be easy to fall into the trap of always giving it to the same players. Good players know how to pull other players into it so everyone gets a turn.

They’re Just Meta Enough: Players should be able to focus on their character’s motivations and reactions, but good players understand they’re part of a game and know how to make choices that advance the game while still staying true to their character. While no one wants to see anyone abuse metagaming, there is something to be said for understanding what will keep the game moving and what will slow it down.

Honestly, the best games I’ve ever played have been a combination of a good GM getting good players and the game turning into something more than anyone at the table expected. It’s what keeps us all coming back for more. What have some of your players done to make you a better GM?

17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To " Good Players = Good GMs"

#1 Pingback By Jó játékosok = jó mesélő | DICE WITH EDGE On June 12, 2015 @ 6:10 am

[…] Gnome Stew blogon jelent meg ez a cikk Angela Murray tollából, és mivel nagyon hasznosnak gondoltam, ezért lefordítottam nektek a legfontosabb részeit, dőlt […]

#2 Comment By Scott Martin On June 12, 2015 @ 9:16 am

This last week, both of my PTA games got much more interesting due to cool player choices.

In Planetary Pioneers, two players each had visions that changed the setting we thought we were playing in. One started hearing voices that turned out to be the native species somehow telepathically communicating with him. The other players ran with it. The second big development was the crystal control room that lifted off half of the mined out mountain… it was actually an alien ship. Probably the coolest, though, was the “next week on” that included a 20 year flash forward for the final episode. Very cool!

In Peculiar, fish people had been discovered infiltrating the sheriff’s home. After they were chased away and the portal to ichthal was closed, Kimmie was caught stealing and tossed in a jail cell by her uncle, to “straighten her out”. The big twist in the last scene of the night was that she started getting red faced and breathing shallowly, desperate for water. The deputy brought her cup after cup, but her skin continued to feel hot and slimy… somehow, she’s becoming a fish person too!

#3 Comment By Angela Murray On June 12, 2015 @ 7:41 pm

Those are some pretty cool twists. I love when players can add something to the game you never expected, yet make it so much better.

#4 Comment By Roxysteve On June 12, 2015 @ 10:50 am

I’d say that while all your points are good ones, Angela, the player buy-in is the most crucial factor in upping everyone’s game. Everything else can be taught or gradually worked out, but without player buy-in everyone is just sitting at a table for a few hours.

I give all the credit for the wonderful – at times spectacularly so – experience my Delta Green game has been squarely to the various players it has hosted, all of whom made GMing a joy – except the bits between game sessions where I worried I wasn’t giving them enough cowbell.

Rules lawyers can be a pain, but they can also be a valuable resource for the GM. The GM and RL just have to reach an accommodation on who gets last word is all, and that is negotiable in most cases. If it isn’t, well, there are articles in Gnome Stew’s vaults on how to say goodbye.

New players will pick up best on what they enjoy. If everyone is buying-in bigtime the new players will be sucked in by the partial vacuum if they aren’t already leading the charge.

New player buy-in has only been a problem for me once, and that wasn’t really what was going on. I had a lunatic at table who was under the impression there was some sort of power/control prize to be won and was determined no-one else should get it. Sadly, I only figured it out after the dust settled. Up until then I had thought the “Looney Gamer” was an internet myth.

#5 Comment By John Fredericks On June 12, 2015 @ 6:27 pm

Roxysteve, I played with that guy! He must’ve gone from my game to yours.

#6 Comment By John Fredericks On June 12, 2015 @ 6:26 pm

Angela, this is the other half of the equation. There are a TON of resources for becoming a better Gamemaster (this blog is one of them). There is very little out there about being a better player.

Thanks for taking on this topic. GM’s aren’t perfect, and should always seek to improve. But players need to do that too. Cut the GM a break on the rules, be nice to the other players, pay attention. Hey, it’s a two way street.

#7 Comment By Angela Murray On June 12, 2015 @ 7:40 pm

Absolutely. For us GMs, it works on both sides of the coin too. Try and be a better player as well as be a better GM.

#8 Comment By Roxysteve On June 17, 2015 @ 12:04 pm

One very, very good player training aid is Fiasco, and I recommend it whenever anyone is fool enough to let me.

It plays best with all-GM casts in my experience, but a few games always helps a “player” figure out that the most bang-for-buck comes from feeding other players chances to join in.

