5 Ways Your Dungeon Master Can Ruin Any D&D Session
Dungeons And Dragons is awesome and fun and crazy, but if you're not careful, it can also be boring, awkward, and shitty. Often times the outcome is dependent on the Dungeon Master (DM). I've been DMing for longer than I haven't been DMing, and a lot of people tell me I'm a great at it. I don't believe them, but despite this, I contend that my successes are based on a few key areas I like to drill down on (as well as shortcomings I try to avoid in my travels through various roleplaying circumstances). Here's a few areas where I think Dungeon Masters tend to fuck up, and ways they can fuck up in their attempts not to fuck up.
Not Knowing The Rules
Role-playing games are for nerds*, and nerds are known for their mastery over minutia. The Dungeon Master is the Alpha Nerd* -- the beginning and end of the game, the universe and the god and the world and the history and the physics engine and the set dressing and the props and all the different ways those things interact and work together. And that means knowing a ton of rules. DnD is a lot like sex: when it's good, it's good ... when it's bad you just want to leave, and when you're constantly stopping to look things up it kills the mood.
*not really but just go with me for a fucking second
"According to the Monster Manual, the creature you encountered is called a ... dra ... dra-gon?"
If you're looking stuff up, you're breaking immersion. You're stopping the flow of the narrative and the game play ... but by not being decisive and having answers as the DM, you are losing the trust of the table. You never see a referee looking at a basketball manual. He makes a decision and keeps the game going. And the Dungeon Master needs to be ready to pick up the slack if there is confusion or argument over the rules, to KEEP THE GAME MOVING.
DnD is a game of minutia. When no one person is the master of minutia, things start to break down. If the DM isn't the authority on the rules, someone else will be. Trust me, there is very little worse than enduring two people arguing over whether drinking a potion is a minor or move action for 10 soul-sucking minutes. When you don't know the rules, you can give players an undue advantage, waste time, or generally just bore people over the course of an evening.
So, what's the obvious takeaway? Read the books, all of the books, many many times. Take notes. Underline and highlight. Put little labeled flags next to frequently used sections and tables. Write down rules in your DM notes that may come up in the session (navigating at sea or drowning for an aquatic adventure for instance). Be especially familiar with the table of contents and the index. Know the rules. Know how to access the ones you don't know. I must have read the 3.0 Player's Handbook at least 10 times cover to cover before I had ANY clue how to play. I was 10 at the time but still. Know the rules.
Know rules about races, sub-races, changing races, new races, monsters as races. ALL OF THEM!
But why? What's the worst that can happen if you don't know every minor detail?
I had a friend -- I'll call him Nate -- who was what we like to call a "Rules Lawyer." Nate was a biomagnet of wrongness. Almost every turn in combat, and at least once every five minutes, Nate would spout off some bullshit about a rule that would inevitably start an argument. These lasted way too long, happened way too often, and would always result in 1) the DM looking up the rule (the thing that could have been done from the beginning), 2) Nate not learning or retaining the rule in any fashion, and 3) me wanting to smash a two-liter of Mountain Dew through my eye socket. We spent more time not playing than we did playing, and that's not fun. Eventually, I learned to scream out rules text verbatim as soon as these situations developed instead of waiting for them to resolve naturally. Don't be like Nate. Be cool like me. Learn the fucking rules and KEEP THE GAME MOVING.
But It's Easy To Overcorrect ...
If not knowing the rules is the Roman Reigns of roleplaying, slavish adherence to the rules is the snooty, evil Vince McMahon who allows it a microphone. Once you've learned all the rules, it's natural to want to use every last one of them in every single instance, but unless you really have everything memorized, that means looking a lot of things up. Looking things up is important for a DM, but just as important is knowing when to just wing it. Not all rules are created equal, not all are easily executed or equally relevant to your average game, and not all are worth the effort.
Overpowered, bullshit rules like 'polymorphing,' for example.
When you're stopping to calculate whether or not accepting a bag of 4000 GP is gonna give you a -2 encumbrance penalty, you're not immersed in the world, you're not having a fun time. I can't even tell you the official rules for drowning, but if someone starts to drown, I could look up and execute a lengthy sequence of drowning checks, or I could ask a player to make a constitution check or a fortitude save and move on with the fucking game. This is a real judgment-based thing so be careful, I don't want you to think making shit up the whole time is the way to play DnD. In fact, it's generally a pretty bad way, but when rules lawyering and looking stuff up grind your gameplay to a halt you might appreciate the freedom to pull rank and KEEP THE GAME MOVING.
