Sunday 10 June 2018

The Blagger’s Guide to DMing or ‘Just have a go and don't worry about it’

Bradley Clopton (c) 2014 2014
I saw a link on Twitter the other day to an article asking why many new players were reluctant to take up the mantle of DM (I can’t remember where it was now, sadly). To me the answer was obvious and it’s something that’s been bothering me for a while.
Youtube shows like ‘Critical Role’, ‘Shield of Tomorrow’ and ‘Acquisitions Incorporated’ have done more to invigorate and recruit new blood to the roleplaying hobby than anything else in the last forty plus years and I’m very grateful for that. The hobby, I think has never been healthier in popularity and diversity. However I’ve also sensed a creeping idolisation of their DMs. Alongside this, I’ve noticed a great many blog pages given over to articles on how to be an ‘awesome’ DM. These factors have, I fear contributed to the romanticised myth of the role of Games Master or Dungeon Master as some form of high art. It’s easy to see how many newcomers to the game might look at Critical Role and say, ‘Well, I’m no Matt Mercer.’ and leave it there.
Watching Matt Colville on Youtube once, he read out a comment from his chat channel, ‘How long do I need to play D&D before I should consider being a DM?’ He was quite rightly flabberghasted and said without hesitation, ‘No time at all. Jump in and have a go.’ And this is, really the essence of this post.

DMing is a skill that we learn by doing. I’ve reached a stage after thirty-four years of playing roleplaying games, where I’m reasonably comfortable with what I am doing as a DM and that’s only happened very recently. Am I a great DM? I don’t know. Is there a measurable scale? All I know is that my players enjoy themselves and, in my experience it’s hard for folk not to enjoy themselves when you’re sat around a table with friends laughing your socks off regardless of the DM’s ability.

I did go through a period of doubting myself and in retrospect it wasn’t entirely my fault. I DM’ed for my friends when we were teenagers partly because I loved the idea of creating the world, creating the situations and the story and being the only player at the table who knew what was really going on. Also because my friends were lazy buggers who couldn’t be bothered with the prep. Was I a good DM? No. And that’s not false modesty, of course I wasn’t. I barely understood what I was doing but my friends and I had an absolute riot and kept going for years. At some point, during those years,  they were working their way methodically through a nonsensical generic dungeon, room by room when suddenly they encountered a creature of my own making, the humanoid, flaming ‘Combustians!’
‘Combustians?’ Sneered one of my players, rolling his eyes. That was it. That was the exact moment where I realised that I could no longer just throw any old thing in and it’d be okay. That was the moment I realised it was possible to be a bad DM and I found myself riddled with pre-game stage fright for years after that. What if this game was another ‘Combustians!?’ I would ask myself, nervously.
Looking back however, ‘Combustians’ weren’t the issue. I was young, I was trying to come up with something unique that they hadn’t encountered before. I thought it was a cool idea. My players disagreed and ridiculed me for it. That didn’t make me a bad DM. It was a mistake. That was all. They were still having fun and, honestly if they didn’t like it, they could bloody DM for a change. No? Didn’t think so.
Quite simply we’d reached an age where my games, my dungeons and my plots, would need to be a little more sophisticated and that’s fine. I learned by doing. I wish I’d realised that back then and just moved on (I’d also have just glared at them across the table like it was their fault).

Okay, so you’re willing to give it a go but the rules and the campaign sourcebooks are daunting and overwhelming. Here’s the big secret: You don’t need to know all the rules. As a DM of Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition I don’t know all of the rules. In fact I know very few of them and that works fine. Let me see...I know how a combat turn works. How to roll for initiative and what needs to be rolled to hit. I know how to fairly decide on a difficulty number for a skill check. I probably know a handful of more rules but that’s about it. I don’t know all the race and class rules or how every spell works. As far as I am concerned, that’s my players’ responsibility and they can tell me when I need to know. Sometimes there’s a rule that nobody at the table knows. Then we pause for a second and look it up. No problem. Now we know it for next time (and if it’s going to take too long, I ask one of the players to look it up whilst I continue). You might think that that would break the immersion and spoil the atmosphere but honestly, alongside the table chatter, TV, movie and games console discussion, play theorising, Monty Python quotes and general goofing around, it really doesn’t.
It is fair to say at this point, however that whilst you don’t need to know all the rules, you should really have a solid handle on the core rules or the players will find the goalposts moving on them and that will confuse and frustrate them. That’s a big no-no.

Campaign settings can be daunting too and, again, you don’t need to know it all. In fact my advice, particularly for Dungeons and Dragons is don’t bother.
As a new D&D DM I wouldn’t do anything other than mini-dungeons until you’ve got the hang of it and then worry about the outside world later and even then, start with a simple village and work your way out. Even then you can start with the ubiquitous equipment store and fill in the village later.
I started off the Lost Mines of Phandelver campaign in the Forgotten Realms but then wanted to run the old Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay campaign, The Enemy Within. Trying to fit the rivers and towns of the Empire into the Sword Coast was challenging (I managed it, though. I changed Bogenhafen into Daggerford and went from there) and if I’d kept the setting more vague then I’d just be able to make it up as the characters expand outwards. Let the scenarios dictate the geography rather than vice versa.
So, start small and work your way out and don’t overwhelm your players, and more importantly yourself with a myriad setting details. They can come later, if at all.

Another thing that I feel is important is that it’s not just on the DM to provide a great game. The DM is just another player at the table and you all have a responsibility not to spoil it for everyone else.
As a DM, if I feel that I have screwed up, then I will fess up, talk it over with the players, give them a ‘bennie’ if necessary and try not to do it again.
However, I also have a personal rule when I sit down to play (as opposed to DM) and that is that I always try to make the game as fun for the DM as they are trying to make it for us. The DM is playing too so why shouldn’t they have fun as well? So, what does that mean? Well, quite simply forgive them occasional rules discrepancies. They’re only human. Play along with their plot a little and don’t roll your eyes if it’s predictable. Allow yourself to be railroaded sometimes. Don’t try and scupper the campaign deliberately just to prove a point. In the immortal words of Wil Wheaton, ‘Don’t be a dick.’

So, in summing up:

    DMing should be fun, not a nightmare. Roll your sleeves up, jump in and have a go.

    You’ll definitely screw up a few times but that’s okay and you’ll learn from it.

    You don’t need to know all the rules, just the core ones.

    You don’t need to know the entire setting, start with a mini dungeon and work out.

    Players have a responsibility to make the game fun as much as the DM does.

    As a player or a DM, don’t be a dick.

    There’s nothing wrong with ‘Combustians’, Adrian. F**k you.

Ultimately, it’s a game. It’s meant to be fun. Nobody should be expecting you to be Matt Mercer. Just have a go and enjoy it.

The Big Adventure by Zazb

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