Of course, it is better if everyone is on the same page, so if you have a fixed game group cast, I strongly advise you to take an occasional break from your regular campaign and do an evening of Fiasco.

I also suggest that at least one Fiasco game in an evening have the house rule that players are only allowed to modify what someone else suggests by using “yes, and”.

If nothing else the value of “yes and” over “yes, but” or “no” will become self-evident. I think is also the point of one of the essays in “Unframed”.

#9 Comment By mrm1138 On June 12, 2015 @ 7:33 pm

Okay, I’m trying to figure out if I’m overreacting or if I’m right to be irritated by my how one of my players played his character. So I was running the final session of the D&D 5e starter set, The Lost Mine of Phandelver. (SPOILERS if you’re planning to play this adventure at any point in the future.) The party had rescued the dwarf Gundren Rockseeker who, along with his brothers, had discovered the location of the titular lost mine. Rockseeker was taking them to the cave so they could find the big bad, hopefully rescue the brothers, and win the day. Admittedly, I’d forgotten to stat up Gundren beforehand, but when it came time for the first couple combat sequences, I just glossed over his presence there. It wasn’t until the lawful evil wizard in the group demanded to know why they should keep dragging him around and what he could possibly offer to the rest of the group that it suddenly became pertinent to stat him up. At that point, I took about fifteen minutes out of the game so I could roll up his attributes and make sure I had all of his race and class features written down.

The reason this bothered me is because, over the last several sessions, I’ve been very hand-wavy about these sorts of things, and there’s no reason that they should have had any reason to expect that Gundren would become a liability. Admittedly, they weren’t being hired to escort him through the mine and rescue his brothers; they were there to kill the main villain. But at the point the PC started demanding to know why they should keep Gundren around—especially since he called into question Gundren and his brothers’ ownership of the mine—I started to think that he was planning to murder him and claim the mine for himself. I was actually getting close to having Gundren attack him, but instead I just opted to include him as a combatant for the remaining fights. I’d been avoiding it because the party already had 6 PCs, and I didn’t want to lengthen the time by adding another party member, but I felt like I’d been kind of backed into a corner.

So am I overreacting here? Should I have just tried to make up something else on the fly to mollify the wizard PC?

#10 Comment By Angela Murray On June 12, 2015 @ 7:39 pm

Well, it depends. Was the wizard putting up a fuss in character or out of character? If it was in character, I probably would have just rolled with it, pointing out the character had been competent up until that point, so why would it change? If it was out of character, I’d have asked why they cared if the rest of the party was okay with him coming along.

Ultimately, it can get a little intimidating to deal with players that are demanding things or questioning things you weren’t quite prepared to deal with. It can take a while to develop enough skills as a GM to be able to roll with those.

I also tend to be very careful about the mix of alignments in a party when letting the players create characters. I rarely allow outright evil characters unless I trust the player. Immature players with an evil character can ruin a game rather quickly.

#11 Comment By mrm1138 On June 16, 2015 @ 3:44 pm

Admittedly, the wizard was putting up a fuss in character, but what worries me is that this sets a bit of a trend in terms of there being a lack of buy-in to the adventure on the player’s end. What I’m worried about is that there could be any number of story hooks I’d introduce that the rest of the players would be otherwise willing to follow but the wizard, who has become sort of the de facto leader of the group, would say, “Why should we do this? How does this benefit us?*” While I understand that the GM has a certain responsibility to provide some sort of motivation for the PCs to want to partake in a particular quest, I feel like the players have to meet him/her halfway.

*This is definitely something that happened a couple times during The Lost Mine of Phandelver. There are several NPCs who give sidequest options to the characters. One of them is a druid who is in an area where dragon cultists have set up shop. He asks the party to help to drive them away in exchange for some information. The wizard decided the information wasn’t of any use and said that he saw no reason to risk himself for this. At that point, I felt there wasn’t really anything to do except to have the druid say, “Okay, I guess we have nothing more to discuss.” Thankfully, this wasn’t integral to the main story, but I do worry that this might end up being something that will thwart future adventures, especially since, from what I understand, modules are written with the assumption that players are going to be playing as good-aligned PCs.

