Being a Dungeon Master takes a lot of skills. First off, everyone expects you to know the rules. If you’re lucky (and I often am), one of the players I DM will know a specific rule, so I don’t have to spend 5 minutes looking up the “trip” rules, for example. Keeping all the players waiting while you look up rules is a no-no. The rules in D&D are pretty intimidating if you’re not Adrian or Jon. These are smart, smart guys who can read something once and absorb it for all time. I, for starters, don’t take the time to read through the rulebook (historically, I’ve spent more time creating my own rules than poring through someone else’s) so that’s a point against me right there. If I arbitrarily decide that a rule works this way or that way on the spot, is that going to skew the balance of an encounter?
More importantly is being consistent with the rules. If, for example, I decide on impulse that a certain spell or game mechanic works a specific way (whether or not it’s in line with the actual rules), the players will expect it to work the same way next time. If it doesn’t, the suspension of disbelief is in danger of being compromised.
As a DM – you have to give everyone their fair share of showtime. It’s kind of like being the director of a play. If you give too much time to one character/player, the other players may not have as much fun. It’s really easy to favour (give more attention to) one player over another, if one player is boisterous and forthcoming while the other is shy and quiet. Especially in my situation now, where I am DMing a group that is not as experienced as I usually game with, this can be a challenge. I don’t want anyone to lose interest because they’re not getting the coaching that they need to understand the ins and outs of just what is going on, what is possible and what is not possible, rules-wise or situationally. D&D combat can essentially be a strategy game, and the more you know the rules the better your strategy can be. When the opportunities arise, I introduce the special moves like flanking, grappling and bullrushing, one at a time, to the group.
Control of the table is another issue. Whenever you game with a group of people who get along really well – which thankfully is 95% of the time with me – it’s easy for people just to crack jokes and basically socialize at the table. That’s a lot of fun and there is usually nothing wrong with it – but it can get out of hand. Especially with larger groups, certain players will go off on tangents that may include the whole group or just a couple of players, which can be distracting as a whole. This was a huge issue when I was playing with Chris Woods, Warren and Bob back in Chilliwack. We would just bullshit for at least an hour before we even started gaming, and including our many, many, many tangents could cut an evening of D&D in half. If everyone is fine with this, it’s no problem. But if you want to accomplish a certain something in a session and you’ve got a limited amount of time to do it, socializing can cripple your chances to do that, and you find yourself having to call a game at an inopportune time (like the middle of combat). If people stop paying attention, you find yourself wasting others’ time describing the same things over and over again. If someone doesn’t pick up on a vital piece of information because he wasn’t listening, it can cost their character his life, and that leads to serious pouting. One of the most often heard paraphrases at a gaming table is “well if I had known this then my character would never have done that!”
Crafting a tale is a whole ‘nother kettle of piranha. I DM for 2 different D&D campaigns – in one “Adventurer’s Guild” campaign each adventure has absolutely nothing to do with the next except that each is in the Freeport area and involves many of the same characters from episode to episode. The girl group I run on Wednesdays, on the other fist, is part of a long campaign that I have plotted out. This requires me to take the players on an epic journey from point A to B to Z, and I have to know where I’m going ahead of time. I’m not writing each chapter myself – I’m stringing a series of published adventures together with a common thread, and this in itself is a task. I have to adapt the individual themes of the scenarios into a cohesive campaign. I have to introduce a setup for each payoff. I have to introduce foreshadowing. I have to know the parts that each player character (PC) and non-player character (NPC) will play.
At the same time I’m giving the characters direction with my various plot points, I shouldn’t make my players feel that I am marching them down a corridor with no exits. The players have to be able to make choices that will affect the story. If a player has no control over his destiny, where is the fun? So as a DM I have to be prepared that the players will make decisions that could quite possibly derail my story. I have to try to anticipate their actions–based on the player’s attitudes and the character’s motivations–that I can adapt the story so it doesn’t fall apart. And if I fail to anticipate, which happens from time to time, then I have to be prepared to make stuff up on the fly, and it’s best if the players can’t tell what’s improvised and what’s pre-planned. If they can tell, that’s one more botched suspension of disbelief, as they acknowledge the man behind the curtain.
