Zen and the Art of Dungeon Mastering #1: What’s in it for me?

Welcome to my continuing story about going back to basics for DMs. I’m going to share my 30+ years of GMing experience in smaller bits, aimed at people looking to start DMing, return to the craft or just plain brush up on the art. 

Books and websites about dungeon mastering abound. Almost all of them have an overly enthusiastic chapter about how awesome it is to be a Dungeon Master. They tell you how you’ll get to create worlds, weave legendary stories and be the person who handles the crucible of Epicness, pouring in alloys of pure molten fun and roleplaying to forge unique artifacts of adventure. I may be paraphrasing here, but that’s the gist of it. When I read such chapters and posts however, I find they don’t always deliver what I could have used: a dead simple list of what I can and can’t expect from becoming a DM.

Well, lets see if I can manage it.

What being a DM can bring you:

I wrote “can” because like any craft, you will need to actively seek these awesome “perks” through practice and open-mindness.

Knowledge

You will learn about the inner workings of your game of choice and the setting elements you may chose to play in and. As importantly perhaps, you will also get to know more about your friends and players, helping you deliver a more personalized playing experience.

Satisfaction

Being a DM is hard, but very often satisfying work. The effort of  prepping games, running them and creating all the elements of a world to adventure in can be exceedingly rewarding. Why so? Because such work has meaning and clear outcomes: players who come back for more fun. It’s been scientifically shown that hard, meaningful work for tangible results leads to high levels of satisfactions.

Authority (Earned) 

You will eventually earn your players’ trust in making all the important rules and story decision to maintain the integrity of the game and give everyone a fair chance at having fun. Once earned, that kind of authority is very empowering and is a key contributor to very long campaigns. Of course, such authority comes with an equivalent responsibility of remaining fair and refraining from abusing it.

Organizational/Management Skills

Managing a RPG campaign requires you to juggle a lot of balls at the same time. In order to become better at it, DMs tend to develop/re-discover/adopt a fair number of skills that are useful at both the table and the office. Making lists, delegating responsibilities (Initiatives, suggest fair rulings, experience tracking, etc.), effective note taking and active listening are just a few of them. In fact I wrote a whole series on how handling a RPG group was very similar to handling a work team.

What being a DM won’t give you:

Some people come into the craft expecting things to go a certain way, they would be advised to reconsider.

A Passive Audience

Running a game does not grant you a free license to tell a story like you want it. Players will bristle after any prolonged period where they are forced into a passive role in adventures and stories. It will become even worse if they realize they can’t have an impact on events unfolding around them. Players want to be the movers and shaker of  the scenes they appear in, not passive observers of  the dramas of kings , or worse, spectators of overpowered Non-Player Characters.

Which leads us to…

A Marty Stu

As a Dungeon Master, you need to avoid conflicts of interests as you are both the one framing the story and handling the rules of the game. Thus, unless you’ve achieved a very high level of trust with your players, don’t play a non-player character that’s active in all the scenes and has been granted the same status as other PCs in the story.  A good example of that is having a NPC guide that ends up being a better combatant, spell-caster and stealth artists than all other combined. That’s bad form and an invitation for abuse.

(Blind) Authority

A DM is not a manager nor a boss. You have no actual power over the players except how you interpret the rules and decide how NPCs react towards them. Your job is to act as a neutral arbiter, not as the judge and jury of HOW the players decide to play your game. There’s a lot of potential for petty tyranny and a high danger of game failure if that simple fact is not properly understood. If you find you need to “add some discipline” to the group or strike your PCs with some, in your opinion, well-earned Gygaxian lightning, I strongly suggest investing sometime off game time to discuss the issues that prompt such “authority”.

A Uniform Party

As a DM you will have a natural style which maps out closely to what type of roleplayer you are (a subject I will explore in the next post). Chances are, some, if not most other players in your group don’t seek the same thing you do out of a RPG session.  The game’s survival will likely NOT depend on the players adjusting to your style but rather expanding your own style to overlap those of the players. If you manage that, you’re onto a sweet, fulfilling experience.

This is but a short list I built from what came up at the top of my mind. I’m sure some of the other experienced GMs have similar insights to share. Don’t hesitate to comment! As for aspiring and returning DMs, what are your gut feelings when reading such lists?

Comments

  1. I wanted to say thanks for this series, it looks set to be an interesting read. Some questions:

    Do you have any ideas of what landmarks on a scale of passive might be? What you said here is definitely true but do you think it is possible to go too far the other way? I have dmed sandbox games where I have (or believe I have) put many interesting options for the players to choose from in terms of adventure (some discreet, some not) and the group has had all the decision making power and not used it. On another related note, open games such as this encourage lots of hooks in an area to show the scene but all need to be planned in order to work well – this can lead to waste of work, what do you think about planning for such games?

    The point that people dm the way they want to play is definitely valid. It can be one of the hardest challenges to juggle everyone’s interests, do you think that it is actually possible to widen the pool of styles without diluting it – you are going to be spending less time on each persons area and you will probably be more enthusiastic about planning and playing your own style?

    Perhaps you could write a little on what you are going to look at in the next post at the ends?

    Carry on the good work!

  2. DK,

    You are right on about one of the hardest challenges is to juggle the interests of the players, unless you are lucky to have a table full of like minded players. This is an area where I spend considerable amounts of time planning so all players are happy by the end of the session. Trouble is I DM the way I like to play and my DM style also reflects that. What I am finding is that it might actually be easier to pre-screen players if possible and get the right mix of players rather than try to please everybody.

  3. @dk: I appreciate the kudos. Let me see if I can answer your questions succinctly. Yes players CAN be too passive, especially in sandbox games. That’s why the first hooks you throw should be more directive, like a mission that a NPC that the party cares about (or is told they care about) gives them. As they get used to the sandbox world, dangle more hooks in less directive ways, they should get the hang of it. Too much freedom at first is often the worse prison.

    As for prepping a sandbox world, I suggest you focus on just a few hooks and try to run as much as you can in improv mode. Then, at the end of a session, openly ask your players what elements/hook they’d like to tackle next so you can prep things a little more. That’s worked for me in the past.

    As for DMing styles vs playing styles, I will tackle this the next article. The idea is not to abandon your play style but to reach an equilibrium between everyone’s. Trust me, it’s not that hard.

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