A few months ago I had a rather startling realization hit me upside the head. It was a long-forgotten fact, a suppressed memory if you will, that once remembered seemed so strikingly obvious I couldn't for the life of me fathom why it had slipped down beneath the waters of my sub-conscious for so many years.
The suppressed memory was simply this: when I first got into RPGs, I was interested in them as a player, not as a GM.
As someone who has spent the bulk of two decades in gaming as the guy making them happen, this was a real revelation. But I suddenly got back in touch with those feelings that had flooded my fevered 12-year-old brain after picking up and reading through the Red Box: I'd imagined the badass characters I'd create and run up to high level, their epic exploits blazing a saga of glory across the imaginary worlds I was about to enter. The monsters and treasure were things for me to kill, loot for me to take, not things to unleash on others. Had I managed to find an established gaming group into which I could have inserted myself, character sheet in hand, I would certainly have followed this course. It's impossible to say now whether I ever would have felt the siren call of running my own games, but in reality I pretty much had to start running games right off the bat since it was either that or not game at all.
It's, I think, fair to say that one of the truisms of traditional RPG gaming is that the act of running a game is an utterly thankless labor of love. Despite persistent rumors about "professional GMs" the vast majority of us do it for free, enjoying at best the simple compensation of not having to pay for the pizza or what have you. Many (most?) of us, if offered money to run games, would not take the opportunity, wanting to keep the experience "pure" and unsullied by filthy lucre. (For the record, I am not one of those ideologues, in case there are any millionaire GM-less gaming groups reading this post...)
There are probably as many different reasons for why people choose to take on the task of running a game as there are individual GMs, but I suspect these could be lumped into fairly broad categories. For me, the reason I started running games was because I was a frustrated player. I wanted to play RPGs, but didn't know anyone else who could make that happen.
Of course, eventually I got to be a player too. But by then I'd been running games so often I found it hard to turn off my GMing brain. I'd silently judge the GM, thinking about how I would have done things differently. Or, deprived of a campaign to work on between sessions, I'd start cooking up something to run "when this campaign's over" - and then get so excited about what I was working on, I'd lose interest in the game I was playing in. In effect I'd gone from being a frustrated player to being a frustrated GM.
These days, of course, I'm happy to be playing RPGs at all. I know a lot of folks in the "adult world" don't have that luxury, so I'm appreciative of whatever gaming time I can get in. I still feel little twinges of the old frustrations: when I'm running a game, I envy the carefree fun the players are having; when I'm a player, I can't wait to get back in the control seat. I have managed to work past the silent judging thing, at least.
I'm curious, though. Any other frustrated players running games out there? How about frustrated GMs? How do you deal with having to slum it in the peanut gallery? And more broadly, if you do run games, why do you do it?