DMs Are the Worst Players

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on January 11, 2013

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 Madfox11 January 11, 2013 at 10:11 am

I wonder whether it is a chicken and the egg thing. Are DMs the worst players because they are DM or are they DMs because the skills that make them good DMs, make them crappy players? Mind you, I wish my players actually were a bit more like DMs during the game. I really don’t mind if they would add the occassional tidbits to the adventure/world 😉

2 Joe Lastowski January 11, 2013 at 10:34 am

This can be a really tricky prospect, but being a DM who plays can be lots of fun, too. I DM for D&D Encounters most weeks, and also run a home game, but I still enjoy throwing down as a player in Lair Assault, and occasionally if there aren’t enough players, I’ll jump in on someone else’s table at Encounters.

With Encounters, it’s a little tougher, because I’ve read the entire adventure, and know what needs to be done out-of-character. In those situations, I’ve tried to ask questions of other players in-character that will help to lead them to the knowledge they need to complete that week’s adventure. Not that Encounters adventures typically have that many amazing secrets, but it can be a tough balance.

I’ve also seen it go horribly wrong. We had a Lair Assault DM join us on a recent go at Temple of the Sky God, and because he knew everything, he prompted us all to have characters that were totally over-prepared for what came at us, and he knew to disable certain devices that weren’t necessarily obvious, but which vastly improved our ability to destroy the adventure. The actual DM had no fun at all that game, and most of us as players felt kind of dirty taking advantage of the player-DM’s knowledge.

Regarding rules, though, a player-DM can be just as useful as a rules-lawyer player to a new DM… they are a resource that can be called upon to clarify certain rules if there is confusion.

3 Joe Lastowski January 11, 2013 at 11:51 am

One of the best games I ever played in involved the DM asking each player to write the part of the world our character came from, so that he could tailor adventures to each of our home regions as we moved around the world. It was a great balance of player-DM responsibilities. We gave him source material, and he tied it all together into intricate plots.

4 B.J. January 11, 2013 at 4:54 pm

Great article! I’ve been DM-ing a lot lately (Wednesday and Thursdays), and I sorely miss playing. I hope I have the opportunity to use these guidelines very soon!

5 Auiva January 12, 2013 at 2:26 pm

For me, transitioning back mainly into a player earlier this year, was that I was far more paranoid as a player than I had been before! My character was supposed to be more dash-into-action type, but with a relatively tight-lipped DM and having come from my own game, I suddenly was wanting to check everything, not knowing which part or overlooked detail might screw us over later. Eventually I remembered, no matter what you do, the DM will find a way to make your actions come bite you in the butt at SOME point, so you might as well do what you’re going to do until then and stop worrying about it 🙂

6 Oz January 12, 2013 at 5:01 pm

As a GM, I view getting to be a player as a break. As much as I love being a GM, sometimes it’s nice not having to keep track of anything but my own character. I think being a GM makes me a better player, as I know the player habits that annoy me and slow the game down and try to avoid them. I am also willing the quickly acquiesce in a rules disagreement to keep the game moving… if it’s not going to kill a character consult books and argue about it later. Basically I play how I want my players to play.

7 Bzarn January 23, 2013 at 11:08 am

12. Cooperate

Players accustomed to DMing may find it difficult to cooperate with the rest of the group. The DM’s role is to provide obstacles, mysteries and conflicts that challenge the group while the group pulls their resources to overcome the DM’s challenges. Sometimes when a DM switches to playing a PC, he forgets that distinction and will run his character like an NPC: being difficult, obstinate and contrary to the group at every possible opportunity.

While occasionally fun, this is more often frustrating to the other players and to the active DM, who want to keep the game focused and well-paced, and not centered around one player. My group once wasted an entire session trying to cajol a reluctant bard into accompanying the group on our quest. The player running the bard was a DM by inclination and had great fun being uncooperative. The rest of us would have left his frustrating PC behind but that would have been bad game etiquette.

8 JQuacker January 24, 2013 at 1:29 pm

This comes perfectly in time. This weekend I’ll be a player for the first time in the group I’ve DM’d for over a year. I’ve played alongside the future DM, and he has years of experience with older editions and about as much as I do with 4e.

I definitely agree with Oz – being a player is a chance to take a break. The rising DM had offered a while back that he’d DM if I needed him to, so I got burned out on live DMing (I do a TON on, and two of the players I haven’t played alongside with at all, and the others I had only sporadically. Needless to say, I am definitely looking forward to this opportunity. I’m already thinking about my character in terms of the party – not just filling roles, but in not creating a “talker,” because like #3 says, the players often look to the rising DM’s character to lead conversations, simply because he has the most RP experience. In this way, it’ll be a little tough to “let go” of wanting to lead, but I definitely want to see them rise up as players and lead conversations.

9 JQuacker January 28, 2013 at 12:03 pm

Wanted to give a follow-up after playing last Saturday.

Things went pretty well; though a similar thing occurred as happened with the now-current DM. Because he (and now I) had the most playing experience, we were often looked to for direction. I noticed it about 1/3rd way into the night, and I did my best to in-character ask for everyone else’s ideas, even though I was a left-of-center Drow Hunter who normally wouldn’t care (but wouldn’t mind doing some crazy things that most of the other players went along with). But for the last 1/3rd, another player started asserting himself more and I was happy to have the influx of new ideas (and often better ideas). I think the next session will be even better, and I’ll try to fade into my character more, even with Bardic Dilettante and Diplomacy training.

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