Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Years Thoughts: evolving as a DM

The other day, I was thinking about how my attitudes and ideas about dming have changed quite a bit over the years. This blog is a result of this evolution. But what about the various stops along the way? In the spirit of the New Year, here is a rough recap of my own evolution.

When I first started rping with friends, I was in sheer awe of the dm. "Wow," I thought, "that was really cool what he did, but I would never want to put myself in that position."

I'm not sure if I was intimidated by the rules and mechanics, or if it was the idea of being on the hook to entertain and challenge your friends, but I was sure that I probably wasn't going to stick my neck out and bear the responsibility of dming.

Of course, the way things go, there was only one guy in our group who was comfortable dming, but he grew restless and eager to make his own character. So, he pegged me as the guy who could step in as "relief" dm. I was reluctant, but before I knew it, I was behind the screen, terrified and having no real skills to help prop me up.

The experience was spotty, I'm sure, but not a complete disaster - the experience taught me some of my earliest lessons in the difference between what seems like a really cool moment to you as  you plan your evening, and what actually plays well with a group of players.

The one that sticks out in my mind was a time where the players got "had" by an assassin (in disguise as a fancy lady) who stole something from under their noses and slipped out before they could stop her(him). Now, this is the type of thing you see in movies all the time: a sudden reveal that adds suspense and creates further challenge. Unfortunately for me, a rping campaign does not function like a regular story and, instead of being wowed, the players were confused and frustrated as to why they never had a chance to try anything. For some reason, they didn't enjoy it when the dm (me) forced a situation down their throats and then used his god-like power over reality to (smugly) get the better of them.

Lesson learned.

The next phase was one in which I got better at running the game, but started to get much more involved in the "DM as group leader"

First, I started getting more comfortable with my muscles of authority - where before I had been intimidated to throw my weight around with my friends or enforce rulings, I started getting better and better at making snap judgements, and setting boundaries.

But on the downside, there were times when I know I took too many liberties with that authority. The role of DM came to be that of a"visionary" and I took pains to make sure people stayed within the confines of the world I had created - sometimes, perhaps, to the detriment of the game.

This was the phase where I started to feel the urge to meddle with the rules. I had many ideas about what would make the experience better, but here are just a few (I think you'll sense a theme here):

1. Blind Magic Qualities.
We all know that having something that is clearly a powerful magic item and not quite knowing what it can do can be a fun thing to pull out of your sleeve (One Ring to Rule them All!) However, I started doing it with all magic items. Everything was a mystery. But, to my surprise, people really preferred to know what their bag of goodies contained. Another lesson learned.

2. Blind hit points.
I took to keeping track of players hit points for them - ostensibly to make the combat feel more dangerous, but also to keep more of the game under my thumb. Players could get an approximation of where they were, but only if they took the time to roll. Now, there might be a group of players that this house rule would prove a perfect fit for, but alas, it was not one that I deemed a success.

3.Blind Character Intros.
This was actually a success - not necessarily a good fit for every campaign, but it works great for a "band of mercenaries" type opening where none of the characters know each other. I would open a campaign as usual except I would describe all the characters in the setting as if they were npc - I would base this on a short description each of the palyers wrote down. If, for example, we started in the luxurious sitting room of a wealthy merchent, players could describe their most notable attributes, and then add some touches based uponthe setting (ie: Player X stares into the fire wistfully, Player Y tracks mud around the room, or Player Z moves around brazenly, searching the room for cigars and brandy.) Then, as the situation unfolds, players step into the roles as they begin to interact with the situation. It's a little extra work, but executed well, it starts off the campaign with a big dose of personal expression for the characters - and a chance to actually get a real impression of the character (before you even know who is playing them!)

I swear not everything was focused on controlling info - but some of it was. Mostly, I just focused all my energy on how to improve the system rather than improve my own dming.

As I got more comfortable with the role of DM, (and as the demands of the adult world became forces to balance), I toned down the visionary quality to my idea of a DM. I started to see more and more that the DM was not there to remake anything or to be the central focus of the group. The DM's first goal was not to improve the system or achieve his own vision of a fantasy world, but rather the DM's chief job was to make sure that everybody had a good time.

I began to focus on sessions - how much fighting, how much intrigue? I imagined each evening as a mini campaign. What would make this evening unforgettable?

I began to focus on the players and their characters. I gifted them, I galled them, I provoked them, and prodded them. What would they do? Where would they go? My chief goal became to see them developed - because fun characters make for fun sessions. Period.

But I still held on to aspects of being a visionary dm - I still wanted to keep my hand on the scale.

But why?

Because I was convinced that I need the extra leeway to ensure that the night was a success.

And, gradually, I realized that I was wrong.

I experimented with rolling dice openly. I had resisted this idea, because, what would happen if the dice rolled the way I didn't want them too? Or what if I had to roll an attack or save that I didn't actually know stat on? What if I just didn't want something to happen?

But, see, it's the first lesson I learned - coming round to be learned all over again: you just can't force things. In the context of an rpg, it's neither fun nor interesting.

I would go so far as to say that if you continually find yourself in the position where you need things to work out a certain way for your story to work, then... you need to run your story differently. What beginning dm hasn't been tortured by their semi-serious friends who, when asked by their king to rescue the princess, they decide to taunt the king and bargain for huge cash reward? Now, I'm not saying that players should act like a jerk to the dm and not take the game seriously, but I am suggesting that you can't give players choices if you aren't okay with them choosing. Likewise, what is the point of rolling a dice if you already know the result?

It comes down to this: Free will and the toss of the dice - a good dm (and a good rpg plot) can survive both of those things.

What I have come to understand is that my job as a DM is simply to make sure the plot contains a problem and then to make sure that the problem gets handed over to the players as quickly as possible. It is not my responsibilty to know how they will solve the problem. I might make sure they have a few options, sure, but I do not want to go so far as to start laying track for them to solve it. I want them to follow their own impulses. Yes, they might have the aid of some magical goodies and the assistance from knowledgable npcs, but I try hard to make sure that no item or npc has the entire solution. Only the players can move this problem forward. The players have to think. They palyers have to struggle. Why? Because this game is about them. The DM is there to referee, entertain, provoke, and pester, but in the end, the players are the stars.

That's where I'm at!

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