Editor’s note: We’ve got a brand new writer at Dice Monkey: Jayson, one of the main writers over at Marvel Plot Points. Welcome, Jayson! Take it away.
Recently, in my House Of Madness campaign, I did something I’d never even considered doing before. I portrayed my role, the Watcher ( for those of you reading this post from a more setting-generic point of view, the game master or dungeon master), as a character in the story. Sort of like a narrator in a novel or play that sometimes talks to the characters, but in reverse; it was a character taking over the role of the Watcher and interacting, not with other characters, but with the players.
And I did it with Mark Hamill’s Joker.
Now, the circumstances for this were extreme; it was, after all, a story in which all of the universe was suffering from probability sickness, where there was always a non-zero chance of any given thing happening to the characters, including interactions with characters from entirely different settings (such as D&D character Tiberius Stormwind of Critical Role fame, or Yakko, Wakko, and Dot of Animaniacs), so why not to the players and Watcher, as well? The experience was so much fun that it got me thinking; could this kind of thing work in other RPGs?
I don’t really see why not.
Before we begin, as the Genie would say, ‘there are a few provisos, some quid-pro-quos.’
This Won’t Work For Every Campaign. This probably goes without saying, but the circumstances have to be right, really right, before you try this trick in your game. And I mean really right. The right story, the right players, the right GM mindset. Everything has to be aligned. And you don’t want to do this too often, anyway, or it loses its effect.
This Requires Prep Work. Saying ‘I want to have Kermit The Frog run the game for a while’ is a funny thought, but what would that actually entail? Is Kermit even a character in your game, or are you just being silly? If Kermit is, in fact, an NPC in your game, under what circumstances would he wind up in the Watcher’s chair? And, more importantly, what would get him back out of that chair? Finally, what would he do while inhabiting the role of the Watcher, and why would that be special? We’ll flesh those out in a bit.
Execution is King. If you are going to do this, you are going to have to commit. If Kermit does become the Watcher, he has to come to the table, play, and leave the table, all in character. Entrances and exits matter. You’re trying to immerse your players in believing this, at least on some level, is really going on. And of course, you’d better have a damned-convincing Kermit puppet lying around, and you’d better be really good at that Henson-esque voice.
Handing Over The Role Of GM
Ok, so you’re committed to doing this. It’s going to be a lot of fun. But first, as we mentioned above, you’re going to need to do some planning.
Why Are You Doing This?
It’s all well and good to get this idea and thrill at the possibilities. It’d be great, you think, if all of a sudden my players had to contend with Cruella De Ville as their GM! But if you’re playing a standard Star Wars campaign, Cruella’s appearance just doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense. If, on the other hand, you have the idea that some secret Sith relic was found that allows Darth Vader to tap into the consciousness of the Force, and as a result Vader himself takes over the GM’s mind for a bit, well, that could work. Potentially.
In my game, I’d already used the Joker once, briefly, as an NPC brought to the heroes’ reality from his own, and before he was sent back to his own reality he swore that he’d return and on his terms. Another reality alteration that placed him in my Watcher seat was a perfect fulfillment of that promise. It appealed to me because of the potential horror of it; the Joker, at large in our own world, controlling not only the game but also holding me prisoner somewhere and making other nefarious plans as well? He must be stopped!
Keep in mind that my game was PBEM, so I was never in the same room as my players. It was all done as text. Oh, and a few pictures. I had also recorded myself doing the Joker’s voice in his earlier appearances, so they knew exactly which Joker was manifesting himself now.
How And Why Does This Happen?
There has to be a good in-game reason for your special guest GM to take the reigns. The change will be too jarring for the players otherwise. And by in-game reason I mean two things: Why, in-game, would this happen, and how does it come about?
Using my game as an example again, I had already established that the probability sickness currently plaguing the game setting had leaked into other realities. It was a very small stretch of imagination that a tragedy affecting all Marvel Realities as well as realities beyond that would also affect Marvel Earth 1218 – our version of Earth, as designated by Marvel Comics.
