Toronto Fan Expo: The DM Master Class Seminar

One of the highlights of my visit at last weekend’s Toronto Fan Expo was the one hour panel I had the honour to share with RPG legends Ed Greenwood and Robin D. Laws.  I bumped into Robin about 30 minutes before the talk and we checked the room assigned to us.  It contained about 100 chairs but neither Robin nor I expected much of a turnout.

…that was us seriously underestimating the attraction of Ed, his stories and the general interest of people for tabletop RPGs.  We ended up speaking to packed room of 100+ people. I was impressed!

I wasn’t too sure how things would go but Robin took the lead and proposed that we each introduce ourselves and shared something we had recently learned as a Game Master, given that even the most legendary GMs learned new things.

Thankfully, Robin asked me to go after him but before Ed…

“Hi, ummm, I’m, like, this RPG blogger with a French name you probably didn’t get and, umm, I write stuff and I was a DM for a real long time”

I may be exaggerating a bit here. It got better from there.

New lessons for old warriors

Robin started talking about how he learned that failure in RPGs had to be re-evaluated…

Chatty (Silently): Oh crap, he’s going to say what I was going to say… quick make his head explode with your Scanners powers!

Robin basically outlined that classic, meaningless RPG failures (TPKs, Dead ends, failed spot checks) should not tarnish the players expectations/ time investement in the game. Modern RPGs tend to emulate heroic genres and the GM should make sure that failures fit the kind seen in movies where the heroes get up, dusts themselves up and pick up where they left off.

Chatty (still silently): Phew…He can live, I can add more to what he just said.

I followed about my experiences with Mouseguard and how failures should rather be used as opportunities to make things more interesting, more complicated for players instead of closing doors.

Ed then shamelessly plugged Robin’s new book “Hamlet’s Hit Points”. He said that after making stuff up on the spot for so many years in his games, he was surprised to see that you could still plan emotional rises and falls in your games pretty much like studio creatives and executives do.

Ed: I met these 3 foot tall guys with cigars telling the writers: “No, the hero can’t start caressing the girl until scene 3, that’s when the audience will be hooked!”

I’m paraphrasing here people, I take no responsibility about nor will I even try to quote Ed on anything… ever.

Still, I think I’m going to have a look at that new book.

Robin: How dare you plug my newly published book, available at all fine locations where RPG books can be found!


Q&A about ‘That Guy”

We then started taking questions and it became obvious that Robin and Ed had fielded a tons of those before.  What surprised me was that many, many of them were about GMs asking how to make players conform to some ideal they had internalized.  Here’s a few I remember.

Question: How do I make this one player come out of his shell and start roleplaying?

Answer: He already roleplays by being there. Maybe he’ll come out of his shell but don’t stay stuck on a narrow definition of roleplaying.  Players evolve but not necessarily where or how the GM expects.

Question: I have this guy who always have these crazy plans he wants to trigger at the end of combat, how do I rein him in?

Robin: There we are people, we have the question about “that guy!”

Answer: If you truly are at the end of a session, tell him to keep it in and that he can do it at the next session.  If the player wants to do some crazy stuff like shooting a bazooka in a small room (true example from the room), just let him, at least once in a while, and have all the other PCs surf the explosion wave to safety.  If it’s cool, make room for it.

Question: How do I convince a player to stop always playing the same kinds of character?

Answer: You don’t. You figure out a way to let them play one.

Ed: I like Cat Ninja Bard girls!

This exchange brought the philosophy all 3 of us shares to the forefront: Focus on delivering to players what they want, don’t force your perception of what is proper to them.  Make it work so your motivations and theirs match but be the flexible one.

Question: How do you handle large groups in D&D?

Answers: Play older editions. Impose discipline and skip turns when not applied. Foster a new DM and split group in two, possibly playing in a shared world with PCs switching games.

Question: How do I make my players care about My NPCs/My Stories/My World

Answers: Make them care by creating relationships with NPCs, by being directly involved in the stories and by making them small owners of the world (keeps, inns, etc). Have them make difficult choices about them Foster world creation from the get go by having pre-campaign sessions where players create new NPCs and places and create ties between them and the elements they created.

Great stuff really.

Is the Hobby dying? Ask the kids…

Robin mentions on his journal that the fears of having the hobby die out to video games seem to be unfounded.  Most of the room was filled with 20-somethings that seemed to be genuinely excited about D&D! I’ll take this anecdotal evidence and use it generously from now on!

All in all, I had a great time.  I loved listening to Ed and Robin share their wisdom and I think I held my own and made a few interesting points myself.  I also want to catch more of Ed telling stories, they guy is an awesome font of non-PC, R-Rated stories!  I wanna hear more!

Looking forward to doing it again as I was re-invited for 2011.


