The GM: Everyone’s Best Friend

You haven’t lived until a total stranger takes the time to post on an Internet forum that you should be dragged from your house and thrown in front of a bus.  And that happened to me recently.  Usually the people who wish that upon me are at least familiar with me, if not close friends and family.  I am not saying that I have never done something to deserve this bus-pummeling, but it might lead one to wonder what I did in this case to unleash the kind of bile that is usually reserved for politicians, reality TV stars, and various deities.  What I did, intrepid reader, was have the audacity to write a D&D adventure for an organized-play campaign.

I will admit that writing for an organized-play campaign–in this case Living Forgotten Realms–is usually punishment enough in itself.  Hell, you’re putting yourself halfway under the bus at the outset.  No dragging necessary.  But what did I write into this adventure that encouraged someone to wish me the rest of the way?  Honestly, I still have no idea.  Whatever angered Random Internet Guy so much that he wanted to see me end up like that dude from the show Lost who got torqued by a Greyhound was not something I put into the adventure.  It appears the part of the adventure that prompted the ill-will was a careful addition by the player’s GM.

Lost Bus

Adventure writers don't deserve this

This part of my column I was planning to save for another time, but it is so intertwined with the issue of GMs that I have to say it together.

  1. Writing game material, particularly adventures, for public consumption is very different that writing something for a home campaign that you will run yourself.
  2. The GM is everyone’s best friend: the players’, the adventure writer’s, and his or her own.

Based on the careful scientific method of me thinking for a few seconds of a number that sounded both exciting and reasonable with ironic undertones, 69% of the home RPG campaign being run these days consist of a DM using content that he himself has created.  (I say “he himself” strictly for ease of use, and because if I included “she herself” to cover the female GMs, I would also have to include other permutations, and there are only so many kilobytes available in the Internet.)

Wait, where was I?  Oh, right.  So, a majority of the RPG adventures being played are homebrews created by the GM running the game.  That means the material being created is done so by someone who knows the specific players and their various preferences, dislikes, play styles, and characters.  He knows that in the last session, Fred got pissed and whipped his JuJuBes across the basement because the insubstantial, weakening, regenerating wraith asked his character, “What sorry-ass fighting academy did you attend?” when Fred’s character critted the wraith for 5 points of damage when using his daily power.  And armed with such knowledge, assuming he is not sadistic, the GM will not put in more creatures of the same ilk–at least not without giving Fred a way to deal with the creatures more easily.

It is the other 31% of the gaming world who I want to speak to right now: the GMs who run games using published adventures.  Pull up a chair.  Have a Fresca and a Fruit Roll-Up.  I’ve got something to say to y’all, and I say the following without a bit of sarcasm.

I love you guys.  I really do.  You guys are the ones who keep the RPG industry running in the face of (sad but true) its slow but inevitable descent into obscurity.  You are the folks who don’t have the time to prepare your own material, but you still run the games and tell the stories and give of yourself so that other people can play the game.  Whenever a player says to me, “I played your adventure, and I had a great time,” my answer is always heartfelt, and it always is some variation of the following: “I’m glad you had fun, and I appreciate the kind words.  But the person you should be thanking is the DM, because that is the person who made the game fun for you.”

And it is.  A fun game has to be a team effort among the players, the DM, and the material they are playing (which 31% of the time is the responsibility of the adventure designer).  But the GM is the lynchpin of that relationship.  The GM is the buffer and the facilitator between the content of the game and the players.  He knows (or is in the position to know) what the players expect and desire, and what the content of the adventure is going to offer the players.  If there is a disconnect between what the players want and what the adventure promises to deliver, only the GM is in the position to manage the players’ expectations or modify the adventure’s content so that fun can be had.

As an administrator and writer in far too many organized-play campaigns, and as a designer/editor of off-the-shelf content, I am going to say this loud and without even a modicum of hesitation: “GMs, please modify adventures as you go.”  I know it is work for you.  I know that you got the pre-fab adventure in the first place because you didn’t have the time or energy to create your own.  But you have to trust me on this one.  There are so many different types of players who play at so many different levels of expertise and ability, that it is damn near impossible to make one size fit all.