#12 Comment By Tomcollective On June 15, 2015 @ 8:05 am

I agree that the alignment is most of the problem. I tend not to allow evil PCs either(assuming I’m even using alignments, which I usually don’t, but that’s a different discussion). For one thing, individual stories might bring such opposed people together to work for a common goal, but it really makes no sense for anyone in a world that can objectively measure morality to be all “hmm, you’re all for the oppression of the weak and boiling kittens? Sure! We can use a guy like you in our virtuous intrepid band!” Plus, it usually plays out as the one evil player annoying the entire table with a series of dick moves (because evil), which are then vehemently justified as “I’m just playing my character!” My stance is this: I don’t care. Play well with others or don’t play. The time lost to infighting, derailing, and all that just aren’t worth it.

#13 Comment By Scott Martin On June 15, 2015 @ 10:51 am

Just joining the chorus: this is a longstanding problem of D&D and alignment. Most of the issue boils down to the tension between the players all deciding to adventure together (because that’s what the game is and it’s socially unfun to waste someone who showed up’s time by leaving their dick character in town when they go adventuring).

Part of the issue is that alignment is an individual attribute, but “what we do” is group. If alignment really affected “what we do” it’d be more interesting–but it usually only manifests as speed bumps and unpleasantness in doing the adventure that you’d do no matter what the character alignments are.

#14 Comment By Angela Murray On June 15, 2015 @ 9:33 pm

Evil characters CAN work with a group (like Belkar in Order of the Stick), but they need to be played by mature players who aren’t there just to dick with other players. To use the MMO parlance, I’m there to run a PVE game rather than a PVP game.

#15 Comment By Roxysteve On June 17, 2015 @ 11:54 am

I have a problem with alignment-saddled game systems for dungeoneering campaigns because, when you get down to it, *everyone* is behaving evilly, and chaotically into the bargain.

Taking stuff from others is unlawful behavior, and yet lawful characters do it all the time with everyone’s understood blessing.

Killing intelligent things just to take their stuff is evil, yet again, see the above sentence.

People um and ah when I bring this up, generally going the “subjective value” route, but the Pathfinder/3.5 alignment thing is supposed to be drawn against a universal baseline, not an internalized one. I’ve never really seen the point once Good and Evil were added in.

In my assessment, the original purpose of the Law/Chaos thing was really only so you could cast spells to save you from “the other side”. When good and evil were added into the mix is was for essentially the same reason – wily GMs would negate Law/Chaos “protection” magic with sophistry, so an onslaught of rules happened.

I don’t have a solution because I am not interested in fixing the problem in any game I run. Were I to start caring I’d probably class all “protection” spells as Wards and build specific house-rule spells around that new spell “school”.

#16 Comment By HagenBRG On June 14, 2015 @ 12:21 am

The group I play in contains several GMs (pretty much everyone in the group has GM’ed except me) and I find that good players do not always good GMs or vice versa. In the beginning of the two main campaigns I am in, the GMs of those would often get into arguments when the other made a call they didn’t like. While both of them are very competent players and GMs, they didn’t adjust to the role change very well. Their rule/call arguments would then spill out to the whole group and we would all become rule lawyers. It was truly quite hectic. It has calmed down quite a bit, and that it good because their bickering was affecting player investment due to constant lawyering. And I agree with Roxysteve, player buy-in is most crucial.

From a player’s prospective, I think a GM that truly has taken the time to flesh out their world, can make calls on the fly without looking into rules, and allows the players to get away with some crazy stuff simply because it makes everything more interesting makes me a better player as I fully invested and want to make each session as fun as possible.

#17 Comment By Scott Martin On June 15, 2015 @ 10:53 am

I 100% agree with your second paragraph. It’s unfortunate when a player can’t adjust to not being GM; it often gets better with practice and a quiet discussion about respecting the current GM’s rulemaking and resolution.

#18 Comment By Bhorr Thunderhoof On June 27, 2015 @ 3:15 pm

It is true that not every good GM is also a good player and vice versa. In my opinion you need a “good” GM first, however you define “good” in this case. She can not yet so good players by example. This takes time of course and you have also to establish an adult and open conversation with your players. It still astonishes me how angry grown-up players can get, when they don’t get what they esteem to be their due.
A good player is for me one who knows the “Yes, and… rules” (see for more explenation about this in Emily Care Boss most excellent article, published in “Unframed, the Art of Improvisation for Gamemasters”) and has also all the qualities Angela Murray mentioned already.
To be a good player as much as being a good GM needs not only inspiration, the gift of storytelling and improvisation but also social skills, the so called soft skills.