Pain of Campaigning: Rotating GMs

Dave and I always joked about our gaming white whale: The Supers Game.  It’s not that running a superhero game was impossible, it was just that, for us, it had never gelled.  Enter Gencon 2010 and my purchase of DC Adventures.  I had a system, and I had player interest (though just barely);  I even had a weeknight that would work, but I had one problem:

I wanted to play the damn game, not just run it.

And so, I launched a nefarious scheme.  I would run an awesome adventure and then announce that I planned on being the “Head GM” for the group, but that I’d pass the GMing duties off after that.  To be honest, as simple as it seemed, I was unsure as to whether or not my players would be interested or if they’d mutiny.  Thankfully, two other players of mine eagerly volunteered to Co-GM.

Nineteen adventures and seven months later, I have learned a few things about how to manage a rotating GM.

Don’t Be Greedy:  This world is not your plaything; it’s going to be picked up by a few of the people playing in your game.  It seems obvious, but you cannot make detailed long ranging plans as you would normally.  Whereas normally you think about the plot in an overarching manner, in a rotating game it’s important to just plant seeds.  Resolve adventure-level plots, but purposefully leave questions as to underlying motivations and bigger threats vague and open.   Put your character purposefully in the background while you run.  If the PCs want to call your usual PC up, let them, but resist the urge to create a Marty Stu.  Ultimately, think of yourself as a steward to the story, you want to hand off an interesting and fresh set of circumstances to the next GM.  That doesn’t mean things need to be static, just ripe for development.

For example, I kicked off our game during the DC Mega Crossover Infinite Crisis.   The PCs participated at the periphery of the comic storyline, but still could affect major changes.  They ended up saving one city from annihilation, but at the expense of another.  When my time at the helm ended, the party had a malleable status quo: they agreed to help watch over Gotham while the Batman was gone.  This gave the campaign a starting point that could lead practically anywhere.

Reuse & Recycle: If you’re going to leave things so others can run in the game world then make sure you reciprocate pick up on dangling threads left by others.   It requires some baby steps, but treat unanswered plot threads, memorable NPCs, and ongoing drama as springboards for your own adventures.  It’s fascinating to see someone else taking your work and interpret it in their own way.  GMing is normally a solitary craft, but this takes out some of the guesswork.  Chances are the most successful aspects of your adventures will be revisited expanded, and even overhauled by your GMing comrades.

To pick up from my last example, the next GM chose to focus on the fact that the party managed to change history by saving one city and blowing up another.  He developed a back story and an explanation for the aberrations between our continuity and DC’s official canon.  Between explaining the group’s ability to alter the DCU and each GMs’ inability to remember every minute detail of the DC Universe, he managed to one heck of a nice set of time travel adventures too.

Character Development:  Our campaign goes through setting whiplash as a result of rotating GMs.  To counteract the shifting sands of setting, you need to emphasize strong characterization, and play mechanics to back it up.  Our characters, “The Zeroes”, hallmark is their emotional damage.   These characterizations help each GM find a common ground to make plot hooks and further the metaplot.  When our campaign goes from street level crime, to time travel, to parallel universes, and finally lands in the world of espionage it helps that the players have touchstones that define themselves and their companions.  As things progress, be sure to develop a few stalwart NPCs and Villains that can appear and reappear in other plot arcs.

Every character made a back story rife with emotional strings to pull and packed with readymade NPCs:

  • Brainchild: a mad scientist betrayed by her lab assistant and trapped in the body of young girl;
  • Pastor Ted: a psychic televangelist that used his mental prowess to shamelessly self-promote and hide any evidence of his closet homosexuality;
  • Teen Lantern:  an heir to a cosmic artifact deathly afraid of being discovered by his betters;
  • Hybrid: A shapeshifter exiled from his people and abused by scientists;
  • The Kinetic Kid: a teenage sidekick abandoned by his famous and upstanding mentor; and
  • Tom: a boy adventurer that had become a 20 year old online gaming addict with an obese girlfriend.

These background stories continue to crop up in each GMs main story, and provide the fodder for NPCs that effortlessly move between each GMs control.  Entirely organically, it was revealed that Hybrid and Brainchild were betrayed by the same nefarious scientist.

Overall, the experiment has been wildly successful.  The key to sharing the GMing is to keep the above points in reigns is to focus on creating a good story for your run and making sure you haven’t boxed in the next person.  After you are done GMing, it’s equally important to let go of your GMing mentality and enjoy playing.   So take a load off, run a game and hand it off and enjoy playing in the mess you made!


  1. Fat Girlfriend says:

    Zeroes has been great fun and rotating GMs has played a big part in that I think. The reuse and recycle factor has even resulted in a more comic book feel as though we’re moving from one creative team to the next, from arc to arc. I’d like to see a rotating GM scheme in other games I play in the future. Its contributed to a group rapport that’s really opened up possibilities for the play world and who our characters can be. Can’t wait for my turn to GM.

  2. Not a lot in this article for me as we don’t share GMing duties, but I wanted to pop in to say that the Zeroes seem like the most amazing superhero group ever. I’d love to read a comic book about them.Tom, Pastor Ted, and Brainchild in particular seem like interesting characters.

  3. My first 4e group started at level one and met every week for a year. When we were at level 18, the GM had to move. Being a vested player in the campaign I didn’t want the game to just end, but I didn’t want to just off my character and start running it either.

    The compromise was that I would continue to run the main campaign (for another year plus), but we would rotate adventures, with me running at about a 2 to 1 ratio. This gave me plenty of time to steer us back on course when we drifted away. That campaign was easily the most involved storyline of any campaign I’ve ever been a part of. The feeling of satisfaction from tying so many random loose threads together into an epic ending was… well, it’s just too hard to describe. Everyone was a part of it. We felt closer to that story than we did our own characters.

  4. What a fantastic idea. I don’t think I’d suggest it for my for the reason of letting us play AND DM, I’d suggest it simply for the dynamic story possibilities.

  5. One of the most interesting aspects of rotating DMs, if looking at your attitude as a DM, then compare it to your attitude as a player. It’s like having a split personality, one looking for a story well told, the other is looking for loopholes in the books..

    Rotating DMs is a great way to get the feel of the other side of the screen…

    Visit my blog to get the full story!

  6. Rotating DMs is also a great way to improve your DMing skills. Being mostly a DM, rolling a character was an eye-opener experience.

    Without noticing, I was min/maxing like hell and searching the rulebooks for all those loopholes to be exploited. Me! the DM who always talks about the importance for role-playing over character-optimization!

    A real eye-opener..


  1. […] concept of “Rotating GMs” has been around as long as I can remember. The idea of a shared world where two or more GMs share […]