Gnome Stew had an article recently on the concept of the GM Confidant, which is a GM that assists another GM with the campaign without actually participating. A confidant is there to discuss ideas, add to existing concepts or create them wholesale, and otherwise expand the GM’s horizons beyond what one person can manage. Plots, monsters, world-building, NPCs, anything can be bounced off a confidant to get another side of it.
It’s a neat idea, though one of the comments pointed out my biggest concern with it:
The challenge is, once you have a confidant who understands all those things, you’ll want to make that person a player in your game! My few confidants have all been people whom I would include in my game except there’s some deal-killer: they live too far away for a F2F game, they have a family commitment on the night of the week we play, etc.
There’s another concern that a confidant with a sufficiently strong personality will override the actual GM, essentially running the game by proxy. That might be me seeing hypothetical problems that can’t actually occur, but my view is probably colored by my first-blush opinion of the GM confidant, which is that it shared a lot of ground with something I’ve been mulling over lately.
All told I haven’t been GMing for too terribly long, a bit under a decade. I’m not one of the old hats who have been running D&D since the red box. Still, even in the time I have, I’ve seen a startling number of people whose first campaign was their last campaign. Some completed their DM debuts, but most burned out long before the story reached any sort of conclusion. I don’t know if it was the pressures of coming up with something new and fresh every week, or the trouble in coordinating the game without being able to sit back for a few minutes like a player can, or the hazard of trying to kill people within melee range of them, or what. I expect it was some combination of all of these, along with other stresses I’m missing.
Which led me to thinking: what if there was some way to spread out those stresses so they didn’t fall as heavily and as immediately on the DM? What if there was a way to put some onus on somebody more experienced at handling it, long enough for a first-time DM to find their voice?
For those of you who haven’t read the title of the post, I’m talking about a type of GM confidant called a DM mentor*. A DM running his or her first campaign would invite another DM to act as their confidant, helping with fleshing out ideas and filling in any holes that may exist (and need to be filled). But a mentor goes beyond just discussing the creative bits of the campaign. A mentor also helps with the mechanics of DMing itself: challenge level, pacing, time management, personality management, all the bits that books like the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the GameMastery Guide think they can teach but that really have to be learned.
I think the mentor should play in the campaign with the explicit expectation that they’ll provide guidance during the session and critique afterward. This also allows them to push things a little harder; if the players get to stagnation or boredom or frustration or arguing and the DM isn’t sure how to respond, the mentor can react live rather than talking about it later.
This is why I worried about the confidant overriding the original DM, because they’re a warm body at the table that even the DM is looking to for guidance. A mentor has to go in knowing that they’re acting in an advisory capacity, not to challenge the DM but to foster their ability to make decisions. I’m pretty sure that if your confidant undermines your confidence, that’s ironic. Over time the mentor needs to pull away, gradually becoming an ordinary player once the DM gets their footing.
The GM confidant is a good idea, but it’s more for experienced GMs who already know how to run a table and just want another creative voice helping to build their side of things. Conversely a DM mentor is only for new DMs who want a little help making sure their first campaign isn’t their last. Not everyone needs one, but I wish I’d had one when I put my first campaign together and I wish I’d been one for some of the one-and-done DMs I’ve met. Maybe then I could have become their confidant a few years down the road.
* – Please forgive the GM/DM disparity. This is a blog about D&D, after all.