Astral Projections – Etiquette & Protocol: Do I Have To GM?

“Etiquette & Protocol” (E&P for short) is an occasional feature where I answer thorny out-of-character (OOC) manners questions about gaming and game groups. Why? Because, my dear gamer-ladies and gamer-gents, outrunning/outwitting/outgunning BBEG & Co will be ever so much more fun, if the game table isn’t turned into a soda-bottle and sourcebook mêlée field.

Brian Esqueevul asks via D20 Radio’s Facebook page:

Q: “I full time GM for my group. Recently, a friend of mine mentioned that he thinks it’s not only healthy, but necessary, for GMs to PC once in a while.

“Conversely he said good PCs need to GM once in a while in order to be the best possible player.

“What do you think? Should this be done? Must this be done? And if so, how much do you recommend?”

A: I do think that it is a good idea to take a break from GMing and play. It is a lot of work to prep a session, even if you’re using a module. Burnout is a real threat, especially if your sessions are frequent (weekly or bi-weekly) or you run multiple games for the same or different groups. Long-running games, even the best of them, can sometimes bog down. Or you might be short on time, if not ideas, for a while.

Stepping aside for a time also allows other players a chance to GM if they want. Most groups have more than one person willing and able to run games and it is selfish to refuse to even give them a try, no matter how much or little GMing experience they have. The group can also give other systems or settings a try. Not every GM is comfortable running every system, especially not an unfamiliar one. I am in this group, with only one system I’m comfortable running at this point.

For how long should the switch in GMs last? That depends on your group, especially the next GM. This is something the group should talk out and come to an agreement on. In my weekly Skype group, GMs generally change every 1 to 2 story arcs. (Each one runs a different, usually ongoing, campaign.) But your group might not be comfortable with having 2 or 3 ongoing campaigns simultaneously and would prefer consecutive campaigns. Or just have other GMs run a few one-shots, between longer campaigns, for a shorter break. Someone can also be ready to “pinch hit” by GMing a one-shot if something happens that keeps you from running your regular session (a key player is ill, unexpected work issue cut into your planning, etc.).

So let someone else take the GM’s chair for a while. IF, and only if, there’s someone who wants to GM. Which brings us to the other major part of your query.

It is one thing to give someone who would like to try their hand at GMing a chance and quite another to insist someone who doesn’t want to run do so. Pushing someone into GMing is a terrible, terrible idea! Never, ever, ever insist someone GM! It will not end well for anyone in the group. Please tell your friend to Cut. It. Out. Immediately. Many, many years ago, I believed that I wouldn’t be a Real Gamer™® until I GMed. Neither try–once with AD&D, once with D20 Star Wars–ended well. It was so bad that it was over a dozen years before I considered GMing again.

If a player is forced into role of GM (by others, or like me, by their own belief they must), they’re more likely to suffer from creative stagnation, due to having no real enthusiasm for the role of GM and thus causing game sessions to become dull and listless. It will be even worse than the occaisional “off” session that even the best and most enthusiastic GMs sometimes have.

Even if they’re running a pre-written module, if a GM feels like they’re being forced into the role of GM, they’ll simply act more like a referee than an active participant in the game. This is really bad in the more narrative games, where GMs and players are supposed to collaborate to a great degree, I feel.

Jon “Donovan Morningfire” Stevens pointed out additionally, “Being GM requires a significant degree of social outgoingness, something not every player has or is even comfortable with.” I have been that GM, particularly in con games, and it is possible, sometimes, to learn to be more comfortable–but only if you want to, badly. The same for anything else that makes you unwilling to run games.

With the introduction of FFG’s Star Wars, specifically Age of Rebellion, I decided that I was ready to give GMing a third try–and it was the charm, partly because I had a very supportive party of players who were also experienced, good GMs. It was tough going for me–and probably my players, sometimes–even though I really wanted to GM and had players actively helping me to do a good job. Think what a disaster it would have been with a GM who was only running because her players insisted.

No players should be obligated to GM. Empty Bacta Tank, my sometime co-GM, told me, “If a player wants to try their hand at GM’ing, fine…but just being, everyone has to GM likely multiple times, is a bit too much…” It really is okay to not want to GM, or to realize it just isn’t something you are good at. As EBT puts it, “I get that we live in a world that tells us, if you just try hard you can do anything, and that’s a nice sentiment, but it’s an ultimately untrue one. Some people aren’t going to be able to do certain things. There’s nothing wrong with that, that’s just the way things are. And people shouldn’t be ashamed to be objective about that fact.”

TL;DR: It is fine, perhaps desirable, for a GM to be a player once in a while, but insisting everyone take a turn as GM is going to be bad for both the reluctant GM and the whole group.

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Linda Whitson

Linda Whitson

Contributing Writer & Copy Editor at D20 Radio
Linda Whitson is a long-time RPGer, amateur musician & artist, & an officer in the Rebel Legion Star Wars costuming club. Linda met her husband in an AD&D game and they have 2 teenagers, an anime fangirl daughter and a son who plays on his university's quidditch team. She is the Lead Mod of D20 Radio's forums and Copy Editor for the blog. Linda can be reached at
Linda Whitson

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