Two weeks ago, I wrote about a live gaming event I took part in. Last Saturday, in my group’s virtual game, we had another unusual event. I took off the mantle of Dungeon Master (DM) and I’m running a character as a player.
I needed a break. One of the others wanted to DM for a while. It worked out, but it isn’t easy. When you’ve been in a role for a while, you get used to it. That makes changing gears hard.
Being a DM
For those that don’t know (or those who play differently). The Dungeon Master is the central, but not only, story teller. He or she handles most of the behind-the-scenes details and primary plans for an adventure or series of adventures in a given world (either the DM’s own or some other (usually pre-packaged) world). DMs know a lot of behind-the-scenes information and act as the judge in terms of what is or is not possible.
Good DMs are collaborative storytellers who share story creation with their players. But even good DMs differ. Our alternate DM has a very different style than I do and a different world. My world is the one in which I write stories and books. Its rules reflect those of my books and the stories I tell. Our other DM is a serious video gamer. The conventions of his world more closely reflect those of MMORPGs than novels. It’s a different way of thinking and the resultant play is different.
As a DM, you’re far more in control than the players are. A DM can make or break a game even when multiple DMs use the same pre-constructed world or adventure. The challenge for the DM is creating a world, creating an adventure and being prepared for the things the players do and come up with (it isn’t easy!)
Being a Player
Players (usually) operate a single character within the game world. That character might be lord (even a king). She might be a high priestess with hordes of followers. He might be a solitary but powerful wizard, creating and using magical devices of tremendous power. Your character might be a master thief. Or your character may be some new kid who just wandered into the goings on of the campaign.
Players control their character (usually). They might control the pets, employees, bonds-folk, and creations of their characters, but sometimes they don’t. The challenge for the players is solving the problems and overcoming the challenges the DM throws at them. Players rarely get to make the big decisions about what happens in the campaign but they should anticipate, plan, and react to those decision (it’s a lot like being a real person… You don’t get to decide whether it rains, but you can choose to water the lawn).
Players are co-storytellers with the DM, their part is handling what their individual characters do while the DM handles the rest of the world
Transitioning (in either direction)
When you change roles, you’re giving up one level of control and taking another. Last session, our current DM kept forgetting that I wasn’t in charge anymore. Several times he waited for me to make calls. A couple of times, I forgot I’m not currently running the game and made them!
On my side of things, the transition was just as challenging. My character needed to fit the realities of the current DM’s world and not my own. I knew the world wasn’t mine, which made it easier. But our other DM doesn’t do things the way I do. It was a real fight to keep from kicking into “editor mode” and “correcting” the problems in the story. I failed once or twice (Blink Dogs teaming up with Bullywugs? Really?).
To succeed in switching off DMs, you have to switch roles. You have to accept the changes and run with it. I also recommend that each DM run a different world or champaign. It makes things simpler and the rules within a given world stay more consistent (even though you have to remember you’ve switched)
Playing fair (with yourself and the rest of your group)
One of the biggest challenges in switching DMs is making the mental switch from one game to the other. It affects all of us, but it’s harder for DMs.
It’s easy to find yourself in a tit-for-tat battle, one DM deliberately messing with and challenging other. Sometimes this means treating the other DM worse than the other players or forgetting the others while you one-on-one battle the other DM. Sometimes one DM favors the other over the rest of the group. Neither position is acceptable, the DM needs to be impartial; no favorites and no peons.
DM’s (and sometimes players) get their hands on a lot of information. This creates problems too, if you let it. As a player you need to play fair in terms of what your character knows. Just because I have a complete set of rulebooks by my gaming table is not license to whip them out and read whatever I want whenever I want.
My current character should have more access to certain information than other characters in the party (he’s a wizard who studies fey and draconic creatures you’d expect him to know more about them than the newly minted street-punk thief). At the same time, there are things my character shouldn’t know (why would my character know about the functioning of priestly magic items?).
As players, we need to separate our player knowledge from our character knowledge. And our characters should act on what they know not what we know.
Both DMs in my group try to play fair with the others in that we’ve warned everyone we have house rules and not everything is strictly ‘by the book’ (he has a thing for variant mimics and my world’s cultures (including those of elves, dwarves, etc.) are those of my books and not the standard rulebook versions). This helps reduce unfair player knowledge, but it doesn’t absolve the players of their duty to play fair.
Sometimes it’s fun to rule the world! Sometimes the ‘simple’ role of a player in someone else’s campaign is more what you’re looking for. Either way, when you shift roles from one to the other, it can be challenging. The main thing is to play fair with your group and play the role you have chosen.
That’s it for this one, dear reader. My wizard and I have to prepare for this week’s game (we’ll be ‘persuading’ a few bandits to give up their plans). Good luck with your worlds and adventures dear reader and, I’ll see you next post.