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The Player-GM

Recently, I was a guest at the Tacticon [1]convention in Denver, Colorado. One of the things that the convention organizers stressed to me was to not only run some games, but to play in games that were being run. I enthusiastically followed their advice, and in any time slot where I was not running something or on a panel, I played many great games. As I was sitting on the other side of the screen, I realized that I could use my GM skills to not only be a good player, but also to be helpful to the GM.

The Player-GM

I have talked before about the need for all GM’s to be players [2], from time to time. It’s easy to say that, but its not always easy to do. When you are a long-time GM you get used to being behind the screen, and in essence being in the spotlight nearly all the time. Being a player is different, you don’t have a constant spotlight, you are not actively engaged every moment of the game, and you have no idea how the game is going to unfold (unlike when you are behind the screen and at least *feel* like you have that control).

Being a GM you also know a great deal about what the person behind the screen is going through, and all the things that she is juggling to keep the game running. There is a way you can use your GMing skills to help out that GM, and make their job a bit easier. The trick is though to help and not top from the bottom. After all, you are the player, not the GM.

How to be a good GM Player

So then what kinds of things can we do to be a helpful player, make the group productive, and make the GM’s life easier? Here are some of the things I found were most helpful, when I was playing. BTW, these are also just good tips for being a good player in general, but I will tie in what GMing skills help with this, as we discuss.

Get Set Up To Play

Con games are always under a time constraint, so getting set up to play is crucial for getting the game going. I like to sit down, pick out my character and then make a name tent using an index card. I always bring extra cards and a marker, and I encourage all the other characters to do the same. For the GM (and players) everyone can now see each others names, and it helps with the running of the game and the role playing.

Follow the story

After you have written and run a bunch of sessions, you get a feel for where a story is going as you watch. This is something that plagues me when I watch TV. It also happens when I am playing in someone’s game. Rather than blurting out that I know what is going on, I play right into the story: hard. That means I may make the obvious move to open the Door of Sealed Doom, because the thing in there is suppose to get out. Or I will convince the players to go into the corn field to see where the mysterious woman went, because that is what is supposed to happen in the story. I make sure that we stay with the story that the GM is trying to run, helping to keep the story moving along. This also means that I will do all in my power to keep planning to a necessary minimum, and work to keep the players in motion.

What you should not do is figure out the story and then try to derail or thwart it. Don’t be that player.

Share Your System Mastery

GM’s are often generalists when it comes to the rules of a game. Rarely are we experts in all aspects of a game, but we know how the game is played. In Con games, there are often varying levels of expertise among the players. You can put that rules knowledge to use by helping other players navigate the rules. Perhaps the player next to you is having trouble hitting things, so you move your character into flank to give them the bonus, or you tell them to Wild Attack to get a bonus to their attack. Also, you can help the GM if they forget a rule by sharing what you know.

The thing to avoid is coming off like a rules lawyer or a know-it-all, because we know how much we like that player when we are on the other side of the screen.

Offer Suggestions

Combining the ideas from above, our ability to understand where the story is going and our knowledge of the system, we are in a unique position to help coach other players. Nothing slows down a game like when a player locks up and is unsure what to do. As a helpful player you can make in character suggestions to players who are struggling to guide their player into an action which will make the game more awesome.

If the game is a more collaborative one, and the GM is open to suggestions of what can happen, then I will happily toss out ideas of how a Hard Move in Apocalypse World could go, or name the Consequence I just took in a fight in Fate. My rule is to always ask the GM first if it’s ok to make a suggestion, and with their OK I will contribute throughout the game.

These things not only make the game better, but they keep the game flowing. What you do not want to do is become some kind of Alpha Gamer, ordering the other players around, and eliminating choices for people.

Be A Great Support Character

This one may not be a general rule, but it is one that I like quite a bit. When I play in a game, I am less interested in being the main character and would rather be a support character, making other characters awesome. This comes from the GM need in me to make sure that the players are having a good time. So when I am on the other side of the screen, I often seek out characters who have support roles, and then run them to assist the other players in looking awesome. So I spend a lot of time killing mooks, holding doors shut, providing cover fire, etc. I couple that with the things above to really make the other characters shine.

