The Harsh Lessons Of The Starfish Man

Once upon a time, back in high school, I had one of the most epic dreams of my career. In it, an evil man wearing a starfish mask and his army of dwarves had invaded my grandmother’s back yard. The dwarves were dressed like your basic garden gnome but with blue and orange cloaks. They were skinny, about 2′ tall, and had nets which they were using to ensnare and kidnap my best friend Josh‘s dad. Josh and I had been in karate for a few years together at this point, and so we set about rectifying this situation — one tiny facepunch at a time. We battled the little bastards and were making some headway toward Josh’s dad, but it seemed hopeless that we would save him in time.

….then I woke up, and found a longsword lying in the bed next to me. I looked out my bedroom window, and there was the Starfish Man and a few members of his dwarf army, creeping about my parents’ yard, sprinkling some sparkling powder everywhere. I picked up the phone to call Josh, when I heard a knock at the door. I opened it to find another guy from our karate class. Things were about to get serious.

….then I woke up, this time for real. That day, I posted this dream to my BBS, and Josh nearly laughed himself into a coma. To this day, it remains one of the strange legends of our circle of friends.

The One About The Starfish Man

Ten years later, it’s a few weeks after our gaming group (with my old friend Josh as DM) had finished our first campaign together. Josh is looking for a little break from DM duties, and I want to try my luck behind the screen. I decide to draw upon the Starfish Man for inspiration. I was certain that Josh was totally going to love this and think it was hilariously awesome. I crafted an elaborate plot involving reports of mischievous dwarf-like creatures roaming the land and sprinkling something on lawns causing terrible things to emerge from the earth and ravage the countryside. Nobody really got it yet, nor was I expecting them to. This was foreshadowing, after all.

The second session, I had the Starfish man make a cameo, and during one scene I vaguely described a shadow cast on the wall with a five-pointed head. Nobody really batted an eye. I figured I’d probably better turn up the heat a little or Josh would never get it.

The third session, I had the PCs visit the ancestral home of Josh’s character, where they found his dad being kidnapped by a bunch of dwarves. I got some “what the hell is going on here”s, but no recognition as to the amazing idea that I was clearly displaying in bold neon letters.

I was frustrated. It also didn’t help that my first time behind the screen stressed me out beyond belief. I wouldn’t say I’m comfortable yet, but I was losing my mind then. It was after that third session that I told everybody I wanted to tap out, but that I’d wrap everything up and explain everything. So we played one last session with the rules very fast and loose that ended in 6′ tall anthropomorphic popcorn shock troops, my friend Tasha being polymorphed into a gorilla, and the Starfish Man wishing he’d never been born. I explained the whole connection with my old dream, and I saw the moment when the realization crossed Josh’s face and he did laugh and call me insane.

I got what I wanted, but in the end, I realize the campaign itself (and probably my sanity) suffered at the cost of telling that joke.

In-Jokes and Insider Information

I don’t know if the rest of you have had this experience, but the D&D games I’ve played in have a tendency to last over several campaigns. In only one of these campaigns have I actually been part of the whole saga — in the others, the DM brought their old campaigns.

I’ve seen the best and the worst of how this can play out. The “good” version was, in fact, the campaign before my 4-day Starfish Festival described above. Josh had adapted the game world from the campaign he and Tasha had played in during college, including making their old PCs high-ranking town officials. I didn’t become aware until much later how many of the NPCs we encountered during that campaign had appeared before, but it didn’t really matter. They had their own life in our campaign, and they didn’t usually steal the show. It was still very much our PCs’ story, and it was the campaign in which I first realized how much I love to roleplay.

The “bad” version of this came from a new person to our group, who convinced me to talk our group into letting him DM. He too brought his old game world and powered-up NPC versions of his old group’s PCs. The problem was, he always had them riding shotgun to save us from the always-far-too-overwhelming odds in a cutscene designed to elicit oohs and aahs. All our adventures revolved doing things with the NPCs or rushing us around to various locations so he could show us the world his other players loved. It was never really our campaign, and we all hated it. It was here I learned about railroading, and the dangers of being too chicken to be honest with your DM if you’re not having fun.

The Point (Of Failure)

Though I don’t do as well a job of it as I’d like (especially when I’m behind the screen), my mantra for years both as a player and DM has been “there are other people at the table”. It’s one thing to have a running joke going at the table and quite another to tell a joke that takes hours of setup and wastes everyone’s precious weekly D&D allotment designed for one person. The reward to painful stupidity ratio on this sort of endeavor has been very unfavorable in my experience. The stuff that gets the whole table rolling with laughter almost always happens unintentionally, but hanging some easy-to-pluck jokefruit isn’t against the rules if you want to do that. Humorous or not, plots that have to work like elaborate Rube Goldberg machines toward a spectacular finish have a lot of points of possible failure. Add in the fact that the very nature of RPGs means people may be running around inadvertently screwing up your plans, and getting it to work becomes a real feat. Getting it to work without everyone at your table being confused, frustrated, or bored will be an amazing feat.

