Tuesday, November 21, 2017

On Being a "Good" DM

There has been a proliferation of DM advice columns across the digital universe in the past decade or so, and some of them are quite good. There has been a deeper and more thorough description offered in all of the major D&D rulebooks of how to address the many issues facing the DM in the game. Also, a very good thing in my opinion. We have seen the rise, as well, of the streaming game casts such as Critical Role, and live game sessions such as the PAX Acquisitions Incorporated sessions. These, even more than the columns and rulebook advice, have given DMs and players alike the chance to see good DMs in action. These live & streaming events have done something even better for hard working DMS--they have helped us realize that even the great Chris Perkins and Chris Mercer stumble at times, stall, wing it, are caught unawares or with their plans down. Let's face it DMing isn't a science and rarely goes perfectly.

In point of fact much of the advice online and elsewhere for DMs is about what I call "good enough" DMing. They bottom line identifiers of how to know when you are doing just fine and when you need a course correction. These tips often refer to "everyone having a good time" and "giving your players what they want" or "it's not about you it's about the players". These are fine pieces of advice and should be somewhat of a baseline for play regardless of what else you might be focusing on. However, these are often the results of good DMing, not the way to be a good DM. However, the technicalities of tips range the gamut and often depend on playstyle and personal preference. The fact is being a good DM is alot more about charisma and wisdom than they are intelligence or creativity. Don't get me wrong intelligence and creativity are certainly important and these two factors tend to be present in abundance in most DMs. But the ability to DM in a way that everyone is having fun and that entertains as well as challenges the players (i.e. gives them what they want) is about how you apply that intelligence & creativity (wisdom) and about your delivery (charisma). It is interesting to note here that the famous nature of Critical Role has alot to do with the fact that the players are all famous voice actors.

In that vein I would like to recommend two unusual sorts I have come across recently that I feel do a good job of communicating these elements of DM character in rather unconventional but clearly stated ways. The first I mentioned before: Matt Colville.

Matt is a game designer and author and other cool things too, as well as what appears to be a great DM. I love his channel and especially his Running the Game series of videos. Not only does Matt give great advice, he also talks through his failures and successes in such a way as to model what works and what doesn't and why.

The second I just came across recently, and I'll admit at first I was uncertain. Runehammer admittedly first struck me as an out of place viking looking for a tavern, not a game table. But after watching his first couple of videos, I was hooked. I'm not sure if it was the mead flowing or inspiration, but he has a take on DMing that is original while being right at the heart of the artform at the same time.

I mention these two, there are certainly others because they do something the pdocasts, live streams, rulebooks, and columns don't do. They break down what's going on in the game and talk about why it works. We can read about it in columns and rulebooks, we can watch it in action on livecasts, but then we can watch someone explain it all with passion, drama and expertise after the fact. I think all three are helpful, but these types of game commentators (Colville and RuneHammer) have made me excited about DMing. And they make it seem accessible to even the most thick headed of us Grognards.

Being a good DM is a journey not a destination and like most performance arts every session is different. But one of the best things about it is that you get to come back to the next session and try it all over again, and if we're lucky we have good partners with us at the table helping it all come together.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Weak DMing Last Night

So, last night's game. No one complained. I guess there's that. But I came away just like that last picture, of the statue, face palm, on myself. Meaning I wasn't mad at my players, they did a pretty good job, I just came away feeling like I biffed it. Admittedly we were transitioning. We had been grinding away at a hexcrawl to get the players through to the next phase of the campaign. I decided to speed things up through the last day of that crawl and we got onto the town they were headed to.

Now several things were supposed to happen for the PCs to make their decisions on where they wanted to take the next phase. They were generally following the trail of the slavers and their two main villains, but didn't know how their current invitation tied into that. There was going to be a fire at the location of their invitation, which if they investigated would lead to the discovery of the slavers most recent raid. This could have led to a meeting with the watch commander, and or the mayor. If things developed they would uncover the watch commander's connection with their old contact from the Lord's Alliance and new information about the slaver's plot. They also needed to decide if they were going to pursue the slavers overseas or investigate things in town with the now compromised Lord's Alliance. They could put together that their old enemy Halia of the Zhentarim was actually acting as a slaver and was in the company of a suspicious drow. Finally if they decided to chase the slavers they would have to do so in disguise and have to book passage start the two day voyage through rather dangerous waters.

Whew! Yeah, well so much was going on, and I was in such a hurry to get things sped up that it began to feel a little "railroady" to me. I suppose that I didn't really railroad it, as give so much information to them so easily that it was pretty clear what the best course of action would be. Unfortunately things went sour on the voyage and they were hit by a storm and then the giant kraken-like beast that lurks in those waters. To make matters worse, only one had been on a seagoing vessel before and the majority of the party was suffering from seasickness.

There was little combat thus far--we ended just as the tentacled kraken rose up and attacked the ship--and the roleplaying was a bit rushed and thus less than satisfactory to me at least. Like I said, no one complained; even when they only earned 450 XP for this session, kind of modest for 6th level. But I came away feeling like I just hadn't performed up to par. I had prepped of course, but the session really required more prep than I had put in, as it required a lot more NPCs and roleplay than I had thought through. I could have taken my time and stretched the session out over two or three more sessions, but the hex crawl had already begun to drag on a bit. I also could have just compressed time and sped up to the sea voyage, or skipped the crawl altogether even though it was through a region known to be dangerous and monster infested.

Lesson learned? I'm really not sure. I mean I am not sure what I would have done differently. Stretching things out and taking out time could have been fun, but it also could have dragged on. Compressing things might have sped things up but strained verisimilitude and player choice. And many of the threads they were pursuing could have led in different directions based on which path over the web they took--I didn't want to take that away from them.

Any advice out there?