We all know that the person running an RPG game like D&D is called the Dungeon Master (DM) or Game Master (GM). But what are the other people at the table called?
The obvious answer is player. After all, the other people in the game each run a player character (PC), so surely they must be the players? The problem with that logic, though, is that it suggests the DM is not a player. Yet the DM is very much a player. In fact, in many groups the DM is the one who plays the most in every regard: the DM is often the one who goes to their local hobby shop and buys the modules and source books, the DM is the one who reads the novels and the settings and the rules over and over again, the DM plays not one player character but several non-player characters and monsters. It's hard not to call such a person a D&D player.
Most anyone who is a DM self-identifies as a player. When asked what I do for fun, I don't say I manage and coordinate RPG players, I say I play D&D. Does this mean that the DM is a player with, essentially, a special DM badge? That's one way to look at it, and yet terms like non-player character (NPC) suggests that, at least in the view of early D&D, the DM is specifically not a player but, in fact, a non-player.
It seems like a purely semantic exercise, but in recent years there has been such an explosion of D&D in online shows that some players come to the game expecting, in a way, a performance or an experience rather than a game. Yet D&D is meant to be a cooperative game: a collaboration. All players are meant to have a part in the game, and no one player, not even the DM, is intended to "drive" the session. Read old modules or listen to sample game play from AD&D (there were a few scripted sessions released back in the 90s, along with introductory D&D sets). There's no sense that the DM is on a pedestal to transport the players to an exciting new fantasy world; players transport themselves, to whatever degree they choose. Immersion is created by the group, not by any one player.
If everyone in an RPG game is a player, why don't we distinguish the other players (the ones who don't run NPCs and monsters) with a special term? It's obviously a historic artifact. I find it surprising that nobody ever brought up the conflicting terms to D&D's original authors. If everyone's playing D&D, they are all players, so how can the player playing non-player characters be a non-player?
Then again, maybe it wasn't even a question that people thought to ask. Obviously everyone's a player, but one of the players is the DM, and it's the DM's job to control characters in the game for whom there are no other humans available. It makes sense, in a way.
Personally, I'd have loved an equally special term for players, like delvers. Everyone's a player, but one player is the dungeon master (DM) and the other players are dungeon delvers (DD). I think it works, although obviously it would work a lot better, had it been part of the original D&D tradition.
Such is not the case, and so realistically we have the "DM" and we have "players". And that's fine, because this blog post isn't actually about the terminology, as such, but about the D&D experience, and how it is created by everyone at the table. No single person is responsible for creating an experience. You don't buy tickets to a D&D game the way you do a movie. You don't sit in front of a D&D game mindlessly the way you do television. A D&D game is an interactive and shared experience, and what you bring to the game table feeds into that.
So be a great player, whether you're a dungeon master or a dungeon delver.