I don’t want to sound at all like I am trying to put all the responsibility on the GMs.  Designers, developers, and editors of game material do need to take responsibility for their work.  I have written or edited stuff that, when I re-read it later, makes me wonder if I wasn’t partying with Charlie Sheen while it was in my hands.  In future columns I will happily tell you all about those mistakes.  So don’t think I am trying to shirk my duty.  When I fail as a writer, I want to learn from those failures.

But also let’s be honest: it is human nature to shift the blame when possible, especially when blame can be shifted to something nebulous and far-away.  Sitting down to GM a game, especially when the players might be a group of strangers, can be a daunting experience.  We want the game to be fun, we want to run the game well, and we want to look good in the process.  All GMs (myself included) have the natural inclination to look for any qualifier we can throw down to protect ourselves.  I’ve recently returned to playing regularly after several years of mostly writing and DMing, and what I have heard more than I like, especially in organized-play environments, is this from the GM: “This adventure is pretty bad, but I’ll see if I can make it fun.”  Again, I understand the instinct, and I have probably done it myself on occassion.  GMs who run games for strangers are out there on the high-wire, and it is only natural to want to put up that safety net.

So for those of you who do GM games with published adventures, either off-the-shelf or for an organized-play campaign, I shout out a big “Thanks!”  You have a big responsibility, and you do yeoman’s work.  However, think about the players who would through a writer under the bus before you throw the writer under the bus.

Next Friday, I will take the next step and talk about the lessons writers of published adventures should learn, and how those lessons can be applied to everyone: DMs who homebrew, DMs who use published adventures, players, and game writers.


  1. This is so true. Hacking an adventure is a great exercise that allows a GM with limited time and/or the white page syndrome to try their hand at adventure design.

    And while I agree that I sometimes wish to throttle some adventure writers for having published unhackable material, I’m grateful that there are so much material around (I still hack old 3.X Dungeon mag adventures) to inspire me.

    One question though… Why are you so sure of the industry decline to obscurity? Because of the net? I think we’ll always be able to pay for quality adventures… we just might not do it from big shot publishers. Please do tell, or at least promise to write about it soon.

    Great post

  2. Rob Uccello says:

    I can never understand the DMs who rail against the adventures written for public consumption: you (the authors of these things) can’t possibly know the groups the adventures will be run for. Even if I don’t have time to write my own adventures, I have always considered it my duty as a GM to pick adventures that fit what my group would like, or to alter adventures to get them to fit that requirement. I appreciate the support of the authors, but you guys make our “jobs” possible, so thank you.

  3. I think it’s *really really* hard to write material for just the general public audience. So in a way, I don’t blame the DM who says “this adventure isn’t good, but I’ll try and make it fun”.. but I do think he’s doing the players a disservice- he needs to own up to the adventure up front and be a master of the game. DMs need to be fearless enough to change the things they are going to change- not just for the group, but for himself! He’s the presenter after all, and he’s got to find a way to present that adventure in a way that fits his own style and comfort level. Whether that means renaming NPCs, or introducing them in places that they don’t appear in the box-text (which I hate box text, by the way), or changing some clues around, altering old clues, etc..

    One of the things I always kinda worry about when I’m going into an adventure that I know comes “off the shelf” as a player is that some DMs think they can’t change it. Like.. they think they aren’t allowed, as if there’s some power of officiality that compels them. OR alternately, the players do something unexpected and the Dm is suudenly at a loss- his box text no longer makes sense because the PCs have killed or tricked or altered the NPC or the situation beyond where it makes sense, .. and suddenly you get this DM who can’t adapt. That’s annoying to me. And then for those DMs who have only DM’d pre-written material, they sometimes lack the ability to improvise.

    Great article. DMs! Take responsibility and make it your own!

  4. I tried to run straight from the book when I first started GMing, almost immediately I found subtle adjustments, even to the best published modules out there, made the game fun. In the old 3.5 RPGA world, I suffered ulcers trying to run the game “as written”; the newer 4e RPGA rules gave some leeway, but I no longer felt like I was the story teller anymore, just the guy who collected stats for a table at a convention. I eventually drifted back to 3.5 and Pathfinder games and I even wrote my own adventure for a convention; even then with my own work, I still modified the game once I got the player dynamic figured out around the table.

