Stepping Out from Behind the Screen: When A GM Finally Gets To Be A Player

As someone who is almost always the GM, it can be a strange experience to fold one’s screen and take one’s place in a different seat when someone else wants to run a game. Since tonight was the second session of my husband Steve’s Star Wars campaign, the first game I’ve played in quite a while, it seems like an opportune time to talk about this subject.

It’s a delicate balancing act. You want to have fun, and you want to be as engaged as a player as you wish your own players would be. But you don’t want to grand-stand. You want to try and avoid completely stealing the spotlight. You want to help the GM, but you want to avoid being perceived as trying to run the game yourself. In this article, I’ll give some advice based on my own experiences when I close the GM’s Guide and open the Player’s Handbook.

Volunteer to Help

I’ve just finished running a Star Wars campaign, so I know the rules pretty darned well. Rather than have a lot of the other players bother Steve, I’ve told him it’s fine to have them direct questions to me. That way, Steve can keep the smooth flow going on, and I can be helpful looking up rules, giving my own interpretations of the rules when Steve asks, and so on.

There’s a fine line for this, as you need to be just as impartial with rulings as you would be in your own game. It’s too easy to Rules Lawyer your way into advantages for your character or your party, especially if the GM has a lot of respect for your opinions. When I help in this way, I try to be as factual as possible…to lay out the rules and let Steve make a ruling based on his own interpretations and to only offer the way I would rule it if he asks. It can be hard, especially if I disagree with something, but it’s all about being fair.

You can help in other ways, too. You can move figures as directed by the GM, keep track of initiative, keep track of damage done in combat, and so on. In my D&D game, I have an achievements system that we use to add a little levity to the game. Steve has made a similar system for his Star Wars game. Since I know it’s a lot of work to run the game and try to keep track of this at the same time, I volunteered to keep track of achievements for Steve. Anything that can help your GM run the game more smoothly is likely to be appreciated.

Take Your Turn, But Don’t Hog the Spotlight

When I’m playing, I want my character to be cool. I want to do things in combat that seem awesome, make people laugh, or generally add to the story of the game. At the same time, I don’t want to dominate the game and have it become a story about my character that also happens to have the other player characters in it. This is the balancing act in all games, but it can be even more difficult if you’re usually the GM. You may have really creative ideas about where things could go, and you certainly have as much right to a good time as the next player, but you need to be even more of a cooperative player, because you’re often the GM for the group.

As an example, my character in Steve’s game is a pilot, which means that he’s a fair hand at flying pretty much anything, including podracers. We have another player in the game who’s a podracer, and he and I have occasionally bantered about whether being able to fly a podracer is cool or not (my character doesn’t think so.) Our current story revolves around a podrace, and I expected that character to jump on an opportunity to get into the race. Only after he said he wasn’t planning on joining the race did I let my character brag to the other that, even though he’d never flown one, he was sure he could, because flying a podracer was no big deal. This led to my character getting involved in the qualifying race, which might mean that the other player and I could end up competing down the road if he does get involved. But I wanted the other player to have a chance to get involved first, since podracing was specific to his character background.

Lead By Example

This can be the most slippery slope, since you want to encourage the other players in their actions but not to dominate the game. The GM might have an idea of how he wants the game to go, and you can help by playing in the style he’s mentioned, thus giving the other players some idea of what the GM wants. This can be especially helpful if you’ve got newer players in the group.

In our group, one of the players has never played Star Wars before, although he’s relatively familiar with D&D 4E, which is very similar. We’ve talked before about using the environment in a fight, but he hasn’t really seen that kind of gaming in action.

Now, I live for that kind of game. I know I have powers, maneuvers, and other combat options, but I also look for environment features to take advantage of. Are there buildings to climb on and jump from rooftop to rooftop? Is there a flaming bearskin I can kick in the ogre’s face? Can I swing on a line of advertising banners, land on a big animal, and kick its flanks to make it trample opponents? That’s the kind of battlefield I like to provide to my players, and the kind I like to find myself in. If there’s something I can take cover behind, climb on, or drop on the monsters, then I’m a happy camper.

So during combat, if I’m a player, I try to be very cinematic and descriptive. I know Steve loves to build interesting environments, and he wants players to take advantage of them. So when combat ensued this evening, I tried to lead by example and use those terrain features to make combat more than just a series of “To hit” and damage calls. I did indeed use a banner of ads to swing down onto the back of a big riding beast, which I then used to trample enemies. And it helped. People began to take advantage of cover and one other player jumped on the back of a riding animal and used it to attack others.

How Do You Do It?

Have you ever made the switch from GM to player? How do you handle the change? Do you have any rules you set for yourself, in order to try and keep things going evenly? Let me know.

About GGG

Andy/GGG is a gay geek guy for sure. He's been playing D&D since he was 10, and he equates reading Tolkien with religion to some degree. He's a writer/developer for a Live Action RPG called The Isles, and he writes a comic called Circles, a gay, furry slice-of-life piece that comes out way too infrequently.

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