Growing as a DM

Posted on October 23, 2012 by


Oh jeez, that’s the longest hiatus we’ve gone on since we started collaborating on Dungeon Remastered. Kyle, I’m sure, blames Torchlight and Guild Wars and school starting up again. As I’m unemployed and not really playing much, I have no such excuses. Tumultuous life events however, I will cite without specifics.

Poor Kyle. A few months ago, I left Eugene and the D&D group.Though they lamented my absence, I am sure, they persevered by having a bunch of awesome games without me. But now they gather in the north, leaving Kyle to join me in Portland. One by one we migrate here, leaving games sketetal and unfinished. Which is good news for me! Tyler gets here in a week or two, and Chad a few months later. My sympathy for the rest is greatly tempered by my excitement to finally play a game again.

So I’ve had a few months to meditate on DMing (ie, drinking by myself and weeping while thinking of the exciting things they are doing without me), and I’ve been developing a list of goals for my new games. Soon, I’ll be implementing such a list.

1. Railroad less.

If I took an honest look at my strengths as a DM, I would say that I am very strong at developing stories, NPCs, and building the world with the PCs in mind. However, my weaknesses appear in my propensity for sticking to the story I develop. My players are often eager to go along with it, trusting that they will always be the protagonists and the story developed around them, but still. My friend and game buddy Adam is probably the strongest DM I’ve ever played with in regards to flexibility and sandbox play; Adam rarely has an ending guaranteed for us, allowing us the chance to do what we want with little to no pushing. He does this by developing a strong world for us to play in, usually containing it in a city or region.

From now on I’ll give them TWO whole choices!

I’d like to emulate this style for future games. Having shorter, more contained games is the best way to do this; larger areas lead, paradoxically, to less available choices.

2. Allow more failure.

This is directly tied to number 1. Basically every fight I’ve ever given the players has been one I’ve expected them to win. In fact, if they do not look like they are going to win, I’m prone to knocking a few hp off a monster, or fudging the brute’s critical hit to a regular one, etc.

I’m done with this.

It should be absolutely clear that I do not intend on throwing no-win situations at the players. This is the same trap as the no-lose situation; without a chance of failure or success, than there is no real reason for the fight.

I’m going to argue, again, that part of the problem with this is 4th’s rather constrained combat system. A more fluid and flexible system allows for more ambiguous outcomes for fights. Still, I can work with the system. No fight should be predetermined. Not ever fight should be unavoidable. And losing a fight should not mean a choice between a TPK or running. Losing a fight could mean an entirely different set of consequences. And winning a fight doesn’t have to mean killing all the monsters in the encounter.

Trying to disrupt a ritual of summoning is a pretty standard example of a combat with different outcomes. If the party wins, they stop the ritual, and this doesn’t have to mean kill all the monsters. If they lose, the ritual could be completed. Maybe the monsters they were fighting sacrifice themselves as part of the ritual! Who knows? What matters is having more outcomes, and having them have the chance for any and all of the outcomes.

3. Make fights matter.

Once again, related to the above point: No more filler fights, at least where I can avoid them. Each fight should be relevant and memorable. Combined with point 2, this makes fights incredibly difficult to plan, especially at higher levels of D&D when you need a certain amount of fights to actually challenge the players. But the fights that matter, and have options for victory and failure make the game matter more.

Granted, the occasional dungeon smash is fun. And as long as we’re having fun, we’re doing a good job. Speaking of…

4. Have fun!

No seriously, this may seem like an obvious thing, but DMing Miranda for so long really took its toll on me. There was more than one game I cancelled out of sheer exhaustion. Over-thinking the game, over planning the fights, all of it took its brutal, brutal toll.

Making sure I have fun as a DM is really important, not just because that matters for me, but because it makes an overall better game. Following the above steps and increasing player choice means less of a pregame headache for me, while making it more fun for the players!

5. Try new systems.

I love fourth edition, as much as my rants against it make it seem otherwise. Despite its many problems, it’s still the system most of us play. And that’s great, but there are plenty of other fantastic systems out there. We’ve had a lot of success with All Flesh Must be Eaten, but Adam is the only one to have DMed that. Gamma World, Mutants and Masterminds, and the Warhammer games are all ones we have played (though I was not a part of a number of them), and there’s still more out there. Tyler and I once played a brief game of Call of Cthulhu, and that was a lot of fun.

Some games are less appealing than others…

One of the games we are looking forward to as a group is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’ll get into it in a different post, but I will say that it will be nothing like the show.
6. Spend more time as a player.

I spent the first few years of gaming behind the DM screen. It wasn’t until we formed this group, and after a few games that I ran, that I was able to be on the other side of the screen.

Being a player does a lot. First off, I love being able to play as a character. The group is full of great DMs, and it’s great to give everyone a chance to run a game. But also, it means a lot for me as a DM. I’m not sure how I was able to DM for so long without seeing it from a player’s perspective. Not only do I learn a lot from my friends, all of whom have strengths as DMs, but I also learn exactly what it means to be a player.

So I’m excited, both to DM and to play, to try new systems, and to try and grow as a dungeon master and a player. Mostly though, I’m excited to have my group back. Life just isn’t the same without them around.

Don’t stay down there too long, Kyle & Adam.

Posted in: Game Talk, Gamecraft