    I agree with you 100%. “GMs, please modify adventures as you go.”

    I look for modules that interest me and buy those. Honestly I don’t buy often, because I have a huge war chest of dungeons from 25years of gaming that I can dig through. The product I go for these days are the Adventure Paths (as entire kits seem cool) and modules that are compilations of mini-adventures (like the old Adventure vaults Well of Worlds, stuff like that).

    I don’t ever go after the writers of mods; I respect their effort. Nearly everything I do in gaming is inspired by one person or another be it an old GM or a module. These days I am getting most my inspiration from the web or my battle chest and not from game stores or hobby shops.

  5. Excellent points, and I greatly appreciate your appreciation of GMs.

    That said, a lot of published adventures are written in a rigid style, assuming a limited range of play styles. I can’t properly call this “old school,” since even old school adventures weren’t (necessarily) written that way. I read some wonderfully open-ended Spelljammer adventures last night.

    This raises an interesting point. I’ve read plenty of online advice for players, and plenty for GMs (particularly in the past few years), but very little about adventure writing. Where are those conversations taking place?

  6. Speaking of being dragged in front of a bus… I thought this music video was appropriate (lots of dragging out windows and through traffic).

    Rob Dougan – Furious Angels

    Frankly I think its impossible to write for the general public. I suppose that’s why the DMG asks the DM to figure out what the players want, and what they’re like.

    Can you imagine a Thieves World adventure and everyone shows up with big clunky fighters? Can you see the look on the player’s faces when faced with their first second story job?

    So here’s a question… What can a player do to help a DM? With all the emphasis on the DM divining what the players want, I find it odd that players don’t have a check list for their DM.

    What kind of adventures does my DM like?
    What kind of DM is he?
    How can I help my DM have fun?
    What should I bring to the game to ensure my DM is happy?

  7. Alphastream says:

    Good stuff, Shawn. I have a couple of thoughts. I seldom blame an author, but I do place responsibility on the editor. One of the problems with organized play (and I would guess is true with RPG companies) is that the editors have a lot on their plates. They may also not be the most familiar with the gaming system. You yourself note you are returning to playing from writing (and DMing, that does help). For RPGA, admins usually can’t play, so they are not only low on time but sometimes low on knowledge. They have to go by reactions instead of by personal experience. I am not bashing anyone – I respect them tremendously, but I think organized play needs more emphasis on editing. The standard of quality is often set by how busy and experienced the editors are. Of paramount importance in LG was having Triad monkeys – guys that would point out that Shawn wrote “through” in his next-to-last paragraph when he meant “throw”. I say this kindly, as Shawn has corrected piles of my typos in just one adventure. Shawn is the best editor I have ever had for RPGA work, without doubt.

    I also think there is something we haven’t figured out in LFR (and never touched in LG) as to how to explain to organized play DMs what is expected of them. The recent problems with D&D Encounters and DMs TPKing their tables “because that’s what the mod does” is a clear example of the disconnect. In this day we need as authors to write what is intended by an encounter and to provide hints as to what can be done to handle situations (such as too high a challenge or needing more RP).

  8. I think one of the things that requires more work of published adventures is that the GM has to work a little harder to integrate player character stories into the adventure. Too many times players are left unsatisfied as they trudge through yet another dungeon or adventure that has nothing really to do with their characters.

  9. dlotempio says:

    Charisma wrote: “Too many times players are left unsatisfied as they trudge through yet another dungeon or adventure that has nothing really to do with their characters.”

    Too true. Too true. One of the many frustrating things about writing off-the-shelf is not having that connection with character arcs. Players evolve their characters almost DESPITE the adventures. Ultimately, a writer can only develop a compelling, engaging scenario that HOPEFULLY allows players to play their character.

    One of my favorite writer/GM experiences was running my Mark of Heroes adventure for some strangers at a con. I’d set up a scene involving pitchfork-wielding villagers and an innocent (honestly!) medusa. All the players knew there was some kind of twist and many held back their characters but one guy TOTALLY went for it. The inter-party debate was exhilarating. Eventually, I had those events play out with NPCs in different ways, which deepened the character play. None of that later stuff was planned out or directed in the mod I wrote. I just improvised on the spot.