Not Owning The Table
In our college days, Nate liked to drink. When Nate was drunk (especially when combined with being high), he would get off topic. He would crack jokes, bring up anecdotes, or suggest other people tell stories. The one thing he wouldn't do regularly is KEEP THE GAME MOVING. Those scatterbrained games sucked. No one was invested or interested. The side talk was constant. The combats were boring and monotonous. We would stop to smoke and/or do shots and the game would basically never get back on track. I would sometimes leave halfway through. Antics like that led my friends to stop inviting me to games, and I would eventually stop hanging out with them. So in a very real way, bad DMing ruined my friendships*. (It's okay though, I'm doing fine)
Dungeons And Dragons is hard to explain. Being a Dungeon Master is arguably harder to explain. It's kinda like playing basketball but if you had to bring the basketball, draw the basketball court, invite everybody to play and then you have to referee the whole game. It's a lot of work and I don't exactly understand why anyone would want to do it. But a referee has to take charge of his court, and a DM has to take charge of his table. A referee gets yelled at and blamed, a referee gets things wrong, and a referee is just a human. But a referee doesn't show that, he stays objective and authoritative. And so should a DM. If you don't maintain control of the game, believe it or not, you'll lose control of the game.
Being a DM, like being a ref, means acknowledging you will make mistakes while still demanding respect for the authority you have over the game. It means taking charge and reducing distractions, it means observing everyone to get a sense of their feelings and levels of engagement, and keeping people engaged and interested. This is not easy, especially for beginners. There's a billion things to keep track of on your side of the DM Screen: maps, monsters, rules, dialogue, etc. Even beginning to focus on the other side, let alone the moods of each person at the table, may seem like an impossible task. This is why knowing the rules is so important. Once you're no longer struggling to enforce the mechanics of the game, you can more readily maintain everyone's attention and immersion, which translates to trust and respect. Everyone except Nate.
"Do you think this is a fucking game, Nate? Don't answer that."
I hate to compare DnD to sex again, but good DnD is like sex: confidence helps, experience helps more, and constant apologies piss off your partner. If you maintain control of the table you will be better at keeping everyone involved and happy, and you will KEEP THE GAME MOVING. Side conversation is natural and jokes are great and technology can even add a lot to a campaign but left unchecked and not properly stimulated by the game, players can drift. The DM has to keep bringing it back to the game, to shut everyone up if necessary or to speed things up if things are slowing down. Cell phone and laptop use is generally harmless but distractions slow down the game and bum everyone out. The key is MODERATION, a truth about as interesting as the very concept of MODERATION.
But It's Easy To Overcorrect ...
While distractions can be problematic -- and while breaking immersion and momentum is inevitable -- the natural overcorrection can be equally dangerous. Constantly demanding attention and setting rules to limit technology is a quick way to look like a huge asshole, and trying not to look like a huge asshole is a big part of being a DM (and a human). There are respectful and disrespectful ways to bring up issues, to try and get back on topic, to shut down a rules lawyer, etc., and the words the DM chooses to handle it are very important. If you're at odds with your player group they will have less of a reason to listen to you and more reason to stop paying attention and text a friend, or to try and get some laughs from the table. Also they're probably your friends ... so own the table, but don't be a dick about it.
"YOU KNOW WHAT? YOU ALL GOT EATEN BY AN OWLBEAR! GAME OVER! GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY MOM'S BASEMENT!"
Lack Of Preparation
This isn't the same thing as knowing the rules. This is about content, creation, and knowing what to do if the players buttfuck your tightly structured story. It's not about dice ... it's about making a movie. Let me give you an example of what I'm talking about:
Last year I joined a new game as a player. My not-Nate friend was DMing for the first time, and he was nervous. Once the game kicked in, instead of going into the bad guy's tower from the bottom, we climbed up the side and came in through the top. We entangled the boss, doused him in oil, and lit him on fire. Game over. We rumbled the whole dungeon in five minutes, like a goddamn Super Mario Bros. speed run.
Surprise! Its-a me, motherfuckers!
Shortly after, we encountered some little people made out of feces in the sewers that led us into the forest outside. They offered to take us to their feces homes. They wanted to show us their feces ways. I got a text on my phone from the DM. He didn't know what the fuck was going on and was very literally just making shit up. We had chewed through all the content he had planned for the session, and were now wallowing in the filth that was his lack of preparation.
