Tabletop Highlight: To Run or To Play, And Why

I love both playing tabletop RPGs and running them. When I run, I get to tell a story in a different format, hand-in-hand with a group of people who are just as excited about the story as I am. When I play, I get to participate in a story with a bunch of other people who care about what we’re doing and escape from my life for a while. Running a good game leaves me with a feeling of satisfaction and calm exhaustion that make me want to rest up so I can prepare to do it again the following week.  Playing a good game is exhilarating, whether I succeed or fail, because I got to do things I normally wouldn’t and think about things in new ways until I eventually return to myself, ready to coast through the rest of the day on the relaxed feeling I get from not being me for a while.

When you run a game, there are a million little things you’re doing to make it work out. Keeping track of the larger plot arcs as time passes, maintaining a world for the players, playing the part of any number of NPCs the players encounter, designing challenges for your players so they don’t get complacent or bored, telling a story so everyone can participate, and so much more. For every hour of game I run, I do a minimum of one and a half that many hours. Generally, it winds up somewhere in the two-to-four range. For instance, this week’s sessions was mostly travel, a chance to resupply, and a couple random encounters that wound up giving me an idea for an interrupt to the main goal the players are pursuing that also lets me bring in the requirements for a player’s prestige class. In order to get all that ready, I spent all of Sunday afternoon preparing a single item of legacy, adjusting the encounters to fit a party with tons of martial damage but almost no magical support, and digitizing some notes for the players to reference about their character. Throw in the time over the week leading up to that when I fleshed out the interrupt quest(s) and a couple of hours Friday night writing out my notes so I could see how they fit into the campaign plan. All of that adds up to about ten hours of work for four hours of play.

However, I now feel an immense sense of satisfaction that the players are moving along on their quest, that they feel like I’ve reminded them of the dangers of complacency and that they know there’s not just a goal, but actually feel tension because outside forces are quite capably working against them. It felt good to see my plans play out as I intended, to see my player get excited when I let him know we’d be able to get his prestige class stuff worked in soon, and how they all had to play their characters out in a situation that challenged their characters’ normal modes of addressing problems. I wanted to shake them out of their grooves without shaking up the story and I managed to pull it off, so now I’m excited to see what happens as a result of this.

As a player, I can ignore everything but the needs of the body as I place myself in the situation of my character. All of my knowledge except what my character knows and what might be applicable to the situation fades away. Sometimes the buzzing of my phone or my inability to remember the exact terms of an ability require me to break my focus, but those are quickly set aside so I can return to the game. Decisions are make, abilities are used, skill checks are made, and the story unfolds as I walk through halls and dungeons that exist in the murky, semi-transparent realm of my imagination. As a story-teller myself, my mind fills in all the little details as my character moves through their environment and I do my best to play by the rules of the game without breaking the illusory world I’ve created in my head.

Some GMs are better than others at letting this play out and some characters are better for it than others. If my character’s focus is on their own well-being, it is easy. If I need to focus on other characters because I need to protect them, it is more difficult. I don’t like filling in the gaps on other people’s characters and few people describe their character in great enough detail to create an image. A bunch of the people who don’t describe their will, instead, wind up drawing them, and that is better in some respects, but so solid an image can make it stand out from the murkier world I’m creating. Any character who takes the fore or who moves on their own is my preference. Sometimes, though, a character is so different it is hard to really get into their mind, so all of my effort gets focused on playing them correctly (or what I think of as correctly) that I don’t get quite as invested into the game as I would like.

Personally, I’d prefer to have both playing and running happen in the same week so I can get both the escape and the satisfaction, but I only have one group I play in with any regularity, and that game is a bit harder to get invested in for a few reasons that mostly revolve around totally valid stylistic choices by the DM and the fact that I don’t know any of the other players or the DM very well. I know one of them a bit better, and she’s the person who invited me, but everyone else is still basically a stranger. Running happens most weeks, but not every week because of the time and energy commitment involved. If I’m feeling worn out because of work or my mental health, I’m not really in a place where I can run a game and I’ve learned better than to try anyway.

In an ideal world, I’d have one night of fully-immersed play and one night of extremely satisfying running. In this world, I can generally manage one night of play and one or two nights of running, so that’s still pretty great, if more exhausting that I anticipated before agreeing to everything. Still, the benefits are worth the costs.