Tuesday, September 26, 2017

My DMing Style


I would love to write a detailed, thorough and insightful article about different DMing styles, but if I have learned anything in 36 years of gaming and the nine years of writing this blog it's that I don't know nearly as much about gaming as I thought I did.

So instead, I am covering what I think my DMing style is. And I have no idea where this is going. The reason is that such a thing as DMing style is hard to quantify at best, and more difficult when you are the subject of your own study. It's kind of like a one person participatory ethnology--essentially an oxymoron. But, here we go.

I came to gaming being DMed by some older guys in my Scout group. I was 12, they were closer to 14. I died. A lot. We played a sort of Original Dungeons & Dragons flavored with AD&D content, and I never DM'ed--I was always a player, and the newbie at that. I call this my proto-DM phase wherein I was primarily being inducted into the hobby and eagerly absorbing all my older proteges had to teach me. Something pivotal about these days was that there was no gentle, friendly shepherding to my introduction to gaming. This was like hazing for nerds. I mean the guys were nice enough, I knew they would never run my underwear up a flagpole or anything, but in the game? It was toughen up or be goblin food. You had to want it and stick with it if you weren;t to wash out of the game. This colored much of my early dungeon mastering when that time came. During these days my DMs included most of the following elements in their games:
  • Focused on DM fiat, what the DM says goes
  • Less focus on story and more on overcoming combat and obstacles
    • The story was the adventure
  • Everything seemed like a weird blend of fantasy, sci-fi and the supernatural
  • PC life was cheap
  • The game was hard
  • Stupidity and bad playing got you killed, quick
Once I recruited some guys in my grade to play with me and assumed the DM reins by default, I was pretty brutal myself. I killed lots of characters. I inducted my friends exactly as I had been. I look back now and am amazed they stuck with it. But then, so did I. I had been raised on a pretty rich diet of fairy tales, classic romance and the tales of Arthur, Merlin, Ogres and Giants, Aladdin and Robin Hood. So I shifted our games towards a fairly medieval style of play early on. That being said, the feel was still pretty gritty and grim at times, simply by dint of the rules. That's the way early editions play. During this time of what I call my DM infancy I used to:
  • Make combat deadly
    • I say "make", but it simply was. We played by the rules of rolling hit points randomly and your PC was dead at zero. Too bad so sad ... Which led to the next point we always,
  • Play the game hard--pull no punches
  • However, we moved away from fiat to an increasing reliance on rules
    • This resulted from all of us innately knowing that just being a hardass for the sake of being a hardass did no one any good. So we backed decisions based on how the rules read. 
  • Fascination with the medieval--we played more like an Arthurian fantasy
  • I did a few short homebrew one shots during this time, but focused on mostly TSR modules.
My group and I began early on to develop a sense of Gygaxian naturalism, as that's what had begun to define D&D during the 80's. We were reading Dragon magazine and starting to build our D&D libraries and followed the tone and suggestions that were coming out of TSR pretty religiously. Sure, we liked the odd twist, and by the end of the 80's I was throwing in quite a bit of weird stuff occasionally and we had expanded our play to include oriental flavors pretty comfortably. We also used Unearthed Arcana stuff, and 2e as it seemed useful. My style during this age of my DM youth developed some, and included:
  • Strong reliance on creativity, improvisation and unscripted story
  • Strong focus on unique challenges, weird monsters, puzzles, traps and conundrums to confound players
  • Hard game play, but I began adjusting encounters some for the sake of story and letting characters off the hook occasionally
  • Even with my softening stance I hewed very closely to not only the rules, but the spirit as my group played the game by what we saw was "reasonable", i.e.
    • No monster PCs
    • No Monty Hall crap allowed
    • No uber high level PCs
    • We used game and content logic to determine if things made sense
  • There was a sense of greater story and campaign arc--it was cool that some characters had lives of their own.
  • Campaign identity became more fluid at the same time it became more concrete. You had to be from somewhere, but the idea of different worlds all connected by the same web of portals or the like was the norm.
    • That being said our sort of default was Greyhawk
  • Most of the material during this time was modified TSR modules, but I did DM my first long term campaign during these days.
The heyday of 2e was a sporadic time for gaming in my life and among my old gaming buddies. I continued to game pretty much up to about 1994 or 5 when I knocked off for awhile. But before this we continued to develop along the same lines softening even further--largely due to Dragon magazine and the growing "craziness" of 2e. If the character's backstories could justify some oddball approach or decision and DMs were satisfied it didn't overpower the game we were generally okay with it. Some changes we were more comfortable with:
  • Monsters as PCs
  • Weird classes and class combinations
  • Stranger magic items
  • Inclusion of variant rules were not openly accepted, but at least considered
  • The game, for us, had begun to become character driven, and we realized each new PC could become something epic--but it was never guaranteed.