The DM creates the universe, and he or she has to know that world perfectly. If you can't convey that to the table, immersion falls apart, your players will be less interested, and you won't be able to KEEP THE GAME MOVING. Maps and notes and prewritten adventure modules make it easier, but even if you use a module, you still have to read it through a few times, take some notes or look up any relevant rules that may come up. You still might find that some aspects need massaging, some descriptions are lacking or overblown. If you're building your own worlds (and I highly recommend you do once you're comfortable enough with the DMing process), you will need a lot of notes and maps and a lot more thoughts and ideas about the world because it hasn't been printed out by professional writers and artists with glossy multicolor art elements.
Organized fun is a beat we can all dance to.
Here's a good metaphor to consider: Good DnD is like sex. If you're not prepared you might have to run out to a liquor store in the middle of the night, and if you get too drunk you'll puke and kill the mood. I do at least one hour of prep per one hour of intended play time. For me, preparation means lots of maps and notes, partial scripts for dialogue, a few random events to mix things up, an outline suggesting possible paths of the session, lists of random Non-Player Character (NPC) and location names, and a few entries on major NPCs, detailing their backgrounds and motivations.
It sounds like overkill, but If my players walk into a street I haven't really thought of, I can toss one of my random events there and continue the illusion of an immersive world. If they meet an NPC I haven't fleshed out, she can further the plot or be involved in another random event. If they explore a room or open a closet I haven't fully described, I can improvise a descriptive element -- a detail of an NPC's motivation or background. All of these things work together to create a deeper world. Preparation is the absolute best way to KEEP THE GAME MOVING.
But It's Easy To Overcorrect ...
I've been punished for over-preparing a lot, but never more than on Harmontown. I would plan the next leg of the adventure based on what they said they wanted to do, and then they would immediately change their minds and go in the complete opposite direction. I was doing a ton of work and throwing it out every time. I had to change how I was preparing for DnD sessions. If you don't adjust to the desires of the players, you may be guilty of RAILROADING.
Railroading is a four letter word* in DnD that means the DM is jerking himself off and trying to be the center of attention, instead of letting the players be the heroes of the adventure. It's forcing the players to do what you want to do rather than what they want to do. Railroading occurs because DMs don't want their preparations to go to waste, or because they under-prepare, failing to consider all the possible options a player group might take instead of being flexible enough to roll with the new direction. "You want to climb up the side of the tower? Uuuuummmm ... the tower is coated in ... oil? Yes, someone oiled the tower."
"I wish I could help but I don't make the rules here."
You have to be willing to abandon your plans when it makes sense, and plan for your plans to be thwarted. Have a plan B. Have a plan E! Focus on the present and the near future; not on what you want to happen 12 sessions from now. If you are super precious about something, reintroduce it later with altered aesthetics so it doesn't feel like railroading.
Not Knowing Your Group
When I first started the Harmontown DnD game, I was so ready. I loved DnD, DMing, creating maps, puzzles, riddles, dungeons ... I loved it all. Plus, I hadn't played in a while, so I was champing at the bit (and yes, that's how you spell it). I made this super cool dungeon with a laser beam puzzle that was based off of the Light Magic Sidequest from SaGa Frontier. It was perfect. Until we started playing, three double vodkas later.
"Shall we quest to Taco Bell before setting off on our adventure?"
See, I have a knack for spatial awareness, but this gift is not universal. Dan Harmon has a way with words, but is not spatially inclined, less so when drunk. It was a disaster. My players could barely make it in the front door. I was distraught. I was a failure. How could this happen? Simple: Dan ruined it. Just kidding, I didn't know my group.
The Dungeon Master's guide has a section on dealing with players, but to the inexperienced, it might seem a bit like overkill. Why is the book classifying and defining players? How does that help anybody? Why is there a page devoted to getting rid of a player's overpowered magical item? I get it*, but look, DnD is very much a social game, and as such, social issues account for a big part of the difficulties in playing. Understanding the wants and needs and the likes and dislikes and the strengths and weaknesses of your players goes a long way in handling issues that come up. You want know the rules, to be prepared, to control the table, to KEEP THE GAME MOVING, but between all that you'll be working with real human people with their own bullshit. Ignoring that is shooting yourself in the foot. EXAMPLES!
