Hold On Loosely, But Don’t Let Go

This model clearly demonstrates why it's always best to play D&D outside, preferably on pavement or some other surface whose maintenance you are not responsible for.

Have you ever played in a game with a really good DM? The kind where you’re engaged even when you’re not on the edge of your seat, there’s not a lot of bickering at the table over rules, and everybody talks about their adventures years later?

I really wanna be that guy. I’m not yet.

This quest has caused me a lot of soul-searching over this past year. I’ve run a respectable gauntlet of newbie mistakes. I’ve tried planning for every contingency only to find my players easily discovered the gaping cracks in my armor. I’ve tried bludgeoning my players with DM Fiat to make my plans work. I’ve tried emphatically cautioning them about doing that next thing under pain of death. (That’s a crowd favorite, by the way.)

I’ve been experiencing something completely bizarre in the campaign I’m running now. I put some pieces in place, establish a few locations that are relevant to that week’s story, and a basic premise to get the plot started. Then I just sort of sit back and see what happens.

I’m not going to lie to you. It’s completely terrifying. But it’s the kind of terrifying where the session has consistently been interesting and fun for me to run and I’m pretty sure my players were really into it too. From the very first night, it’s recaptured the magic I felt years ago during my favorite D&D campaigns. That’s a big deal for me. I haven’t had that feeling in a D&D game when I was behind the screen until now. Three sessions in, it’s still a joy, and it’s far more fun than stress. I hope it stays that way.

I think it will. I finally realized why I loved some of the campaigns I’ve played in: I was let loose. Our party was free to do pretty much whatever they wanted, and the situations we got into off the beaten path are the stories we tell now. I know why this campaign feels better to me now. I’m letting the PC’s do what they will. Even if it’s not what I had planned for. Even if it’s stupid. Even if it will probably result in their eventual dismemberment, death, and reanimation as a zombie.

In short: I am blessed with a group of wildly creative players who are working well together as a group and I have finally realized everything works better if I just get the hell out of their way.

The stories we’ll collectively tell are infinitely more entertaining than any narrative I’d force down their throats. And, looking back, I believe that’s what the really good DM’s I’ve had did for me. It completely changed the game for me. That’s what I want to do for my group and anybody else I DM for down the road.

Great, Kid! Don’t Get Cocky.

Of course, simply realizing that one should just roll with things as they happen in-game is a lot different than actually rolling with actual things. There is still preparation to be done, though not of the kind I had been accustomed to. There were improvisational skills to be honed. Courage-loins to be girded.

I knew I could improvise and roll with anything — and I do mean anything — based on our unique experiences in the Nightmare Realm last year. I just wasn’t sure if I could react to what the players did in a sensible way. As it happens, that wasn’t the issue. I can do that.

What I can’t do is names. I can’t come up with names. I can’t remember names. Either I forget to write down names, or I don’t want the players to know I spawned the NPC they’re talking to out of the aether so I can’t risk scribbling the name I came up with on a piece of paper. That would be a tell. Of course, the fact that all the names I come up with on the fly are variations on “Stug”, “Bibbler”, “Bubbly Gordon”, and/or “Reeb Heeberbeeb” is probably a pretty good tell as well.

Another tell: I’ve noticed that a good 75% of the NPC’s I’ve tried to play on the fly wind up being kindly old men. I’ve tried to play mean old Mr. Wilson to the players Dennis the Menace, but each time the gentle old codger that I am destined to become wants to come out and play a little early. The PC’s have been treated to tea once and cookies twice. Yes, I know old people do other stuff besides baking. I like cookies, OK?

I Accidentally The Whole Improv

I ran face first into another learning experience this past week. Chris Perkins wrote a fantastic article on DM improvisation two weeks ago, and I read it the morning before our D&D session and proceeded to get thoroughly drunk on good feelings. I can improv anything! My players will tell a grand story! Top of the world, Pelor!

This was also the day we had a new player join the campaign. Second session of any tabletop RPG ever, her first being one mostly-combat night of 4e with our group months ago.

(Yes, now is the appropriate time to wrinkle your noses in anticipation for the horrors to befall her.)

The plot of our campaign revolves around retrieving stolen items, and the party frequently finds themselves at the merchant that fenced these items. We’d never established who sold the items to this merchant. In fact, I’d described the thief as a shadowy figure and set it up so that I might introduce him later.

Our new player decided to play a rogue. She joins up, and the party decides to visit the merchant. I decide it’d be funny to have the merchant chatting this new person up as if she’s a regular. Instantly, the rest of the party starts getting suspicious and somebody wonders aloud if she’s the thief.

I get inspired. She’s definitely the thief. She just didn’t know it until now. I’m *Improvising*.

About fifteen seconds of deer-in-the-headlights from our new player later, I realize what I just did. The party, thinking I’d set this up beforehand, is grilling her like they’re getting paid per question.

I’d been trying to make a concerted effort up to this point in the campaign to try to let people do what they will, but this was different. She didn’t know most of the backstory leading up to any of this. She didn’t put herself in this situation, I did, and it didn’t look like much fun. So I called for a break and took our new player aside and briefed her on what was happening after apologizing profusely for being a dumbass. She took it very well, fortunately, and I only took mild damage to my face and arms.

