Fabletop: Mastering Dungeon Mastering

Consider if there’s a way to make that stupid idea of detonating a barrel of alcohol to rocket jump work. Or if the Bard can, in fact, end the boss encounter because he rolled a 20 to seduce with his songs.

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This week, I’ll be branching out into another of my interests: Tabletop roleplaying games, and the guys that run them! Also, an attempt at naming a post series!

True, D&D and its ilk have long endured, and have been getting more and more accessible and popular. We’re no strangers to the concept, and certainly, there are sites and video series which are dedicated to tabletop gaming, but consider this a crash course for newbies, told from the perspective of a fellow relative newbie as opposed to someone with a lifetime of D&D editions and Pathfinder homebrews. I always had an interest, but grew up in a time of electronic gaming and a lack of dedicated groups. Add to that my current state as someone who reluctantly adults the adulting of the adulty adult world, and I can, as always, speak as someone who has to deal with everyday life and its responsibilities.

Dungeons_and_Dragons_Dungeon_Master1.jpg
Some DMs carry on well into their golden years.

Maybe you know nothing about it, or you’ve heard about it but don’t get it. Or you might even be a frequent player and want to try running a game yourself, seeing what it’s like to be in the driver’s seat. You might even be a card carrying DM. Either way, let’s roll initiative and get started! …What do you mean you’re the ONLY one around to take a turn? …What do you mean I can’t make you roll against other readers on the internet? …What do you mean I’m asking useless questions for things nobody actually thinks? Silly, that’s how the internet works!

Make An Investigation Check

So, time for the usual crash course!

Dungeon Masters are the people running the game (or campaign), known by a number of different titles based on different series, the most common alternative being the Game Master.

They’re the ones who are in charge of crafting the game’s world and all the details encountered by the players, using whatever system is provided or (for a certain breed of fanatics) making their own. If they’re basing it on an existing franchise, they decide where and when in the franchise the game takes place. They decide how the world works, they determine the effects of the player’s actions, successes, and failures, and they play EVERY OTHER CHARACTER the players encounter.

In short, think of your usual RPG. Now imagine merging the roles of writing, voice acting, and gameplay into one person. That’s your DM. And that is one reason why games like Dungeons and Dragons try to lighten this burden by providing enough gameplay and setting for most to get started. Expanding their own properties and settings is part of it, but they also give you a toolbox and instruction manual you can just follow directly.

Of course, that’s the foundation of the DM, being a sort of interactive storyteller AND a pseudo-gaming system. As people, there are of course many different styles of DMs, each working with their own strengths, weaknesses, and tastes. There are, of course, details of these archetypes, so instead of going into each of those (from the fair to the merciless to the overdramatic) and their personal goals, I’ll split it into the two fundamentals of any game: Crunch and Fluff. Or rather, Mechanics and Lore.

A DM that’s Crunch-focused is one who emphasises the gameplay and systems. While how that manifests varies, ultimately, they will care a great deal about the logistics and hard details of the adventure, like how you determine success, health, equipment, or skill. They might use a preexisting system, tweak it a bit, or come up with something all on their own, but they care about WHAT players are doing and HOW.

On the other side of that coin is the Fluff-focused DM, who focuses less on being your gameplay system and more on being your storyteller. This DM cares more about creating the world you’re adventuring in and its inhabitants, and in crafting an engaging adventure…though not all DMs craft stories that fit the players. Some involve their players a lot in the process, while others have their vision alone in mind. But the WHY and WHO of the story are paramount.

That’s not to say the two are mutually exclusive, however; it’s truly rare to find one who is EXCLUSIVELY one or the other, and any DM who intends to keep on doing this will find they’ll need both skillsets to succeed. That being said, they will, of course, have a preference! Some yearn for the thrill of dice rolls and coming up with encounters, while others enjoy the interactive storytelling.

Or in other words: Do you watch Marvel movies because of the action scenes, or because you enjoy the chemistry of the actors?

Make A Persuasion Check To Not Be Replaced By A Videogame

So that’s the rundown, but why have a DM? Why have tabletop games? Why not just play Dragon Age? Well, aside from the logistics of needing someone to run the whole thing if everyone else is just going to be one character (or if your gaming setup can’t run that game in particular), it’s quite simple: Freedom and interaction.

Just as tabletop games use your imagination as the ultimate graphics card, a good DM can be the ultimate gaming engine. They may not have the budget and resources of a full vidyagaem, but they do have versatility and the power of imagination. Even a DM that sticks strictly to what the game provides can account for way more story divergences if they have the right skills to handle it. They might have to force the story to go on track sometimes much like your typical videogame tutorial level, but the fact that it’s a person and not a program makes the whole experience a lot more interactive.

With a DM at the helm, players are free to discuss, debate, and negotiate just as the DM is free to innovate, strategise, and plot free of the constraints of a gameplay engine. You’re not cursing that the platforming mechanics can’t let you use a chained weapon to hook on and swing across a gap when a DM considers your idea and figures it depends on how well you roll. And while a videogame’s characters and plot begin and end with however many paths the designers plan for them, these are even more varied on the tabletop as players take unexpected paths or stop to chat with NPCs beyond their function.

So a DM offers a lot more flexibility and freedom, and it’s a great social activity for likeminded people, putting themselves in fantasy-shoes to do a bit of interactive storytelling. But as always, this all depends on the DMs themselves. To engineer such creativity and build worlds and characters while dealing with the antics of players is no small feat, especially if it clashes with personal tastes. Unless egos and expectations are checked, failed DMs will either run out of steam and burn out their inspiration (no, not the bardic inspiration dice), while some become tyrants forcing players to play their way and harshly punishing their characters if they don’t.

