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This regular column is for Dungeon Masters who like to build worlds and campaigns as much as I do. Here I share my experiences as a DM through the lens of Iomandra, my Dungeons & Dragons campaign world. Even though the campaign uses the 4th Edition rules, the topics covered here often transcend editions. Hopefully this series of articles will give you inspiration, ideas, and awesome new ways to menace your players in your home campaigns.
WEDNESDAY NIGHT. The morally ambiguous player characters have taken an 8-year-old eladrin girl prisoner. Her name is Aura of Icirion, and she's the young sister of the Prince of Frost, a powerful archfey. The heroes retire to Fellhaven, their sanctuary in the Feywild, and notify the Prince's underlings that they're willing to trade. An emissary arrives to conduct the negotiations, and the meeting is filled with pleasantries carrying a deadly undercurrent that threatens to erupt in violence at any moment.
At the conclusion of the meeting, the girl is released, although not without reluctance on her partafter all, she's taken a liking to the heroes and their quaint little world. But here's the fun part: When asked what they want in exchange, the heroes offer no suggestions. Instead, Chris Youngs (who plays the tiefling Deimos, also known as Sea King Impstinger) turns the question around, asking "What's she worth to you?"
Time for some of that vaunted DM improvisation.
I write this article from the sunny shores of Santa Monica, California, which is a far cry from the rainy, overcast suburbs of Seattle. As I do, I find myself thinking not about the droves of dog walkers and runners trotting up and down the beautiful strip of parkland that clings to a bluff overlooking the most remarkable beach. Nor am I thinking about the palm trees swaying in the warm Pacific breeze, or the ever-turning Ferris wheel on the Santa Monica Pierwhich, if you didn't know, is the western endpoint of Route 66. Never mind the kites making lazy circles over the sandy beach like paper birds of prey, or the handsome creatures nestled in lounge chairs about the hotel pool. Perched on my hotel balcony, I find myself thinking about Dungeon Masters . . . and how the world needs more of them.
I used to wonder why so many players are reluctant to assume the role of the Dungeon Master, and then it occurred to me: DMing demands one hell of a skill set. Lacking even one of the required skills, the role can be overwhelming. A DM's job is to come to the game table prepared and ready to entertain, and he or she needs to keep the game's other participants engaged for hours on end. No wonder some players are paralyzed with fear at the prospect of running a game session! It's a demanding and multi-faceted role. I don't think some DMs receive enough credit for what they do. (On the other hand, sometimes I think I get too much credit.)
If you're in the entertainment industry and can sing, dance, and act, you're what's known as a triple threatsomeone with a range of talent that provokes a certain amount of envy. Hollywood has many triple threats, from Catherine Zeta-Jones to Zac Efron. A particularly rare kind of triple threat is the accomplished actor who also writes and directs. Names such as Woody Allen, Orson Welles, and Quentin Tarantino spring to mind. They would make wonderful Dungeon Masters, don't you think? Good DMs are the triple threats of the tabletop gaming industry. They write, act, and direct (in a fashion), and they do it with great aplomb week after week after week. As far as I'm concerned, they deserve their own awards show.
How many accomplished actors moonlight as equally accomplished writers and directors? The list is a very short one, I promise you. In fact, when you consider how long actors, writers, and directors have lived on this planet, it's a wonder the list isn't longer. It turns out that relatively few people possess the broad range of skills needed to do all three of these things well. And yet, we expect Dungeon Masters to be marvelous storywriters, actors, and directors. They're the ones creating new adventures for their players, breathing life into the NPCs, and keeping the players engaged and entertained. It's a demanding, artful, and multifaceted role. But here's the real kicker: more DMs are triple threats than not.
I spend a lot of time thinking about what makes a great DM. It's not enough to be one-third story writer, one-third actor, and one-third director. That's the recipe for being an adequate DM, not necessarily a great one. I believe the secret ingredient is improvisational skill. Great DMing is 10% preparation and 90% improvisation. (One could make an argument that my percentages are weighted too heavily on the side of improvisation, but I stand firm in my belief that it far outweighs preparation.) You can write a kick-ass adventure, breathe wonderful life into every NPC, and put your players through their paces, but if you can't improvise, you'll eventually hit a wall you can't climb over, or find yourself trapped in a corner and unable to talk your way out.
Writers, actors, and directors learn the importance of improvisation as part of their formal training. Writers learn techniques to overcome writer's block, actors learn ways to cope when they flub their lines, and directors discover ways to work around meddlesome budgetary constraints and personality conflicts. Call it what you will, but it's all improvisation.
