Don’t Do As I Do

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.

Telling Stories

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.”

Pursuing Reality

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.

Retiring DM

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.


  1. Richie Castle says:

    Interesting take. Knowing what not to do is as important as knowing what to do.

    I agree that these pitfalls will certainly ruin a game experience, but I feel as if I have successfully used both of these ideas, but I had to make adjustments to them.

    I completely relate to having the “cool scene in my mind moment”, and also grapple with conveying this scene. Even the best written books struggle to create vivid imagery. The problem, is that the players might not be invested, so then rather than scrapping the idea, how do you make the players invest?

    1) Start with what the players created, not what you’ve created.
    At the beginning of every campaign, my players have 2-3 adventures of little story. This is alot like the beginning of a series where the first few episodes are slow to build character and world-story. During this time, I see what the players pursue. Another way to put this is to take a few adventures to let the players tell you–through gameplay–what they are invested in. Once I have that, I build on the world they started.

    2) Tell a story in small chunks.
    Even the most heartless person can be moved by the appropriate movie (Up and Toy Story 3 are notorious offenders). The reason is that they have a couple hours to create, invest, then show a loss. DM’s don’t have that luxury, so do what cartoon network did with their clone wars animated story: break it up into very small chunks. An example of this came in one adventure with a villian whose memories were imprinted onto a mask. The players wore the mask hoping to find weaknesses and vulerabilities, but instead found a childhood memory of being rejected and bullied. I would play a scene before them (using mini’s and dungeon tiles) by moving mini’s and (almost) reading a script. These scenes lasted 5 minutes max. Each time they looked into the mask they found more about his history and learned that he was a man being manipulated through direct mental control, rather than being a heartless man. By the end of it, the villain said the PC’s had to kill him because he would fight them as hard as he could (not by choice), and only the PC’s were strong enough to end his pain. When the PC’s killed him, he asked for his hand to be held so he wouldn’t die alone, and the PC who experienced his memories stayed with him until he peacefully died. Through using small chunks of the story, each segment had time to sink in, and it never disrupted gameplay because it only happened during breaks; so they still got in plenty of encounters and action. Also, I used rule 1 because this was a villain that the players chose to go after.

    Now as far as pursuing reality, reality can be a good thing. In the most recent post by the chatty DM, he mentioned having a dungeon with factions in which each factions has their own goals and objectives and the PC’s simply intrude on it. In reality, that is how things work. People pursue their own interests until you intervene. The key is not to avoid reality, but avoid boring reality. For example…

    Cool reality: Competing in a martial arts tournament where you are pushed to a physical and mental limit ending in a fantastic final fight
    Boring reality: The years of monotonous training that, unlike movies, don’t get condensed into a 3-minute montage

    Reality and fun are not mutually exclusive, but the key is to find where they meet. In fact, if something is grounded in reality, the players can understand it and work with it. Of course, as you stated, fun is #1, and if reality is boring, then step outside of it.

    Good article, I look forward to seeing what else you come up with.

  2. Philo Pharynx says:

    @Richie – great suggestions! I’ve also had my best points by following what the players give me. One issue is that some players get more invested than others. In one of my games, one character developed an extensive family that has now been thoroughly woven into the game world. They were founded by a general who turned to mercantile pursuits after a great war ended, and have kept up these two family traits. They also developed a fighting technique based on wielding a greatsword with one hand – now the weapon is common, but most are “bastard” copies of the original Zakarias blade. On the other hand, it’s sometimes hard to rope others in when they don’t give as much. I understand a little of it, because some of them have been burned by DM’s who look on backgrounds as just ways to torture characters, but it does mean the game is a bit slanted towards those that offer more.

  3. Thank you, I enjoyed this!… Back in the day, I too made the tragic error of having a little narrative all plotted out before those nit-witted characters barged in and ruined everything. But there’s nothing wrong with passing notes once in a while. 🙂

    Anyway, to learn more about terrible DMing, I suggest readers go check out an “Encounters” session at their neighbourhood game store. Yeeeeesh..

  4. It’s a shame you’re considering retiring as a DM because you do learn the lessons and make awesome posts about it here. You are lucky because you seem to be assimilating key lessons it took me DECADES to grok.

    But go back to playing, I predict that the GMing bug will start biting soon enough.

    Awesome article, as always… I sent it to a few GM friends already.

  5. The reason I struggle with DM-ing is because I am always thinking I don’t have the kind of time and dedication it would take to create adventures. It’s why you don’t see any DM tips on my blog.

    And like you I struggled with making things too “real.” I love campaigns with intrigue, but man all of the private meetings and note passing got old.

    Eventually, I really DM’d using a few bullet points of things that I knew would happen, and left the rest of the night as a sandbox for the players. They never caught on which I take as a compliment. Or maybe they were really dumb. 😀

    I think I’ll get into DM-ing again with Dark Sun, I just love the setting so much.

