I think we can safely assume most GMs know ‘how’ to be a player. The real challenge is getting them to actually do so ‘properly’. Due to wielding ultimate power, most GMs have a hard time adjusting to the role of player. While they might know the books better than anyone, they also have a harder time adapting to the life of a player than anyone else; including non-gamers and small children.
The purpose of this article is not to teach a GM the rules of RPGs, but to try to give the new GM a chance to keep them in line, and teach them to be a proper player. As everyone knows, proper players stick to just one character, wait their turn, play by the rules, and get along with the other players and NPCs—for the most part.
It’s often not very hard to get a GM to try out being a player. Most GMs are eager to play the games they enjoy with others even if they must resign themselves to being a player instead of their usual role of omnipotence. The first step, getting them to play your game, is then accomplished. Step two will be much harder to implement.
Secondly, you must find some way to get the GM to give up his usual role as game creator and let you take over. If the former GM is offering up descriptions of the land, taking on the roles of important NPCs, adding elements to the game, changing the rules, skipping people’s turns, fudging the dice, or hogging the show; you have a major problem on your hands. Simply freaking out and yelling at the poor man won’t help, he only thinks he’s adding to the ‘spirit’ of the game. You must find some in-game or out-of-game way to make him see the error of his ways and game properly.
Given the incredible difficulty of step two, I’ll be offering several remedies below. All have been tested—none work. If you can actually find something to get a GM to take his rightful place as player, please let the rest of us know!
1. Shut up!
Telling the GM to simply ‘shut up’ is often the first remedy a new GM will come up with. The older, more experienced GM will be sharing his wisdom both on sports and the campaign world in general. If you yell at him loudly enough, he’ll see why he never let you GM before: you’re obviously too immature and irrational.
Trying to be the bigger man, the former GM will fall silent for five minutes. During this time, the rest of the players will heave a sigh of relief and get on with the game. The new GM will feel satisfied at a job well done, and begin several major monologues. Throughout all of this, the former GM will be observing the game. He’ll be thinking about all the countless ways his game is better, how you prattle on too much, and how all the other player’s strategies are far inferior to his own. At the end of five minutes, he’ll just have to break his vow of silence because of the utter stupidity of one of his friend’s actions.
Even if used effectively, this strategy won’t actually get the former GM to interact with your game world as a player. I think it’s safe to move on to another solution.
2. “I’ll only GM if you play properly,” or Threats
The second most commonly employed solution to the GM-as-a-player problem is to threaten the GM with exclusion from the game, or something else equally as nasty. I.e. “Play properly, or else your cat dies,” “Play properly, or I won’t GM,” and “Play properly, or you’ll wreck the game and you don’t want that.”
Being a reasonable guy, the GM will quickly agree to your terms. He wants to be in the game, after all. Unfortunately, this solution depends on the fact that the GM actually has a choice in the matter of playing properly or not. Most GMs can’t help themselves. When they see a scene which needs an extra dragon, they include one. They don’t do this out of malice, it’s just second nature to them. Fudging a 20 for a critical hit on the troll can also really suit the scene, and the former GM always wants to make a great scene.
Following through on your threat will either quickly end the game, or leave the former GM feeling helpless and abused. Like a dog who keeps running in front of semi-trucks, he just doesn’t understand what he’s doing wrong, and he can’t help himself.
So, threats are a good idea, but they assume the GM actually has the mental power to change himself. Hah, that’s likely…
3. Negative XPs
Some cunning GMs will try to teach their former GM how to be a proper player. This manipulation is often not so subtle. In-game punishments for a wayward GM can include, but are not limited to: character death, unfair rules variants, loss of wealth and magic items, suspension of powers, lack of basic equipment, disease, curses, xp penalties, and constantly getting attacked by monsters and falling into traps while the rest of the party gets on with the game.
A good GM will recognize the new GM’s need for absolute power and so will allow his character to be demoted and destroyed to no ends. After all, if he were the GM, he’d expect the same of any reasonable player. He’ll also quickly get the point if he gets xp penalties for trying to be the GM.
