Greatest Hits 2013: DMs Are the Worst Players

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on December 20, 2013

While the Dungeon’s Master team enjoys some well-deserved vacation time, we’re breaking out the greatest hits and shining a spotlight on a few of our favourite articles from 2013. We’ve searched for hidden gems that our newer readers might have missed and our long-time readers will enjoy reading again. Enjoy a second look at these greatest hits from Dungeon’s Master.

This article talks about the difficulties some DMs have going from being a DM to being a player. We provide 11 guidelines that, if followed, should make the transition easier. Today I’d like to share a tale about how I handled a difficult former DM turned player at my table.

Earlier this year I had a player at my table during a public play game who was a regular DM in his home game. He’s a good player, and I’m sure he’s a great DM, but he’s obsessed with optimizing. On the plus side, you really have to know the rules backwards and forwards to get the most out of character optimization. On the negative side, his characters are often so much more powerful than the rest of the PCs in the party it makes it difficult for me as the DM to challenge him and not kill everyone else. On top of that, he’s an Alpha personality and likes to be the party leader (in and out of character).

Looking at the list of tips for DMs turned players presented in the original article below; I’d say he rides the list right down the middle. He does about half of the good things but is guilty of committing the other half of the grievances. The trait that I think he finds hardest to shake is giving up control – which is why he usually tries to take on party leadership. The challenge is that he often tells (rather than suggests) other, newer players what action to take on their turn.

Now I’ll admit that I’m guilty of this from time-to-time. The fountain of experience bubbles up and I want to make sure that other players take the best action on their turn. So I understand where the need to pipe up and say something comes from in DMs turned players. But I’ve had it happen to me as a player and I see it a lot as the DM so I know how annoying it can be.

Here’s how I handled the situation. First and foremost I talked to the offending player. On numerous occasions I reminded him that his turn was over and he needed to let the other players take their turn without interference. I’ve also explained to the whole table that from time to time I may skirt the rules as written if it will make the play experience better.

When the DM turned player wasn’t at the table one week I challenged the rest of the players to take on the role of party leader and not to defer to just one PC. I reminded them that they can do whatever they want with their character and although other players may offer suggestions they should never feel pressured to follow that advice.

The final step I took was insisting that players could only talk to each other if their PCs were close enough to hear one and other. As the DM turned player liked to play characters that often broke party ranks to do his own thing, this forced him to be more of a team player or keep quiet.

By combining all of these steps the player finally settled into a happy balance. He still offered suggestions (which in all fairness were usually great suggestions), but only when situations allowed it. The other players started challenging his automatic status as leader and the responsibility became a shared one. He’s still a tough player to pin down, but he’s certainly come a long way since transitioning from DM to player.

From January 11, 2013, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: DMs Are the Worst Players.

They say that doctors make the worst patients; well I truly believe that DMs make the worst players. After DMing for long stretches DMs get used to having something to do all the time. They’re used to tracking initiative, running all the monsters, adjudicating rule disputes, playing the NPCs, and basically controlling the world. But when they give up the DM’s seat and go back to being one of the players all they have to worry about is running one character. For some DMs it can be a difficult transition. And for the new DMs it can spell disaster.

This is not to say that all DMs are bad players. Some DMs make the transition gracefully. This is especially true with a close-knit group where everyone takes a turn behind the screen. It’s the DMs who run the show for extended periods of time, especially during public-play or games with newer players that the transition from DM to player causes problems.

It’s not that these DMs turned players intentionally cause problems. In fact I believe that these DMs truly believe that they are helping. However, there can only be one DM at a time and if you’re not behind the screen than you’re not the DM. You need to remember what it means to be just a player and clam down. To make the transition easier I’ve compiled a list of tips to help. I strongly encourage any DM who is giving up the reigns soon or has done so recently to review these tips.

1. Set a positive example

Younger and less experienced players will look to you for queues. After all, until recently you were the Dungeon Master. As the DM you were in the position of authority and reverence. Just because you’ve changed seats doesn’t diminish your stature to those players. Show the new DM some respect and the table will follow your lead. Exemplify all the positive traits that you expected from players when you were the DM. This includes paying attention, even when it’s not your turn, having an accurate character sheet, and knowing what you’re going to do when your turn comes around.

2. Demonstrate creativity

If you’ve been he DM for a while you likely have considerable gaming experience. Show off your experience by playing your character in a creative way. Describe your actions and add the details that many players overlook. When it comes to role-playing try to stay in character as much as possible. Think outside the box and let the rule of cool be your guide. Push the limits of what you think your PC is capable of accomplishing. Encourage the DM and the other players to say yes. Just remember not to push things too far or argue if the new DM does not allow something. Remind the other players that they are not limited to just what’s printed on their character sheet.

3. Promote participation

As the former DM, many players may look to you to take on the role of party leader. Any time the group has to make a decision they’ll often turn to you and expect you to offer a suggestion. Former DMs like this because it is a small taste of the power they gave up when they stopped being the DM. Don’t do it! When the party looks to you, try to get the other players involved. Even when I’m the player I take notes on what everyone else’s is playing. During social interactions I turn to the PCs with the highest Charisma scores (Bards, Sorcerers, Paladins); during physical challenges I turn to the PCs with the highest Strength and Constitution (Fighters, Barbarians, Wardens). Try to get everyone involved rather than hog the spotlight.