  6. Dixon: I was at a similar point a few years ago, but what got me on track with DMing was the release of 4E when I ran Keep on the Shadowfell a handful of times for various groups of friends. Several things led to this being helpful:

    1 – they were all 1-shot games, with players not being TOO attached to their characters at first but also being able to have fun an explore different things they normally don’t in our ongoing games

    2 – repetition, after 2-3 times of running the module I’d figured out which parts of it the players liked, didn’t like, needed, and didn’t need – this was basically my DM training and I began to learn quite a bit about what many of my players enjoy, how they play, and what the best ways of DMing for them might be

    3 – we were learning the rules, so the players and myself as the DM all had a very forgiving nature about the game, this kind of atmosphere can be an absolute blessing for a learning DM because things are being done wrong left and right, so it’s not a big deal for the DM to screw up as well

    At some point soon, I hope you try something like this and that it helps!

  7. Dixon Trimline says:

    @Richie Castle: Thanks for the advice. This is clearly coming from a “blooded” DM, who has experience enough to really bring a great game. I have played with lots DMs like you, and always loved the daylights out of the games. I especially like the “small chunks” idea, and your example of the memory mask is excellent. I can definitely picture that, holding the villain’s hand at the end.

    @Philo Pharynx: Yes indeed, I’ve seen the varying degrees of investment as both player and DM, and regardless of my role, it’s almost always frustrating. You make a good point about the players unwillingness to invest based on past experience of a DM turning backgrounds against them. I figure it’s all part of the game, and you take it with a grin!

    @Michael: Hehehe. Nit-witted characters. I haven’t been able to get to one of those Encounter nights because I’m way too intimidated by the weekly commitment. Aside from being married 20 years, I’ve always had trouble sticking with things.

    @The Chatty DM: There you go again, being excessively supportive. I’m not discounting the possibility I’ll ever set up screens again, but just about every good memory I have is related to playing the game vs. running the game. Maybe I’m just too selfish to give that much of myself to stupid ingrateful jerks… I mean players.

    @Boy Genius: Man, it is seriously courageous to jump out into a game with just a few bullet points. I remember playing a game with the all-out, hands-down, no-question best DM I’ve ever experienced, and it was tons of characters with all sorts of history and political intrigue and multiple enemy factions and just a huge, layered story, and afterwards, I glimpsed behind his screen and saw a torn notepaper with a single word like Mayonnaise written on it. He sandboxed the whole freaking thing!

    @Bartoneus: You’re right, of course. Familiarity with the material and maybe familiarity with the group would be a hundred miles in the right direction, and that has been an issue lately as I’ve tried to find a steady group. I’ve mentioned it before, but sitting at a table with a group of strangers is just about the most unforgiving environment available. Maybe gaming in prison would be worse. It’s only a matter of time before I get to find out.

  8. @Dixon : Pretty cool article – love your writing style 🙂

    Believe it or not, it is possible achieve the same problems by trying too hard to avoid these issues (eg : my own latest failings at DMship).

    I think you’re right on the money when you say its all about having fun, though – maybe you’ll find some of the fun of being DM by going back to being a player…

    Either way – I hope you’ll keep writing 🙂

  9. Very good post, and you’re not a bad DM if you managed to come to all these great Dungeon Mastering actualizations – as Chatty pointed out, not every DM learns these lessons so well or so quickly. But then again, it might be a good time to take a break, kick back, and play on the other side of the screen. The game is supposed to be about having fun, and DMs have an enormous amount of responsibility, and can burn themselves out. So take a break, make some new fun character concept and and have a blast defeating the dragon and rescuing the damsel – and eventually, when the feeling is right, you’ll be ready to vault over to the other side of the screen with fresh ideas and renewed energy!

  10. Neuroglyph hits the nail on the head. Just take a break. Play on the other side of the screen for a while. I’ll add to his advice and say this,

    Make it your mission in life to play (not DM) a game and make it great. Be the player who brings energy to the table and makes it more fun for everyone. This does a couple of things.

    1. It makes it more for you
    2. It makes it more for everyone else
    3. It makes the DM’s life much easier because it takes the load off of him as the sole provider of entertainment.

    The more I DM and the more I play, I realize that making the game fun is the job of EVERYONE at the table. As a player, you need to bring energy, creativity and community. As a DM, you need to make sure the foundation is there for said energy and creativity to grow into something amazing, and to be smart enough to let it happen no matter what your plans may have been.

    As I’ve been building more encounters (I generally use published adventures for the main storyline, and then alter the encounters to suit my players) and deviating further from published material, I’ve found that the best part for me is when I come up with a hook, or a problem or a barrier for the players to overcome, I don’t necessarily even TRY to create a solution. I just create the problem and then I’m actually excited to see how the players go about solving it. That way I get to give direction, but I have no idea how it will play out. My own stories are exciting because I have no idea how they will end. It makes DM’ing even more fun than when you “think” you know what will happen next. Building adventures this way, I’ve found myself excited for the game night because I literally can’t wait to see what will happen next. It’s like the story begins to have a life of its own simply because you let it breathe.

