Advice for transitioning from GM to player?

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.

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  • 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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Sure! We’ve played two sessions now, so I can tell you the general trends of how it’s going. Maybe I’ll come back in another 6 weeks and let you know more.

Background: 5 players (old friends), playing online using Roll20/Discord, game is Blades in the Dark. We’re a very collaborative group - players have consistently pitched each other on ideas for things their character might do, and while I was GMing, more Devil’s Bargains were given out by PCs than by me.

The big thing I noticed in the first session was that I was that I was hogging the spotlight. I wasn’t stepping on the GM’s toes much, but I was very much putting myself front and center in every scene. I made a character who’s a forceful, strong personality leader, and we picked a score that was reliant on my social skills more than some of the other players’ skills, but all the same. Not a great habit.

I was also very much getting distracted by drawing when I wasn’t in the spotlight (very excited about doing character portraits). I made a conscious choice to close all the programs I wasn’t using for RPG playing for the second time around, and to make sure I was actively listening to other players’ scenes.

Between sessions, the GM asked me for feedback and advice, and we had a great conversation about GMing practices. He’s clearly got a different set of GMing skills than I do, but it was still great to talk about what we agree on and what we don’t when it comes to GMing. Good stuff. He’s definitely interested in getting my feedback on his GMing, but I think he’s doing great already. GMing is hard and intimidating, and I think just hearing “yeah, you’re doing it right, keep it up” is what anyone needs to hear when they get started. Anyway, we’re keeping this to post-session conversations, and this is going well.

I also spent some time specifically thinking about “how can I make the lives of the other PCs more interesting?” I wanted to make sure in the second session that I (1) gave other people spotlight time and (2) used my time to develop relationships with others (serving the double purpose of highlighting relationships more and sharing my spotlight with others). This was very much coming out of the advice about continuing to be a fan of the other characters even as a player,

In the second session, I mostly succeeded at doing this. Everyone had good scenes, though I again felt like I was taking up too much time with my own scenes. But at least this time, other people were included in those scenes! I developed compelling relationships with all three of the other PCs, we had a great almost-date, a lot of foreshadowing of inter-party conflict, good stuff.

Another thing I noticed was that I would often fall into my pattern of essentially grilling another player about a thing their character was doing: “what is it you want? Why do you want that now? Are you people watching people from in the middle of the crowd, or up on the roof across the street?” On the one hand, this feels similar to the backseat driving thing: I’m literally doing the thing I do for 80% of the time I’m GMing. On the other, I’m not convinced it’s a bad thing to do. I love it as a GM when my players get excited about anything, and if I’m asking questions like this, I’m engaging another player, and I’m excited about a thing. This kind of digging into the details of a scene or an action or a moment is my favorite part of RPGs, so I’m disinclined to stop doing this, but I’m also wary about it meaning I step on the GM’s toes / take up even more talking time, so I’m keeping an eye on this habit.

Going forward, I’m gonna try and double down on my session 2 plan: try harder to take a step back and give others space, and actively think about ways (both ahead of time and in the moment) to bring others forward when I have the chance to. I’m really excited about a player philosophy built on “what can I do that’s going to make [character]'s life complicated?”

But overall, game seems to be going great so far!

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Sounds good Sam. One thing you might consider in the GMing discussions, as well as saying where the new GM is doing well, is to highlight and discuss things you had trouble with. – when you’re practiced at presentation it can be really easy for it to look like you’ve got everything handled. Hearing about your own uncertainties and judgement calls might be very useful as they find their feet.

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So much good advice here. “Be the player you wish you had” is the best summing-up.

I haven’t done the GM to player transition yet, though I hope to soon, as I miss playing! But I’ve had what’s (I imagine) an analogous experience, because I also direct choirs and have recently started singing in a choir with a less experienced leader. It certainly gives lots to think about, and is much harder than I first imagined.

