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How to help when on the other side of the screen

Recently I got to actually play a PC in a campaign rather than my usual DM role. And it was a blast! As much as I love crafting devious storylines, it's great to take part in the adventure too. During the game I realized that even while not acting as DM, there are ways you can help it run smoothly.

Think of Yourself as the DM's Assistant
This is the mindset I take when playing a PC, mainly because the person who DM's when I step down is fairly inexperienced and new to running games. Use your experience and knowledge to help their game flow and progress - the entire table will benefit from the results. Ask yourself often - if I were running this game, what would I want and/or really appreciate right now? This mindset is the basis for rest of this post.

Keep the Party Focused
One of a DM's biggest enemies is inattention. Maybe the players are talking about the latest movie, or about some recent news, or even something in-game that's completely unrelated to what is actually happening. Most DM's have seen this enough on the other side of the screen; if you see this happening while playing try to steer the party gently back on course before it reaches the point of "DM intervention." One of the more subtle ways you can help get everyone's attention back onto the game is by...

Asking Leading Questions
Most experienced DM's will be able to spot a plot hook a mile away. However, not all players have this same sensory ability (no joke!). You can really help your DM by spotting these hooks or realizing when the party could really benefit from additional information, and asking the questions they want to answer. We all know how frustrating it is when you present the party with a seemingly obvious hook and they completely miss it - you don't want to break the immersion and point it out, yet it's essential to the plot development.

Keep in mind that you don't want to go too far - don't ask questions about everything in a paranoid obsession for detail. In fact, asking too much can be terrible for a new DM, since they likely aren't ready for a lot of improvisation and on-the-fly specifics. At best, you might frustrate them; at worst you'll completely frazzle them and throw them off their game for the rest of the night.

Volunteer to Be the "Rules Guy"
This isn't as bad as it sounds, because let's face it - in most groups, whoever normally DM's is ALREADY the "Rules Guy," simply because they require to know the rules inside and out already (for the most part). But help your DM out. Chances are they've never had to look up how much horse barding costs, what the differences are between cover and concealment, or what a tiefling's racial ability is. Even if you don't know either and have to dig through some books, this leaves the DM free to continue telling the story and focusing on the important details.

Other examples would include keeping track of status effects, putting bloodied/marked indicators on figures, and clearing the figures while the DM is readying the next encounter. Anything to lessen the DM's workload.

Don't Make DM Decisions
This can be difficult, but try to remember that you are not the DM. If there is a tough decision to make (such as a fuzzy rules situation), do not step on the DM's toes. Let them make their decision and don't upstage them by arguing it. Instead, try to imagine yourself as a detached, neutral party and offer suggestions or alternatives to both sides so that a conclusion can be reached that satisfies both sides. If it's turning into a heated argument, do your best to diffuse the situation, maybe by coming up with a compromise or volunteering to research the rule in question.

Finally, above all else, DO NOT SAY "Well in MY game this is how we'd do it" or "I would do it this way if I were DM'ing". It's insulting to your DM and disrespectful, and you're essentially cutting his legs out from under him and telling the other players that you're better at DM'ing.

Playing the Game Properly
This is very simple, but it's important. It's so, so easy to metagame or abuse unspoken game rules (like not robbing merchants, even though it's clearly obvious you would be able to), but this sort of behavior just makes a DM's job even we all likely know, from experience. For instance, in the game I played we found ourselves in the laboratory of someone named "Acererak." I knew instantly who this was and what it meant, and while inwardly I was screaming "Oh shit!!" I saw that no one else recognized the name, so I simply asked the DM for a History check to see if I knew who it was. I rolled badly, so I shrugged and we moved on.

Anyone else have any tips on what a DM can do to help out when they are a PC?

Don't let min-maxing consume you

I received a rare opportunity on the weekend - to play D&D as a player instead of a DM! I excitedly loaded up my Protector Shaman, who was moderately out-of-date (hadn't been updated since before Primal Power came out), and began checking out the new feats, power & options that were now available.

The game, ironically, fell through. However, this was not before I spent a good hour toiling over options and possibilities. One of the things that always paralyzes me when building a character too many options, and the desire to maximize my potential. For example, do I take a Mace of Healing +2 to enhance my healing on allies? Or do I take the less-powerful Healer's Broach +1, for less healing to allies but extra healing to myself? And if I take the Broach, that means I can't take the Cloak of the Walking Wounded, which I wanted to ensure that if I got low I could power back up quickly, etc.

