Advice for transitioning from GM to player?

I’ve been GMing fairly regularly for ~15 years, but I’ve always been the only person willing to GM in my group. I’ve played as a player in some one shots, both local and at cons, but nothing long term. That is, until recently. I’ve finally had a couple people in my regular two games interested in stepping up to try GMing.

So I’m very familiar with RPGs at large, and I’ve read a decent amount of player advice in the past, but I’m wondering if anyone’s got resources or advice specifically for switching from GM to player. Any common pitfalls? Things to watch out for? What tools do players have at their disposal that GMs usually don’t that I can finally pull out and play with?

Thanks!

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While there is a certain freedom in only having to worry about your paper person and their relationships with other PC’s, you have to disassociate from the comparisons you might make between the other DM’s style and your own.

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I don’t have any specific resources to offer, but I’ve been navigating this sort of transition recently myself. My long-time group (~2.5 years) wrapped up the campaign I was GMing, and one of the players in that group has now started running a “sequel” campaign set in the same world maybe 50 years later, with mostly the same players and me as a player. The new GM is an experienced GM, but this is his first time running a PbtA game.

The game is actually a game I wrote/designed (a hack of Dungeon World), which is great (I get to play in my own game) but it just enhances how awkward the transition can be.

The toughest part of the transition, IMO, is not learning to be a player, it’s navigating the shift in authority and roles. I no longer should be the defacto authority figure at the table, nor do I want to be. But the inertia of having been the GM for so long (and in my case, having designed the game) is pretty powerful. And there’s some stuff I want to see in the game as an active, engaged player that the new GM doesn’t naturally do. And the new GM is still learning the tricks and best practices for running this particular type of game.

So I’m walking this tightrope between wanting to prop up and defer to the GM and wanting to give him feedback and advice on running the game, between wanting to step back and let him have the reins and wanting to dig into stuff that other players say and ask all sorts of questions about them, and that’s tricky. Kinda stressful, actually.

Things I’ve been doing to try to help:

  • Making myself useful by taking on the role of note-taker; if nothing else, it keeps me occupied during the game and I’ve got less time/mental energy to devote to kibbitzing or nitpicking
  • Tabling feedback until after the session. If there’s something the GM is doing that I don’t like, I’ll try to make a note and then address it after play, so as not to derail the session
  • Trying to point out rules to the GM rather than explain them. E.g instead of describing how Discern Realities works, suggesting that maybe this is Discern Realities and pointing out where they can find that rule.
  • Being a fan of the other characters. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with one player being an active fan of another player, and asking questions about “what that looks like” or “how are they feeling about __”, or suggesting scenes with each other, etc. That’s something I do aggressively as a GM (and the new GM less so), and as a player I’ve been trying to continuing doing it but from a stance of fandom and interest. I’ve definitely stepped it down a notch from when I’m GMing, but I still do it and I think it’s a good thing for any player to do in moderation.
  • Do what I can to lighten the GM’s cognitive load. Especially since it’s a new-to-this-system GM, unfamiliar with this style of GMing, everything I can do to make him have to think about less stuff makes the game go more smoothly. So while I’ll try not to interject rules stuff while he’s talking to someone, I’ll (of course) answer any questions posed to me, and I’ll try to answer questions other players have about their character sheets, moves, etc. on the side or during breaks or whatnot. And, again, taking notes helps.
  • Actively remind myself that everyone GM’s differently, and that’s cool. It sometimes takes very conscious thought, and I still sometimes get that "but that’s not how I would’ve done it! moments, but it helps me if I relax and chill out about that.
  • Try to focus on portraying my character. Seems like it should be obvious, but it’s not. Because I’m so used to being the GM, focusing on one character, and really getting into that character, doesn’t come so naturally to me. I tend to be thinking more about the big picture than just what my character is doing or thinking or feeling, and it helps to narrow my focus to just me and my I am going to do next.

I don’t always successfully do these things, but I’ve been trying. And it’s helped. Still a little stressful, but getting better.

Interested in what others have to say.

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SO MUCH THIS. As a GM I cannot tell you how glad I am to have players at my table that ask tons of questions. Ask the questions about stuff you want to know about the other characters. It makes everything more textured and full.

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This is great advice. The sentiment of navigating the adjusted authority roles is very good.

The new GM in one of my groups has never GMed before, and he’s actively seeking out my advice and feedback as often as he can. I think I should spend some energy making sure he knows he doesn’t have to get my approval before acting (and same for everyone else, though we’re an extremely collaborative table).

