I Haven’t Washed My DM Pants In Six Months And They Smell Like Umber Hulk

When I got home from DDXP last January, the desire to have a gaming group again had been fanned from a wee spark into a roaring flame. I immediately set about the task of inviting people and getting things set up, and before we knew it, we were playing our first game together. As I’ve mentioned in this column before, I am not really accustomed to being at the helm of a gaming group. In past years, I just showed up at the designated place and time every week and consumed cookies and caffeine until something magical happened and I woke up at home with a tummyache the next morning. I knew that being the Dungeon Master was going to be different, but I really didn’t know how.

Now, just a shade under six months from where we started, I’m taking a step back to see how things are.

Formatting

When the group first started, we decided to play D&D every other week, and play various board and card games on the alternate week. We’d had a lot of people itching to play board games where I worked for some time, and I liked the idea of having more time to plan between sessions while I was still getting my dungeon-legs.

Now, after half a year, I find it interesting that the board game half of our game nights seems to be the star attraction (frequently, even to me!). Several of our players have brought friends or significant-other units, and I find myself with a very happy – and very full – dining room. Everyone still likes D&D, but I do think our campaign suffers from the lack of weekly play. There are other cards stacked against D&D as well. If more than 2 people are gone, we typically will default to board game night — which has resulted in 4-5 missed D&D nights. We also only play for a relatively short period (6-11pm, since it’s a weeknight), and we usually need until about 7:30 or 8pm to unwind, socialize, and get the game going. I don’t see this as a bad thing, except that it cuts into gaming time. All of our players have worked at the same place within the last year or so, several of us have either left or been laid off, and this is the only time we get to see each other and hang out now.

I’m not going to lie. This bothered me for a little bit. I wanted to put gaming first and I wanted everything to run super smooth and to have the Best Gaming Group Ever. Then Katherine, one our our players, utilized a particular talent she has in making people make sense. We need that social time. It’s a large part of why we have this group in the first place. It’s why you can go to a convention and have fun playing with a group of strangers, but you don’t have the same rapport and emotional connection like you do with a regular group. Do we need to make sure somebody sounds the Horn of Gaming to get the ball rolling sometimes? Sure. But do I still feel good at the end of the night even if we didn’t get a whole lot done? You better believe it.

Population Fluctuation

Our group has grown by a few members since we started. I had heard from several Smart People that anything above 6 players for D&D was too much, but we let a few more in anyway (mostly at my behest). The brains were correct: we frequently don’t get anything done — but we also don’t get a lot done when we only have 4-5 people either. As long as we have fun, I don’t really care. As for board game night…. I think we’re about to crest a dozen. We usually split into two games and each gets half the table. Sometimes it’s hard to hear, but it’s awesome.

As I mentioned before, all of us worked together or were (b)romantically involved with someone who worked with us. One unfortunate reality that goes along with this is that today’s business world/the economy/mole people etc. have not been particularly kind to said employer and they’ve been laying people off. People like, for instance, me. I was fortunate enough to land another job quickly and locally, but I worry about my friends who are still there. Especially the ones that I’m worried might have to move away, because then I don’t get to see them and/or kill undead with them anymore. My last group breaking up was not a pleasant experience for me, and it also involved some of my favorite people moving away where I don’t get to see them much anymore. We’re not to that point yet, and with the amount of players we have right now my guess is we could soldier on. But I really, REALLY don’t want to.

My Role In All This Play

I’ve talked a lot about the group itself, but not my role in it. Like I said, I’m not used to this, and I’m still not yet. I think I sort of act as a leader for us even today, but it pretty much consists of providing a place to play, making sure everybody knows where and when to come and working out the occasional (thus far almost negligible) issues the players might have. I’ve had a few DM’s that go on a power trip, so even talking about me being all leader-y makes me a little self-conscious even though I’m pretty sure that’s not me. I decided to take the initiative on things just because I knew somebody had to in order to make gaming happen. I’ve seen a couple groups fail because they never could get together or figure out what to do, and I think it happened in part because nobody stepped up. It certainly doesn’t have to be me, but I’m glad to try to nudge us in a gamerly direction, and to do the occasional organizational stuff. There’s not much, but it’s needed.