That said, the GM will also feel he should get xp awards for doing ‘helpful’ things with your game system and rules. If he doesn’t receive these just rewards, he’ll find something lacking in your game and won’t hesitate to point it out to you. Also, even though he’s been getting penalized for trying to be the GM, he’ll keep trying to do it in an effort to improve the game, despite the costs to his own character.
This strategy would probably work if the GM thought like a player. However, the GM’s whole mentality is to focus on the ebb and flow of the entire campaign world, and not just the character he happens to be playing at the time. This weird set of priorities makes this strategy somewhat less than effective.
This strategy is more an element of who you are, than an actual stratagem that you can employ at will. Your former GM probably respects you no ends as a fellow person and player, but to truly keep him in line requires that he acknowledge you’re a better, older, and more experienced GM than himself. Secretly, all GMs think they’re the most experienced and competent of all GMs on the planet. This makes getting respect even tougher.
A senior GM with more years of experience will have the respect of the former GM. He’ll recognize that this person is older than him, and could probably punch him in the head really hard. He’ll try his best to bite his tongue and keep with the theme of the game.
During game-play, this strategy will probably seem the most effective of all those mentioned so far. However, after the game, the GM might comment to the other players (in private) about what he felt lacking in the game. He’ll explain all the things he would have done differently, but didn’t bother to mention during the game. Secretly, he’ll always feel like he should be the GM.
5. Show her who’s Boss
If you’re former GM has been in the business any length of time, she’ll probably still feel it’s her right to be the boss of the game, even if technically you’re the GM. At the start of the game, you can make some loud announcements about how the new rules in your game will be run and explain your zero-tolerance policy. A few swift blows from your rubber bat, or some massive experience point penalties will quickly show your former GM that you mean business.
This strategy differs from ‘Threats’ in that your aim is not to punish the GM for being a GM, but to show the GM that you’re in charge and you won’t take any flak. The best way to do this is to create a few arbitrary rules and then enforce them every time. It doesn’t really matter what rules you make up, but you must make them different than how your GM usually runs the game. For example, you could outlaw the Fighter Class and implement a spell failure chance for all mages. You could also ban combat from your adventures.
Your former GM will understand what you’re trying to do, but he’ll take it the opposite way it was intended. He’ll think it’s a sign of weakness, not strength. He’ll view your arbitrary rule changes as a feeble attempt to be different than his usual, awesome games. If you copy all his usual rules, he’ll think you’re mimicking his great style. Either way, you don’t really get anything.
This strategy sounds like it would be good, but tends to fail. Your GM always thinks she’s the boss, and there’s not really much you can do about it. It’s like trying to get your employer to pretend she’s your employee. If you can pull this off, quit GMing and go for a pay raise instead.
6. Giving him Everything or Giving Up
This last strategy can be called ‘giving the GM everything’ or simply ‘giving up’ if you’re not one to mince words.
Because the former GM secretly thinks he’s the best at everything, if you reward his character with the most treasure, experience points, magic items, and have NPCs falling over themselves with awe at his awesomeness; he’ll be well pleased. Everything is as it should be.
While the GM might still find a few minor flaws in the game, he’ll be happy in the knowledge that he’s so good at the game that being a player holds no challenge for him. He’ll make it clear he prefers to be a GM, but its livable being a great hero.
The GM will make it his goal to become ever more powerful. He won’t settle for the usual upper echelons of power, but seek even higher heights. If his character isn’t completely breaking the game, he won’t be happy or satisfied. At the point where the new GM chucks his books out the windows in frustration and vows never to be GM again, the former GM will be happy with his job-well-done as a player.
This strategy is known to work, but it ticks off all your other players, and it’s liable to drive you insane. After all, if you’re not quitting out of frustration, your former GM will still be striving to drive you over the edge with his power-mongering.
Step three, assuming you’ve made it this far, your problem now is getting your GM to return to being a GM. It’s possible, though highly unlikely, that you’ve trained your GM to like being a player better than being a GM. If this happens, are you really better off? If you like being a GM, then you can count yourself lucky. If you just want your old GM back, you’ll have to beg him to run a few games. Don’t worry, controlling the universe is heady tonic and it shouldn’t take long for your GM to get back into the swing of things.
I’m sorry this article doesn’t really give you any firm answers. Getting a GM to be a player can be a tough thing. If you have a solution, feel free to share it.