Please note that this article is filled with tips that first time DM’s probably wouldn’t know, and they’re allowed some slack. It’s the DM’s that have been gaming for years that I’m offering advice too.
Every Dungeon Master has pet peeves. Every Dungeon Master I’ve ever met also has strong opinions. They are also filled with creativity and passion about their games. Why then does it seem to me that as the roleplaying hobby evolves that I find more and more Dungeon Masters, some who claim to have been at it for years, continue to run games the way they did when they first started? What I’m getting at basically is how DM’s are so wrapped up in their worlds that they forget about the importance of actually running the game. Your world may be splendid and your NPC’s great, but if you can’t pace the interaction of the characters in combat or even move the story along then all the color in the world won’t make a difference. What I ask is, evaluate yourself as you read this. Ask yourself this. If one of your reasons for DMing is showing your friends a good time, sit back and think about the last few games you were a player and what you would have done differently to further everyone’s enjoyment. And last tell yourself that an old dog can learn new tricks…“because I’ve always done it this way” is not an excuse if you look carefully at the player’s bored faces.
To briefly sum up, I seem to be on a personal quest to attempt to provide a better experience for the players of roleplaying games by helping DM’s see and remedy their age-old mistakes that they cannot seem to repair themselves. Also, while the article’s tone may seem harsh, it’s because there are thousands out there that do not know how to “get the hint”. The direct approach is the only thing that seems to work. Consider it tough love.
Everyone always asks why I’m the DM. There’s two reasons. The first is that the players normally insist. The second reason is I usually try to avoid playing when I can. Here’s why.
Who goes first? For D&D it’s called initiative. For Alternity it’s called the action check. Whatever your game system calls it, it determines an order of conduct in the game. It’s a time of adrenaline rush and great excitement. So what do I see behind the screen? A GM sitting there after announcing that 11 chaos beasts charge the party, and everyone’s leaning forward with dice clenched, casually look up and ask such things as “what was your characters name again?”, “you’re an elf, right?”, or even worse, rolling dice, writing, rolling dice, writing, rolling dice, writing (he’s rolling initiative for every creature in combat). I take personal offense if in my game the group can’t start rolling to hit more then 15 seconds after the combat is engaged! Do the work of sorting out who is who and make initiative sheets before you play. You KNOW there’s going to be combat, so be ready for it! In advance on a piece of paper write the first name of each character in the approximate place they’re sitting around the table, and go around and collect numbers. Roll initiative for the opposition in groups, quickly! The moment a person calls their number, scribble it next to their name on your sheet and call out the next name. It sounds hyper, but your players will love you for it. Show excitement. As you talk and collect data fast it builds the tension of what’s to come! Insist, strongly, that players know what they are rolling and what modifiers to apply. If a player can’t tell you when they are going the moment they are asked, skip them until the next round!
And for the love of gawd find a way to call out initiative without resorting to counting down rounds if at all possible! How great is it to be joined with your mortal foe and getting ready to act only to have your GM start counting rounds or phases one at a time:
waiting for someone with the number he calls to respond when everyone else at the table heard the highest acting number is 14. What I’m saying is learn how to stay ahead of the game and be alert. GMing is a lot of work but there can’t be so much going on that you can’t process initiative so that you have to count down numbers like the teacher from Ferris Beuller’s Day Off: “Beuller……..Beuller………”. GMs’ should keep combats exciting, not waste time with mundane clutter.
Running the action. Is it too much to do a little bit of prep work involving game rules? In nearly every roleplaying game I own it makes bold mention that “there’s no need to memorize the rules, but it’s nice if you know where to look when a situation comes up”. But that can be taken a step further. My example here are fantasy spells, super hero game’s powers a sci-fi game’s mind powers, etc. A little homework in advance can be a life saver. Take a look at the player’s opposition before the game. Is there anything listed for that villain or NPC that you’re not familiar with? Look it up in advance! Take the following: You have a demon villain and among his powers are listed “he can fly, at will, like the spell cast by a 12th level sorcerer”…your warning alert should immediately go off! With a quick little look-up before the game, you can do that work and compute the stats and write them down to be ready. It’s almost always worthy to check the main villain’s abilities and powers and ready the effects before the game. Doing so during the game just slows things down.
How seriously do you take your game? How seriously do you want your players to take it? Then before you start pointing at your players for the blame of your campaign turning into Monty Python, ask yourself if you’re not the major contributor! I remember one DM who complained we weren’t treating his world with the gritty edge he built into it but he named all the unimportant NPC’s “Frank”. Frank the barkeep, Frank the undertaker, even Frank the barmaid. If you are trying to set a scene or convey the feeling of the world, the NPC’s and supporting cast are your players’ eyes and ears to the world. They deserve more than just the name Frank and more forethought than giving one yet another outrageous French accent. Unless you don’t get out much, there are a hundred immediate templates to draw from to breathe life into your NPC’s, like your family, co-workers, and friends outside gaming! The NPC’s are the salesmen of your world. Have them ready with a good sales pitch and not only will the players become interested in the world, but see it better as well. Having them drone on and on or force their issues and, just like a bad salesman, watch the players slam the door or laugh and walk away.
World. Many DM’s I know spend long hours creating their detailed world. They then make the same mistake that old special effects companies in the movies used to do…they create something they think is so brilliant they focus on it long after the audience is tired of it. If you are going to create a detailed, historically rich world, don’t hand your players a 300 page treatise and expect them to immediately get into it. My initial world handout is 15 pages, maximum. From that point the world is introduced a little each week with a little monologue about the immediate area and let the NPC’s convey what it’s like. When the players start asking what’s beyond the mountain or where’s a city that they can find a high priest of the sun god, then you tell them. Instead of force-feeding them a bunch of facts they may or may not care about, you now have their undivided attention because it benefits them. They asked!
Know what game you are playing. When you have players who are trying things in the game, providing it’s not their first time with a game system…enforce that unless they know how to do something in the game by the rules that they don’t do it! Why? Because one of my biggest pet peeves of all is sitting around a table at a roleplaying game staring into space while a DM tries to nit-pick the details for something that a player does all the time but can’t be bothered to know the common modifiers for or how the ability actually works. Or even better, a DM who sits there arguing with himself!
“And this orc will shoot at……hmm……you. No, you. Wait. Did you hit him last round or the other one? Which of you has leather armor cause he’d hit the one less armored. Well, you’re an elf right? Orcs hate elves, right? What? Your not an elf? Let me see your character sheet.”
That’s the end! That’s when I roll my eyes and go for a stroll. But that same exchange has happened at games more than I can remember. When DM’s use detailed, large roleplaying systems, they have to be sure they are up for the task of actually using that system or falling victim to “there’s a rule for everything, and I must use every one” syndrome.
Here’s another example of wasted time that most don’t even consider, but when you are a player it is a black hole of game time. Every roleplaying game has an equivalent skill or ability to notice something, weather it’s Observance, Spot, Notice, Perception, or whatever, every game has one. OK then. How many of you just last week had to sit around while the GM took 10 minutes to collect spot checks for no reason?
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