Dungeon Unmastered: Rough Beginnings

Posted on December 15, 2012 by

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Unlike the two main contributors to Dungeon Remastered, I have next to no experience in DMing. In fact, it would be fair to say that I have little experience as a player. I’ve only played in a handful of games (one of which being the year-long Miranda campaign). So I’m not much of an expert from any side of the screen.

But that was kind of the idea for this series. I plan to log my progress as a DM, to track the lessons that I learn after each game. If you’re an experienced DM, then you probably won’t get much from these articles. If you’re new to running a game, you probably still won’t get much from these articles. But I like to subject people to my opinion, and figured a blog is the most appropriate place to do so. Apologies.

First a tiny little exposition.

Years and years before my first game, I read every 3rd edition rulebook that I could get my hands on. Repeatedly. I created characters over and over again knowing that they would never see the light of day. Part of it was that I just enjoyed the creation process, to breath life into a sheet of paper. Another part was that I didn’t want to show up to some game not knowing what I was doing.

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Boring story, I know, but it IS leading somewhere. When Miranda ended, each of the players had ideas for games that they wanted to run. Including myself. But when it came time to actually run the game I had no idea where to begin, what to prepare! Much like when I was building characters, I wanted to learn everything I could about running a game before I actually had to “take the screen”. So I looked to the wisdom of the internet, scouring “How-to” guides, forums, pre-made adventures, and the like. Turns out googling “Dungeon Mastering Tips” will give you a TON of good information. Most of it, however; is aimed at improving your game, which isn’t as helpful when you have no idea how to start!

The amount of information is way too much to list here. Way too boring to list here, as I’m sure only the few and determined have made it this far. So, what did I find that most helped me with my first game?

Maps.

Drawing a “world” map for my game was quite possibly the best investment of my pre-game time. Eventually I got a little fancy with it, fancified it through Photoshop, and posted it online for my other players. But these things can come later, if at all. By just having a rough outline of the area in which you want to set your adventure can help in a few different ways:

This, actually, is even more detail than needed.

1. Drawing the map helped me develop the story.

When I started drawing my map, I essentially had no story planned yet. I was simply connecting dots with lines and putting mountains and trees in there. But as the map grew, I began to think of ideas for the locales. Like a town that has four rivers flowing into it, each falling into what can only be assumed to be the Underdark at the center of the city. Then, with four rivers flowing into this town, it would have to be the major trading hub of the area. Is this where the central power lies of the area? If not, how does the central power relate with this area? Is there a magistrate that rules in the name of the King/Queen there? Is that person content with their position, or do they hunger for more power?

My map helped me brainstorm ideas for adventures as I made it!

2. A map is an adventure flow chart.

With my map and some semblance of a story in mind, it was time to think of how I wanted the adventure to play out. So I chose a starting town, somewhere small and out of the way.  Because that’s how fantasy stories start. By book twelve, they’ll be in outer-space fighting the physical manifestation of the aggregate of all evil consciousness, but they start small. Farmers and innkeepers and the like.

But why do they stop being farmers and innkeepers? Something happens to them and they have the choice (or not if you’re like me and you just railroad the crap out of your players) to go out and face whatever that’s causing their lives to change. With a map as my companion, I hung events to locations as checkpoints in the adventure flow chart. I sent them off to investigate a mystery in another town, and once there, they were given a choice. One decision lead to one location, another lead to a different location.

Now, the choices that I gave them were pretty limited. Continue to be, in fact. Something that I’m continuing to work on. But by adding  more branches to each location, leading to different events, a rich story can (most likely) be created!

3. Choice is limited by knowledge

I read a crap-ton of articles (including one fine article here) about how a good DM gives their players meaningful choices. By doing so, the players feel all fuzzy and powerful because their characters can do what they actually want. Players get frustrated when they are force-fed battles, even if the story behind the battles are interesting.

But the players’ perception of the world is completely limited by what you, as the DM, give to them. By giving them too much choice, without anything to inform them, they’ll probably just pick whatever you said last. Or first. Because they have no context to hang any importance on. The map also helps here. By giving the players a copy of your map, they’ll have a visual representation to aid them in providing context to their choices.

As I am behind the screen, you shall all dance for me! Dance, puppets, dance!

Instead of listing off a few locations where the adventurers can go to look for the legendary sword, describing each location in great detail, you can show them where each place is in relation to the others. This allows players to look at the map and see their choices, and make plans for each adventure. Maybe there’s a poison bog that has to be crossed for one? Well, could that bog be bypassed if they went through this haunted woods? Or maybe one brings them close to one of the character’s hometown? Roleplay opportunity!

This could all be done through note-taking and careful descriptions of the areas, but by having this aid, the players will feel like they have more freedom to do what they want. After all, they couldn’t travel to a place they don’t know exists! But now, with a map, when you give them your carefully planned choices to defeat the evil witch, they can instead go vacation on that little coastal island that you should never have drawn!

A map was the most helpful to me in starting my first game, what was the tool that most helped you?

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