by Robert Dorgan
Running Dungeons and Dragons games as the Dungeon Master (or Game Master) or any type of role-playing game can be a lot of fun. One of the challenges players have is attention drift and having to wait to take their turn. The DM doesn’t have this problem as they will nearly always be involved with whatever is going on. In addition, the DM gets to spend time prepping the adventure, which can also be an enjoyable activity. So, with this double bonus of being more involved during the play of the adventure and spending extra time reading and prepping the adventure it begs the question why aren’t there more people out there willing to DM?
In a nutshell, DM’ing calls upon so many different skills that I don’t think there is anyone out there who is an expert in all of them and that means to some degree you will spend some time outside of your comfort zone or at least skirting being less than fully competent.
DM’ing an adventure can call upon improvisation skills when the players do something unexpected, making different types of voices for NPCs, strategy and tactics during combat, on the fly rules adjudication when something comes up that isn’t covered in the rules, artistic skills in terms of drawing maps, acting chops for portraying NPCs and villains and social awareness in gauging that everyone is being entertained and having their particular desires met (at least some of the time) in terms of what they enjoy about gaming.
Whew! That’s quite a list and I could expand on it even further by adding things like miniature painting, terrain crafting, digital and technical skills for adding audio/visual effects to a game, etc.
I think given all of these diverse skills that it’s likely you will be good to great at some of them, average at others and perhaps weak in others. It can also vary in relation to your players. Your great tactical skills to make an exciting combat for one group of players may break down when you have a table of war gamers who have fully optimized all of their character choices and operate more like a Navy Seal team. Your acting skills may be just fine to portray the mayor for a group of teenagers who are more interested in getting out of town to slay some orcs and then you feel inadequate when you have a bunch of theater majors who want to spend half the time in social interactions with the various townsfolk.
Yes, one can get better and improve in any of these areas over time. However, unless you only play with the exact same group of players all the time you are subject, like at a convention or other public play event to run for people you don’t know and thus experience the feeling of not being good enough.
However, the secret is you don’t have to necessarily be good in any of these areas, you just have to be willing. Also, the even bigger secret is that if you’re primary purpose is to entertain your players, to make sure they all have a great time and you leave your any shred of being self-conscious at the door then you’ll do great.
If you think about comedic movie stars there are several examples of people who aren’t necessarily the best actors in the world and their movies won’t be nominated for Oscars or Golden Globe awards but they do make you laugh.
I still chuckle when I think about Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly going at each other in Step Brothers. It’s not a great movie by artistic standards and it still got a 3.6 audience score on Rotten Tomatoes and a 6.9 on IMDb. What makes comic actors like Will Ferrell successful is his willingness to fully embrace his role in the pursuit of entertaining the audience.
I practice the same thing in my own DM’ing. During 4th edition I played a lot of Living Forgotten Realms (4th ed. organized play) with a group of players who were collectively (and many individually) smarter than me and much better at the tactical aspects of the game. I had little hope when during the combats of doing much to threaten them. Fortunately, like many gamers I’ve met, they didn’t have a problem smashing the monsters and barely breaking a sweat.
Given this I didn’t want them to just remember the games I ran as the ones where they walked through most of the adventure (and a lot of LFR adventures were heavily combat focused). So, I looked at the role-playing opportunities and mined them for ideas about how to present such far out ways to present stuff that it would be more memorable than the combats.
As an example, there are a lot of small details given in many adventures that at first glance can seem to be a throw away, some minor description for adding a little bit of flavor to a scene. For example, there was one adventure that mentioned a bard singing in a tavern about the Queen of Thorns, a harbinger of doom for the country of Cormyr. In a Weird Al Yankovic like parody I rewrote the lyrics to a Duran Duran song to feature the Queen of Thorns and the destruction of Cormyr. I have Rio cued up on my Rock Band game which one can perform as lead singer of a song. The TV was turned off so the players had no idea what was in store.
I ran the game until the point at which they saw the bard’s performance. After briefly describing the tavern and the bard getting ready to perform I excused myself from the table, did a quick “costume” change into a flashy shiny shirt, turned on the TV and sang proceeded to best/worst karaoke. I say best/worst because I am not technically a good singer at all and I put so much physical gyration and heart into the performance that everyone was quite entertained.
On a less flashy scale there was another adventure featuring a halfling NPC who sends the characters on a quest. He is described as asking the characters odd questions though no description was given of what they might be. I went ahead and typed up 20 “odd questions” that I was then able to refer to during the role-playing encounter and thus add more flavor and make it more memorable and interesting. Years later one person in that game still remembers one of the questions.
My invitation to anyone out there who is thinking about DM’ing and hasn’t yet or even to those people who are already DM’ing is to worry less about what you’re good at and focus more on what you’re willing to do to provide your players with an awesome entertainment experience that they may be talking about for years to come.
Speaking of which, “Why is Morgrim Soulforge so awesome?”