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.