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When GMs become Players

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin
Staff member
Wizard of Adventure
Wizard of Combat
Wizard of Story
Recently I had three game sessions that made me realize something.

The first was a game that I GMed. I'm usually a theater of mind GM with many vivid descriptions and I regularly hear from my players that they were constantly on edge during combat and loved the rise and fall of every moment (if I may say so myself). Of course there are exceptions.
Anyway, I don't find it hard to describe vividly in combat as a GM.

The second was a Borderland game run by @JochenL last week. Now I was a player. I had a hard time describing the actions in a way that was interesting, vivid or fun. At least for me it felt less than usual (when I GM myself). So I thought about what the reason could have been. Somewhere else I commented then that I had the impression that the combat descriptions up to that point didn't lead to it and that there was no combat story. Although I like combat story, this was not the reason for my lack of fulfilling decription, as I now realize.

The third was a dungeon fantasy game run by @Morvar yesterday. Although I had very much fun, I again noticed that after hearing great descriptions by our GM and then suddenly being asked what my PC does, made my decriptions fail me. It was not that I didn't know what to do. And it was neither that it was sudden. I was prepared. I knew what I wanted to describe. I have a vivid imagination. But nevertheless, it was not the same as if I had been a GM in that situation.

So what is it then? Do I suffer from an impression that I lack freedom to describe the surroundings? Is it the different tone of the GM descriptions and my own natural tone for descriptions that make me stumble? Or is it indeed the suddenness? Or my focus on rules and rolls when a player instead of GM?

I'm still trying to figure this out.
Do any of you have experienced similar shifts when becoming a player?
 

Morvar

Member
Wizard of Combat
Hey.
Short answer: No, I do not know that. Or rather, it is not so pronounced.

Long answer: But I recognize the same tendencies with me. The advantage for me as an GM is that I can fully give in to my natural improvisation if I want to. As a player, even with a fairly free system and good game masters like @JochenL, there are still tight limits. E.g. rule restrictions... The system does not allow you to attack and draw the potion...

Another point can be that one simply concentrates too much on metagaming. The rules dominate the scene in the head... I have made the experience with my players that a certain free handling of rules, not the ignorance of them, make the game flow much better.

As last.... Don't worry about trying to describe everything perfectly. Just do it. Unlike your role as GM, you don't have to have everything IN SIGHT. Try to go along with the mood....
 

ExileInParadise

RPG Therapist
Staff member
Wizard of Adventure
Wizard of Story
I would agree that you are feeling a bit of a "restriction" from the shift.

The focus is entirely different - you are only responsible for the one (or so) PC, rather than *everything else*

The story you're telling, and its direction is much more dependent on "outside forces" than you are used to as a GM.

Playing within someone else's sandbox is different than providing the whole sandbox for others to play their parts in.
 

FoxMikeLima

New member
Wizard of Combat
I think many times it's about the feeling of narrative control and the push and pull of description, which varies DM to DM.

The DM wields narrative control through most of the game. The only time it's really handed off to the players is when they're prompted for an action. Often times the DM describes your actions after a resolution of dice, and so whenever that description and the one you suggested deviate from each other, which happens from time to time, it feels like your narrative control is overridden. As a DM I've been guilty of this when a player in the heat of combat describes an attack in a cool way, and in the transition to the next players turn I accidentally describe a resolution that didn't make sense based on their description. My description has now superseded theirs. I'm usually quick to correct it when i notice it, but I'm sure there are times that I do not.

When I play my Land Druid in my friends game, I usually describe the way in which he casts spells and wields control over the earth and ice (Mountain Region). Usually he just lets my description land and adds little to nothing to it. When other players don't describe their actions, the DM does it for them most times. His dynamic approach to adding only as much description as necessary in the void of what the player left is a good approach towards allowing those players that want to add vivid descriptions the freedom to do so while also allowing players that aren't doing that to feel awesome.

It's something I want to try and emulate, as well as adding things like Cinematic Advantage (Thanks Sly Flourish) to incentivize my players describing their actions in cool and interesting ways.

I've also found that asking my players to add an interesting feature of a monster or to describe them felling a monster are good ways to tell my players "It's okay if you interject flavor and description into my world, I invite you to do so."
 

JohnnFour

Game Master
Staff member
Demonplague Author
Wizard of Adventure
Beta-Tester
Gamer Lifestyle
Wizard of Combat
Wizard of Story
Great points everyone. And this is a fantastic thing to learn about yourself @Stephan Hornick!

My additional two cents:

It could be your learning, intake, and communication style.

