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Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Switching Sides

Today I wanted to talk about something that I see happening more and more, but still appears to be a bit too uncommon: switching sides.  Sides of the GM's screen, of course.  There is a very common occurrence that once you become the DM or GM it is difficult to be a player again.  Often, if you are the group's Game Master you become expected to run and know the games and players aren't confident in their ability to that job.  The expectations to answer all the questions, to know what you're doing at every moment, are overwhelming.  There is also the idea that once you go GM you know too much.  With all the rules knowledge and monster information you become the ultimate meta-gamer.  At least, that's what running a game for your GM feels like.  But I am here to tell you that these things are roadblocks that you don't need to put up for yourself.

First off, let's talk about becoming a GM for the first time.  Everyone had there first time and every GM began without knowing all those rules.  I also have a secret for you: we don't know all the rules.  But you didn't hear that from me.  What we have is the desire to tell a story, to be part of that story, even if it means we have to be on the GM side of the screen.  It is rewarding and fun, but we all know it isn't the same as being a player.  So, sometimes, a PC should take a turn at being the GM.

Why?  Maybe to give your GM a break.  Maybe because you have a story you want to tell or a game you want to run.  Hopefully, a bit of both.  Do not be afraid to try it out.  There are plenty of reasons not to worry about all those problems you might be worries about.  What it comes down to is what I am going to talk about shortly, GMs can be trusted to not abuse their knowledge because they have been where you're sitting.

Aside from that, there are ways to completely avoid some of those problems.  The first, and I mention this because I think it is something you shouldn't do, is play without your GM as a player.  That, simply put, is both unnecessary and unfair.  So how else can you avoid those worries when you first take a seat in the GM's chair?  There are a few solutions.  Play in a different world.  Play one that you are passionate about and that your group is generally unfamiliar with.  Even if your GM has heard of it, there will be things that can surprise her.  Another option is to create a world where things aren't like the norm.  Change the way a vampire is killed or the attitudes of dragons.  Surprise the other players and the old GM with twists that they could never predict.

Something that can directly result from changing worlds, is your other option, even if you stay in world.  Use a rule set that you haven't before.  This way there is not rules lawyering by your GM.  Even with the best of intentions, an old GM knows a lot and it may be difficult for them not to do so subconsciously.  Though, if such is a real concern, you have other problems and I suggest your GM looks at the next part of the article.  There is plenty he can do to not only make things easier, but help you become GM.

So, how do you help a PC become GM and how do you sit on the player's side without becoming trouble?  It is equally easy and difficult, and that is because of your experience as GM.  You have the experience playing roles that are ignorant to what you know as GM, but you are (despite not knowing everything) knowledgeable to a whole lot.  One major way to help is to help your group find a game / world to play in.  Something you want to be a part of, something the new GM wants to run, something that makes your group comfortable switching roles.

However, the easiest way to practice being a GM is by utilizing the rules you know from being a player.  There is much less of a learning curve if you have experience with the rules and sitting behind the screen will be a bit easier.  But, you will have those worries, won't you?  So how do you, the old GM, make things easier for them if this is the route you go.  Be careful and be helpful.

First off, avoid being a leader role and avoid being a very knowledgeable role.  Why, wouldn't that give reason for that knowledge?  Yes, but where do you draw the line between the smart character and the smart player?  The subconscious actions will become that much more grey.  Don't play someone stupid, unless of course you want to.   Play something you can play up plenty.  You have the character experience, so dive into your PC.  Just take care of knowing what your character knows, and especially what he doesn't.

On the other side of things, be there for the GM.  Help them with rules, tell them what to look up, make suggestions.  But do not be the controlling force of rules.  You can be a resource and a help to the newbie GM, but don't be the one that the other players go to for answers.   If the new GM makes a decision or house rule that changes things, don't fight him, accept it.  Offer help when the GM is struggling, but otherwise wait for them to ask you for help.  Help them know that they are in control of the game.

There are a lot of intricacies do doing this.  Switching sides seems very difficult, but the hardest part is just doing it.  A good group, one that works well together, will have no trouble moving around and breaking through the boundaries we have talked about.  Once you take the step, things will be fine.  And fun!  If your group wants to switch it up, don't be afraid to take the reigns.  Or, don't be afraid to play.  As with every game, respect your GM, respect your players.  Simply put, respect each other and communicate, and none of those worries will be a problem.


  1. There is also the option of troupe style play, where people GM part of the story, with much more working together to form the overall plot. Allows people to run parts of the story without the panic of all of it first time. One game that uses this style is Ars Magica

    1. I have heard of doing this, though we have never tried it. We once had two DMs alternate, but not the round robin style. Would be interesting to give it a go one day.

    2. Have to say that the round robin doesn't work so well, what we found worked better was to go for each person running a theme or story strand, and then they would develop that as part of the whole. We still had a lead GM who held things together. Working much the same way as a TV show with the lead writer/producer and then other contributing. We even at times would have plot drop-in to other peoples episodes.

      On the rules side, this meant that we all knew the rules and would contribute, at with some parts where others understood them better would get them to help out. Also major decisions and house rules where decided by the whole group together.