That was the in-game explanation as to why it happened. As to the question of how, well, I’ll quote the Joker’s explanation to my (his) players:
Well greetings, players. It’s me! I told Arach-Knight I’d be back, and on my terms. That’s right, I’m talking to you: Adam, Seamus, Marlan, Greg, Ken, and Michael. It seems all this random probability stuff landed me in the Watcher’s chair. I’m running this show now. And I guarantee that this game’s gonna get downright nasty from this point until your burning corpses wash up on the shore. HAHAHAHA!
I suppose you’re all wondering whatever happened to that old, boring Watcher of yours. Don’t worry, he’s fine, for now. I’ve got him tied up behind me. What to do with him, that’s the question. I could tie him to the back of his SUV and drag him down the freeway, or maybe I could take him to the local zoo and feed him to the lions. Hell, I could do both! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Oh! I could force him to watch you all suffer at my hand, and each time you botch a roll remove a section of his skin! Decisions, decisions. I’ll just have to let you know.
And since it was Easter time when this happened, he then sent the players this Easter Card, featuring yours truly:
How Will You Make This Special?
One word: invest. You have to invest yourself, and your players, in this change. Make sure it makes sense to everyone why and how this is happening (above) and then plunge into the role. Do the voices, play the part. And remember, your guest GM will play the NPCs in the game his or her way, not yours, so be prepared to reinterpret those NPCs through the character GM’s eyes.
But be warned:
- Don’t force this on your players; if they seem to think this was just a lame stunt rather than a fun reality-bending experience, drop it immediately and return to normal gaming.
- One thing not to do is let the Character GM violate the trust you have with your players. The character still has to be a fair GM, adhere to the rules, etc. He or she just has to do it their way rather than your way.
In my PBEM, I had Joker deface all my in-game documents, taunt the players on our online game tracker, and narrate the action with an attitude like he was manipulating the game to make the players lose, even though he made it clear that he was at least bound by the rules of the game. I never broke character once, and never divulged information that the Joker would not know. As far as my players on the other side of the e-mails knew, they were, in fact, facing the Joker. I even had him allude to his relocating to a new hideout (so he wouldn’t be caught in my home by my family and the police), his rounding up thugs to serve as his underlings, my attempts to escape, etc.
How Will The NPC Handle This New Role?
I alluded to this in the last section, but it’s important to clarify this; your Character GM is not you. He or she won’t act like you, and won’t interpret the rules like you. He or she won’t play the NPCs the way you would. You have to think about that before, and during, your performance. The window into the game reality is now filtered through a different perspective. This will have an effect on how your players react with their characters to the world.
How Can This End?
Eventually, you have to restore things to normal. You must, before you bring your Character GM in, know how to get him out again. It could be, as in our Kermit example, that he simply says “Well, looks like we’ve come to the end of another session, but BEFORE we go, I want to hand things back to the man who made ME your very special guest star, your original GM. YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY!” Or it could be, like in our Darth Vader example, that the characters have to do something to rid Vader of the artifact that gave him his power. Whatever mechanic you use, make sure that the players know how, and when, the change can and will occur.
For my game, the Joker was directly bating the players to stop him, and set up conditions that the characters had to accomplish before I could be restored to the role of Watcher. Then he told him they had no chance of actually doing it.
They had to earn sufficient XP to unlock certain Milestones, one of which would trigger my escape from his clutches, one of which would allow me to return to the game as a player (through a second e-mail account) so I could help the players fight the Joker, and the final one would restore me to Watcher status.
After the heroes expelled the Joker, I narrated his banishment, and the game continued on as normal.
When you actually do bring in the Character GM, go all in. Voices, costumes, personality quirks, hair, makeup, whatever you need to make the players forget that you are you. They’ll have fun, you’ll have fun, the game will get permissibly meta for a bit, and then you can bring the fun to an end so that you can move on to some other fun you have planned.