What I Learned DMing for 10,000 Players

My first DMing experience was running The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh for five classmates back when we were barely 12 years old.  That was almost too young for us to nearly wet ourselves laughing at all the “Ned Shakeshaft” jokes.  Almost, but not quite.  But even then, before I even knew what side of a d4 was up, I learned a few valuable DMing lessons.  Jokes about bad names were not only inevitable, they were welcome.  Finding that first magic item, even if it was just a +1 short sword, is motivating.  Some allies should betray the PCs, and some enemies should turn out to be allies.  Creating great stories through gaming was frickin’ amazing.

As I grew older and my gaming experiences expanded throughout high school and college, my players would grow to number roughly 100.  We would play all the current editions of D&D, plus just about every RPG that was released in those times, no matter how complicated, silly, cheap, expensive, popular, forgotten, praised, or derided.  Starting in 2002, however, my attention was brought sharply into focus on 3rd Edition D&D, and the number of players I oversaw began to grow rapidly out of control.  At the point where I write this, I would say that I have DMed for thousands of players all over the world.

How, you ask?  Do I have the world’s largest basement and a helipad on the roof?  Alas, no.  Since 2002, I have been an administrator in three different organized-play campaigns: the Writing Director for the region of Keoland in Living Greyhawk, the Factionmaster of the Crimson Codex faction in Eberron’s Xen’drik Expeditions campaign, and most recently a Global Administrator for the Living Forgotten Realms campaign.  I also did work for the Eberron: Mark of Heroes campaign and Kenzer & Co.’s Living Kingdoms of Kalamar campaign.  Because of some fortunate timing, I also have had the opportunity to design or contribute content to off-the-shelf products from Wizards of the Coast: P3 Assault on Nightwyrm Fortress, Dungeon Delve, DMG 2, and City of Stormreach.

Throughout all those years and all those projects, and thanks to all of the people whom I have interacted with and learned from in my gaming and writing life, I like to think I have gained at least a small amount of practical knowledge.  But most of what I have learned has come at the expense of getting things wrong the first time (and often the second and third time as well).  And that’s really what I want this column to be about going forward: offering insights and suggestions for adventure designers and DMs, while at the same time filling the entire Internet with things I don’t know.

As a little preview of what’s coming, I’ll share this.  My background is in Creative Writing and English.  I would always point out to my students things like the difference between story and plot.  I would smugly quote E.M. Forster, stating that “The king died and then the queen died” is story, while “the king died and then the queen died from grief” is plot.  For too long I would bring that same sort of subtlety into my adventure design, expecting the players to be in awe of my wit.  Only after extensive and monumental failures did I realize that RPGs in general and D&D in particular play by a different set of rules.  So with apologies to E.M Forster, I offer the following: “In D&D, ‘the king died and then the queen died’ is story. ‘The kind died and then the queen died from a greataxe through the skull and 20 ongoing radiant damage from the cleric because she was a whore succubus shagging the king’s knights while using their soul energy to perform a ritual that would open a rift to the deepest pits of hell and unleash a cataclysm foretold by the blind seers of the Lost Continent’ is D&D plot.”

Gaming is awesome, and I cannot wait to learn more about everything that makes this hobby of ours tick.


  1. Loved the article! Your point about the difference between story and plot and subtlety that is lost on players really resonated with me.

    I’m sure it’s been more than 10,000 players by now, Sean 🙂

  2. Great article! By the way, my experiences with you as factionmaster of Crimson Codex was one of the most positive experiences I ever had with gaming, and what made me want to try and help out as an admin in the Living Realms campaign.

  3. I think if you ever ran a game for Forester, he’d approve. 😉

    Thanks for the reminder about allies who are villains and villains who are allies. I haven’t been thinking about that sort of thing in my home games lately, and I really ought to throw some more ambiguity in there.

  4. Mickey Tan says:

    Great article especially the succubus part.

    Your adventures in the RPGA have been some of my favorite ones with interesting stories and fun combats. I look forward to your regular column.

  5. Welcome aboard, Shawn!

  6. Dlotempio says:

    Shawn’s comments regarding the different approach towards plot and story are poignant. I’d humbly suggest that one of the most difficult transitions between writing a story and writing a RPG is understanding that a writer develops the whole package while the RPG can set pieces and events into place that players than build upon. It’d be instructive (and I’m sure hilarious) to hear Mr. Merwin’s misses as a developer.

  7. Fantastic article Shawn. I love seeing more of us local WNY guys doing more in the gaming community. I also dig the Plot vs Story being a creative writing major myself, especially the bit at the end. I think I might steal that since it sounds like so much fun. Queen succubus banging all the knights to open a rift to hell. Good plot. Now all I need are some pesky adventurers to mess it all up.

  8. Great article Shawn!! I’m looking forward to the reading your column.

  9. Great article. I have a few comments:

    — How do you read that d4 anyways? It’s confusing.
    — Could you include a diagram in the next article?
    — That Forrester guy sounds like a pretentious nob.

  10. Fantastic Intro Shawn. Looking forward to reading subsequent articles whenever I need a good chuckle (be it from bad NPC name jokes or the demoness you didn’t see coming).

  11. Alphastream says:

    I look forward to more wisdom, preferably with lots of succubi whores. All hail Shawn!

  12. Excellent article, my most favorite moments in the early days of my D&D experience (circa 1983) was playing through Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh! I’ve updated it for almost every edition I’ve played.

    Keep the great articles coming!

  13. Hosedarmah says:

    What did I learn from DMing for thousands of players? How best to use math to hurt people.

    I miss gaming… and cheese.

  14. An excellent article and I look forward to more from Mr Merwin.

  15. @Dave: Thanks, and you are right. I forgot that I DMed for Horace and his wife that one time back in 1989. Make that 10002 players.

  16. @Peter: Designing/editing the adventures and administering the Crimson Codex faction during the Xen’drik Expeditions campaigns is one of the highlights of my gaming life so far. In a way that format was really the best of both worlds (between an organized play campaign and regular campaign). It was easier to create an ongoing story that the players and DMs could engage in without the worries and hassles of a true “Living” campaign. In some sense, it was really the grandfather of the current D&D Encounters program.

  17. @Alana: If I ever ran a game for Forster, it would be a little creepy. And for someone who has worked on an Origins Award-winning product and three novels, you certainly don’t need my help in coming up with good ideas! 🙂

  18. @Mickey: Thanks, man. And I look forward to your further work. And your playtesting efforts are always appreciated.

  19. @Dave The Game: Thanks for having me involved in your site! I just hope I can do it justice!

  20. @Dave: I don’t think the Internet is big enough to hold tales of ALL of my misses. But I’ll give it a try.

    @Kevin and Mike B: Don’t think you guys are going to escape this unscathed. My nightmares are haunted by the past exploits and you and yours.

  21. Matt Jones says:

    Awesome article!! I love the plot, and can we get a short story of this queen and the cleric?

  22. I would like an RSS Feed for Shawn’s column!

  23. Kyle – ask and ye shall receive, check out the drop-down menu in the RSS feed options sidebar.