3 Years Behind the Screen

Posted on July 20, 2011 by

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Last month marked my third anniversary as a full time DM, and I still enjoy it so much that I haven’t passed the baton to someone else.  It’s actually pretty incredible that I’ve been able to do it for so long without losing much interest (and the same goes for running this blog), as I tend to have attention span issues due to ADD and whatnot.  But enough about me, let’s talk DMing.  Have I learned anything these past few years?  You bet.  Sit down, make yourself comfortable, and let me tell you what.

A caveat:  These are things that I’ve learned from me, for me.  This isn’t gospel and your mileage may vary…..

Curb Your Inner Tolkien

This is probably the most important tip I can give young and fledgling newbie DM’s out there.  Relax, take a deep breath, and start out small.  Yes, I’m sure your epic story that spans multiple levels is fantastic.  I’m sure it would make a great novel too, perhaps even a movie trilogy.  That’s great.  Keep it on the backburner for now.  Go kill some orcs and take their stuff first.  Learn the system you are running.  Go have your players kill a few critters in the newbie zone and return with pelts in exchange for gold.  I made the mistake in my 4e game of writing myself into a corner that I was stuck in from the very beginning because I was overly ambitious.  I’m not telling you not to have a plan, but I am telling you that you don’t need to play all your cards on your first few sessions.  Enjoy the game, there’s plenty of time for foreshadowing later.  Trust me, there’s a lot of sessions to be played before the party meets the big bad evil guy you’ve designed.  He and his croonies can wait.

Size Matters

When I first got my game group together back in ’08, I put out a call and I was suddenly facing a situation where eight people wanted in on my game. “This is good, a few will drop out” I told myself.  Well, maybe one dropped.  For the most part I ran seven players for the duration of my 4e game.  That was a nightmare.  It was too much for me to handle on several levels:

  • Player Spotlight – It’s just was not possible for me to grant everyone a moment to shine with seven players.
  • Combat Speed – Yes, overdone topic, but applies.  It dragged.
  • Overlap of roles & classes – Hard to care about being the party cleric when there’s another cleric at the table.  But you can’t really tell players what to play. In 4e, I found players in my game tended to play classes and races closer to the core of traditional fantasy,which led to overlap.

I wouldn’t run a seven man party again, right now I’m running a four man Dragon Age game and it is rocking. There’s a possibility of a fifth player joining the group, but that’s okay.

It’s Not Just Your Game

I find it important to remember that the game I run isn’t just for me, but for everyone at the table.  Take the time to ask questions after each session, send emails out during gaming breaks… “Are you guys enjoying the story? Do you like the system? What’s been your favorite part?” And then use these data to tweak or modify your game.  My players didn’t really like dungeon crawls, and we haven’t set foot in a dungeon while adventuring in Ferelden, and I’m not sure we will.

Keeping players engaged off the table is important, whether it’s via email recaps, wiki management, or simply emailing each other talking smack.  It makes them want the next session to approach, and gives them something to look forward to. You don’t want to let a few weeks go and nobody is talking about your game, as it could lead to indifference when your email goes out to get the group together for the next game night.

Use this time between sessions to talk to your players about the game and figure out what it is they want to do with their characters.  It’ll let you plan around those goals and it’ll show the players that you are willing to work with them towards fulfilling what they want out of the game.

Manage Your Table

With gaming time at a premium, it’s important to know how to manage your table.  I’m not advovcating you being a tyrant, but there’s a time and place for everything.  Set aside a few minutes before the game starts to catch up, talk a bit, prepare some snacks and go to the bathroom.  Once game time starts, try to limit the distractions.  The bigger the group, the harder this will be.  Some players may be interested in listening to what you have to say while others are just waiting for the fights to start.  That’s fine, different players play for different reasons, but don’t allow someone’s lack of interest in ta part of the game affect some other players’  interest.

When you need to raise your voice a bit to bring the attention back to you, do so.  If you let it get away from you for too long, you’ve lost the table and you might as well put away the dice.

If you can, set the tone early.  Try to limit the electronic distractions from the beginning.  In my case, Dragon Age isn’t a game with online components, so there’s no reason to browse the web while playing.  All the info the players need is on their character sheets and my handouts.

Find Game Hooks Everywhere

There’s a story everywhere, find them, jot them down, and save them for later.  Involve your players, have them give you some character backstory from which you can pull out a story angle later.  “My player is eventually hoping to find his sister” can lead to maybe introducing her much later on as an unexpected, and powerful, NPC enemy.

I’m a big fan of the 36 Dramatic Situations.  Milk that, as that’s a valuable source of plots and situations.  Don’t be afraid to steal from the best of filmmakers, novels and stories.  You don’t think Game of Thrones is somehow going to find its way to my table?  You bet it is.

Don’t Let the Bits Slow You Down

This is one of those “mileage may vary” tips.  I found that I’ve changed somewhat in this regard over the past few years, but some people enjoy this style of play tremendously.  That’s fine, it’s a personal thing, but I’ll speak only for myself.  When I first started with 4e, I found myself really involved in the presentation of the encounters.  The maps, the minis, the terrain, it all had to kick ass.  4e fights are set pieces, and perhaps in a game where we were maybe getting through two fights a night, it made sense for me.  Also, I was very dependent on computer aided battle management and initiative tracking, while now I just use index cards and get on with it.

Now I’ll just draw a quick sketch on a flip map and get on with the game.  if I have a poster map, I’ll throw it down.  My minis don’t need to match anymore, If I use the minis at all.  I’ll drop pennies on the map now if I have to:  “Here’s the bandit.  The quarter is the big guy”.  My game just moves a bit faster not worrying about these things, and in the end my players just don’t really care either way.  Again–very personal.  Caring about that stuff isn’t wrong, just not my personal style anymore.

So are these tips the end all, be all?  Not at all.  As you newbie dm’s out there pick up more experience, you’ll see that you’ll develop a style that fits you and your game.  I’ve found myself developing a back to basics approach to gaming, where simplicity trumps complexity.

Again, this isn’t the only way, or the right way, just my way.

Now the question is…. am I still a newbie dm?  Ask me next year. :)

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Posted in: Advice/Tools, Gaming