Now Let’s Fill In Your Character Sheet

So that’s the outline of what they are and why they’re unique. And since I mentioned earlier that I can’t possibly go into all the possible motives for becoming one (though love of the setting, dice rolling, or storytelling are the biggest foundations), I’ll instead deal in something tangible: How can being a DM benefit you?

  1. It is, as always, practice. Both for creativity and in organisation.
  2. Contrary to the image of the antisocial nerd, you’ll learn a lot more about social skills: How to read your players, how to perceive their interests and goals, how to balance those with yours. Most importantly, how to play nice with each other and learn the essential give and take of real friendships. Someone who only takes and demands without giving in return, be they DM or player, will find they’ll alienate a lot of people.
  3. What people play can tell you a lot about them: Are they using it as an extension of themselves? Or simply having fun with something VERY different from their true selves? Do they focus on telling a compelling story, or being the most powerful, respected, admired SOB in the room?
  4. Most importantly: It’s fun! Assuming what the group does fits those tastes, of course. The barbarian ruining the diplomatic encounter might be a fun tale for some, and a frustrating failure to others. I don’t recommend becoming a troll player unless your friends are on board with you.

So let’s assume I have successfully rolled for Persuasion and you, with your new basic understanding of DMs, want to become one yourself. Well hang on to your hippogriffs, because I’ve got some tips for you! Not tips to make a campaign, that’s for you to discover. There are, however, some lessons which will ALWAYS apply, whether you’re a newbie or a veteran across all genres:

  1. PLAN. Always, ALWAYS plan ahead as best as you can. The mistake many would-be DMs make in their early years is thinking imagination is all it takes, or that the story provided in the materials will resolve itself. In truth, you need an OUTLINE of your campaign: a good idea of the setting, what’s in it (with enough detail if players encounter it), and a basic story structure which you find easiest to edit. Not only does this make it easier for you to structure and plan what to throw at your players, it also gives you some solid ground to work from moving forward. You don’t have to obsess over it, but it helps to have an idea on where the story will or could go. Have an outline, because that helps you identify key moments. And THOSE help you recognise the critical choices which shape the story’s end goals and paths to take.
  2. Have a clear idea on what sort of game you’re running from the start. Is it a game about fighting monsters and getting treasure? Or is it focused on roleplaying, being those characters and telling their stories? Now, ANY campaign will have both of these, but knowing which one will be your focus can save you a lot of trouble of what needs the most attention. No sense coming up with Baron Von GuttGeschpielt’s family history and motives if he’s just the boss your players will kill and loot, and no sense coming up with a result for every point on a d20 for a homemade spell if your players never use it and spend all game japing in a tavern. It helps to have BOTH, but this will help you figure out which areas to brainstorm.
  3. Communicate these with your players without giving away spoilers. Remember, these people are your FRIENDS, and you should foster open communication of intents and expectations so they know what to expect. It’s not fair to them or to you if you go in with totally mismatched expectations; at the absolute worst this can get, they’ll feel you are deliberately letting them down and spiting them, caring about your satisfaction alone and not theirs, while you’ll feel that they’re giving you useless negativity that misses the point of what you were doing. Building is all fine and good, but this is a GROUP activity, and that can’t be ignored.
  4. Expect the unexpected. As useful as outlines are for building a world and figuring out which parts of the plot will be the crucial junctures, players have the ability to throw you off the rails in ways you would NEVER expect. You planned for the key decision to be the moral dilemma at the field of battle after receiving your mission? Well, too bad, everyone just destroyed a tavern and are now fighting the town guard without even meeting the questgiver. Be prepared for players to obsess over details and people you considered minor, while at the same time ignoring or missing things you designed to be essential. Round out your campaign so that it doesn’t hinge on everything running like clockwork.
  5. Have a thick skin. This has multiple applications. In the first place, it’s helpful for dealing with feedback and not taking it personally. In the second, it’s helpful for you to assert the fact that YOU are in charge. I don’t say this so that you can be tyrants, but there are times when  you’ll need a firm hand as DM: Telling players no, keeping things in check and on track as referee, having the will to see it through, confident that it will pay off. Even a GM can suffer burnout if they let things get to them, and that’s where discipline and willpower come in handy.
  6. Paradoxically, be flexible. While you need to be firm to run things, you also need to be open to discussion, ideas, and feedback. Accept that you can always do things better, and that your players might have good ideas, or at least an idea on what players actually want. Don’t shut down EVERY idea just because “The rules” or “The story” say so. Consider if there’s a way to make that stupid idea of detonating a barrel of alcohol to rocket jump work. Or if the Bard can, in fact, end the boss encounter because he rolled a 20 to seduce with his songs.
  7. And finally, Rule Zero: HAVE FUN. I place this at the end so it leaves a bigger impact, and it’s the key thing to remember in any activity, especially with friends. You’re all here to enjoy yourselves and figure out where your different styles meet and how they interact. Don’t push yourself to finish something you don’t enjoy, and don’t fixate on something, whether as a player or a DM, to the point that you will be harsh and hurtful to get it.

So there you have it! An intro to and tips to becoming a Dungeon Master. I may not be a d20 veteran, but in my own time handling a narrative campaign and working out details and mechanics, I found it was a really interesting challenge, almost like crowdsourcing a story in some ways.

I hope this has cleared up some mysteries for you, or helped you out if you’re already running your own stories. Remember, at the end of the day, this is a social thing. You are the host, welcoming them into your real and imagined home, and they are your guests. BOTH of you have an unwritten obligation to make this as fun and pleasant for everyone involved as possible. But with the right attitudes, good planning, and enough grit, even epic failures can be epic legends.

Still not convinced about the tabletop? Well, try this on for size: CO-OP STORY MODE.

Author: The Write Stuff Was Taken

Well, I think he's important to the site...can't imagine how, though...

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