In all seriousness, the thing that I regret doing here was damaging the trust my group has in me as a DM. I like to push the limits of this, mostly because I don’t know what’s going to blow up in my face yet, but I feel like people are going to be a lot more likely to have fun and let loose if they’re pretty sure I’m not going to put them on the spot. Well, I take that back a little. Putting people on the spot can yield some awesome and fun results. Putting a new person who has barely played the game on a giant “we’re playing Fiasco and I just set up a scene where I cut your legs off with a machete” spot was a really stupid idea. I wasn’t thinking, I got cocky, and I didn’t put my players before my crazy idea. It’s not something I plan to do again soon.

There’s No “I” In Team (Unless That “I” Stands For “Improv”)

Sometimes I think the Internets are stalking me, because after a couple days of kicking myself over putting our new player through Surprise Improv Hell, Steven Townshend writes this incredible article on group storytelling. Go read it. Right now. Stop reading this and go read that. Done? OK, I’ll continue.

The core premise of that article? When you play D&D, you’re all on the same improv team. You’re all working together to tell a great story. Even if your character would be a jerk in a given situation, you don’t throw the group under the bus.

I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve seen situations in D&D where I wish people understood this simple idea. Chaotic Neutral characters that do stupid things because they’re random? Paladins drawing their weapons and threatening other PCs who do things they perceive as evil acts? QUIT DOING THAT CRAP. You’re not helping to tell a story. You’re not helping the team, and you’re probably being a jerk. This stuff has always annoyed me, and until now I never had the right words as to why.

This is another game-changing concept for me. This is how I will try to run every game for the rest of my days.

Have I mentioned I’ve been seriously loving playing D&D lately?



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  1. I have found that PC conflict “can” actually lend itself to interesting character development and story. Some time ago, I ran a game of Warhammer 2nd Ed, using the pre-written intro adventure in the core book and near the end, there was an incident between two of the players over the life of an old witch which resulted in one shooting the other with an arrow. Both players were perfectly fine with this conflict and, as of this moment, have not resolved their issues.

    So, inter-party conflict is possible and can be a good source of ideas if both players are sensible and are doing so for the sake of story.

  2. I agree. Inter-party conflict is going to happen. This isn’t My Pretty Pony Friends Foreverland. I wouldn’t have gotten one of my most satisfying D&D moments of all time if my Drow hadn’t had a set of “rules” that I had laid out for him regarding inter-party conflict. It literally took my character out of the campaign and I knew that going into playing him it wasn’t going to end well for him in the long run. But it was memorable not only for myself but for the rest of the group as well. 🙂

  3. On NPCs, I think just shooting for one good solid distinguishing mark is all you need. “The guy with the limp”, the “one with kids running around his store”. It doesn’t have to be a voice you give it. Many DMs aren’t really talented at voices. One of the guys in my old gaming group basically has two guys he does: angry guy and old man. He even ends up using the same catch phrases. None of us care, because he makes up for it with a really unique and vivid description of the NPC and surroundings. They all have one of two voices but we know they are different and we dig the experience greatly. It works.

    On improv, I think this is just a life-long lesson for all of us DMs. I bet even Chris Perkins and Steve Townshend feel that way. That’s why they dig it too… they might feel good, might feel confident, but they know their game can always improve. Enjoy what you are doing now and don’t worry about small missteps. The DM voyage must be enjoyed because you will never really arrive at the destination.

  4. I am not the best DM when it comes to names and acting NPCs out, too. I prepared a list of possible Names for the different races (or read as “cultures”) from which I can draw. An just making p the list helps, as you develop a theme for the names per race/culture, which settles in your mind and helps your come up with names later. I also design most possible NPCs in advance. Not with much stuff but I think about their general behavior (read as “archetype”) and then I think about distinguishing features. those may be physical or in their behavior. Just to make them different from the usual NPC of the shelf. That makes you think in those lines until they start to settle in, too and after a while you do it on the fly much better than before. So practice during prep time helps you improvising after some time.

  5. Have the new player explain that she’s often mistaken for another thief, and that she thinks that this other thief is using her as a cover, to create alibis for their daring exploits. Give the party what they need to trust the newcomer, and then send them all of an a witchhunt for the evil thief – now you have an old party with a developed grudge and a new party member with a personal grudge. Magic.

  6. I love using left over PCs.

    To explain, after finishing one adventure, two of my players expressed an interest in changing characters. The time was right, the players just escaped Smuggler’s Shiv, so I said, OK.

    Little did they know, I was planning to recycle the old PCs back as leaders of villainous enemy factions. In fact after one session I had the players jumping at shadows. After the second session they were certain the kindly cleric who saved their bacon repeatedly for the last 4 months was out to murder them while they slept. (Not true… the other Magus is…)

    My players know what the PCs could do. And they know I’ll use them better than ever. They were genuinely concerned when they realized what had happened.

    Fear is a dish best served hot with a spicy picante sauce.

    Open up, Nom Nom Nom.

  7. @UHF: Bravo, sir. Bravo.


  1. […] Hold On Loosely, But Don’t Let Go at Critical Hits: A quick anecdote on letting go and enjoying the game. Everyone at the table is on the same improv team. […]