    A good mod can be diminished by a bad GM and a bad mod can occasionally be a lot of fun in the hands of good GM.

  10. Really great column. I GM about 25% of the time and play about 75% of the time. Out of the 25% I GM, probably about 50% are published adventures. They actually go much better than the homebrew stuff that I pour my soul into. I don’t have as much of a connection any preferred outcome, and I’m freed up to be flexible with all the content that’s concretely written out.

    A great example is a D&D 2e Planescape module (Dead Gods) that we recently played. The module has a heavy and fairly linear plot built in, and it’s double or triple the size of a standard module. The players, of course, went way off the rails from the very first session (I’m not sure the designers accounted for a cleric of Loki and a dark bard/circus freak as the 2 main recurring PCs). But I did my best to work with what I had, and the games we played with this module were some of the most gaming fun I’ve had in recent memory.

    So what I’m saying is this: Thanks so much for providing fun content, and encouraging us to make it our own. It’s a weird thing to not know what you want people to get out of your work (besides FUN!), but it’s well worth it.

  11. Shawn Merwin says:

    @ChattyDM: Thanks for the feedback. I don’t want to pontificate on the business of the RPG world in a column. I just get the sense that the numbers of people taking part in pen-and-paper RPG games are falling quite precipitously: not just D&D but all games in total. The only way to sustain anything is to grow it so that new acquisitions replace people leaving. Smaller RPG shops like Paizo can thrive even in a small industry as long as they do good work. But I don’t think small shops can actually grow new acquisitions. Only larger companies with reach outside the current market can grow a business. That’s why all RPG companies need to root for WotC to succeed: WotC has a chance to bringing in new blood rather than just targeting existing RPG gamers.

    @Rob: I don’t mind much when the DM points out problems in the adventure, because a healthy discussion is a good way to learn from mistakes. But as you say, DMs need to understand that pre-written adventures are written for DMs, not for players. The writer can only bring so much to the table. It is interesting to think about whether writers for organized-play campaigns owe a little more attention to the players because of that type of setting.

    @Peter: I know you are one of the better and more conscientious DMs out there, so I take your thoughts as very valuable. As you know, one of the big debates at the beginning of the Living Forgotten Realms campaign was how much power the DMs would have to change the adventure. I thought the players and DMs would breathe a huge sigh of relief when we gave DMs the power to change things to bring more fun to the players. And I think most did. But you always have that ubiquitous “vocal minority” who railed against the change, wanting every table to be run exactly the same–as if this was not only a laudable goal, but as if such a thing was really possible in the first place. Now that I think about it, perhaps some of the resistance from DMs was exactly what I talk about in the column: when they HAD to run the adventure exactly as written, there was that safety net where the DM could always say, “The reason you players are not having fun is because of the crappy adventure, not me.” Given them the ability to change things at the table also gives them that responsibility. That can be intimidating to DMs who are not confident, even if they really are good.

  12. @Teos: I think you are underestimating the amount of playing the administrators do. I don’t play nearly as often as some of the more fanatic LFR players, and rarely at conventions (mostly delves, and classics), but I do play regularly. I agree that doing so is important for my task as an adventure developer and campaign manager.

  13. Shawn Merwin says:

    @Jon: You make a great point about DMs running their own material and making changes at the table. One of the LFR adventures I wrote is “The Radiant Vessel of Thesk,” which I have probably DMed about 30 times for different tables. At GenCon 2008 I ran it 6 times, and each time I ran it differently, whether you are talking about the roleplaying, or the way combats worked, or the difficulty of the encounters. With each running, I realize something I would have done differently if I was to re-write it, but much of that is just based on changes to the rules since it was written (before the 4e rules were released).