I am not a listener. I know exactly why being an only child, anti-social, introvert. :) I have tried to get skill ranks via audiobooks, but I'm still an apprentice. I do ok with Q&A or short response type formats, but after a few moments of narrative fluff I tune out unless I spend energy points.

So, in general, people learn/communicate aurally, visually, or kinesthetically. (Hmm, that might be a great question for a future TTRPG version of the Bartle Test).

If you suck at listening to narrative like I do, good luck.

Another factor is bounding. As GM you have no bounds other than those from canon and System, Story, Setting. But as a player, you are bounded within a sub-set of the GM's bounds. I've never felt comfortable in that environment in low player-agency games.

I discovered this when playing Night's Black Agents and Blades in the Dark. Try playing higher player agency games yourself to test.

What I learned is, when given tools like flashbacks, retroactive detailing, and collaborative encounter environments ("I'm going to say there's an umbrella rack in the corner and I loop one out with my foot, swoop it up into my hand, and try to yank my foe's gun out of his grasp with it") I flourish.

And when given low-agency encounter environments typical of most D&D GMs, I suck. "Are there any umbrella racks here? No. Ok. How about tools? No. Ok. Um, I punch him. Oh wait - that'll do no damage. Ok, I swing with my sword like the last 1,000 times."

My workaround is to focus on speech. I seem to do ok with having control of anything I want my character to say. So I focus less on environment and objects and more on verbal roleplay.

A third factor for me is impact.

Detailing combat actions gets repetitive fast (how many ways can you say decapitate?), and if they are mere details with no System, Story, or Setting impact, it's just noise to me. I'd rather everyone skip the character action descriptions and keep the mechanics flowing fast, and reserve the colourful stuff for key moments. That's my System bias from the GM Triangle, and the aforementioned struggle with listening to fluff.
 

Rardian

Feature-Keeper
Beta-Tester
Wizard of Combat
Wizard of Story
Recently I had three game sessions...

I'm still trying to figure this out.
Do any of you have experienced similar shifts when becoming a player?
I would argue that those shifts strongly depend on two things.
First the GM:
Are they allowing their players the freedom to describe more than their planned actions? Do they invite the players to their sandbox, as @ExileInParadise put it? Are they even inviting them to it, as @FoxMikeLima suggests?

And if they do, does the game system support it?
That's the second thing that could influence such shifts.
Were your game sessions all with GURPS Dungeon Fantasy?
I think it's harder to come up with descriptive actions as a player when you need three turns of combat to drink a potion (i.e. one turn, one second) as opposed to definetely casting a spell of any power level, move around, and take a bonus action in D&D (1 turn, 1 minute).

And I agree with @JohnnFour on running out of cool descriptions if you try to use them all the time. Although Matt Mercer of Critical Role describes every combat action of every player, I think, without getting repetitive. Again, the abstraction of D&D is helping with that.
 

ExileInParadise

RPG Therapist
Staff member
Wizard of Adventure
Wizard of Story
Are they allowing their players the freedom to describe more than their planned actions? Do they invite the players to their sandbox, as @ExileInParadise put it? Are they even inviting them to it, as @FoxMikeLima suggests?
Exactly! The GM may be providing the sandbox - or could be simply providing judgements and rulings, while the players drive most of the sandbox.

Different games shift that "balance point" to / from GMs and Players differently.

Something like D&D leans heavily on the GM to provide the setting/sandbox and prescribes very detailed and specific "players can / players cannot'

Games like Mythic or Universalis can be GM-less - which allows the players to provide or change their own setting / sandbox ... within the session and session by session.

As a GM, when you sit down to "play" rather than "GM" or "run" a game, you are granting others the authority over some, or most, of the setting outside of the specific character you're setting out to play... unless the chosen system grants back the player agency in the form of spells and such.

Nothing quite like a wish spell to let players throw a GM a real curve ball...
 

Krogenar

Member
Wizard of Combat
I know I'm really late to this discussion, but I find I experience something similar when I become a player. I chalk it up to my being leery of overstepping the GM -- although I do describe what I do within my PC's context (how I cast the spell, speech, etc.). Also, I am aware of my being very "leader-ish" if I'm not careful. I always take the initiative if no one else takes it, but if someone else takes it I make an effort to back their play.

But if anything stalls out, I have to forcibly quiet myself. I've gone to the point where I play a character race (kenku) that has difficulty speaking so that I can let other players take the spotlight. In another campaign, I play a warforged warrior who has a tendency to declare: "I FIND THIS (INSERT PERSON/OBJECT/ORGANIZATION) TO BE OF LOW QUALITY." and then proceeds to break said entity. This way someone else can jump in before the warforged treats any given situation in too direct a way.

As a lifelong Always GM I just get really stoked about being a player and I have to check myself a little.
 
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