Honestly I think it’s a very good discipline all round. I learn lots, both directly from the other leader (they might be less experienced but they still do some stuff better than or differently from me), and indirectly from experiencing what it’s like to be on the receiving end of someone else’s leadership, which makes me reflect on my own practice too. Plus sometimes it can be good training in keeping my mouth shut! :slight_smile:

If you’ve been asked to give feedback, that adds an extra dimension which I’d find tricky. I don’t have much advice to offer here except to make sure you draw the line very clearly between participation (during play) and feedback (out of play, ideally in a very different environment).

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This is just slightly off topic, but I have to say it: like taking notes, doodling (or drawing, sketching, etc.) can be a way to hold your attention at the table rather than take away from it! I think this was pretty well publicized in early ‘00s regarding students and doodling in class, so you might know this already.

Also I just really love that people draw character portraits, scene, etc., while in-game. I find it very enchanting and want you to keep doing it! lol

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Something I do is ask the GM a lot of questions to help them flesh-out the scene and environment. However, I tend to avoid open-ended questions that might put my GM on the spot or burden them with coming up with something on the fly. Instead I ask questions in a more binary format, “Is the ground just wet and muddy, or is there a few inches of water covering it?” That way my GM doesn’t have to pull something out of thin air (of course they still can) but instead can pick. It’s my way of helping the GM take advantage of my 30+ years running games but in a more player-focused manner. Anyway, my GM really appreciates it!

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Hey! This thread’s been getting some traction again lately, so I thought I’d update everyone on how the game went that originally prompted me to post.

We ended up playing a ~16 session season of Blades in the Dark, and it went incredibly well. We were coming off a previous season with roughly the same group of people, so we all gelled already. The number one thing I took away from the campaign (regarding transitioning from GM to player and vice versa) is how much I love a table where the divide between GM and Player is pretty thin. I know this is a pretty popular opinion in story gaming circles, but I’m here to underline it. We had several NPCs that a “player” created, the “GM” took over, and then later were taken back by the players that created them to play as PCs as our standard PCs died / retired / were kidnapped. That kind of interaction took place on every level, from “what is this faction up to?” down to devil’s bargains and one particularly memorable cold cup of tea.

Another manifestation of that idea is that part of the “GM”'s job is to enjoy watching the PCs get into trouble. Bringing that same mindset to being a player was really, really important. Our game was a ton more compelling because everyone was so willing to watch their PCs end up in really rough situations; no one was over-protective of their person.

As a player, the thing I started doing early on that was most helpful was to spend a little time between each session thinking about what trouble I wanted to see visited upon the other PCs in the game: “what happens if Jem’s girlfriend finds out she’s also a wanted criminal? How would Luc react if someone started digging into his past?” etc etc. Then I’d find a way to justify my character making those things happen, and the other players would never react the way I expected, I could play off of that, and we were off to the races. I’m now back in the GM seat, and I’m currently trying to do a better job of bringing that same mindset to the GM role instead of my usual “here’s the world, do what you want” sandboxy approach.

On top of that, I learned to try and make sure to come into every session with a couple things I knew my PC wanted to pursue. The Blades equivalent of “oh crap, is it my turn in combat again? I guess I… uh… let me read my spells…” has proven itself to be “oh, it’s downtime? What are the downtime actions again?”, so at the very least I tried to know what my downtime actions were likely to be, and preferably I had 2-3 overarching goals for my char and concrete ways to work on them.

On my relationship with the first-time GM: we fell into a nice rhythm with the GM where I just let him do his thing during play, and then I’d occasionally have short advice for him after a session, or he’d ask me about something that went down. It also turned out that he wasn’t great at or interested in being really on top of the rules of the game, so I was able to carry that mental load for him by being the designated “person who knows the answer to that rules question”. Also also turned out that I’m the person in my group who’s best at keeping people on track and setting the pace of play – I’m very good as a GM at saying “alright, but back to the subject at hand…”, and I figured out how to do that as a player without undercutting the GM’s plan or scenes I wasn’t involved in. I learned how helpful it is as a GM to find work you can offload to other players, whether that’s beginning of session recaps, resource tracking, rules knowledge, or whatever.

I want to thank everyone who gave me advice in this thread. It was great advice and conversation, and I can’t wait to keep bringing the lessons I learned to future games.

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