    @Brent: Hopefully those conversation will be taking place here on Critical Hits, especially with Mr. Bonner and Mr. Sims lending their tons of expertise and talent. In terms of “old-school” adventures, if you look back on some of the “classics,” they are little more than room after room of combats. In those, the DM was pretty much forced to create his or her own backstory for the campaign. I find it ironic that when writers tried (or were expected) to add more choice and roleplaying to the adventures that people began to complain more that there was a lack of choice and roleplaying in the adventure. I know with the campaigns that I created and played in back in the good old days of 1e AD&D, we used those classics, but they were always integrated into an ongoing story that was solely DM-created (with the help of the players’ imaginations, of course).
    The real challenge for adventure writers in this area is to create the illusion of choice in a worldwide sandbox while creating the tracks that the players will ride. I don’t mean that the writers are trying to fool the players. However, you don’t want to create 100 pages of material when only 50 pages of that can be used because of a matrix-type story. One solution is what WotC did with Mike Mearls’ “Hammerfast” and Greg Bilsland’s “Vor Rukoth.” Instead of creating the encounters and the DM fits it into the world, they created the world and make the DM create the encounters. Obviously, this meets the needs of some DMs, but not others.

    @UHF: Great questions! Players definitely have some responsibility to help create the fun, and communication of desires is a key part of that. I think player responsibilities differ in whether you are talking about a home campaign, an organized-play campaign, or a one-shot game. Your questions are definitely grist for a longer column.

  14. Shawn Merwin says:

    @alphastream: I’m with ya. As someone who has edited professional in both the game industry and the world of fiction, there is always a nebulous idea that the work has “an owner.” In fiction it is pretty much always the author who has the final say, although the editor (and marketing people in many cases) can add their voices to a greater or lesser extent. In a situation like with RPG companies, there are a lot more fingers in the pie. The company itself usually owns the final product, so the developers, playtesters, editors, artists, and management have a much greater say in things. For some of my RPG design work, I was given a pretty rigid outline to work from before I even touched my keyboard. I knew from the start that I was not going to be the owner of the work, and once it left my monitor after a final draft, I never saw it again until it was shrink-wrapped on my bookstore’s shelves.
    Something like an organized-play campaign is even more problematic. When I think of an editor in this case, I think of something more like a proofreader. However, I think you are referring more to a reviewer: the person who decides if something works as an encounter or is balanced or is fun and fair. When you think of the amount of content that an organized-play campaign like LFR pushes out each year, it is pretty astounding. And that work falls onto the backs of mainly volunteers of incredibly diverse backgrounds. But you know that. 🙂 When I sit down with a novel from a huge publishing house and see a couple dozen typos throughout, it astounds me that organizations like LFR do as well as they do.
    Communicating the desires of an organized-play campaign to the DMs within that campaign is, like the desire for better editing, a laudable goal. But again, it comes down to resources and the willingness of the audience to accept the message. James Wyatt absolutely rocked the DMG when it came to laying out so much great information on running a game. Yet I’ll bet very few DMs took the time to read it–either because they lacked the time, or because they thought they already knew it all. Maybe the current LFR admin staff will put together some guides for DMs on running games in the organized-play setting, and maybe some DMs will actually read it!

  15. Shawn Merwin says:

    @Charisma: Pre-fab adventures definitely require work on the part of the DM to draw the characters into the action. This is one of those places where players can also be helpful by creating their own hooks that DM can reach for. “My PC has family in this city. In fact, my great-uncle was once convicted of a crime here, and he was forced to flee the city or be hanged.” Just having the player throw a DM that bone can let the DM change some of the NPCs or stories to bring the PCs more deeply into an ongoing story.

    @dlo: I am familiar with the adventures that you have worked on, and I could hold your work up as stuff that draws characters in by creating great roleplaying situations and great NPCs for the PCs to interact with. Your Mark of Heroes adventure is a great example.

    @Supah: Your points are well-taken. It sounds like you are exactly the kind of DM I am hoping for both when I write AND when I play. Someone willing to let bend the material in the direction that the (so-often-wacky) players and their characters want to go. Hommlett was just a town, and the Moathouse was just a moathouse, but the great stories that were created in between the two were a testament to the imaginations of countless players and DMs–those willing to let their own stories be told.

  16. Good column Shawn. For the most part I’m part of that 69% but more and more in the last few years I’ve been running other things and using other folks adventures. Modification of modules isn’t a must but I believe if you want to get them most out of them it is. I always feel a need to modify any mod to make it more of an investment for the players characters. I can’t stand games where it’s just a group of adventurers who just happen to be in the right place at the right time. There’s nothing wrong with that game if it’s your cup of tea but it’s not mine. This leads to some quick thinking and improvisation on the DM’s part, especially if your running at a con for strangers.