  1. I love reading that kinda stuff!

    Meeting legends, having a good time… hell, I’m not really playing any RPGs these days, but I still do care, somewhere deep inside of me.

    But most of all, I like to read your stuff (your style). Keep’em coming! 😉

  2. Thanks man. I truly appreciate it. You would LOVE Ed Greenwood, one of the funniest DMs I’ve seen.

  3. The genre is definitely not dying! As a 20-something I went throughout my college days without RPing. It wasn’t until recently that I finally talked some friends into starting a game view Skype (we’re spread across New England … and Hawaii). It took years to finally get it going and I could never arrange a face-to-face game with anyone, but video games will never replace the amazing sense of being a DM or a player.

    In my current game, all of my players are younger than I am and some of them I started gaming with back when I was barely a teenager. I see no reason for anyone to worry about the genre dying out.

  4. Great post and great advice! Congratulations on being part of such a great panel. You deserve it for all the great work you do in the community!

    I’m often surprised at the number of GMs who insist on making players conform to their vision of how players should act or how the game should be played. I hope people listen to the advice and open their minds.

  5. @Quack: I’m glad to hear that and it’s refreshing to see it for real instead of hearing the same tired old charades from the grumpier half of the online community falling victim to some not so subtle ageism (i.e. kids are too dumb now to get RPGs, kids prefer videogames).

    I’m astounded and daunted even by the speed at which Nico absorbs new, complex concepts and this bodes really well for the next generation of tabletop gamers and games!

    @Sarah: Thanks, you are too kind! The thing is about GMs wanting to impose thier style of play, it becomes apparent to me that they don’t realize that’s what their doing. They have this idealized vision of what their game should be and assume it’s an external, immutable standard that requires it… and it isin’t… I’m reading stuff from the oldest editions of D&D and it’s always been about “make it your own game, change everything”

    The one diffference I see now, instead of “you may talk to your players to decide what to do” Robin, Ed and others say “you must talk to your players to get a consensus about what to expect from the game”

  6. Thanks for posting this! Definitely got me thinking.

    I played World of Warcraft for around 5 years and recently canceled my subscription. For some of that time I was playing in tabletop RPGs. Just before that time I’d ended a long run of playing online via text only interfaces with real tabletop RPGs adapted to work in what would now be called a massively multiplayer online setting in various MUSHes. All of my MUSH experiences were true roleplaying games because the final arbiter of anything was always a person or group consensus not a piece of code (unless you want to think of the coded die roller as taking that role but I don’t think that fits personally because it was always players framing the roll and deciding what it meant). I would have to say that while things like WoW were fun, even tabletop games that didn’t cater to my style were more interesting in the long run, although WoW, much like the Magic cards that preceeded it as distractions from roleplaying, had more than a little immediate attraction.

    But when you really get down to it, once the “shiny when new” wears off of a computer game, you’re left with something that isn’t all that impressive. Graphics aside, games like WoW are only beginning to reach the same level of play that I was able to find in a MUD 15 years ago. Without trying. So once you get used to the graphics enough that it’s all pattern recognition and your eyes glaze over while you speed through things, how can a soulless grind possibly replace the creative expression you get from a tabletop game? Hell, the best games don’t even limit you to expressing yourself through your character. They also let you take ownership of some part of the game world. I’ve been reading the Dresden Files RPG lately and it has some neat ideas along those lines. The players and the GM agree on an overall setting and then create the city/area where most of the adventures will take place together.

    In D&D terms this would be like sitting down with your players and asking them to each give you one idea for a couple NPCs in the kingdom they’re from. So your warrior might know a canny blacksmith who works in the capital and the scruffy but effective border lord he got his first combat experience under. Perhaps your wizard knows actually has contacts within the clergy of a small faith rare to the region while your rogue or cleric knows the madam of a brothel who’s attempting to escape the clutches of lowlives and transform herself and her charges to more respectable court figures. It’d be quite difficult to have a computer-run storyline adaptable enough to handle this level of buy-in. And that’s why I don’t think computer games will kill roleplaying games. The real danger to the hobby is if people don’t read as much and the web actually discourages that I think.

  7. Hey Phil,

    It was great playing so much with you and Piem. You completely whooped our asses at Revolution! I was actually surprised you knew about some of the more obscure MMO games I was talking about with Ramona, are you a closet MMO addict?

  8. @Ufgood: It was very cool playing Mouseguard with you, it was one great convention game and a highlight of the whole Expo.

    I’m not so much an addict than someone that’s played a few and one who is friends with many MMO players.

    Take care!

  9. @Lanir: That’s quite the analysis. And I agree on most levels. Nothing beats the camaraderie and sheer achievements (pun semi-intended) of face to face tabletop gameplay. I too really like the whole “collective world building” movement that we’ve seen sprout in the various rules of Indie (and not so indei) games in the last decade.

    As usualk, thanks for sharing this with us.


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