I've been doing a lot of D&D work lately. I decided to go full steam ahead on my Planescape campaign. I've been reading and preparing classic Planescape scenarios by Monte Cook and Chris Perkins.
While doing this, I was thinking about the type of dungeon master I am. I mulled over my flaws and how to improve. I am keenly aware that my group likes it best when I give them almost complete control. They "wake up" and get into all sorts of shenanigans. But when I run a published adventure, they tend to sit back and go along for the ride. They are almost startled when there is a moment that they have to make a big decision. Yet here I am running published adventures, because I enjoy running official "classic" stuff.
Common Pitfalls of Running a Game
- The DM who pummels you in every encounter, but then saves you when you should die.
- The DM who is on a complete power trip but needs your praise and tries to get it through presentation of cool concepts or NPCs.
- The new DM who has a lot of potential but is crippled by insecurity, ultimately second-guessing themselves right out of the DM chair.
- The DM who has their pet NPC/character that is super-awesome and does everything while the PCs watch on resentfully.
- The old school DM who is set in their ways, hates all new rules or ideas, and resents the modern concept of game balance.
- The DM who lets their significant other get special treatment over everyone else.
- The meticulous DM who is such a perfectionist that it takes them months to run a single session of campaign.
I got about 50 responses in under 24 hours. Not too shabby! I broke the whole thing down into 4 categories. We'll go over them one at a time:
Stick to the Rules, but Allow for Creative Ideas: Almost every single person said this is what they do. One DM cited an example of allowing a wizard to disarm a foe through the clever use of a teleportation spell.
Making It Up as you Go Along: I was shocked at how many DMs said they run their games "on the fly". It might have been 30% or more! This makes sense to a degree, as a lot of people simply don't have the time to prepare a campaign. I admire this balls to the wall attitude, but I personally am terrible at it.
One comment many of these free-wheeling adrenaline junkies made was that their method was to think about the NPCs in the campaign and what they would do. Then, they'd just react to what the PCs did, or operate on their own schedule. I've done this quite a bit and it always works out well.
Power Trip: A couple DMs were willing to admit that they ran their games with an iron fist. "I'm an asshole DM," proclaimed one. This person explained that they are the one individual in the group who does their best to make sure the group keeps going, and sometimes that requires being an asshole.
Another dungeon master talked about running a challenging game: "I'm a difficulty-oriented DM. I want my players to notice there are risks involved with every choice they make. More risks to fail, die, get eyes gouged out (etc) means the stakes are higher and the adventure more epic. Make smart decisions and you look like a hero."
I personally would love this style as a player, but as I've noted in this blog many times before, there is a massive percentage of D&D players who don't like this and can't handle it.
Another DM had a bone-chilling response: "I am a cruel god."
Overpreparing: One dungeon master made a startling claim: "I will easily spend 20-30 hours preparing a session, but I never over prepare to the point where I can't handle my players doing unexpected things."
I have always been of the understanding that you should never prepare longer than your session will last. I break this rule often, but I always keep it in mind. I can't fathom spending 20-30 hours a week (?) preparing for a 5 hour game.
Homebrew Bastards: Get a load of this montage of DM responses - a salute to the homebrew:
- "I refer to myself as a 'homebrew bastard'"
- "All homebrew all the time"
- "Almost always homebrew."
- "I usually prefer homebrews, because I like control and knowledge over my lore (makes improv easier)."
- "The last campaign and the most recent both take place within a homebrew setting."
- "Homebrew set in Faerun. Basically one big campaign with a bunch of arcs."
- "Because of my style, I just about have to home brew it (plus world building is the best)."
- "I run a homebrew setting. All lore is some basic background and history, but other than that the rest are previous campaigns."
- "I write fiction as a hobby, so I always come up with my own ideas and sometimes test my story ideas on players."
- "I always write my own and never used published adventures. I have nothing against them - I learned to love D&D through modules and still have a soft spot in my heart for Castle Amber - but I will never know as much about Krynn or Faerun as one of my players and that lack of knowledge kills the fantasy for me."
Does this mean wizards of the coast should focus on supplements? Princes of the Apocalypse does have races, spells and monsters in it, but are people going to pay $50 for 40 pages of material in the back of the book (most of which wizards offers for free online)?
I feel so alone all of the sudden. I love running published adventures. They are full of great ideas and flavor. Running White Plume Mountain last year was one of the greatest things ever. I personally can't fathom coming up with cool adventures like that on a weekly basis. It sounds exhausting.
One dungeon master talked about why he hated pre-made adventures: "It just feels like me, as a DM, have almost no point in being there."
Running Published Adventures: A handful of dungeon masters claimed to run published stuff. One DM said: "I've run one homebrewed campaign, and I'm currently running LMoP online and PotA live. I'm finding published adventurers surprisingly more difficult, as there is a lot of information and NPCs to memorize."
He is right. Preparing a published adventure, especially one like Princes of the Apocalypse, is like doing homework. It's basically a textbook that you need to know backwards and forwards, and you are tested on it every week by your peers.
Another DM said: "I'm always torn on premade vs. homebrew. When I have the time and energy, homebrewing always leads to a better game. But I am prone to burnout, and the lower effort involved in premade games keeps them running longer."
Too Easy: This was the number one response. Many dungeon masters feel they are too soft on their players. One DM said: "I'm a bit too forgiving with my PC's and will often let them pass rolls that should be failed by one or two points, but only if it wont affect the narrative too heavily."
