Can I Play, Too? How to Play as a DM

A twisted individual seeking to atone for their sins. A curious scholar thrust into the wide world seeking answers to a single burning question that they believe will change the world. A young orphan on a quest to learn what they can of their origin.

Character creation in tabletop gaming can (and should) be a fun process. It’s a time when you get to meet your character for the first time, spending time learning what makes them tick, exploring their memories, hopes, and dreams. You get to learn their flaws, and how those make them more real. For many, it’s a reflection of what they see in themselves – both good and bad, both how they view themselves and how they wish they were.

Everyone who plays gets to experience this exciting process. Everyone except the individual behind the screen, the DM (or GM if you prefer).

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, character creation is an important topic for me. There are good and bad ways to go about it, but this post isn’t about that.

I spent hours with each of my players bringing their characters to life. I asked probing question after probing question, learning what I could about each of them in turn, challenging them to think through histories, personalities, difficult moments in their lives. Before all that, however, when I was between campaigns I started to wonder if there was a way for me to get in on the fun. I couldn’t play AND run the game at the same time, could I? I think some DMs can get away with a few select NPCs that they largely operate, but that isn’t for me. I needed something bigger.

Method One: ‘The Evil Ones’

I love a good villain. If written well, I don’t believe a villain should ever come across as evil for the sake of being evil. When the last blow falls I want to feel remorse for having won, as if I wished for another way. A villain should have motivations that are real and relatable. You should be able to easily step into their shoes and understand the ‘why‘ behind their actions.

No one is simply evil in the real world, but in the world of fiction, we are often faced with these polarized characters, exaggerated for the sake of the story.

I would like to think that isn’t the case with my villains, that each brings something unique to the game. I go to great lengths to ensure this is the case.

The villains are mine. They are my darlings. They are nuanced and motivated, ‘evil’ for a reason that allows them to sleep soundly at night, sure in what they’re doing. They are part of how I interact with my world and one way I use help fill that gap between running a game and playing in one.

At the end of the day, however, the villains are only a means to an end. If I’m honest (and I hope my players don’t all read this), so are my players. My biggest driving factor, the character that I get to inhabit, the nuance I get to bring to the table – it’s all in the form of my world.

Method Two: You’re in My World

I realize that this world that I’ve created is my character. It’s how I interact with each of my players, and how they interact with me. I am telling the story of my character each and every session, revealing more and more of it. I learn more about it as I go along, about its varied past, exciting present, and unknown future.

The villains I create are important, but even they are only a backdrop to what I find truly important – the story I wish to tell.

Creating a world isn’t for everyone. I had no idea what I was doing when I started. The sheer amount of mental energy I have to put into it whenever we play leaves me mentally and physically exhausted (I know that sounds dramatic, but you try being an introvert ‘performing’ and herding six people around an imaginary world for five hours at a time). Though I feel exhausted, there is no greater sensation than watching a jaw drop, nothing better than taking a player’s expectation and flipping it right on its head, nothing more exciting than getting a text from a player that they couldn’t be more invested in this story.

That feeling of missing out because I was always on this side of the DM screen? Ya, it’s gone. I wish everyone could experience that moment of reveal, that truth bomb that you’ve been sitting on for 1-2 years.

My world is my character, and I don’t think I’d have it any other way.

~ Brandt

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

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