4. Ensure a smooth transition

Have a polite and frank discussion with the new DM before you take a seat at his table. Let him know that if he needs help, you’re right there. Also let him know that you respect his authority as the DM and will not step on his toes. This may be a difficult conversation, especially if you don’t really know the new DM or you don’t think he’ll do as good a job as you did. In either of these cases keep your negativity to yourself. Be supportive. Having this talk will boost the new DMs confidence which will make the gaming experience better for everyone, including you.

5. Don’t be critical

Every DM brings his own style to the job. Some DMs like games that include a lot of hack and slash while others prefer puzzles and role-playing. Regardless of what the new DM’s style happens to be, don’t criticize, even if it’s the polar opposite of your style. You had your chance and you’ll likely have your chance again, until then sit down and shut up. This goes double if it’s the new DMs first time.

6. The new DM is the boss

Some DM’s have a really hard time letting go of the power when they revert back to the player’s chair. It’s tempting to correct a DM if they make the wrong call. Your job is not to be the rules lawyer, your job is to run your character. If the DM asks for your thoughts on a ruling, provide it, otherwise bite your tongue and let the game continue. The new DM’s word is final, not yours. If some egregious mistake happens consider talking to the new DM privately after the game and not in the middle of the adventure in front of the other players.

7. Help other players

If another player is unsure about how their power works or they miss some detail about a monster’s aura, by all means, help them. You’re still a fountain of DM knowledge even if you’re not the DM at this second. Don’t feel that you can’t say anything. You can and should still be helpful, especially when it comes to the other players. Just remember that if they have a question about a questionable or confusing ruling that you should defer to the DM.

8. Lead by example

There are times when a DM will expect or just hope that the players do certain things a certain way, yet they don’t. Sometimes it’s because they don’t know any better, sometimes it’s because they don’t think it will work. When you become the player demonstrate these things through your play-style. If the players don’t see the value in assisting, show them. If they don’t think it’s worth while using rituals, show them otherwise. If players don’t understand how readying an action works make a point of doing it a few times until they get it.

9. Create a cool character

This may seem obvious, but more often than not I see players make the same stereotypical characters over and over again: Elvin Ranger, Halfling Rogue, Dragonborn Paladin, Goliath Warden, Dwarven Cleric, Drow Sorcerer. Usually these race/class combos are chosen because they offer some mechanical benefit. Play against type and show the other players that having slightly lower stats doesn’t completely gimp a PC. Show them that making a few less than optimal choices can add awesome flavour and make for a truly remarkable character. Take non-combat feats like a Weapon Proficiency, Skill Training or a Multiclass feat. This kind of decisions can often set two very similar characters apart.

10. Separate DM and Player knowledge

Don’t share knowledge you have about the monsters, the map, or the adventure with the other players. Unless the party rolls successful knowledge checks they shouldn’t gain your DM knowledge about the monster’s vulnerabilities. Of course this goes for you too. Just because you know the monsters have a really low Will defense doesn’t mean that your character knows that. Try to stay in character.

11. Have fun

Some players take D&D way too seriously. DMs are often the worst offenders. Take a deep breath and remember that this is a game and that you’re supposed to be having fun. Try to promote a relaxed and entertaining environment. If you loosen up and have fun, the other players will follow suit.

What other tips would you suggest for DMs who have a hard time transitioning to the role of player? What are some of the worst offenses you’ve seen at your gaming table? How have you handled former DMs turned bad players in your group or at you FLGS?

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1 Brian December 20, 2013 at 6:15 pm

I don’t think DMs make the worst players – I game with a group of DMs and they’re great to game with – helpful, creative, rules-competent, and willing to move things forward even if it means taking risks.

Number 10 I don’t really agree with. Mostly because I believe metagaming is good, and I give that info out to anyone who asks. I had the following conversation at a recent game:

Player 1 (a new player): “How many HP does this thing have?”
Player 2 (an experienced player): “You’re not supposed to know that.”
Me (DM): “317. It started at 352.”

I don’t see how even knowing exactly what the monster’s stat block looks like spoils anything. And even if an experienced player does start using potentially out of character knowledge, rather than trying to police it, use it as an opportunity to flesh out his character. Instead of going:

PC: “I pull out my torch–”
DM: “You don’t know trolls are vulnerable to fire, you little metagamer!”


PC: “I pull out my torch…”
DM: “Cool! You kill some trolls! How did you know that they were vulnerable to fire?”
PC: “Ummmm… trolls killed my family! I’ve studied them ever since, so I can exact my vengence!”

2 dan December 21, 2013 at 1:19 am

I can see how playing with a DM can be tough, at least for new players. When it comes to metagaming, well, anyone can do it, but I think it should be kept to a minimum. When it can be explained away after by character fleshing, great, but otherwise, I think the character’s discovery is just as fun, as long as you don’t create new characters that learn the same things often. Other things could just be common sense, like if it is a creature used to cold, it may be weak to fire, or a fire imp being doused in a nearby cask of ale. Quick thinking and creative solutions are better in my mind than saying “oh, a troll, let’s use fire, because I know they are weak against it”
Of course, holding a torch in a cave to see and using 2 weapon fighting with it to kill a troll would be a happy accident.

Also, I enjoyed this post, but are there any posts that would work the other way? For helping a player step out of their comfort zone to DM? I feel like some issues may stem from not taking control, and almost acting as a player, or self-insertion through NPCs.

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