In this nerd’s humble opinion, every player of tabletop roleplaying games should at some point take a turn actually running the game that they love. This feeling goes doubly for those lucky enough to play duet style. Here are five reasons why everyone, but especially those playing with one other person, should take a turn sitting behind the screen.
1. Gain a bonus to your INT
By sitting behind the screen during your duet, you will gain a much deeper understanding of the general rules for the game system that you are playing. This probably will not magically happen after the first time you take on the DM role, but after a few sessions, you will (almost) never have to ask what kind of dice to roll or which modifier to add the next time you are a player.
Additionally, DMing allows you to explore a multitude of different classes and character options. It is a lot of fun to discover what various creatures and classes are capable of. Sitting behind the screen can unlock new and interesting combinations of maneuvers, spells, in-combat actions, and the like. There are character concepts that I would never have considered had I not thrown their analog at a party of adventurers.
When we started playing our duet, I had been playing a fighter for some time, but had only ever been the Dungeon Master for one session. Beth had only ever played once. We both came into the campaign with a receptive spirit, ready to learn, and with the knowledge that we were going to make mistakes and run into problems as we went.
The key thing is to not allow lack of comfort or complete knowledge of the rules and finer points of 5E stop you from giving it a shot. If you never take the plunge, you won’t learn.
2. Proficiency in Insight
Beyond gaining a deeper understanding of what is possible, I think it is a good exercise for players to DM, even if you only do it once, so you can see how the different pillars of play (exploration, combat, and role-playing) come together. It’s one thing to have these pieces coalesce for you as a player, but putting together a scenario and transitioning between scenes or activities as a DM offers new insights into how to be a better/more conscientious player.
By sitting in the DM’s chair, a player gains a whole new perspective on the game and the co-created world. In duets, the player may get to see the DM hard at work crafting a fun adventure in a way that is not often the case in larger-party games. There is much to be said for the mystery of game-craft, but also something just as (if not more) satisfying to peeling back the curtain and looking at what goes on behind the scenes.
Seeing how to organize a whole world’s worth of notes and details, as well as what is important to prepare and what can be left for at-table improvisation is an illuminating experience that will inform and enhance your organization and understanding back on the other side of the table.
While being a player, you carry the responsibility of faithfully reacting to the world as your character would. As the DM, you bear the responsibility of creating a world that reacts realistically to the actions of your player. The scope is very different and allows a new way of viewing the shared world of your campaign.
Events that had little effect on your character directly become more important when viewed on this larger scale. Maybe your player character does not yet have any reason to care about the growing political tension in the kingdom because they are scrabbling to survive in the mean streets and the affairs of state seem quite distant, but that perspective shifts when you’re sitting behind the screen.
3. Providing a Short Rest
Creativity takes time. Sometimes, especially when creating a homebrew world and campaign, the person at the helm may need some time to work on a big scene or new setting.
The pressure of delivering quality sessions full of interesting interactions and exciting combat while also developing on a new setting or piece of the narrative arc can put a strain on the creative process. As an act of caring, a player taking on the responsibilities of DMing, even for a short time, can relieve some of that anxiety.
In our game, I do most of the meta-narrative writing and big picture “Main Quest” type stuff. There are times that figuring out exactly what the big bad evil forces are plotting next is a bit overwhelming. The villains know what their plans are, but they don’t always tell me, and it takes time to figure out. However, we both work and the weekend game days come regardless of whether or not I’ve actually set everything up. So instead of sacrificing the time together doing something we both love and enjoy, we switch roles.
This is where having two DMs really comes in handy! If I’m stuck (and am honest about that with my partner) then she can step in and run something to give me the week off. Doing so allows us to explore different aspects of our campaign and flesh out characters who otherwise may not be featured. This adds an incredible level of depth to our shared world. Speaking of…
4. Take the Help Action
Both the player and DM already collaborate to create the world, the DM primarily by setup and description and the player through interaction. By sharing DM responsibilities, your engagement in worldbuilding reaches a new level. You can explore themes and secondary NPCs that perhaps your primary campaign does not touch on.
For example, maybe your primary campaign is a planes of existence hopping Uber quest to defeat a deranged god and save reality as we know it?! That’s a lot of pressure on everyone. But having your stalwart heroes tipping the cosmic scales towards righteousness and laying low evil is not the only way to develop their characters. How would these characters behave in a completely different scenario? Sure they don’t have a problem taking down a Githyanki war ship in the Astral Plane, but how will they react when there is a festival in town, or the absence of an obvious big bad guy that needs to be brought low? That’s where the magic happens. Well, there and just about everywhere else. It is D&D after all.
It is also fun discovering each other’s unique DMing styles and seeing how those work together. Different DM personalities naturally gravitate toward some aspects of play over others. Of course, as the person responsible for running the game, the DM wants to consider the preferences of their players. But the DM is an equally important player at the table.
A DM having fun is (almost) always going to mean that the players are having fun. Some DMs are going to be interested in and run great combat, others are masterful roleplaying chameleons. Still others dazzle with an incredible level of worldbuilding, and some are delightfully devious, luring players into situations that they never thought they’d have to face. No two DMs are identical, so adding your style to a one-on-one Dungeons and Dragons session will result in terrific variety in your game.
Personal example: I tend to enjoy big story arcs and tactical combat, whereas Beth could have a full-length session devoted to roleplaying and intimate character development. Between the two of us, we strike a nice balance where fully realized characters are engaged in large-scale struggles. Our game is full of stakes. These stakes come from powerful external threats but also from the complexities and nuances of our characters and their relationships with each other and the world.
5. It’s really just loads of Fun!
Finally, running the game is super fun. Unveiling your story after intense preparation (read:anticipation) and seeing the delight and surprise in your gaming partner’s face as your story twists and turns is exquisite and rewarding. Whether describing an incoming threat or participating in a playful exchange with a kooky shopkeeper, there is so much variety that comes with DMing.
It is also an enjoyable challenge. You may think you have a pretty good idea about how a session is going to unfold, but veteran DMs know to hold onto their plans loosely because “No plan survives its first encounter with a player.” This is where so much of what makes tabletop roleplaying games special comes from. In my experience running games, the most amazing stories unfold in places and in situations that I had no idea we were heading toward.
There are way more players than people willing to take on the role of Dungeon Master. While it is a commitment, we encourage every player, especially those in a duet, to consider taking on that role, even if only to try out for a short while. Both of us being able to trade off leading sessions of D&D has been wonderful in our game, and we think it will be for yours as well.
Let us know how your experiences DMing go! Also, let us know what kinds of things would be most helpful or interesting to read about below.
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