Speaking of organizational stuff — it didn’t always go right: I did all the pizza ordering for awhile and tried to have it ready by the time everyone got there, but getting everyone’s orders right frequently didn’t happen and we wound up with either too little or too much pizza. It wasn’t a tremendous deal but it was getting unnecessarily expensive. Lately we’ve been going with a “bring your own food” policy that seems to be working well.

I was kind of hoping to have the pre-game DM jitters gone by this point, but they’re still very much there before every session (and inversely as strong as how much preparation I’ve done, which really ought to be a lesson to me one of these weeks). I do think my confidence has improved somewhat. Some of the more… shall we say, experimental sessions we’ve had did have a few grains of method behind their madness. For instance, one side effect of having done a “zero-prep” session is that I know I can make something happen even if I don’t have anything to go on. Granted, it wasn’t very good, but now I feel much more comfortable if I actually do have things prepared and the terror of someone exploding my carefully-laid railplot is insignificant by comparison.

I had a player recently tell me he wasn’t having much fun during D&D, but he still loved playing boardgames and wanted to know if he could just do that half. I sat and read his text message for a moment, bracing myself for feelings of shame and inadequacy, waiting for the defensive response to bubble up into my brain. I was really surprised when it didn’t happen. I simply told him I was really glad he told me, and I’d SO much rather he told me and just did the stuff he enjoyed rather than sitting and being miserable every other week. I’ve been in a group where we were all too chicken to tell the DM we were unhappy and wanted to quit. It was awful, and it wasted everyone’s time. This was not. There were zero hard feelings and it was one of the better examples of communication among rational adult gamers I’ve ever seen. It did, however, make me want to get feedback from him to see what I could improve (regardless of whether he decides to play again later). If I was going to guess at my own flaws: I’ve stayed on the rails too much a few times, went way too far off the rails a couple times, I seem to be allergic to giving out treasure, and I don’t prepare enough. It might be time to poll my players to see what they think.

Appraisal

The uncertain future aside, I’d say we’re doing well and having fun. I don’t really know where this puts us on Chatty’s stages of RPG group development (any given session is a crapshoot  between Storming and Norming), but our split format probably throws a few monkey wrenches into things. I’ve personally thought about lobbying to have board game night go three weeks in a row and only have one board game a night. Then again, I’ve also thought about doing the inverse. I feel like we’re having trouble doing a long campaign, and might do better with one or two session D&D adventures (or maybe even trying some “smaller” games like Leverage or Mouse Guard). I’d also like to try running some adventures I didn’t come up with. I think they might be a little easier for human brains to process, and I might learn how to make mine a bit more comprehensible along the way. Once again, probably time to speak to the group to see where we want to steer this thing. I really don’t think anybody cares, as long as we have fun.

So, basically, almost nothing turned out like I expected. Even so, sending out that batch of invites was one of the best things I’ve done in recent memory. I hope we can keep this going for a good long while.

 

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Comments

  1. “As long as we have fun, I don’t really care.”

    No truer words have ever been spoken. Sure, we all have our ideas as to what works and what doesn’t, but at the end of the day, if you and your group are having fun, then you are doing it right.

    As for the DM jitters, well, I’ve been DM’ing for roughly 12 years now and I still get the jitters, especially when I’ve planned something “exciting”, “cool”, or just plain “different”. I never really know how well its going to come off until the dice hit the table.

  2. Let me know when you overcome the jitters, and then how you did it. While I generally am pretty confident, I tend to still get apprehensive (mostly in my home games, because I care so much about them and I am trying different things with people I care about).

