There’s a ton of advice out there for gamemasters. The two books I most immediately recommend are Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering and John Wick’s Play Dirty . Beyond that, however, you can find blog posts, Google Docs, and stone tablets replete with suggestions on how GMs can make a game fun and engaging for their players.
Today, I am going to turn that around.
Perhaps it’s because of the term, “Non-Player Character,” or maybe it’s due to the simple linguistic dichotomy between “player” and “GM,” but I think we often forget that the GM is also a player in this game. Even as we might expect a GM to be the one to make rules decisions and lay out the world in which the story will be told, we, as players, are not doing our part if we’re not taking a moment periodically to consider what we’re doing to make the game fun for the GM. “Make sure everyone has fun” is not the sole responsibility of the gamemaster (although they do carry a larger share of that burden), but a responsibility of everyone at the table.
I generally try to avoid broad pronouncements of how to run or play a game, but I feel pretty confident in this one: if your play at the table is ruining any other person at the table’s fun, you’re doing it wrong. That includes the GM. The notion of an adversarial relationship between the GM and the players has been with us since the early days of D&D and it’s toxic. Both sides are absolutely dependent on one another to make the story happen. RPG groups, like any team, are sensitive to shocks caused by changes in personnel, so understanding that each person in the group adds their own ingredient to the stew you like so much every session is critical to getting us to work together.
I know, I know. “So what?” I hear you ask. So, I want to toss out a few canards that get tossed at GMs as a matter of course and spin them around to present them as concepts for the player.
1) Listen to your GM. It is true that, as the group’s collective senses within the game world, the GM may occasionally be deceitful in order to reflect the deceitful nature of an environment. Outside of this, however, the GM is not usually trying to trick you. Pay attention to the way scenes are described and questions are asked – there’s probably a lot of information that can point you towards the most interesting answer. It might not even be the answer the GM is thinking of, but knowing where the GM has started from gives the group the power to go to a place everyone is interested in going.
2) Know your rules. It is specifically the GM’s job to have a good grasp of any and all rules that may come up during a play session, or have a good idea of where to find the answer when corner cases arise. Players, then, should focus on knowing the rules pertinent to their own characters. Having responsibility for one character actually allows the player to dig a little deeper and know that character’s rules backward and forward. If five players each know four feats and what they do, that alleviates the GM’s need to know 20 feats off the top of his or her head, leaving more mental space for cool story things. Internet forums and adversarial GMs can get into a lot of what the rules say you can’t do, but it’s the player’s job to know what they can do inside and out. Making yourself an expert on your own PC dramatically broadens your possibilities.
3) Don’t fear improvisation. One of the critical advantages that Tabletop RPGs have over their Computer cousins is the ability of the players to improvise. If the coding in The Witcher says that there’s nothing more over that fence, the character stops. If a ledge is too high to reach by jumping, you must generally find the way the computer has laid out for you, or you can’t go there. At a game table, the rules provide constraints, but are rarely so straight-jacketing that things within the realm of physics are absolutely impossible. This is part of why knowing the rules for your own character is so vital. That knowledge forms the basis for a thousand ideas: If my PC can do this, and the environment is that, then I should reasonably be able to do this. That single line of thought has launched a thousand shocked GM faces. GMs who are following any of the plethora of GM-advice columns will, if you have made a reasoned argument, let you take your shot.
4) Don’t fear the obvious answer. This one seems so simple, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t include it for the legion of players who never want to go through the front door. Sometimes, it’s OK to go through the front door! There are benefits, both dramatic and mechanical, to inventiveness, but don’t be afraid to use the rules as they’re written and to follow the plot where it wants you to go. Even as your own expertise on your character can help the GM free up mental space to dream up cool stuff, thinking deeply about obvious answers can lead to new revelations about both your character and the rules that are going to pay dividends down the road.
Bearing in mind that the GM is a player too means that a lot of the advice we usually aim at GMs is equally applicable to the players. I feel like I need to come up with a new taxonomy to replace the GM/Player divide in order to capture this notion, but that may be some time coming. In the meantime, help your GMs out! It’s the sort of thing that pays off huge in the long run.