I think using material from previous campaigns can be a good thing, provided that the group currently playing the game is the most important to the story. It’s awesome to have a world and NPCs and lots of previous history to draw upon, but the emotional attachment that comes with using a pre-existing and beloved game world seems to me a double-edged sword. Players who were there the first time will get references and might attach to this new adventure more easily. Don’t, however, make the mistake of thinking that it was the game world, the plot, and even the events that occurred that made the campaign you loved so much work so well. Every time I’ve had a good D&D experience, it was the table coming together and sharing in something wonderful. The plot may not have fully made sense. The rules may have been fudged somewhat. Nobody cared. It was our experience together, and the people in it are the only ones who will truly be able to understand and look back with fond memories of the glorious events that transpired that day.

Why Nobody Wants To Hear About Your Character

If you’ve ever wondered why you get eyerolls when telling people outside your group about your character’s exploits, this is why. All your PC’s rad loot and the exciting adventures they’ve lived through usually don’t mean much to anyone but you and your group. We live in a world where there are a hundred million dungeons to be pillaged and two hundred million idiot nobles to be saved from three hundred million slavering maws of living, breathing wood chippers. Every fighter has a glowing sword of Spine Destruction and every wizard can cast Pancreas To Butter.

None of this is that special. Your story is special. Your characters are special. (To you.)

My dear friend (and DM 4ever!) Josh unfortunately learned this the hard way when he moved away and started a new group. He had them time travel back to meddle with the events that took place in the campaign he played with me before. He hated it, and is worried his players did too. Our story was only special to us.

That’s not an insult. That’s how this game works. I believe it’s why tabletop RPGs still continue to exist and thrive after 30 years of technology bringing ridiculously detailed videogames with graphics that depict all the awesome-but-not-really-that-special to everyone in a form that doesn’t make us do math. You can’t beat the bond at the table, especially in a group that’s been together a long time. Even when they make cybernetic jacks to plug into our brains that completely immerse us in an experience that is so dungeony that real dungeons will quail in fear before its dungeonous dungeonosity, we’ll still want to look back 5 years later and remember fondly the time we spent together kicking ass in the name of Truth, Justice, and Whatever That Lord Guy’s Name Was (and afterward wondering how we ever lived with graphics that horrible).

Yes, I’m sure there are people out there who can write the Next Great D&D Book Series based on the adventures that took place in their campaign. Hickman and Weis did it for Dragonlance, why can’t we? You probably can, with lots of work on writing and editing and plot development and rewriting just like they did. It takes a lot of work to make something accessible and interesting to everyone, and an interesting concept and high adventure are really just the start. Only industry professionals and bloggers silly enough to open their computer-mouths on the Internets have to worry about that. You don’t need your campaign to be accessible to anybody but your group. Your audience, if you can even call it that, is small — and your material should be, whenever possible, tailored to fit the needs of the current players.

This all may seem pretty funny coming from a guy who tells everybody not to listen when anybody tells them “nobody wants to hear about your character”. I still tell people that, and I tell people about my characters all the time. But I don’t tell them every last detail for two hours, and I try to put it in a context my listener can either enjoy or ignore. Knowing your audience is a skill well worth honing, and knowing why you love something so much goes a long way toward being able to judge if it’s going to be interesting to others — whether you’re running a game or telling your wife about your elven ranger!

To Serve And Protect… Fun

I’m having one of those articles where I started to write about one thing and then I thought it was about another thing, and here we are at the thing I’m pretty sure I was actually writing about: discovering the role of the Dungeon Master in your group, and being aware of your own behaviors enough to meet your group’s needs.

People have a really wide variety of opinions as to what role a DM should serve. I’ve seen plenty of groups where it’s “the DM’s game” and they get to call all the shots, sometimes even about things out of game like where and when to play. The groups I’ve been for any length of time in have been typically more relaxed and democratic about such things, but I’m not saying it’s the Right Way.

There’s a concept called “servant leadership” that I really like to embrace when I run pretty much anything, including a D&D game. The short version of this concept is that, as a leader, your responsibility is to to the group or project and you do this by cultivating the well-being of your team. I find this concept invaluable when I’m trying to decide how to handle something in-game — I try to choose what’s going to be best for the whole table, and I try to give each player a little time to shine every session. You have to let go somewhat of what you want, but in many cases that’s not such a bad thing in a tabletop RPG setting. This also means you don’t let one more vociferous player get everything they want — that’s also not good for the group.

In this mindset, you probably aren’t going to be crafting an adventure based around a pun. You’ll keep your players at the forefront, and use your world as a tool for their excitement. Your group will be happy, you’ll be happy, the Starfish Man will lose, and no dwarves will sprinkle anything on your lawn — and that’s all anybody can really hope for when running a game.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I had a weird dream about Ben Folds turning into a monkey from Planet of the Apes that I need to adapt for this week’s D&D game. Nothing could possibly go wrong with this.

Photo Credit


  1. I enjoyed this, thanks

  2. Vanir wins the Cloak of Rambling +5. 😀

  3. @kanati: Thank the gods. I’ve trained so hard for this.

  4. Drowgoth aka Ralph says:

    I also enjoyed this. It took me back to all my mistakes i made as a new DM also long ago.

  5. Every time I’ve had a good D&D experience, it was the table coming together and sharing in something wonderful. The plot may not have fully made sense. The rules may have been fudged somewhat. Nobody cared. It was our experience together, and the people in it are the only ones who will truly be able to understand and look back with fond memories of the glorious events that transpired that day.

    — Well said!


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