Why Game Masters Need to Play in a Game

Whether we call ourselves Game Master, Dungeon Master, Keeper, or some other awesome title, we are the driving force behind tabletop role-playing games.

We create the worlds, stories, and challenges that our players face, and we have the power to make or break a game with our personality and tactics.

It’s true, we are often seen as the ultimate authority at the table, but we should give up that crown occasionally and play in a game as a player.

Below, I’ve outlined a few of the benefits of setting aside some time to play in a game.

Disclaimer: All opinions expressed here are my own. This post may contain affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I may earn a small commission.

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Take Time to Play in a Game

Playing in a game can make us better Game Masters and even help us enjoy the game more. From gaining perspective and building empathy, to sharpening skills and avoiding burnout, being a player is a valuable experience for any GM.

Gain Perspective

Being a player can help GMs gain a different perspective on the game. It can help us understand what our players enjoy, what challenges they face, and how the game can be improved.

Player Cooperation and Conflict

One of the most important perspectives to gain from this is cooperating with party members. It’s no secret that some people just don’t really jive together, and it’s important as a game master to have experienced that, one way or another. Whether you’re part of the duel or simply watching from the sidelines, it’s a valuable emotional experience. Everyone wants to play. No one wants in-fighting. Trying to fix that when you’ve got two or more really strong personalities can be a challenge.

Incidentally, if you need some help dealing with player conflict, I have a guide on that for you.

Participating in conflict from the player’s side can help us mediate and solve conflict from behind the screen. It gives us perspective and helps us understand how frustrating it can be. This can help us keep our tables healthy and happy.

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Find Confidence in What is Fun, and What is Not

Playing in a game also gives us perspective on what’s fun, and what is not. This especially helps me with running tactical combat.

When I’m a player, combat is fun. Even the most basic, simple combat scenario can be really exciting if I get to try out new skills. I spend the entire round thinking tactics, how I can best support the party, or do the coolest, most interesting thing possible. I love to flavor my actions with pithy insults to the villains and give descriptions of what spells look like for my character.

One of my favorite characters was a necromancer wizard named Velithice who always cast the cantrip Toll the Dead. I liked this spell so much that I built my entire character around it, thematically. It became a running joke because she would always say something super dramatic, but almost always the DM would save, and the spell would fail. It was still FUN, though. So I’d say:

“Velithice points to the bandit and shouts “Your time has come!” as her black cloak billows around her. The silver hourglass on the back animates, flipping over as the sharp sound of a ticking clock fills the air. Then, impossibly loud, a death knell echoes in the bleak landscape around us, and I need a Wisdom save from you please, DM. …Oh, he saved…. Again? Okay. Well, never mind then. Her cloak is still billowing, though.”

Looks Can be Deceiving

I would spend the round thinking up a fun description or choosing tactics. BUT… I bet that’s not what it looked like to my DM. I appear grouchy by nature, and it’s especially bad when I’m focused. To them, it probably looked like I was irritated, bored, or both. But I wasn’t.

Experiencing this as a player has given me more confidence in running combat as a GM. Even if my players look bored or annoyed, I know they probably aren’t. They’re thinking tactics, just like I would be if I were playing.

It’s still hard for me sometimes–I really want my players to be enjoying themselves and I look to their body language a lot–but when their turn comes up, if they are doing something interesting or exciting, if they’re ready to go right away, or if they start talking about multiple ideas they have, I know they’ve spent the round having fun, thinking. It’s an important perspective to have.

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Play in a Game to Build Empathy

Playing can help us empathize with our players, which improves our ability to create engaging and challenging content for them. When we know what it feels like to be on the other side of the screen, we can tailor adventures to be more fun and satisfying.

One of the main things I continually take away from being a player is having to share the spotlight. When I’m wearing my Dungeon Master crown, I get to constantly play. As a player, I have to be really careful to share the GM’s attention with my party members. It’s something I reflect on a lot and get really self-conscious about sometimes. I don’t want to be a table hog.

This is, incidentally, a major reason why I like to run games. I like to play all the NPCs, do all the combat, say all the things. I do so much in running the game that it’s nice when my players chat and I get a break. But seeing this balance from both sides has also helped me be more aware of making sure my players are (pretty) evenly sharing the table spotlight, too.

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Sharpen Skills

Playing can help us sharpen our skills as a facilitator. We can learn new techniques and strategies from other players and GMs, and incorporate them into our own games. It also helps us learn more rules with confidence. Let me show you what I mean.

You are the master of your own character.

One of the best quotes from one of my favorite DMs of all time, the legendary Chris Perkins.

Perkins uses this line when he doesn’t remember a rule for a particular class scenario. I think it’s brilliant, and I have stolen it. I don’t need to know all the rules, all the time. We are a team, and we work together at the table to make sure we’re all having fun creating a story AND staying within the ruleset.

Learn All Those Class Rules!

BUT when I take the initiative to play as a new character, I learn all the little tiny rules and details for that class. All the options. All the cool perks. All the extra dice.

Later, when I’m running a game and I have a player with the same class, I can help make sure they’re getting all those cool perks and extra dice, too.

One of my favorite things as a GM is be in the middle of a tough fight and be able to tell one of my players they get something extra they forgot about, like an extra die roll, advantage, or some other perk. This reiterates that it’s not me vs. them. I’m the facilitator, not the enemy, and being able to point out these little details makes sure they can enjoy their character and session to the max.

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Try Out New Toys (Links Ahoy!)

Looking to test out a new journal, set of dice, or other fun toy? A great time to do this is playing in a game. No need to overhaul your entire system as a GM; if you have a fun, interesting journal you’re dying to have a use for, or a cool storage case you want to try, this is the time to do it. It’s also a great way to test drive potential gifts for your players.

Avoid Burnout

Playing in a game can help us avoid burnout by allowing us to take a break from the pressures of running everything, all the time. We still get to be in a game without all the work and performance that comes with being in charge. It can also help us come up with fresh ideas for our own tables.

When I play in a session that I get really electric about afterwards, I start thinking about how I can put the same elements into my own games. How can I make my players feel THIS excited about the game? That’s always my goal.

This enthusiasm is the magic fire that keeps burnout at bay. Treasure it, languish in it, and use it to your advantage. We are creative, fun people, and we should use our excitement in our games. I’m a huge believer of this.

If you’re needing a change of pace, check out our guides on running a one shot to change up the scenery and vibe at your table.

Have Fun with the Game Again… and Vet Future Players

Playing is fun! It can be a great way for us GMs to relax, enjoy the game, and bond with our friends. I always see it as an investment, too. Gaming groups have a tendency to dissolve over time. When we join another group, we get a chance to vet potential future players without having to go through an awkward interview, “test game,” or blind insertion.

The other players don’t know this, but I am always weighing their ability to communicate, compromise, roleplay, and share the spotlight when I’m playing with them. Do they get along well with others, especially those who are a bit more difficult? Are they patient and kind? Do they love to play? Do they have good attendance? You get the idea.

(If you need help with player attendance, check out our guide here.)

A game master should take the time to play in a game. It will help them build an understanding of what their players experience.
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Closing Thoughts

Being a player is an invaluable experience for game masters. By gaining perspective, building empathy, sharpening skills, and avoiding burnout, GMs can become better game masters and enjoy the game even more.

If you’re a GM who hasn’t played in a while, I encourage you to find a game and get back in the action. And if you’re a player who has never tried being a GM, consider taking on the challenge – you may discover a whole new side of the game you love.

Have any personal experience with this? I’d love to read about it in the comments below.

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Love, Malice. I hope you enjoyed the article! I'm here if you have any questions. Feel free to leave a comment below!

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