I considered naming this article DM Confessions, but there won’t be nearly as much drunken nudity as the Confessions genre requires, which should make us all happy and relieved. I also briefly entertained the title DM Fail, but that whole Fail tag is so last interval (month? year? decade?). Finally, I almost busted out the colon (punctuation, not organ), as in, DM Confessions: How I Fail, but that seems like an extremely geeky Lifetime movie. This article isn’t about any of those things. This is about the realization that I’m a pretty terrible DM, and how you can become markedly better by avoiding everything I do.
No doubt you’re thinking to yourself, “Hold on, you smelly jerk, are you telling me that I should avoid telling stories when I run games? What kind of a smelly jerk are you?” Allow me to explain, and please stop calling me names.
When I first begin conjuring up an adventure, I always start with vivid, evocative scenes. Regardless of whether I know who’s going to be playing or what characters they’ll be using, I imagine things like:
- The moment of dawning horror when the PCs realize that they are the murderers
- The looks on their faces when the colossal dragon coalesces in their midst out of the purple-black dust
- The tears in their eyes when the NPC halfling, their dear friend, shudders and dies just out of reach, crucified on the tree.
I play all of this out in my head, often several times and from multiple angles, and never realize that there is the possibility that the players’ emotional investment might not be nearly as deep as mine. In fact, they might be coolly pragmatic about it, as in, “Okay, we’re the murderers, whatever, I’m still going to search the wizard’s library,” or, “Cool, we have flanking on the dragon, I’m going to backstab,” or, “The cleric will use his healing word on the halfling, and I’ll bend the bars on the gate to get to him.”
You see what happened there? I had prewritten powerfully moving scenes, and those rotten players refused to be powerfully moved by them. I might try to argue that it’s impossible to plan for these sorts of scenes, but since it’s dangerous dealing in generalizations, I’ll just say, it’s awful tricky.
I’ll tell you what isn’t tricky, difficult, or impossible: letting the players do their thing and allowing the scenes to develop on their own. Deep and affecting drama happens all the time in these roleplaying games, and a good DM that’s tuned into the frequency will facilitate the moment without forcing it.
Example: I was playing a goodie two-shoes priest of goodness and Sean was playing a professional killer morally bankrupt opportunist, and our party had just found a very powerful weapon that was also extremely evil. Sean’s feeling was, “Let’s keep it.” My feeling was, “Let’s destroy it.” We got into a standing up, finger-pointing, screaming argument over this weapon, and while it was electrically intense, it was never out-of-game personal, and the DM simply sat back and let it happen. When this scene ended, Sean grinned at me across the table and said, “Wow, that was something.”
There was a time when I played with a few different gaming groups (my close friends, the college guys, and that bunch of grown-ups from far away), and I decided it would be a great idea to bring them all together for one mega-tromp through my favoritest module in whole wide world, T1 The Village of Hommlet. If failing memory serves, there were 8 million gamers at my house that day.
Even a talented DM might be challenged by numbers this massive, and I’m not burdened with a lot of DM talent. Therefore, I decided to make it much, much worse. There are no ribbons or 5Ks or telethons for it, but I suffer from a debilitating disease called Verisimilitude-itis, and one of its symptoms forces me to hide information from players when their characters wouldn’t naturally know it. This means that I pass a lot of notes, and often–oh, it hurts to even admit this–play out private scenes with player subsets. Naturally, this leaves the rest of the players with very little to do.
So I ask you to picture this, but not from my point of view. No, I want you to picture this from the player’s point of view. You come to a small, strange ranch house at 6 PM. You get a quick introduction to the army of other players, and then you are shut up inside a bedroom as the game unwinds in the basement below. After the first hour, the DM comes up and points to another player (not you), and the two of them go back downstairs. The second hour comes and goes, and here’s the DM, leading an unhappy player who clearly feels like he was shortchanged, and the DM picks another player (again, not you). This game lasted until well after midnight, and we never got past introductions at the Inn of the Welcome Wench.
I became so obsessed with reality that I lost sight of the whole reason those poor victims came to my house, and it wasn’t so they could experience a real fantastical village. They were there for the ultimate F word: FUN! If I had gotten my brain to work correctly, I would have marched everyone downstairs and gotten the dice a-flying. Yes, I’m sure it would have been a chaotic, disorganized mess, but I’m also sure it would have been fun.
In building adventures, I tend to agonize over why these creatures would be working with those, and how are they getting food to their lairs, and where do they go to the bathroom anyway, and about a million other questions that would probably never occur to the players as their characters cave in the skulls of orcs and gnolls. I’m not suggesting that there’s no room for logic in design, but I am saying that I can take my devotion to real-world solutions in a fake-world settings a bit too far.
Example: I recently played in a game run by a 16-year old, and it was not (let’s be honest) overflowing with logic, but it was freaky, crazy fun. Our party snuck through the run-downiest section of town, near the wharf where the worst sorts of people congregated. We cased our destination, a boarded up warehouse acting as headquarters for the villains. After determining we couldn’t see inside it, we popped the lock on the front and slid open the doors… and there was a glowing cave stretching off in the distance. At this point, the DM had decided, “I want a dungeon,” so this is where he put it. And it was great.
The fact is I rarely have fun being a DM. I spend too much time sweating the small stuff, unable to allow fun things to happen because I didn’t plan them out far in advance. Playing characters, now that’s my gig. Get me together with a group and dice and greasy food and burpy soda, with my elf seeker or halfling rogue or gnome bard, and I’m loving every minute of it. Sure, I have to surrender control, since I don’t know what lurks behind that iron-studded door or under the huge feather bed or down the shadowy stone steps, and as the DM shows off his adventure, maybe I start to think, “Well, I wouldn’t have done it that way,” but I’m starting to realize that I may not be the best of judges.