Taking Notes

When you are a GM, you are used to being “on” for the entire length of the game. As a player there is a lot of downtime. Sometimes that downtime can seem boring for a Player-GM. Bored players can cause a lot of disruption. First, they can throw off the GM. If you look bored (even if you are not), the GM might start to worry if you are having a good time, or start shifting the game unnecessarily to try to make it less boring for you. Second, you may become a player distraction, side talking to other players or doing something else to occupy your time (phone) that distracts other players. My personal solution to combating this is to stay busy by taking notes. I bring some index cards and I write down what is going on.

Notetaking keeps me occupied, so I am fully engaged, and the copious notes I have help to keep the details of the game straight. I can then use those notes to help keep the group focused on the story and keep the GM from having to repeat herself.

Don’t GM From The Other Side of The Screen

In my time as a Player-GM, I have been in some not so well executed games. I’ve been in games where the GM was inexperienced, and made some of the classical bad moves like blocking or reading from boxed text. There is this urge to jump up right then at the table, and show them how its done. Don’t do that. Every one of us has run a bad game, and many of us have had to hone our skills into the smooth and fine GM’s we are today. Being corrected right at the table is more likely going to shut the GM down or embarrass them, than to have taught them anything. When these things come up, don’t correct the GM. If you want to provide critique, provide it after the game, in private, in a constructive manner.

Now from a player perspective, if you find yourself in some kind of gaming nightmare, or suddenly the table has become unsafe, more direct action, including leaving the game, may be in order. You will know which is which.

Using Your Powers For Good

Being a player can be a lot of fun, and you can make it more fun for your fellow players and GM by putting some of your GMing skills to use on the other side of the screen. By helping to follow the story, assist in the flow of the game, and to be supportive of the other characters, you can help to elevate the game.

How often do you get out from behind the screen? What are some of the good things you do as a Player-GM to make a better game for all? What are some of the challenges you face when you are playing and not GMing? What are you doing as a Player-GM to make the game more fun for everyone?

5 Comments (Open | Close)

5 Comments To "The Player-GM"

#1 Comment By Scott Martin On September 18, 2015 @ 11:54 am

I had an experience like this on Wednesday, where a new GM stepped up to run, but I had also prepped in case we had a lot of players. At times, it was hard to bite my tongue, but I tried to keep my fellow players focused. It was tricky, because there were a lot of NPCs to keep straight, but we got through the session.

Afterwards, we spoke away from the table for a bit, and it became clear that he didn’t really understand that the setup was for a prison-break type scenario, with extensive small advantages piled up and extensive interaction. That said, we’re in an interesting place a little ahead of schedule… so we’ll see how next week goes.

#2 Comment By Scott Martin On September 18, 2015 @ 12:02 pm

The most recent fast cast touches on being a good player from a similar perspective: [3]

#3 Comment By Brekke668 On September 19, 2015 @ 6:45 pm

I try very hard when I am a player to be a player and put my DM brain aside. I remind myself that I am not running this game and to let the DM run it even if I would not have necessarily run it that way. I try to be supportive without being over bearing. There are some great suggestions here. Even before I became a DM I took notes. I sometimes wish I had a player in my game who took the notes the way I do.

#4 Comment By Joseph Collins On September 21, 2015 @ 11:10 am

I’ve recently started using index cards exactly as I do when reffing: one for each PC and major NPC, as well as major plot points. They tell me where the relationship with that PC is at (rather than letting it be coloured by my relationship with the player) and gives me a lead into all sorts of interesting interactions (we play a pretty role-play heavy game where personal stories take precedent over killing and robbing – there’s still plenty of action too though). They work a treat and I think they take some pressure off the GM.

#5 Comment By Philmagpie On September 22, 2015 @ 12:14 am

Hi Phil,

Great article.

I was keen to follow the advice to play, but have limited time. Thus, I joined a play-by-forum game at RPG Geek. Many of your suggestions apply to online gaming too. Pbf can be a useful option for the busy GM.

All the best
Phil

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