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An advice I’d give is keep a slice of your brain in GM mode so you can see what cues the new GM is trying to give. Be the player you wish you had, be interested in what they present and try to get everyone else on board as well.

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The GM is just another player, so you’ve got this! Here’s my list of positive, prosocial player behavior - all of this applies to being a GM, too, so you’re already an expert.

Share

  • Listen actively
  • Incorporate and reincorporate others’ ideas. Reduce, reuse and recycle the fiction.
  • Offer ideas when necessary or appropriate
  • Grab the spotlight when appropriate, but shine it elsewhere more often

Restrain yourself

  • Only offer ideas when necessary and appropriate
  • Be patient and kind.
  • Listen more than you talk.

Be interesting

  • Make your character interesting to everyone.
  • Have strong, clear goals and motivations as a player and a character
  • Explicitly and implicitly tie your character to others.
  • Accept lower status.
  • Aim to delight.
  • Make trouble! Plot and scheme!
  • Give your character weaknesses and hooks.
  • Build, escalate and break patterns.

Play With Commitment

  • Be your guy
  • Play transparently and honestly.
  • Really sell character personality and emotion. Play a real character, according to the game’s fiction and theme.
  • Strongly advocate for your character and the elements you control.
  • Allow in-game events to change your character.
  • Absorb the rules and use them vigorously.
  • Lose enthusiastically and fail in interesting ways.

Observe

  • Shepherd the plot - keep an eye out for fictional loose ends and tie them together.
  • Identify and help to correct problems wherever they occur.
  • Be a fan of other players characters and contributions.
  • Respect cause and effect.
  • Help pace the game.

Respect others

  • Remember that people are more important than the game.
  • Use personal space and volume to communicate appropriately .
  • Giving other players the physical and temporal space they need.
  • Help others with rules and concepts.
  • Encourage occasional breaks.
  • Ask for feedback.

(Your mileage will vary! A lot of this was inspired by or stolen from John Stavropoulos.)

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You’re gonna be much more quiet than as a GM. Your workload is so much smaller and you’re likely to find yourself distracted. Or maybe not. I can only speak for myself there.

Finding ways to occupy your time productively while listening to your fellow players is key. like take pictures of what’s going on, take notes, label stuff, etc.

For specific advice, I’d echo what others have said about being fans of other characters. That’ll get you super far. Especially when you use that GM brain to ask cool questions about your fellow PCs.

For more general advice I really like the book Play Unsafe by the maker of cthulhu dark ttrpg system.

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I’ve been my online group’s GM for 5 years. Improving the way I GM is important to me. One way that I do that is to focus on a specific aspect of being a GM, either generally or specific to the game, each month. During sessions I place a Post-It on my monitor as a reminder. Recently I’ve been missing some triggers for Discern Realities in my weekly Dungeon World game, so I’ve had the trigger for the move stuck to my monitor for the past three weeks.

Only in the last year have some of the other players started GMing for the group, allowing me to be a player for the first time in years. My transition echoes what the others have said as far as stepping back and focusing on portraying your character.

I am just now realizing I can use the Post-Its here as well. Each session I can focus in on one of the tips or strategies mentioned above.

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I see GMing/Facilitating/Running traditional games as been akin to driving a car.

You all get into the same car together, but someone has to be steer the wheel, pump the gas, push the brakes. That’d be the GM. Players are our passengers. Some like the sleep though the whole trip, some are actively trying to engage with others, help make the journey more enjoyable. Then someone fart two hours into the trip and laugh while everyone else complains that they should start using deodorant.

You’re an experienced driver. You’ve been doing it for a long time. If your friends are offering to do it the best thing to do is to be there for them when they need you. Don’t be a backseat driver, telling them how to do things as stuff is happening.

But if they ask, be kind in your responses, understanding, and above all treat them how you’d like to be treated. And to your fellow players, try to engage with them on their terms, and help create an ambience of caring, and peace. It’ll make your driver’s work a lot easier if there are no people yelling at each other constantly in the backseat.

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I always have a tricky time with this as well, so you’re not alone on that. Glad to see so much excellent advice!

I love this analogy!

GMs can make incredible players, if they can avoid the urge to be a “backseat driver.” As a GM, you should be used to reading the room and figuring out where the action is headed, and clearing the way. Keep doing that! What @Jeremy_Strandberg said about being a fan of the other characters is spot on—if another PC is driving the action, be a good supporting actor. On the other hand, if the other players have that deer in the headlights look and the GM is having trouble hooking them, lead the way and engage with what they’re bringing to the table.

