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Among many other things, D&D is a creative balance between DM and players. After running a number of games, I found that I began to think about what kind of experience my players really want.
That process influenced my actions as a DM, and has inspired me to come up with two rough modes for running games, which can help make the overall experience for my players a good one. If you’re a new DM, these modes might help you deliver that fun player experience that all DMs crave.
With great power comes blah, blah, blah . . .
It’s true, though.
Being a DM is a responsibility. I feel responsible to my players. I want them to have a good time and enjoy the story, whether it’s a prewritten adventure or one that I’ve cooked up for them. I want them to feel all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune as they plow and plunder their way to victory or death.
At the beginning of my DM career, I noticed that some players got a sad face when their characters died, or that other players checked out and began fiddling with other stuff in the middle of the game. What did those players want that I wasn’t giving them? Sad faces and a lack of engagement are anathema to a DM. But from those two reactions came my two modes of D&D play.
Every group of players has a general vibe beforehand. I gauge what kind of experience my group wants to have. After a chat, I usually know exactly what they’re in the mood for. In my world, that breaks down to “Cinematic” or “DM as Nature.” I know these modes exist in other forms elsewhere in the RPG multiverse, but here’s my take. If you like them, try them out.
Sometimes everyone has just rewatched the Lord of the Rings extended editions and all the players are pumped to have an experience where they’re the heroes of the story, fighting supreme evil. They want to do amazing stuff, swinging from chandeliers to land in a silver punchbowl while severing orc heads. They want to live the fantasy dream. In this mode, I put on a movie director hat. I don’t want characters to die; they’re the stars of the movie. The threat of death can be there, but instead of dying, I opt for knocking characters out and having them wake up in a more dangerous situation.
As an example, imagine that an orc hits Rowena on the head with a shot that would have killed her in a normal game. Instead, I have her go unconscious then wake up with 5 hit points, trussed up like a turkey and being slowly lowered into the Pit of Wailing Death. It’s the penalty of dying but without the actual death. The story doesn’t end for the character or the player. Instead, the fun continues in a different form and the player is still in the game, trying to figure out how to save the character from peril. In cinematic mode, it’s about the DM and the players creating an awesome movie together.
Cinematic is also the mode in which to goof around. You can let players make up the craziest characters possible, then do outrageous things to shock and horrify each other. When players want to have this kind of experience, my goal is to try to feed the fire and give them a stage that enhances each character’s idiom. For example, a player might run a character who is a cannibalistic circus freak. I’ll find a way to drop that character into a cultured and reserved setting—perhaps a fancy dress ball in an ancestral estate—to add to the shock value. It’s fun to try to see how that character is roleplayed (or not) in awkward situations that will eventually melt down into chaos.
Goofball cinematic games are a guilty pleasure of mine—the RPG equivalent of a B-horror-movie night. I give the characters and their players something outrageously fun to do. The normal rules of cinematic mode help to keep these crazy characters alive—and if and when they do die, the end should be fitting for the character. Perhaps the cannibal circus freak is ironically eaten by a wandering mob of other cannibals? It’s a grab bag of weirdness.
All in all, cinematic mode is about the story being amazing and exciting, even as it tries to avoid dead characters so the players remain engaged.
Sometimes players are itching for a different kind of experience. They want to get as close to actual reality as a fantasy world can get. In this format, I pull no punches as I simply simulate nature. Nature doesn’t care if you didn’t pack any food on your Antarctic trek. Nature simply kills you dead in such circumstances, even if you have the noblest of intentions and a quest to fulfill.
Players often find this mode thrilling—a full-time, ongoing test of their tactical and roleplaying skills. For example, the party might enter a massive hall only to have the doors slam shut and magically lock. Smoke grenades are thrown as unseen archers cut loose with volleys of arrows. The party reacts as goblins leap from the ceiling and rush in from all sides, shrieking “Release the worgs!” as they come. In DM-as-nature mode, I run my monsters “realistically.” They want to survive just as badly as the characters do. I don’t give the players an inch, remaining impassive and wholly neutral as to the outcome. If characters survive, the players derive satisfaction from knowing that they weren’t given any help or favors. Every experience point was earned the hard way. Every gold piece is a victory.
Some players love this mode. However, other players think that they’ll love it only to find they actively hate it. If you’re not careful, you’ll crush those players’ fantasy dreams. They came from their regular lives to feel like a hero and live an amazing story, and you’ve thrown a wet blanket of “reality” on their aspirational escape.
Making the Most of Modes
When I see the signs of sadness in my players, I steer clear of the realism of DM-as-nature mode and head straight for cinematic mode. A good bout of wild heroic action usually brings the fun back to the players’ faces. I’ve found that it’s rarely jarring to move from DM-as-nature to cinematic mode even on a moment’s notice, though moving the other way can confuse player expectation.
Be careful not to focus too exclusively on what the players want, however. Sometimes you just want to run a world where you as the DM don’t give a hoot as to what anybody else expects. By running your game the way you like to run it, the players need to step up to the challenge of adapting to you. It can be especially cool if you become a DM known for your particular style of gaming—creating a sense that you have your own way of doing it, and knowing that players want to play in your games. But in the moments where you feel things breaking down, it can be useful to think about what type of mode you’ve instinctively moved into—and to think about using the alternative mode to bring the players back if their interest is flagging.
With new players, I usually default to cinematic mode. Let the characters live out the fantasy dream, slaying goblins and orcs or saving the village from unreasonable jerks. Let them drink frothy ale, arm wrestle a hairy oaf, or head-butt a cow. It’s all good, especially if no one has to die.
If I’m running a DM-as-nature-style game, I warn my new players that death will happen. Some players have to emotionally adjust to the possibility of their characters dying.
Other players will never take character death well, especially players who live through or aspire to be their characters. (The question of ‘to kill or not to kill’ is a topic for another article, though.)
In all cases, find out what your players want. Try out these two different modes of running games and assess how each mode feels, both for you and your players. And have fun making stories and worlds.
About the Author
Adam Lee is a story writer, game designer, world builder, and wandering minstrel. He has worked many years on Magic: The Gathering making up cool worlds and characters, and now works on D&D doing the same. He has been playing D&D and living in fantasy worlds since he was a tiny lad. He likes birthday cake.