Dan likes to do character drama stuff, he likes monologuing and being conflicted about his course of actions. He likes trying to convince monsters not to kill him and likes avoiding fights. He is bad at grokking descriptions of a dungeon without a map or drawing. Dan hates authority and being forced into stuff. But Jeff likes kicking ass. He pulls stunts and tells jokes and tries to come up with solutions to anything and figure out ways to win and look awesome. He likes being the center of attention and doesn't like looking like a fool. He likes using his inventory and his feats, and he likes combat but doesn't like social scenes as much. Erin loves social scenes! She loves using her inventory and combining various items in fresh ways, and solving conflicts through song and dance. She also loves attempting things that couldn't possibly work. None of these players are very good at exploring or asking questions, or talking to NPCs, or furthering any sort of plot. I know this from experience, and it all informs how I prepare and create the game.
Plus the hardcover rulebook is available to strike players with if they get out of line.
After they bumbled through that first dungeon on Harmontown I changed my approach and they've never had a spatial dungeon puzzle since. I started to know my group.
You see, good DnD is like ... what's a good thing to compare it to? Let's say sex. Every person is different, learning about and communicating with your partner is essential, and the failure to acknowledge this can feel a lot like dry humping a sack of garbage.
But It's Easy To Overcorrect ...
If not serving the needs of your players is the result of not knowing your group, then obsessively serving the needs of select players is an overcorrection. In games there will be rules lawyers, difficult players, divas, and others who may challenge you in various ways. They tend to take up more attention than the other players, and in attempting to serve their needs you might be alienating other, less vocal players.
"It's okay. I didn't want to storm that dungeon and raid the fabulous riches anyway."
If your diva player has fun throwing parties, then adding more parties is a sure way to keep that diva invested ... but if the minmaxer of the group hates parties, you might be boring him more than you're engaging the diva. Other than constantly attempting to gauge what everyone is enjoying and not enjoying or taking surveys, there's not too much to do about this other than being aware of people's attitudes and preferences. I think I probably favor Jeff too often and wouldn't work with Erin enough, because it was easier to make Jeff happy than to work with Erin. It felt like lower cost, higher reward. I feel bad about it though. We should be thinking about everybody in the group, not just easy victories.
Not Setting A Regular Time
I had it all figured out. It was one of my most familiar groups of players, all veterans at this point. We were going to play at Willie's house over the summer, and my campaign was perfect. Atropus, the Undead Moon, was coming. The ancient evil, the level-30 endgame boss, was on a crash course with Earth. Every step was laid. They'd take a mission to the mines and find an artifact, then meet up with an astrologer who would reveal the presence of a mysterious satellite growing in the night sky. After a trail of perfectly placed breadcrumbs, the gang would fail to stop the evil cult's ultimate ritual and Atropus would arrive! Then, stealing a Spelljammer, they would take to the stars to defeat the ultimate evil in an epic final showdown! What a perfect way to spend the summer!
Who needs sun and fun when you've got dice and human sacrifice?
We started playing on a Saturday. The following Saturday we had to reschedule. We met the following Thursday, and that was the last time anybody showed up. Instead of being the rock supergroup, playing to a sold-out stadium, we were the drunken bass player who bugged out right before the concert.
Good DnD is like owning a pet. Wait, no. Sex. Good DnD is like sex. You want it to be regular, you sometimes do shameful things to make it work, and I've definitely done it before I promise. It's easy to say "we can pick a time each week" or "let's just try it now and figure out a regular schedule later" ... and I understand that it's not easy to make a commitment to something as leisurely as a game. But setting a regular time is crucial. If once a week is too often, try once every two weeks. If you treat the meeting time as sacrosanct, people will commit. If you treat it as something that can change whenever needed, people will not dedicate a block of their schedule to playing, ultimately dooming the game. It's impossible to KEEP THE GAME MOVING if the game never happens.
"Come on, guys! I've got cultural references with expiration dates in this campaign!"
But It's Easy To Overcorrect ...
Being too strict about a regular time could result in a player having to quit. I mean, let's be real here: People get jobs, relationships, new interests, or they're on the run from the mafia. But generally speaking, most games end because of schedule problems that come up and don't get fully resolved. I've never had a game end because the campaign was completed. Every single game or campaign I've taken part in has ended because the group stopped being able to meet regularly. That said, being too anal about scheduling will probably make you look like a dick, which should be avoided. The second it starts feeling like a job, you've lost them.
A job which requires six different kinds of dice is a job worth having.
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