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Once I was on a talk about LARPs where the speaker talked about the way of the larper. They said that usually when you are a player sooner or later you go and design and run your own game, and then you come back to being a player, but now you’re a better player. I think the same goes for RPGs - if you GMed, you usually know how to be a good player. Being a GM is an advantage, not an obstacle.

That being said, I’m usually the designated GM of my tables, even when we play GM-less games people turn to me for decisions, since I’m usually the one who’s introducing the game. I just recently started to play more. This thread gives excellent advice, but there is one thing that I’ve found very helpful, and it’s: I can do this for me. I can keep it simple.

I mean of course I GM because I love to do it, but as a GM I strived to make things interesting for everyone, for quality, for interesting story, for plot twists, all that stuff. And, as a player, it is very important to keep things interesting for other players and to be a fan of their characters, yes. But you can also just go for this overused trope you’re a fan of and don’t worry that your players will cringe or see right through it. You can go for maximum drama or for silliness and you don’t have to think as much about the fun that others are having. You can actually say “hey, I want to play this and that this session, it would be cool if y’all gave me space or some occasion to do it”, and it’s okay, welcome even. As a GM I love having players that know what they want, but it took me a long time to realize that yes, as a player I can just communicate what I need, grab it and have fun with others without worrying if it’s attractive, interesting or cool enough. Simply put, I think the main difference between GMing and playing is that you can (even should!) prioritize your own fun a bit more when you play than when you GM, and it can be the hardest part of the whole transition :wink:

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Some great advice here - I’d like to add this article by Elina Gouliou https://site.pelgranepress.com/index.php/playing-to-lift-making-characters-shine/

When people do the things in this article at the table it makes the game feel amazing. In short - if you are a high charisma character but the other players just react to you like your nothing special then you don’t get to feel and play that part of your character. If the other characters react like you’ve got charisma then it lifts you up. If everyone does this to everyone then the game just flies.

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I’ve read some good general advice on being a player on Grant Howitt’s now semi-defunct blog that I think is worth sharing. http://lookrobot.co.uk/2013/06/20/11-ways-to-be-a-better-roleplayer/

A lot of the information is probably common knowledge by now, especially since you’re not new to TTRPGs in general, but it’s still good to have a reminder once in a while. :slight_smile:

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Reading the above thread if you are stepping down to be in a player in a group that has people new to GM’s be their ally and mentor as well.

You may also want to look at games that share traditional GM responsibility.

Enough people have mentioned the “don’t be a back-seat driver” idea enough that it doesn’t really need more emphasis. But, if you’re anything like me, you’ll have a well-tuned response to step in and fill gaps, make suggestions, and other GM-type roles. Err on the side of fewer contributions to the table rather than more. I would not offer feedback to the GM unless they specifically ask for it: let them find their feet and build their own confidence.

As for what players get over GMs: enjoy the exploration of the world, setting, situation, and the character. For the first time in a while, you won’t know what’s really going on in the game, and that’s liberating! Think of ways to bring your character’s goals and choices to the table, pursue them, and make bold actions.

You’ll probably be very aware of what gambits the GM is putting in for future engagement, so dive into those, whether they be calls to adventure or opportunities to show character choices and personality. As well as being a fan of the other players, be a fan of the GM and their game.

Finally, enjoy not needing to do anything like as much prep!

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Oh yes! I have to say that watch out for this one (having a lower workload and getting distracted). Be careful not to be that “bored” player that takes out their phone (or whatever behavior that cues others into distraction and signaling the game is boring). Recognizing your needs is very useful and can allow you to avoid games that won’t provide those.

For example, in my case, I have very limited time to game (compared to what I’d like to, anyways). For me personally, I find I need games that allow me to flavor the world to some extent (I can’t just play behind the players eyes, unless the GM is giving us a lot of leeway to do role-playing). This means I either lean towards games where everyone does some GM-type things: GM-less games, or those that give player narrative authority, or GMs that play with a “writer’s room” approach (as @jasoncordova is fond of saying on the various podcasts) or using tools such as “paint the scene” that give the players a strong impact on the world around them.

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Thanks for the responses everyone! A lot of broad feedback in here, so hopefully other people can get something out of all this, too.

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I love to hear you report back and say what worked and what didn’t!

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