    Heck, I remember running Core 2-6 at DDXP, that’s the one with the sunken Spell Jammer, and having the group tell me about some of the things they’d done before. They’d been to the city before so I had the people coming up to them and hanging flowers around their necks, giving them free food, and treating them like the heroes they previously were. It wasn’t in the adventure which is mostly a strait dive to the bottom of the Sea of Stars to find and fix the Spell Jammer but it made it far more interesting for them.

    Basically I’m saying I agree with you Shawn. Good column. Radiant Vessel of Thesk is good too. Nothing like the awkwardness of having to save a girl giving birth.

  17. @Shawn: “However, I think you are referring more to a reviewer: the person who decides if something works as an encounter or is balanced or is fun and fair.”

    I think even the term “reviewer” does not catch the work the administrators do in these campaigns. In many cases it is more like developing adventures then simply reviewing them.

  18. It is hard for new GMs to know that they can change things in a module. In general we are taught to regard printed word as factual; not something that is editable on demand. We do not ignore dictionaries, re-defining words as we go; we do not (much though it would be a good idea) cut out 80% of the wheel of time series and reduce it to something more palatable; and we don’t even annotate our books much any more.

    I have heard countless times a GM exclaim “it doesn’t make sense, but that’s what the module says” and then run something that neither they nor their players enjoy. Especially for new GMs, it is hard for them to make that internal egoistical step of saying, effectively, “I know better than this writer what’s fun. I’m doing it MY way”. I’ve GMd in three decades now, and it still takes a bit of resolve for me to do so.

    Anything that might give GMs that additional feeling that they are doing something right would help. Little bits of boxed text saying things like “if you are short of time, or your players a not enjoying combat, consider chaining this combat into a quick ad-hoc skill challenge, with DCs 18/20, to get the peasants to rise up and overthrow the enemy” or “this is quite a hard puzzle. If your players look like they are not having fun, then consider having the puzzle box transform into a suitable construct monster that the players must defeat to continue”, or the like

  19. Good stuff Shawn,

    The role of the DM as arbiter/judge in organized play tends to get overstated in my opinion and I am very happy to see attention directed to the fact that the DM is the mediator. The person who is there to take the written adventure, put it in a blender with the PC’s and pour out fun (I know, similes and metaphor are not always my strong suit, thats why I don’t write for a living 🙂 ).

    If the last two years of LFR have shown me one thing it is that we need DMs to both realize this is their role and feel comfortable assuming it.
    It can be all to easy to blame a DM for an adventure gone wrong, almost as easy as blaming an author. Fact is though, its not always a walk in the park to get comfortable with the adjust-for-fun attitude required, nor is it easy to correctly read a table and make it fun for them. To me It is something where as a role-playing community we should be able to provide more assistance to people.

    The light you shine on that part of DM-ing and your insights are much appreciated 🙂

  20. Andrew Schneider says:

    Good to see you blogging, Sean! I look forward to your wicked insights into our hobby. And thanks again for everything you did with LFR. 🙂

  21. Alphastream says:

    I am interested in Shawn’s feeling that RPGs are decreasing. I don’t see that. I do see a re-splintering of the demographic. We had a few years where D20 and OGL were really uniting everyone under one banner. It is probably healthy that when I look at the local players, many are reducing LFR to do things like Shadowrun, Legend of the Five Rings, Eclipse Phase, etc. This diversity makes for smarter players and more diverse ideas, and I’m sure these players will be back. We also have the Pathfinder crowd, although it is small in this area. When I look at D&D Encounters, the store I work with runs 7 tables a week and only two people are LFR players. We get 2-4 new DCI/RPGA cards a week. (And we are just one of 4-5 stores running encounters in our city). The players come from all sorts of places, but not from RPGA play. I have families, young kids… it makes me think the opposite – we are seeing a time of growth. I go to a bookstore and they have a large geeky board game section… I might get them to run the Essentials gameday. I think this aspect of new players deserves examining: what are we doing to attract and retain them? The Dark Sun DDE started with many TPKs… bad idea. Some gamedays are not very good. The casual or new DM struggles to run adventures. I know LFR is going to add intro heroic adventures (awesome!) and I think many adventures need DM hints and suggestions so new players and new DMs have guidance and we increase the chances of everyone having a good time. Your famous “thorn in your side” of weakened and insubstantial and pinning terrain… what if that encounter had four bullet points on adjusting the challenge for fun? I think the result would have been very different. Of course, Madfox can tell you how I’ve had to stumble through this. His “crew” have suffered through my slow/daze experiments and helped lessen the sting for the final version.