    In terms of the fun of D&D, it is hard to run a very good campaign that everyone likes. Even really good campaigns can see several people step away due to other things they want/need to do with their time. In general, the safer/simpler campaigns are often the most successful because they cater to the core aspect all of us enjoy: a plot, fun situations, monsters to kill, dice to roll. I wouldn’t worry about being “on the rails” too much, because a lot of people actually like that. The key is to have the rails feel like their choice. When you kill a foe and find an item that has to do with ships, you go to the docks. It isn’t bad to have “rails” here, as compared to killing the foe and just seeing what the PCs want to do next. Guidance is good, provides structure, and allows for something simple upon which everyone can interact/RP.

    You might look back at the different sessions and see which ones felt most successful and why. You might also e-mail the group and ask for their impressions and then compare the results. Finally, ask them what they want more of and less of. Simple categories like “combat”, “RP”, and “ability to influence plot” can be very revealing.

  3. Torqradio says:

    I think you have hit on a very relevant issue, particularly for adult gamers, who are often running fairly complex lives on every other night of the week. I have run games since the early eighties for different groups and it has been amazing and wonderful and frustrating as well. When I was at school and a student we always had time. Game sessions were long and relaxed and a two hour social catch-up session before we started playing was fairly common. Of course we sometimes played until the sun rose, so any amount of gaming time lost was irrelevant.

    Over many years I have foisted many different gaming systems on my players. If you ask any of them what my biggest weakness is as GM they will tell you its a lack of system consistency. Never knowing whether their first level rogue will reach 3rd level before the game system changes and they can either generate a new character using an entirely different system, or simply go through the quick process of converting their elven rogue to a half-gorilla gunslinger. Looking back I understand some of the frustration.

    As I have aged I have sought reasons for my strange behaviour. I think it is simply my desire to create an experience as engrossing as reading Tolkien, with characters as vivid and realised as those written by George R.R. Martin. My first realisation: This is impossible. My second realisation: No game system is designed in such a way so as to achieve this. My third realisation: Most players would choose fun over immersion.

    These days I assuage my desire to create a perfectly immersive experience by trying to create my own rpg. That experience is best left for another post. In my games I now try to make the experience fun, as much fun as can be had in the limited time available to busy professionals who can play for 4-5 hours once every two weeks.

    Recently one of the players had a turn to host who was house-sitting a place about an hour’s drive from our usual haunts. I drove three of my players, all of whom I have known for many years, to and from the venue. Afterwards we all agreed that the two hours spent travelling had been the best part of the evening. We had been ignoring the social element which has been lacking from our games over the last year or so. In our desire to get as much gaming in when we could (prompted to some extent by the slower game play brought on by D&D 4e) we had imposed fairly rigid start times on the game sessions with the Horn of Gaming often sounding before players had been able to pour their first tall cool glass of caffeine, or order their pizza.

    After the last of the car-poolers had left I came to my final realisation: The reason we started a gaming group in the first place is that we like each other. The opportunity to mix socially with friends is an essential element of home gaming and should not be under-valued. Sorry for really repeating what you have said. I agree.

  4. @Torq: Indeed, the social element is key, particularly for those of us in the adult gaming crowd. I know that my group usually spends a good amount of time at the table engaged in chit chat, joking, and the like. At first I was a bit annoyed as the DM because I wanted to get the gaming in. Then I remembered that we all lead very busy lives between work, family, and other obligations and that simply having 4 hours every other week to sit around a table with friends was enjoyment in and of itself. Sure, we’d like to do some longer sessions now and then, and even realize that might make for a more enjoyable game as it makes it easier for us to get into our characters and the plot. But at the same time, we are still having fun just hanging out. The gaming is a bonus.

  5. My groups are all business. We might set aside an initial 20 minutes where we hang (usually while the last people show up), but in general we are all experienced gamers and we want a campaign that provides a lot of immersion. With this kind of pro gamer you focus on the game and having a rich experience. The RP is serious, the tactics serious, and the fun is… well, a bit more focused (but certainly present). Organized play helps here: when you are used to sitting down and getting an adventure finished in a 4-hour slot (or 1-2 for Encounters), you get used to focusing and having immersion. For my groups, if we want to hang then we add a specific time up front to hang, such as someone’s birthday where we have a cookout and then… the sacred gaming time.

