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Saturday, November 22, 2014

Finding Your Style as a Dungeon Master

In this column I am going to blab about playing to your strengths when being a Dungeon Master. Down at the bottom of this page I tacked on what I think makes for a good player.

I decided to use artwork from the great Wayne Reynolds for this one. While I am more of a Larry Elmore/Clyde Caldwell guy, I think there's a strong argument to be made that Wayne is the greatest D&D artist of all time. 

I try to follow a few high-profile DMs that blog regularly on being a DM. Some of them include:
These people are our kin! They run stuff every week, and they have a lot of valuable information for us to sift through.

I was reading a post by Merric about Hoard of the Dragon Queen a week or two back. In it, he made a passing comment about how he felt like he wasn't good at role-playing and was more of a numbers guy. The way he said it made me think he doubted himself.

Merric is clearly a good DM. He always has a full table of players. He's had them for years. He likes the game, he knows the game, and is respected the world over for his skills as a Dungeon Master. Why would he doubt himself?


We doubt ourselves for this reason: Being a DM is ridiculously hard. It's like having a second job that you don't get paid for. You are responsible for so many things at the same time:
  • Be properly prepared to fill a session
  • Know the rules of the game
  • Entertain the players
  • Have a sense of pacing - know when to gloss over and know when to focus in on a scene
  • Know your material
  • Be ready to improvise
  • Make sure your players are the stars
  • Manage the table dynamic to keep things running smoothly
  • Remember that the ultimate point of the game is to have fun
Play To Your Strengths

Nobody is perfect. Everyone is better at some things than others. None of us are the perfect DM. What we can do is follow this simple credo:  
Accentuate your strengths and hide your weaknesses.

I personally feel my strength lies in portraying NPCs. My weaknesses include knowing rules and keeping numbers straight. So my style of game is full of wacky NPCs and stupid voices and maybe some goofy song I came up with (I ended my Skull and Shackles campaign with a terrible, profanity-laden end-credits rap).

A lot of times I describe scenes as if they are in a bad special effects movie, using words like "fog machine" and "you catch a glimpse of a hand manipulating the mouth of the dragon puppet". I make lots of sound effects.

That's my style. It's a bunch of goofy crap, but when it's time to get serious, we get serious. But I know where my bread is buttered - I try to make them smile and in turn they make me smile.

I am up front with them about being bad with rules. Usually there is a player in my group who jumps in on rules questions and looks stuff up if needed. Sometimes I have a group that doesn't care about the rules and is along for the ride. 

Identify Your Weaknesses

How do you identify your weaknesses? Get feedback from your players, to start with. The problem there is that it can be painful, and your players may not want to say certain things that might hurt your feelings.

If you're really serious about this stuff, then here is what you do. Record your session on your phone/camera/digital recorder (I use a digital recorder). Make sure your players know you're doing this, and that you aren't going to put it on the internet or anything. Listen to it. You will hear so much that you missed while administrating the game. You will immediately catch things you can do better. 

To keep yourself from getting depressed, make sure to skip to the parts where somebody made some funny jokes. That's the most important part. I have a few audio files of hilarious crap from old D&D sessions saved on my computer that I listen to from time to time to give myself a boost when I have a bad session.

Develop Your Style

As Chris Perkins has said, a DM is like a director of a movie. You have your own vision of the game and you get to present it. Your players are your stars and your audience. You should think about what your vision is. Think of great or popular directors and what traits describe you:
  • Alfred Hitchcock (Sharp plots and building tension)
  • Quentin Tarantino (Edgy, intense, profane)
  • Michael Bay (Giant explosions and sweaty bare midriffs)
If you are a "numbers" person, there is nothing wrong with that. Most people don't like to act or do voices. That is the great thing about D&D - you can shape it to fit what you like.

I can remember my friend telling me about a game he was in, where the group played out every minute of every day in the game. Most of the campaign seemed to take place in a single town. They played out every purchase, every interaction with an NPC on the street. They played this game for a year or two, and at the end they were 3rd level. The DM made gaining a level this truly epic achievement.

There is a guy at the game store I run in who runs a Pathfinder game. He's been playing since the D&D white box. He always has a table of 10 players. He insists on running his adventures completely improvised. I could never do that. It sounds terrifying. But this guy makes it work. His players are loyal to the campaign and have been playing for years. It's a lethal old school game with no regard to scaling of any kind.

The rules are just a guideline. As long as your players are OK with it, make it your own. Use the game to express your vision, but allow your players to tap dance all over it. That's the fun of the game for you - to see what your players do with the scenario you concocted.

How to be a Good Player
  • Show up on time
  • Be polite
  • Don't look at or use your phone during the game.
  • Bring food or chip in for food.
  • Have your character ready and know what your character can do
  • Don't do negative things in the game and then claim "that's what my character would do". Don't make that character.
  • As always, don't deal with out of game issues in the game.
  • When you roll bad, deal with it. It's just a game.

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