The Guest DM

Master and ApprenticeOccasionally, DMs need a break.  In long-running highly developed game worlds players may find that there are parts of the campaign or the world that they are particular interested in.  If they notice that the DM needs a break, but is still is gung-ho about his game, this presents a golden opportunity.  Running a single adventure in the regular DM’s game world is an unusual break for him and a change of place for the players.  To be successful requires communication between the standard DM and the guest DM, an understanding about the place in the campaign of your solo adventure, and the right personalities to embrace and enjoy the role reversal.

First, the anecdotal example I’m using: I am part of a long running SAGA Star Wars campaign.  Its timeline began after the end of Revenge of the Sith and has already seen one set of 19th level characters enter semi-retirement.  Amongst those characters was my accidental Jedi Master.  My DM and I agreed it was time to put him on a bus because he had hung around too long and didn’t fit the fluff of the era.  He started off as a guest character/macguffin doomed to die, but for whatever reason he managed to keep escaping his destined fate.  So, I agreed to have him leave.  He took a power that let him masquerade as if he was a dark side character and secretly “joined” the Emperor and his Empire with the identity of an Inquisitor he had vanquished.  Now, the new PCs were being sent in to infiltrate his compound (at my suggestion) and I offered to run it as a “reverse dungeon.”

For starters, this Star Wars game is very big on its in-game canon.  As such, weeks ahead of time I made a nice flowchart of the adventure to show what would happen.  Last minute adventure prep is not the way to go here.   The nuts and bolts of the adventure were fine, but my DM made sure to insert the correct proper nouns into the mission fluff.  It was a bit more formally planned than usual for me, but I felt it was important to assuage any concerns about me planning on giving the party millions of credits to ruin the game.  For the procrastinating DMs out there, this is a bit of a change, but it’s a sacrifice that has to be made in such a collaborative effort.  If you try to run an adventure like this, be prepared for tinkering of some kind.  It may be with the core of the adventure itself, however, the important thing is to make sure that you’re on the same wavelength and not get too married to any one idea.  Campaigns are the DM’s precious baby, and it’s only natural that they may be a bit of a helicopter parent when it comes to loosening the reigns.

Second, you want to make sure you know about where your adventure takes place in the campaign as a whole.  In my example, the DM has been using three parties on a rotating basis.  He wanted a story option that would explain phasing out one party (if the players chose to do so) and a way to gracefully have a character whose player left bow out.  This was done by having the entire “mission” against my old character be an elaborate ruse for him to make contact with Rebel elements and hire the mercenaries that undertook the attack against him.  It could also be a simple side quest without any real tie to the game at large.  Even so, you can always ask to use certain minor NPCs to give them more development in the game world as a whole.  Be wary about making the adventure revolve around your current character.  Bringing back retired favorites for a cameo is fine, but don’t have the game devolve into a wankfest.

In addition, both the DM and the DM-substitute need to be easy-going enough to allow their creativity to be tinkered with.  In my case, the regular DM and I have played games with each other for nearly 15 years.  We respect one another’s playing and DMing, so it was not a hard sell.  Even so, he had to deal with my general disinterest in Star Wars equipment and pseudo-science during the adventure and I had to deal with his “interpretation” of the character he was playing (read: he was hamming it up as a player).  It was all well and good, but you have to willing to accept the differences in the game.  Moreover, you need players that are willing to accept an abrupt change in style.  While I blew at least four different rules calls during the game, I also let players automatically succeed more often even if the rules called for a check.  I killed off mooks that were close to dead rather than meticulously keeping track of hit points.  In the end, you just have to have a group that’s focused on fun and unique play over consistency and regularity.

Guest DMing can give a player a chance to flex his DMing muscles, the old DM a brief respite, and a chance for a new take on the game world and the game itself for the players.  It requires collaboration, a good working rapport, and an open-minded group, but the opportunity and uniqueness of the change is well worth the effort.


  1. This is an awesome post TME. It addresses one of the main concerns I have been having with my recurrent DMing fatigue and offers a solution I had not thought of. Letting a trusted friend host a Spin-off adventure in the shared world makes for awesome shared worldbuilding and a great occasion for respite!

    Plus, I feel the urge to become more balanced as a RPGer, less GMing and more playing…

    Now I need to get Yan to read this 🙂

  2. Interesting idea. I’m going to be away for two weeks, and I’m going to be adding a 2nd set of PCs soon, to help keep parties balanced when people are missing. Maybe I’ll convince someone to run a cannon flashback with the new PCs first.

  3. My old GM once said that he had absolutely no intention of running our Star Wars game that night because he was uninspired, and needed another week.

    That’s when I said that I would run a prequel to the campaign, explaining how all the characters became a group. I think it worked out well for the night.


  4. Abe let you guest DM? Wow that’s an honor!


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