Saturday, May 5, 2012

I'm a bad dungeon master. How fix?

One thing that never quite leaves a person is worrying about how they are perceived. Maybe it's something that dissipates with age, or with experience, or maybe with confidence. I still consider myself to be a 'young guy', and I definitely still feel self conscious about myself. I worry about what other people think of me. I'm still driven by a yearning to impress others and to be thought well of by others.

This feeling doubles when I run a game of D&D.

You can listen to me run a session of D&D Encounters over at Dungeon's Master. I had the privilege of getting to run a session for the game store's usual DM extraordinaire, Derek Myers.

I don't think I did that great a job, but I'll let you be the judge.

Maybe it was because I wasn't as prepared as I could have been. Maybe it was because I was running a complicated encounter designed to be a big finale (to events I wasn't present for). Maybe it was because a seasoned DM was at the table, plowing through the encounter with ease. For all I know, I could have just been nervous.

I feel like I bungled up enough from the session to merit a quick list:

-Didn't have the 'flavour text' in front of me, so was left to wing it when describing the PC's entrance to the dungeon via a magical portal. I felt like I was spouting a lot of nervous nonsense.

-Gave the main villain (insane dwarf seer) a kind of Droopy Dog voice starting out, thinking the players would underestimate him a little. Problem was, that voice got lost in the shuffle of play, and I ended up speaking his parts in my generic 'raspy villain voice'.

-I could barely parse out the stat blocks of the multiple monsters. I ended up forgetting about a lot of their more devastating attacks. Derek was nice enough to remind me throughout the game.

-Played the encounter easier than it should have been. The villains weren't nearly as imposing or damaging enough. Most of the players shrugged their attacks off. Only twice were any of the players ever bloodied in combat.

-Had trouble with the initiative order. I stopped using hanging tags to track initiative, because I felt self-conscious about how long it took to doodle every one's characters. I'm regretting not using this useful tool now.

-Sped through the skill challenge at the end. At that point, one player had to leave the table early, and I was a getting antsy. I railroaded the players through it as quickly as possible, even though two of the younger guys at the table seemed eager to explore.

-Summed up the grand finale with all the enthusiasm of someone late for the bus: "...and you get back to town because of the magic portal, uh, everyone who was sick is healed now, and, uh, you win and stuff".

I find it useful to reflect on some of these 'mistakes', whether you're a new DM or a veteran. Before playing that night, I thought myself a pretty decent dungeon master. Now, I think my game needs some work.

Almost all of the above problems could have been solved with a little more preparation. If I'd practiced my villain's voice, I could have kept it consistent. If I had looked closer at the monsters' stats, I could have better remembered their attacks. If I'd felt a little more sure of myself, I'd have used the tools available to me to the fullest.

What I learned most from playing that night was this: my dungeon mastering style, such as it is, is not adaptive enough to suit a variety of players. Overall, it needs some work.

People play D&D for a variety of reasons; each person gleaning something different from the game. Some people like to treat the game as an interactive story, while others play it the same way they would a war-game. There's no wrong way to play D&D. There is, however, a wrong way to run D&D. My gaming style tends to take the piss out of a lot of standard fantasy tropes, which may not gel with a lot of player's sensibilities.

After all, from what I understand, most DMs present a serious fantasy world and play it completely straight, while it's the players who inject the game with satire and hijinks, not the other way around. Something I might try to keep in mind for the future.

The important question is this: How do YOU like your D&D to be played? Why not take a few seconds to answer the quick polls in the side bar. Your feedback is greatly appreciated, and it's always important to get a sense of how those new to the D&D community feel. If you've ever had trouble with the dungeon master role, post in comments.


  1. Here are a few pieces of advice...

    Sounds like you need practice. Try a much smaller group and work your way up. Also playing in a well-DM'd group as a player will give you all kinds of ideas on how to better manage the group. They also HAVE to respect you and respect the group, and don't be a pushover and fudge rolls; if they die, they die. You have to be like God over their virtual world, have to be impartial, not an antagonist (though NPCs may be) or intentionally going out of your way to kill them off, but also not being their cheerleader either.

    You should prep things in advance. Here are a few example of preparing: maybe 1 or 2 hours for each 30 minutes of game play is a good rule of thumb (between 2:1 to 4:1 ratio), e.g. try and antipate the path they'll take to run through the map, though towns are way harder, and separate the initial "boxed text" from other text you'd add when they get past the boxed text and script out some visuals, if appropriate. Most modules suck frankly, and don't enough of the details you need to give things flavor that players love...i.e. what does the room smell like? Is it hot in there? Humid? A breeze? Do they hear anything? Rumbling? Screams? These are the lacking detals that will take a crappy $10 module into something actually playable and fun.