If you're an experienced DM, you know that improvisation demands equal measures of intuition and confidence. DMs who lack sufficient intuition or confidence tend to have trouble improvising at the game table. When confronted by a sudden need to be creative, a good DM simply intuits how best to proceed and has the courage to act on that intuition. Sounds simple enough, but it takes a great deal of trust in oneself. Thespians figured this out a long time ago, and that's why they spend a lot of time doing improvisational exercises that teach them to trust their intuition and not to over-think the problem. Masters of improv don't need to devote a great deal of energy to the task of improvisation because they simply do what seems natural to them; in other words, they have the confidence to trust their intuition. The same holds true for great writers and directors, who rely on their intuition to clear creative hurdles that might cause others to stumble.
My improvisational skills are put to the test every time I run a game session, and anyone who's watched one of the live D&D Penny Arcade games knows that I'm not lying when I say my DMing style is 10% preparation and 90% complete and utter bullshit improvisation. Last year at a convention, someone asked me how I learned to improvise, and I didn't really have a good answer. Now I do.
Dungeon Mastering is about creative expression, showmanship, and the confidence to do both. It's J.R.R. Tolkien meets P.T. Barnum. The DM not only brings a love of sword and sorcery to the table but also doesn't shiver when the time comes to step right up. What does P.T. Barnum do when someone asks him a question he doesn't know the answer to? He trusts his intuition and makes something upand everyone nods like he's the guy running the show. Because, after all, he is.
I'm not psychologist, but I believe that human intuition is developed through everyday experience. A Dungeon Master's intuition when it comes to storytelling and adjudication develops with routine exposure to films, TV shows, literature, fiction, comics, jokes, and campfire stories. The good news is that DMs, being creative souls, rarely fall short in the intuition department. They know a good story from a bad one, a well-developed character from a cardboard cutout, and so forth. However, confidence is a far more rare commodity, and DMs who lack the confidence to trust their intuition often have trouble improvising behind the DM screen. I know because I've been there.
"This idea is such a clichÃ©!"
"This could really mess up my campaign!"
"They'll accuse me of being mean!"
Sentiments such as these subvert the creative DM who wants nothing less than to create the best campaign ever. They really undermine one's confidence, do they not? I got over my own confidence issues by telling myself, over and over, that the players are on my side. Players, unless they're complete boobs, realize that DMing isn't easy. It demands a lot of skills. They're glad to have someone else to carry the torch. All they want is to have fun. "The DM brings the fun, and thus the DM is on our side." Great. So once you realize that the players want to have a good time, you can focus on coming up with crazy ideas to entertain them.
Maybe it starts with a clichÃ©: The characters are sitting in a tavern when a stranger emerges from the shadows and presents them with a quest. It's a brave DM who's willing to start an adventure with something so . . . pedestrian.
Here's the moment in the article where normally I'd tell you how'd I'd turn this clichÃ© on its head, or offer up some unexpected twist to arch the players' eyebrows and make them realize this quest is anything but ordinary. But the fact of the matter is that every DM out there has to answer the question based on what excites his or her audience, and no other group of players is like my group of players. So I'm not going to tell you what I'd do to keep things interesting for my particularly group. But I will tell you some of the questions I might ask myself if I was in need of some inspiration to help me improvise something:
What would Orson Welles do?
Just as the stranger begins to talk, he falls face-first onto the table with a dagger in his back. The stranger is dead, and the dagger has the word "Sephistos" engraved on the pommel.
What would Quentin Tarantino do?
The stranger barely has enough time to stick a dagger in the table and utter the name "Sephistos" when he's blown away by a murder squad of wand-wielding, devil-worshiping wizard-assassins who have the tavern surrounded.
What would Woody Allen do?
Why, he'd have the stranger open his mouth and start to speak some horrible truth about the nature of human existence, but pass out from nervous fright before he can complete his thought. When he comes to, the stranger admits that he's been following the adventurers' careers for some time and wants to join their party . . . and he's willing to give them his diabolical father's magical dagger as payment for indulging his hero worship.
My intuition tells me that any one of these ideas might work, but it's my confidence that will determine in a heartbeat which idea will thrill my players the most. And maybe I'll reject all of these ideas and go with my own gut instinct instead, just like I did last Wednesday night when Sea King Impstinger asked the most important question of the evening and I answered, "the undying gratitude of the Prince of Frost." But what works for my players won't work for yours, so here's the real question, o great DM:
Knowing your players as well as I know mine, what would YOU do?
Until the next encounter!
Dungeon Master for Life,