Being a Dungeon Master

This one’s for the first time Keepers, Dungeon Masters and other would-be screen monkeys out there. You know who you are.

The first time’s always the worst, but it’s often the most fun too. There you are, notes in hand, dice at the ready. Maybe you’ve got some theme music all queued up on your tablet, maybe you’ve spent all week getting the room just right, or maybe this is something you’re doing on the fly, with little or no preparation. How you’ve come to this dark night of the soul doesn’t matter; what matters is, you’re here, and you’re willing to go through with it. Well done! This is a feat right up there with public speaking and open mike night, and the audience is restless. So very restless …

Let’s get you started.

Rule Number One: Don’t Panic. Remember, though it may feel like the world will collapse at any moment, there’s nothing important at stake here. Nobody’s going to die if you make a bad call at the gaming table. The roof won’t cave in because Bungo Badaxe happened to fumble a combat roll and is now Dwarf tartare on the dungeon floor. So long as you remain calm and confident, even the worst gaming fumbles can be dealt with. Don’t let yourself be bullied into any hasty decisions either. This is your game. Run it.

Rule Number Two: Know the Rules (But Not That Well). It goes without saying that you ought to have a decent grip on the system you happen to be using, whether it’s as simple as Toon or as complex as First Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. What you want to avoid is being that guy, the one who sits there poker-faced and spouts, ‘Actually, I think you’ll find that on page 298, paragraph 4, subsection c of the Goblin Fluffer rules, it says …’ NO. Just no. Only rules lawyers need that level of detail, and even they don’t really need it; it just makes their dark, withered, twisted hearts feel a little flicker of joy. You need to be expert in the main mechanic, whatever that mechanic may be. In a combat-heavy game, like pretty much any iteration of Dungeons and Dragons, you need to know the combat rules backwards and forwards. In a magic-heavy system, like Ars Magica, you need to know the magic rules. Everything else can be a little fuzzy. See also Rule One.

tamoachan

Rule Number Three: Play Fair. There used to be a lot of discussion in the D&D world about whether the DM should make all his dice rolls behind the screen, or out in the open. Behind the screen preserved mystery, but it also allowed the DM to fudge, or even cheat. The players knew this, and often resented the screen. Me, I’ve always been a dice out in the open guy. Let the chips fall where they may, because when it comes right down to it, the players need to know the DM is playing fair. Everyone at that table wants to be the hero, and you’re not helping if you start playing favorites. Sometimes this can mean stepping in when one player’s hogging all the spotlight time – the game needs to be fair for everyone, not just your best buddy Bob – but more often it means you need to be completely open in all your dealings with the group.

Rule Number Four: Know What Your Players Want. Tabletop gaming is all about entertainment, and that means you need to cater to your audience. You may be in love with the intricate power struggle between noble houses that you’ve been carefully designing for years, hoping some similarly Machiavellian players will want to get involved in the high-level politics and scheming. None of that matters if all the players actually want to do is bash goblins for lulz and loot. They will be bored by your intricate plot, and you’ll be tearing your hair out trying to get them to pay attention to the stuff nobody cares about but you. Find out in advance what kind of game your players want to get involved in, and design around that premise.

One of the big advantage Storyteller systems have is that player involvement in campaign world design is expected, which gives you a pretty clear idea of what everyone wants to see happen in-game. But there’s no reason you shouldn’t get the players involved in world design for every system, Storyteller or not. It doesn’t have to be detailed; some players aren’t comfortable getting involved in worldbuilding. If that’s the case, just get them to describe one aspect of, say, the starting city. Is there a tavern they always go to? What’s it called? Who works there? Even reluctant worldbuilders can answer questions as simple as that, and you can build from there.

forbidden

Rule Number Five: Steal Ruthlessly. This has more to do with scenario design than running the table, but scenario design is going to become an important part of your life. If you’re thinking, ‘sure, I can just steal the basic plot of that episode of Constantine and all will be well,’ let me stop you right there. No! Bad monkey. No banana for you. I guarantee you, your players watch the same TV shows you do, and will recognize the plot within five minutes.

What you want to do is steal scenarios from other systems, and adapt them to your game. God alone knows how many hundreds of thousands of scenarios, scenario outlines and story nuggets have been typed out over the years; buy a few of those, get a decent collection together, and rip them apart so you can use them in your narrative. Let me give you a few examples, all of them nicked from 1980s era D&D:

The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, an Origins 1979 tournament scenario. While wandering through a trackless jungle, the characters tumble into a long-forgotten Aztec-themed temple. They need to find a way out before the bad air in there suffocates them. Perfect for any pulp setting in the Indiana Jones tradition; say, Pulp Zombies from Eden’s All Flesh Must Be Eaten. The bad air idea might also be used in a science fiction theme game, where the temple is a holographic projection in a long-forgotten space station. Or you could just eliminate a lot of the Aztec references and use the map as a guideline.

Dwellers of the Forbidden City, a 1981 TSR adventure in which the characters seek out, and try to loot, a long-forgotten city. Bullywugs, snake-men and worse await them in the ruined citadel at the heart of the great lone mountain. Again, great for pulp, but the forbidden city trope can be adapted to all kinds of settings, like White Wolf’s Vampire, or even something more esoteric like Wraith. It works particularly well in Wraith, since the city itself doesn’t have to exist in the living world; it can be a Specter-haunted memory of something long gone to dust.

gravity

Question of Gravity, a 1982 Role Aids scenario intended to be used with any fantasy RPG system. A wizard travels to a countryside village and, with the help of demons, creates a massive magical Cube, with a door in one side. Anyone who goes in – and there are many brave adventurers who’ve tried – never comes out again. Inside the Cube gravity has no meaning, and the mist-shrouded platforms and steps are like something out of Escher. This is one of my favorites, in part because the cover art’s as evocative as 80s fantasy gets, but also because you can do anything with it. It’s perfect for any fantasy system, but it also works well with horror; say, Pelgrane’s Night’s Black Agents, or better yet, The Esoterrorists. Occult terrorists have gone to some remote hellhole to create a portal to the Outer Dark, and it’s your job to go in there, guns blazing, and close down the Cube before reality unravels. Try not to get shredded by something unspeakable!

Why steal? Well the two main reasons are this: first, the hard work’s already done for you. The maps, illustrations and other play aids provided with each scenario cuts your workload by half, if not more. The other reason’s less obvious: converting these scenarios to a different rules set helps you understand that rules set. This goes back to Rule Two. You may not know the rules of your chosen system that well, or maybe you’ve mastered bits of it, but the rest is a fuzzy grey mist. Nothing will make you expert quicker than having to convert a scenario to your chosen system. Do this exercise a few times, and those bits of the rules that, right now, are a mass of contradictions and uncertainty, will become clearer.

Okay, that’s it for now. Got your notes handy? Feeling confident? Then get out there and be entertaining! Oh, and in case the players start throwing dice at you, be ready to duck. Good luck!

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