Another chimed in: "I'm far too soft-hearted and forgiving to my players. In the last campaign I ran (very first time being a DM), I didn't want to hinder their fun but this lead to a few issues at the table so this time I'm going to be less soft on them."
One dungeon master went so far as to say that he or she was too "chickenshit" in combat.
I struggle with this too, and I have over my entire career as a DM. A couple things to remember:
- Players like easy encounters. Not all the time, but more than you'd think. Truly dangerous encounters can be stressful when the player really cares about his or her character.
- Put extra thought into your big encounters. Add dangerous terrain, minions, and gimmicks (example: The villain is surrounded by a force shield the PCs must destroy four statues before they can harm him). Study 4e poster map fights for ideas.
- Many DMs said they simply didn't have enough spare time to prepare their campaign properly.
- One said: "I get frustrated when players don't put as much effort into a world as I put into the world."
- Optional side quests end up taking up the entire night, which can be boring. The DM feels pressure to make it fun.
- The DM is good at numbers, has a hard time running mysteries or investigation. I suggested that this person study some old Shadowrun adventures, as they are a perfect template for how to run an investigation.
- "Long sessions burn me out (4 hours is my max these days)." I feel the same way!
- More than one DM said that they lose enthusiasm for a campaign but the players want to keep going.
- One DM sometimes forgets something cool they were planning to do. I think we've all been there. There is so much stuff to juggle.
Cell Phones: A number of dungeon masters complained about this. The cell phone is a major distraction. I just tell my players to put them away. There was one instance in a game store where I had a really annoying player, and I'd let him play on his cell phone as it kept him quiet and he didn't bother anybody.
One DM had this to say: "Oh man, if there's something I find difficult it's making 5 people pay attention, be it D&D, school project, Organizing something, coordinating a job project, people's brains are completely burnt by smartphones and shit, that's almost like drugs for them."
Cheating: One DM realized he had a cheater, so he decided to ask the players to move closer so their die rolls can be seen.
Another DM chimed in about cheating. His player said that he was playing the game to have fun, and that "It's about fun, and I have fun not failing". So this DM ran the whole session where every time the heroes rolled, he declared it a natural 20. The monsters rolled a critical fumble every time. The players loved it. They got to the main villain and killed it in one round. This DM says that they never cheated again after this.
That seems really excessive. I have a hard time dealing with some stuff in D&D, but cheating is something I have no tolerance for. I just call the player out on it and demand that they roll right in front of me. "If I don't see it, it doesn't count". I had one player who bought these tiny metal dice that were hard for me to read from across the table. I made him use bigger dice. This is a grown man we are talking about.
Running Games Online: One DM talked about running games online with Roll20, and the players sometimes just miss a session with little warning. It seems like players are much prone to flake out when it's not a face-to-face meeting. I read about one DM who actually had players just quit out of his game mid-session!
Players Not Writing Things Down: "Among the folks I play with now if I have a pet peeve, it's when they aren't prepared. So I have the rule ;If it's not on your character sheet it doesn't exist; - and I will know if they were ever to add something that shouldn't be there."
I have this problem, too. I still have players who don't bring a pencil to the game. A pencil! How is that possible?!
Rules Lawyers: "I had one player hold the game hostage and refuse to take his turn to look something up and prove me wrong. 9/10 (times) he couldn't even find what he wanted, but insisted he was right. He would take a half hour each time, too. Eventually I ended up just telling him he would lose his turn if he didn't take it within X amount of time. He threw a tantrum over it."
I would really like to see a campaign where every single player and the DM is a rules lawyer. It sounds completely exhausting.
Epic Rant Number One: "Player Problem: Everyone. I have hardly been able to find a player who doesn't have some major deficiency. The guy who loves to roleplay can't be bothered to remember what a d20 looks like even though he's played for years. The guy who loves gaming the system can't view their character as more than a pile of numbers. Then there's the guy who takes it all as a big sketch comedy, the guy who can't make it to half the sessions, the guy who wants to continually demand special treatment, and the guy who just needs a shower."
Full disclosure: I'd probably be the sketch comedy guy.
Epic Rant Number Two: "I can't stand players who think I'm railroading them, when they put themselves in a position that can't be free. If you push the Duke down a flight of stairs, don't expect him to not imprison you for an attempt on his life. If you escape, awesome. If not, I'll happily imprison you instead of killing your character off on the spot, which only makes me happy."
"The night before we play, I usually spend some time making up the Roll20 boards and writing a lot of notes, and at the end of the night, I have this perfectly set up world loaded with potential energy. It's like I lock all the doors, set all the traps, and tell all the monsters, "So guys, I can't promise you what they're going to do, but if everything goes right, I'll bring you a party full of tasty PCs tomorrow, so just sleep tight, OK?"
"Then I tuck everything in and click the light off, but that potential energy is there all night, and when I go to sleep with it in my head, it makes me happy. D&D is the perfect compromise like that. You plan this thing, but you know part of the pleasure is that the best you can do is make a really good pinball machine, which is to say that it's equal parts clever design, player participation, and chaos theory."
DMing is always an amazing thing, because it's like an enormous buffet. I don't ever have to show up at a game with our group and fill one role. If I want to play with magic, I throw casters at you guys. If I want to make you dance, I put fights in difficult terrain. If I want to scrap, you fight melee monsters. If I feel like acting, we have a talky session. A Golden Corral for my mind."