  22. Shawn Merwin says:

    @Chris S.: Coming from the second most Iron-est DM in the world, I appreciate your thoughts. Ten years of playing almost entirely in the con-based, organized-play environment has me yearning again for the times when the adventures were either created or adapted by the DM specifically for the PCs. Hopefully I can do a lot more of that in the future.

    @gorgonzee: It is very hard for new DMs, whether they are running homebrew games, organized-play games, or something in between. Additional instructions are always good, but at some point published adventures run into limitations of word count, page space, time limits, etc. I think DMing really is a skill that can be taught, but the best way to learn it is to play under great DMs–which I was fortunate enough to have done over the years. Part of it is having started playing D&D in an ancient time, long ago, before the Internet, and even before these things called Personal Computers were ubiquitous. The availability of published adventures was somewhere between slim and none. You pretty much rolled your own, with whatever notes you scribbled down in a notebook before the session started. “Flying by the seat of your pants” wasn’t something you were sometimes forced to do; it was the de facto method of gaming. Many of us who played through that time simply learned by trial and error, making up monsters, traps, magic items, adventures, worlds and whole campaigns on the fly. I wish I knew a good way to teach that, other than saying, “Do it and then you’ll see how to do it.”

    @imaginaryfriend: It is good to see you out of the refrigerator box of shame! Almost as a counterpoint to what I said above, I’ve probably learned just as much running “by the letter of the page” published adventures as I have winging it. Doing that forces the mind to remember and find details that I otherwise would just make up. Running those con games kept me from getting lazy and complacent, and all of the great tricks and ideas I got from the writers cannot be forgotten.

    @Andrew: Great to hear from you again. Thank you for all the great work you did as the Cormyr Writing Director. You cannot believe the number of players who contacted me and talked to me at conventions and told me that Cormyr adventures were some of their favorite.

  23. Shawn Merwin says:

    @alphastream: I think you might be reading more into my comment than I meant. What I am saying is this: from my not-too-astute-or-careful observations of the pen and paper RPG industry in the past couple of years, it seems to me that, strictly in the dollars and cents sense of things, the industry is doing worse. Content-wise, I think things are fine.
    However, any entertainment-type business needs to grow to remain steady. Bringing in new blood from outside the already established fan base is needed. I am not sure that any but the largest companies have the resources to reach outside of the fan base successfully. I think Paizo does outstanding work, and I hope they are able to grow big enough to be able to do that, but they cannot right now. WotC, as you say, is trying to do that with all the programs you mention. Whether they are succeeding or not is a whole different matter than what I am talking about. I am talking about whether they will continue to have the resources (or if the management would even want to use the resources) to continue to reach outside the fan base for new blood in a business I think is shrinking. Again, this has nothing to do with the quality or amount of content being created by WotC, Paizo, or any other company. It really doesn’t even have much to do with how many people are playing LFR, Pathfinder Chronicles, or D&D Encounters–UNLESS those people playing are coming into the fan base from outside it.
    My one worry, as someone who wants to see the entire RPG industry thrive, is that any splintering that pulls resources away from a company that has new reach to pull in new people from outside the existing fan base has the possibility to pull resources away from growing the industry. And that doesn’t mean that some people don’t come in via other means, because obviously they do. But if you look at the industry on a macro level, I think it is safe to say that many more people come into the fan base from outside it through things like Worldwide D&D Gamedays or D&D Encounters than through happening upon a [insert smaller 3rd-party RPG] that made its way into a Barnes and Noble or Borders.


  1. […] The GM: Everyone’s Best Friend Whether you are running a homebrew system/campaign/game, or using COTS (commercial off the shelf) gaming supplies, this is an interesting read. Shawn has an excellent breakdown on the pros and cons of both and some deep introspection into the whole affair. I highly recommend this link. // […]