I came back to gaming around 2004 or so and caught the last couple of years of 3.5. I also changed my group orientation. I had always gamed with people about my age. As I was know in my 30's and gaming with students at the junior high school where I taught it necessitated a change in approach. I ran the school game club, and though I was teaching people to play my style remained the same in some ways. In quite a few methods I just picked up where I had left off. But my group dynamics shifted and group sizes were large. This required a less "deep" style of play and a return to more adventure focused play. We also played several different games during this age, from 3.5, 2e, C&C, OSRIC, 1e, Pathfinder, 4e, and Labyrinth Lord AEC. This variety of game systems also influenced my play to include more diverse approaches and rules variations. Generally my DM style included:
  • A balance between story oriented and adventure oriented play
    • What I mean by this is I spent a lot of time just running wilderness or dungeon crawls because we simply had so many people playing, I call this adventure oriented
    • However, we did run several strong story oriented campaigns that focused more on roleplay and interaction than just crawls.
  • I kept things fairly flexible and as light as could be--I don't like spending a lot of time rules searching when I've got players waiting at the table. I felt more pressured in this regard largely due to the sheer sizes of my groups.
  • I defaulted a lot to old AD&D pseudo rules I remembered and felt comfortable when I had questions. Frustration often resulted with new systems as I felt like I didn't know the rules well enough and was not following the line as closely. This was unsatisfying to me. 
  • I liked running combat theater of the mind, but began to use minis more and more for my player's benefit--also something I was less than happy about.
  • I found myself adopting some d20 techniques -- attribute checks vs DC and ascending armor class and ability based saves because they were easy--even though I found them unsatisfying.
  • I was not afraid for players to die, but I worried about it when it happened (new for me).
  • I still rarely used fiat, going with explication or the rules in a pinch. Unless of course I was caught with my rulebook down and had to make an on the fly call--here I relied on earlier rules.
  • I like using magic items instead of increasing player powers via class feats & talents.
  • I resisted and disagreed with players who wanted "new" abilities to be able to do things. It began to seem like we never had "enough" rules for some players.
Finally, about five or so years ago I had to cancel the club when I moved into an administrative position and I began looking for a group to play with again. For the past few years I've played with some more normal-sized groups, once a week and my DM style has continued to develop. As the majority of my play concerned long term multi-year gaming with the same group, I have had time to reflect and change my approach to incorporate these views. At this point, where I am currently, my DMing could be described as:
  • Campaign oriented play with an overarching trajectory of story set against strongly plot oriented episodes and adventures. 
  • Still very improvisational and "on the fly" with about an hour or two of preparation per three to four hour session of weekly play.
  • Homebrew more than ever, but honestly still prefer using pre-designed commercial modules which I change and hack to my own devices and as the stories unfold. 
  • More focused on the strange and unusual story elements and game "pieces" that spice up play and keep it unexpected.
  • Much more focus on character development over time.
  • Deaths are rare, and I feel less than comfortable with this.
  • I am still very much driven by what is in the rules, but will call on the fly if needed.
    • I do not like changing rules or even houseruling much. It seems arbitrary to me. I feel like players should be able to rely on what is in the rules. It's up to me to adapt and make it work.
  • I find myself giving too much magic lately. This is a holdover from my love of magic as a key to character identity and power. New versions don't seem to support this as there is still so much increase in class ability over the levels. 
  • Preference of rules light play, I like to keep the pace up
    • That said I love rules and especially well designed ones, I just do not liek them slowing things down.
  • I try to be descriptive, but feel as if I sometimes lack attention getting power
  • Still rely on minis every game--and not comfortable with it
  • I find myself increasingly walking a balance of giving in to players and pushing them just to the brink. 
  • I have tried playing 5e "harder" and more "heroic" and neither work very well. I tend to run at default setting, whatever edition I'm running.
  • I like changing things up, but find myself defaulting more and more to the way things are written.
Which leaves me scratching my head still as to what my "style" is, but if I had to perhaps encapsulate it, I would highlight the following:
  • Less rules for freedom and fast play, but play by those rules written
  • Improvisation and creativity to liven up the game and summon the story out of adventure
My weaknesses as a DM certainly include:
  • Record keeping
  • Guilt ridden angst over being too nice or too mean
  • Guilt and dissatisfaction with cheating dice and bending rules
  • Reading what my players want
  • Sometimes feel like I'm going through the motions and not taking time to savor the action or the story--may result from my concern for pacing
  • I require player feedback and communication before, during after and between games, otherwise I feel like I'm failing

2 comments:

Scott Anderson said...

That's a really good honest and balanced assessment. I think your story has elements that all of us grownup players can identify with.

Don't consider your desire for feedback to be weakness. The game works best when we talk to each other like grownups and figure out what is and is not working. That's the shortest path to keeping things fun.

Chris Jones said...

Thanks Scott. I almost didn't post this one because it seemed self interested, but I did try and be honest. Part of this journey is me trying to figure myself out. And I appreciate comments that help me in that process, so thanks again!

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