    That said, even at the level where you have pro players and DMs, campaigns aren’t perfect and interest will vary between peaks and valleys. That’s normal and the pursuit of the peaks is one of the reasons I work so hard on my campaign. At all levels the play of the game should be a big part of what is fun. You are doing what you love, fantasizing, and exploring ideas.

  6. I get the jitters, too, for 1-2 hrs before game start. When someone is late, I want to chew on the table. Once everyone sits down, though, and starts fiddling with dice bags, I feel great — even before I start talking. Whatever happens next: everyone is there who’s supposed to be, so they’ll see what’s been planned for them. Even if a PC dies, the player will probably still hear it.

    I guess some of this comes because I write everything and tailor it to the characters. I fuss that someone’s character will miss something specific to them. I have 5 players, and one of them rotates in and out of the game based on work schedule. When he’s gone I bring in 1 or 2 “guest stars” (other friends playing temporary or occasional PCs) and put his plot on hold. If I needed to manage that for all players… well, I wouldn’t, I guess. It’s a little too much. As it is I only run one game a month because of all the story development.

    The guest stars have been fun so far. I figure that since these chars are temporary we can have a little fun. There’s no need for them to become trusted friends of the regular PCs. They can bring in conflict roleplayed in a different style than what I do with NPCs.

    For a future game, I’ve invited a friend to make a rogue who tries to steal from the party, as a wild factor for them to deal with while working on the main plot. Later on I’ll ask someone to come play a defiler (the game is Dark Sun). It’s interesting to see how much more involved an in-game conflict becomes when it’s with a friend smiling at you over the table. My only concern is that they might kill him early and the player’s time in the game is too short — I’ll prolly suggest he wait a bit. It’ll be fun but will have learning for me, I’m sure.

    Thanks for the good read!

  7. rabalias says:

    My tuppence: I think it’s very difficult to run an effective game with more than 5 players, and even if you can it’s likely that some won’t be finding the game to their taste and/or feeling they aren’t getting enough spotlight time. I would consider identifying the four or five players who most mesh with your style of GMing, and invite them to do some role playing with you. That needn’t stop you boardgaming with the rest!

    I too still get nerves after many years of GMing. Worse, I get kick out afterwards, like I’ve just run a marathon.

  8. It is interesting how different groups grow and change and morph, especially as we get older and have to deal with the realities of adulthood, like kids and waking up in the morning for work.

    My main live group plays less than I am used to ( i run 2 live and 2 online groups). Every Other Sunday, and there are times we miss due to too many other commitments, as well. But this also comes from the fact we are adults. We normally go through 5-8 bottles of wine, we have real dinner (some amazing feasts come to mind), and we feed the social aspect as well as the gaming one.

    Took me a while to get used to that, but I guess I should just be happy I am still gaming 35 years later.

  9. I hope things continue to improve for your game as well, I’ve enjoyed seeing your writing about it and really like hearing thoughts from new DMs. I’m not surprised that we share a lot of similar situations and tendencies, I still get a bit nervous before most adventures but I also have an extremely low amount of prep done on average. My play group has fluctuated not only size from 3-8 regular players back and forth constantly but also characters have been changed (joining/leaving the party) a fair amount as well. Since I’m such a stickler for numbers I’ve discovered that so far one of my players seems to be content to play almost exactly 10 adventures and then wants to switch characters. He’s 5 or 6 adventures into his 3rd character now, so we’ll see if the trend continues.

    I also appear to be allergic to giving out treasure, but I put this more as a DM style and game style inspired by 4E for me. I am not a big fan of how items have shaken out in play with 4E, and am actively working on changing it. If/when I run a different campaign I will be trying to modify the magic item and gold mechanics to see if they work better for me in the long run.

    Keep up the good work! I can definitely say now that I’m 3 years and 46+ adventures into my game that the pay off for a long campaign is well worth it but it is definitely a huge drain on the DM. I’m looking forward to running some shorter, episodic campaigns after this one, trying other systems (such as Leverage and Mouse Guard like you mentioned), and letting others take a crack at running games as well.