There are many other things to consider: Am I not giving them enough rewards (Experience & treasure)? Are the magical items I’m providing going to bite me in the ass when the PCs use them? Will they destroy the challenges I set against them too easily, or will I accidentally pit them against a monster or trap they can’t possibly beat? Am I balancing out the combat-to-plot ratio properly?
Are the NPCs I create memorable? Are they characters? Do they have their own personality? Right now there’s an NPC called Wainscotting (an NPC name I use in most of my campaigns) tagging along with the group, and he’s said all of three sentences to the group. In that tiny amount of interaction with the group the players have come to their own conclusions about Wainscotting. Michelle doesn’t trust him. Marlo thinks he’s not pulling his weight with the group. Really, I’ve been building his personality as we go along (but for the players who may be reading this – that’s not to say that everything about his presence is an “accident”), and I’m quite happy with the way things have turned out. I guess I’ve never had a problem creating characters with personality (maybe it’s the actor/impressionist in me) – in the Freeport campaign I had to play two dozen different characters for Sea Lord Drac’s fancy dress ball. It was a challenge, but from playing the head of the wizard’s guild (Alec Guinness) to Drac himself (Christopher Walken) it was also very gratifying to see the players have fun interacting with the NPCs.
I’m a little worried that I haven’t planned enough; that my lack of reading ahead will make the transitions between adventures too rough. But right now, I think the biggest problem with my current group is “dead air.” This happens to some extent in every campaign, but because most of my players are new and inexperienced, if I’m not telling them that something is happening, there is a tendency to avoid decision-making. I guess this is better than a lot of arguing. I don’t want to lead the players around by the nose so I am giving them plenty of breathing room to get accustomed to the game and to one another, and I’m sure as the group plays more and gets comfortable, these awkward silences will shorten and disappear.
That all said – I think this campaign is going pretty well. I think last night’s session was one of the most fun and memorable for everyone: they finally found some treasure, got the opportunity to soundly bash some monsters (in this case skeletons), and found and rescued the guy they’ve been looking for for 5 sessions. Now for phase two: Mwoo-hahahaha!
APPENDIX: Toren’s Secrets of GMing.
I love to keep my players in suspense and keep them guessing. Poker face is key. There is nothing more blatant than going through an entire adventure and glossing over every room saying “you search the room and find nothing” and then getting to a final room and when a player searches you ask them “where are you searching, exactly?” It’s obvious that the room contains something hidden, and the players will keep trying to search the room until they find it. I approach every room and every area as though it had everything the PCs could possibly find: traps; monsters; treasure; damsels in distress; whatever. It may seem a little pedantic and time-consuming, but I think constantly asking the question “who is turning the handle on the door” when somebody says “we go into the next room” simply adds a bit of realism to the encounter (or non-encounter, as the case may be). Randomly rolling huge numbers of dice behind the screen serves a similar purpose – the players should never become complacent that nothing bad could possibly happen while the DM is sitting back with his head resting on his hand.
A final word about NPCs. Non-Player Characters are, to me, a fantastic tool. Apart from all the usual entertainment factors, they provide a mouth through which information (true or false) can be provided. If you need to impress upon (i.e. – warn) a group that a situation is extremely dangerous – you can kill off a beloved NPC to hammer home the point – I find this provides a slap of realism to PCs who become complacent that their characters are immortal. Although I am usually loathe to use them this way, NPCs can be the DM’s deus ex machina: if something needs to be done to advance the plot and the PCs aren’t doing it – you the DM can take control of the situation if need be without a blatant hand of god coming out of the clouds to set things right. It’s a good thing Wainscotting was around last night or Deanna’s brand new character might have been nourishing a growing Grey Ooze instead of healing up in the temple of Dorl Tavyani. Not that that was the only way out, but it just so happened that all the other characters nearby couldn’t win a grapple check with all the grace of Terak on their side.