I realized I was spending way too much time on calculations and math when I looked down at my notes and saw no less than EIGHT different gear and feat builds, with their strengths, weaknesses, and additional powers listed individually for each one. The real irony is the main cause of my paranoia was maximizing my healing capabilities; capabilities that so far in the campaign have proven more than sufficient.

So I took a step back and distanced myself, knowing that my shaman's healing would be good enough, and just chose one build and hit Save Character. And it was great! It was like a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders, and I had a lot of fun finishing my character's power selection and feat choices. Of course, I didn't get to actually *play* my shaman...but oh well.

I guess the moral of the story is that while D&D is undoubtedly a game of stats, bonuses and numbers, and it's fun to make your character awesome and's important not to take it *too* seriously. If you're stressing out or fretting about feat/power/gear choices - don't! It's just a game.

"Oops, I forgot to..." moments

4E is a complicated game when it comes to remembering things. There are many, many things to remember - rolling saving throws at the end of your turn, taking ongoing damage, when an effect/buff/debuff ends, who's marked, a few extra damage here or adds up. And this always results in the somewhat-grey area debate of what happens when you forget.

For our group, it's simple. We break it down into categories:

Automatic events
If something was supposed to happen automatically and wasn't a matter of choice, we apply the forgotten effect no matter how long it's been (within reason). These are straightforward and rarely disputed, since we view these as things players (or monsters) are entitled to. Examples of automatic effects that we commonly allow after the fact:
  • forgetten saving throw(s)
  • forgotten ongoing damage or healing from regeneration
  • a battlerager fighter forgetting to gain the temporary hit points from making an attack and/or using an invigorating power
  • a fighter attacking someone and forgetting to mark it. Exception: if the target was already marked by someone else, then it is assumed the fighter chose not to overwrite the existing mark.
  • not realizing at the time that someone should have gotten an opportunity attack
  • forgetting to add a bonus to a damage or healing roll
  • forgetting to add a bonus to hit rolls. If this turns a miss into a hit, it can screw things up, so someone has only until the end of the next combatant's turn to remember a forgotten +hit bonus. That way, if the miss-turned-hit changes events (by killing the next combatant's target, or even the next combatant) we only have to redo one turn to fix things.
  • forgetting a bonus to defense that would have turned a hit into a miss. As above, someone only has until the end of the next combatant's turn to remember the mistake.
  • forgetting because there was multiple things happening at once. For instance, if a power lets a player shift, spend a healing surge, and make a saving throw, they are allowed pretty generously to do any of those things after the fact if they forgot because they were preoccupied doing the other actions.

"I would have done this" actions
The next step up are no-brainer actions, where the player would almost always have done something, but just forgot to actually say it. This is sometimes tricky, and we've had to firmly put our foot down a few times on things and deny players sometimes. Quite often these are the result of unused minor actions, but generally if it's something that a player has to consider and actually make a decision about, they CAN'T take it back. Examples would be:
  • a ranger hitting a target without declaring as his quarry, even though logically he should have (it qualified to be his quarry, he hadn't marked anyone else as his quarry previously, and he still had his minor action available)
  • someone forgetting to sustain an effect. If they ended their turn with the required action type still available, we assume they just sustained it. If it's still their turn when they realize their mistake, and they no longer have the required action available to sustain the effect, they can either end the effect or take back the action required to sustain the effect. If it's after their turn, and they ended their turn with the required action type not available, then they didn't sustain it and the effect ends.

Actions that required consideration and decision
These actions CANNOT be taken back, for various reasons. Often it is because the "forgotten" ability was one that has the potential to be wasted. A perfect example of such an ability is a paladin's Divine Strength, which adds a damage bonus to the paladin's next attack. A paladin can't make an attack roll, hit, and then "remember" to use Divine Strength since he already knows the result of his attack (a hit). The only way we would allow this (sometimes it is crucial) is if he re-rolls his attack roll as well. Some examples of things that cannot be "taken back":
  • forgetting to use a "bonus on next attack" ability until after the attack roll has already been made (though allowed if the attack is re-rolled)
  • forgetting to declare the attack until after the attack roll has already been made (though allowed if the attack is re-rolled). Not declaring the attack means the attack was an at-will attack.
  • essentially anything else that doesn't fit into the first two categories; anything that isn't automatic or near-automatic.