    But then over-preparing will only get you so far -- you also have to develop the ability to run things off of the cuff (ad hoc, impromptiu), and that ad hoc capability is a very good skill to have for things that go beyond gaming. This skill is more important than the prepping you'll find, but you always have to do some prep.

    Running a group of players is a lot like babysitting, you have to keep everyone entertained really, be able to quickly manage things. Let them squabble or negotiate amongst themselves, or with you acting as an NPC. For example, tell them what roll they need to "hit", don't let them roll and then try and then take a minute to look it up and add in all of the adjustments...they should know exactly what they need to hit and then that sets up a point of drama.

    Another thing that players love more than anything is conflict. Don't just take the module as is. You need to put in some interesting stuff and flavor, especially in complex social fabric, like in a city...there are countless scenarios you could dream up. Don't let things be what they appear to be, don't let NPC's motivations be what they appear to be. Don't outline what the whole goal of their quest is, let them learn about it in dribs and drabs, a piece at a time, let them form the whole picture of what's going on as they go along, not all up front. Let a ruse be setup, let the party get hoodwinked again and again. This mystery, evasion, challenge, and conflict will make things WAAAAAY more interesting. I could go on and on.

    Also, physicaly, I find the DM screen hinders DM/player interaction too much, the screens are usually too high, a half-high, and half-opaque screen is all you need at most, if that, or even a small wooden box where you can secretely roll is enough, and usually people don't have good enough eyesight to peek at your DM notes.

    I'm also been able to integrate tablets/smartphones as a scalable way of putting in some visual aids, and I've also recently started to merge in limited sound effects to make the experience memorable and fun, though you have to pick your spots and not overuse this stuff. That kind of stuff if you do it right and script it out properly can be highly effective.

    I like that you were trying to use voices to effect the NPCs, but it can be difficult to keep track of who does what voice, but after reading countless books to my kids and remembering who does what voice, and being able to kick out 40 or 50 distinct voices is a good skill to have, but this can be learned by practice.

    Good luck grasshoper...

  2. Really, I find that its best to gauge your players and bounce off of them. I have two main groups I game with, and I run both games in an entirely different manner because they all have very different wants.

    You've got it a bit harder, especially since I recall ( Correct me if I'm wrong ) that encounters are all essentially pick up games, you aren't running with the same group of people all the time. My method here would be as cool and accessible as possible; have stuff ready for a linear game and one on the fly. Let the players have fun and roll with it - you'll enjoy yourself more and they will too. An added plus is that if the players have a lot of fun, they'll probably forgive you for little missteps.

    Don't over think it; if the game is fun for you, its probably fun for them.

    1. Also, if I can add, I don't think you do a bad job.

  3. I am a fan of those podcasts and you did a great job. I really like the description that you add for the attack and the damage. You should record a full D&D Encounter season as the DM!

  4. Let me begin by saying that I had fun playing this encounter. I’d already run it as a DM so I know of knew what was in store, but even so I still had fun. I think that some of your own observations were correct, but I think you were unnecessarily hard on yourself. After all you are your own worst critic.

    It’s tough to DM for a group at your FLGS, especially if you don’t know the players very well (or at all). In this particular case most of the players had been there for the entire adventure over the past three months so they had a lot invested in the story and the NPCs. As a new DM who hadn’t played all of the encounters I can understand why you might feel a bit off you’re A-game.

    One thing I’ve learned with D&D Encounters is that adventures designed to work for everyone will need to be adjusted based on the characters and players at the table. For rookies using basic characters you need to keep it simple; for hard-core power gamers you need to ramp things up so that they feel challenged. It’s difficult to assess which way to go and very easy to overdo it and kill everyone in the process. Looking back I’d have increased your monster’s hit points (which is what I did when I ran the encounter for a group with 4 strikers).

    Remember that as the DM you control everything that’s not a PC. That gives you tremendous power to make things happen. If monsters fall to easily have more show up. If the DCs during a skill challenge are too easy, invent a plausible reason for them to get harder as you go. It’s all about confidence and creativity, two things I know you’re got plenty of. If you’re confident in your predestination the players will buy anything you throw at them.