  11. Took me a long time to learn to deal with these 2 issues as well. Looking back, it seems so obvious now, but at the time, creating a perfectly believable world seemed so important. The players never cared. They just wanted to do cool stuff. Once I figured that out, everything was so much easier.

  12. “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.”

    Right on, this has been on the forefront of my thinking/blogging over the past several days, and I’m so, so, so stoked to see someone else put it into words. I’m personally a big fan of the MST3K approach to adventures: “If you wonder how they eat and breathe / and other science facts / repeat to yourself ‘it’s just a game / I should really just relax.'” 🙂

    Your anecdote about the bedroom-waiting resonated with me a lot too, having been on both sides of that screen too often in my 3.5 days.

  13. Dixon Trimline says:

    @Eric Maziade: Thank you very much. You’re saying you’ve had some DM struggles. Have you written about it? If you can point me towards the article, I’d love to see it through other eyes.

    @Neuroglyph: To be sure, it’s always dangerous work to declare “I’ll never…” I can imagine running a game again at some point, but it would have to be with a group I trust and that trusts me back. And with any luck, the group would be small and manageable. And good looking, of course.

    @mbeacom: You are exactly right about being the player I’d want to DM. I like to think I do that, mostly because I’m so aware of how tough it can be behind those screens. No doubt about it (or for our Canadian friends, no doot aboot it), you’re not going to find a better player anywhere!

    That is SOOOO brave to lay out the challenge without formulating the solution. I have tiptoed into that land, but found it to be dark and scary. It does provide the benefit of rendering the DM incapable of railroading, since, as you say, you have no idea how it will end. You can’t possibly push them towards the town hall, the graveyard, or the sewers!

    @Micah: It’s almost like I get Neuralized when I move from the player side to the DM side. I can forget what it’s like for players, what does matter to them and what doesn’t. I’m getting so caught up with the minutia, only interesting to me, the GREAT AUTHOR, that I can forget to do the fun stuff.

    @Sersa V: Your gold medal for the MTK3K reference will be arriving in the mail shortly. Love it! I’m going to have to review the recent Save Versus Death entries to see what you discovered about this subject. And the bedroom-waiting scene is the whole reason I wanted to start blogging, to confess that sin and receive absolution from the gamer universe. When my wife read that, she said, “You didn’t really do that… did you?” I had to lower my eyes and say, meekly, “Um… yes.” To this day, years and years later, I’m mortified at the memory.

  14. @Dixon:
    There’s a few on my blog… its all starting to date a bit, I have to say 🙂
    The “post mortem” of my last campaign is here : On the road to Spellguard – the final mile before destination and a few of the preceding posts.

    We’re relaunching next week – new (simpler) scenario, fewer players. Can’t wait 🙂

  15. Thanks!

    I appreciate you writing this. Me as a newbie DM, I have problems that I tend to only realize after-the-fact, my players tell me in direct or indirect ways, or when I read online from articles like this. It would be nice to fix them before I kill fun-time with a warhammer.

    I can’t really offer any advice as I’m probably the biggest DM newb in the room, but I just wanted to say that it helped me and hopefully will trickle down to my players. You could possibly save my players from having stress induced heartburn, which is always a good thing.

  16. I think this is great feedback even for experienced GMs. I suffered from numbnut players not appreciating my hard work until I was reminded that it was my plot, but their story. Then I became active in the Iron Dungeon Master scene and learned to be better on the fly and focus on their fun. I still backslide at times, but it’s true I have more fun when they have more fun.

    Great reminder and good article!

  17. Dixon Trimline says:

    @Christopher Humphries: There’s no such thing as the biggest newb in the room, and I say this having run games inside the world’s most distracting locale: a gaming store. There’s a decimal percent of DM geniuses way up there at the top, and all the rest of us are total hopeless newbs who occasionally, for the tiniest slices of moments, have flashes of brilliance. I’ll keep an eye on your blog, and you’ll have to report how your players respond. Write up some session notes and see what works in your group. I’m always looking to hear about those flashes of brilliance.

    @Ancient Sensei: Hands down, my favorite quote I’ve read so far is, “it was my plot, but their story.” Man, that’s dead-on right. Better on the fly, you say? Once again, that’s exactly the approach the scares me the most, but I have to figure it’s one I’ll have to incorporate if I want to get better.


  1. […] was inspired to write this from reading the Don’t Do As I Do article by Dixon Trimline on Critical Hits. It seems I am not alone in making mistakes, apparently […]

  2. […] task, and Dixon Trimline of Critical Hits illustrated that Tim Taylor style, with a fine list of what not to do.  Having recently faced the trope of the terrible DM myself, I suddenly appreciate all that I have […]