Ask The GM: Split GMing

By John Serpico on


Readers, before answering the question this time around, I have an exciting announcement! I’ll be moderating a panel titled Improvisation in Roleplaying at PAX East 2018! I and a collection of authors and artists will get together and share tips, tricks and secrets on how to incorporate improv techniques into your gaming experience in order to make it more fun and much less stressful! Alrighty, on with the advice!

Coop asks – I’m in an awesome gaming group. Everyone’s real dedicated and over the past four years we’ve been getting together at least twice a week. Currently, two of my friends are each running a game – one is on Tuesdays and one is on Sundays. When the Sunday campaign ends (it’ll be in a couple months) the GM of it wants to run an Unknown Armies game with me. I’ve GMed Unknown Armies before but he hasn’t, and so he wants to split the GMing. We’ve talked about him GMing some weeks and me GMing other weeks, with each of us having characters to play when we’re not running it. How do you think that would work?


I’ve been a co-GM myself, and have played in games run by two people before. And while splitting GM duties can work, the process can be a lot more time intensive and stressful than you think it will be. GMing is one of those jobs in the world that gets harder the more people are involved, with the reason being that a lot of elements of GMing are difficult to divide up multiple ways. So let’s talk about those elements.

Before and between sessions, a GM is responsible for developing an overall narrative, which includes synthesizing all the player inputs into something cohesive and compelling. In that way, a GM serves as a story editor. Having a pair of people try to edit a story becomes very complicated, as competing overall visions can creep into that process and make plot-building very challenging. Even if two GMs agree at the beginning of a campaign that the story will focus on a group of adventurers trying to find a lost artifact, what happens when that group decides instead to become world-travelling mercenaries? Or when the character motivations of one of the characters becomes a more dominant driving force than the original storyline? It’s tougher for two GMs to adapt to the new normal than it is for a single GM.

During sessions, a GM is problem-solving. They are engaged in improvisational storytelling. They are crafting a narrative in real time, using NPCs to further the plot and drop hints and create emotional connections. And just as a second GM can make an overall narrative cumbersome between sessions, a second GM – if you’re running sessions as a pair – can make the tactical narrative management slow during sessions. If you’re alternating the GMing, as your friend is suggesting, each of you are able to make decisions in real time, which is good. But NPCs are going to get played differently by each person, and each of you will have to make peace with the decisions made by the last person. You’ll both have to reconcile how things shook out and figure out the path forward after every Sunday.

In short, both in-session and between-session GM responsibilities become harder to manage the more GMs you have. So you need to really think about whether or not running a game as a pair is worth doing. If your friend only wants you in because you have Unknown Armies experience and he doesn’t, I think your time would be better used by bringing him up to speed on the system and letting him run it. You’ll avoid a lot of headaches that way.

This is normally the moment that I’ll say “On the other hand, split-GMing does have some advantages.” But I don’t like the setup so much that I’ll talk about some unintended negative consequences that might pop up. First, since each of you would have a character to use when you’re not GMing, there’s going to be a strange power dynamic between you and the other players. Each of the co-GMs’ characters will be played by people with an understanding of the world and where the plot is going. It’ll be hard to make decisions without being biased, and other players may feel like they need to keep deferring to you and your co-GM.

Second, you’re only having a 50% serving of GMing and a 50% serving of playing. You’re going to constantly be dealing with a fear of missing out, no matter what you’re doing. You might feel like you’re on the sidelines, even as you’re the one describing what’s happening on the field. It will take a lot of adjusting to switch back and forth without feeling whiplash.

If you do decide to move ahead with this, I wish you all the best. Check in early and often with your co-GM and be prepared to be in a constant state of compromise. Again, I have been a part of situations like these and they are workable, if less fun than a normal setup.

Readers, any further advice? Has anyone experienced a truly lovely co-GMing experience?

Happy GMing!

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