Posted on September 4, 2012 by


One night in 2009, I sat in a bar in Eugene, with a number of my classmates and the head of the theatre department of the UofO. This professor was discussing the premiere of his newest production, a zombie adaptation of Hamlet. Mostly, he was commenting on his personal fear that the production would be a failure. Emboldened by my inebriation, I attempted foolishly to console this man I was greatly intimidated by. “But John,” I stammered, “Why would you be afraid? All of your productions have been huge successes!”

He stared at me, and said very, very seriously, the words that would stick in my head to this day: “Alex, why would I do something if I weren’t afraid of it?”  There it was: one of the most fundamentally important lessons I learned in college. Appropriately it was over a pitcher of beer at Rennie’s Landing, and not in a classroom. “Why would I do something if I weren’t afraid of it?” The words echoed in my head the next morning, as I laying retching on the floor of my apartment. John was a generous drinker.

Pictured: Most students’ favorite curriculum.

This fear is the fear of failure, in whatever we are working on. This fear should be used as a guiding light to follow. It tell us, “Yes. This is risky, there is a reason you are afraid. You have the potential to fail.” If we are not risking failure, we have no way to gain true success.

What am I talking about all of this on a D&D blog? Dungeons and Dragons is a game, first and foremost. But it has opportunity in it, opportunities for each session to be something new, something memorable.
Generally before a game I have anxiety, but before a few games, I had honest fear. Fear that what I was doing was stupid as hell, that it would be an utter failure, that my players would look at me with exasperation, desperate for an encounter to rid themselves of this facile roleplaying.

Luckily, none of that happened. Instead, I ran three incredibly fun games.

The first one took place almost entirely in the dreams of the characters, inspired by the episode Restless, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I was terribly scared that the whole thing would just be derivative and cliched. I worked really hard on the game, knowing that without pouring myself into it, I would fall back on overused tropes. I had gathered long surveys about each person’s characters, and wrote stream of consciousness about them.

I won’t go too far into it, but each character had their own sequence, something that revealed a lot about their characters, and hinted at their future. Kyle told me it was the first time he had played in a game with a successful use of dreams, which made me incredibly happy. It was the first great game of the campaign, and it’s still one of my proudest moments from DMing, as the first game I’ve ever tried something so unconventional.

The Cheese Man failed to make an appearance, though.

The second time was a game I had planned for months, constantly going back and forth about whether or not I could effectively implement it. It would be a game that took place entirely in the characters’ memories. I was terrified of the idea, thinking about how huge of a mess it would be, whether or not it would just be a rehash of the dream game, or even just a confused mess of roleplaying. I almost convinced myself multiple times that I wouldn’t run it. But, for some reason, I did. This game was more successful than I could have imagined, more detailed, original, and mature than the dream game. I can’t even begin to claim responsibility for it; Each of my players brought their A-game to the roleplaying, introducing their own memories and interacting with the ones I had provided based on their surveys, again. Some memories were quick flashes, others long, introspective segments of the character’s past. They moved forward in time until we were left with the first time the ship was seen by the captain and First Mate. Finally, the game ended with flashes of memories from previous games, a reminder of everything they had seen and hints as to what they all meant for the future.

90% of their memories involved quirky but troubled girls with brightly colored hair.

Finally, another game I had planned for a while, but was very worried about implementing, because it was both silly and entirely focused on a single character:  Basically, Adam’s character, Caliban, Tiefling Captain of the Miranda, had died. Before the next game, I discussed with the rest of the group that Caliban would wake up in a perfect universe, one where he was a folk hero and feared pirate lord. It was a kind of “Wonderful Life” style episode, and Adam was  as shocked and lost as his character when we got to the game.

The game was successful because it was a chance to be silly and fun in a campaign that had gotten very, very dark; we had been playing long enough that a game focused on an individual character did not unbalance the whole game; and it was unconventional to keep a player in the dark like that. It was fun.

These games were the ones I was most worried about, the ones I most feared to try. And yet, they were some of the most memorable games in the whole year and a half long campaign. I plan on continuing to run games that scare me, and I suggest the same to other DMs. You don’t have to push yourself every week (it is just a game, after all) but once in a while,  try something new, something unconventional. Something that scares you. A failed game doesn’t amount to much but a few hours of learning experience. But a game that changes the way you see Dungeons and Dragons, or any RPG, that is worth something, at least to me. So, once in a while, ask yourself “Why would I do something if it didn’t scare me?” And then do that thing.


Posted in: Game Talk, Miranda