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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. As the campaign shifted from paragon to epic tier, one of my players suggested between sessions that I gather input from the players as I put thought toward how to wrap up the campaign. Every player has things he's like to see happen before the end, things they'd like their characters to accomplish, and story threads they'd like to wrap up. I thought that was a great idea and asked each of them to email me their "wish lists." It reminded me that the campaign isn't mine alone. As the screenwriter/director John Milius says in his DVD commentary for The Wind and the Lion (the 1975 period epic starring Sean Connery), "It's an adventure . . . and you're all in it together, and there's a wonderful quality to that. It's no more your ego . . . you're just serving the story."
Like most DMs, I enjoy the occasional turn on the players' side of the DM screen. I don't profess to be anything but an average D&D player, but it's refreshing to play a character that isn't omnipotent and doesn't know what's behind every corner of the dungeon.
Most of my player experiences are one-off adventures lots of fun, memorable experiences to be sure, but poor substitutes for a lively, ongoing campaign. It's been over a year since I was a player in a campaign, and in the past 35 years, I've probably played in only a half-dozen long-running campaigns. This week, I'd like to tell you about three DMs from my past. Let's call them Nosnra, Grugnur, and Snurre to keep things on the level. For those of you who don't know, these names belong to three giants immortalized in a trilogy of adventures written by the late, great Gary Gygax. As you'll see, the names are well earned.
Dungeon Master #1: "Nosnra"
Nosnra liked to play by his own rules and call the shots. He ran the campaign he wanted to run, not the campaign his players wanted to play. He didn't care what was written in the rulebooks, and his campaign was riddled with all sorts of house rules catering to the style of play he preferred. If he didn't like a rule, he'd throw it out, which is of course the DM's prerogative. A wonderful thing about D&D is that you can ignore the rules you don't like or that don't suit the style of game you're running. However, Nosnra liked to create new rules or combine rules from different systems more than he liked coming up with adventure ideas. His campaign invariably became an exercise to flex his game designer muscles rather than tell an exciting story. In the absence of a good story, we did a lot of dungeon crawling and monster slaying. I remember a couple sessions during which I dozed off because every encounter was the same tedious battle over and over, albeit with different foes. Invariably, the players' lukewarm reactions would frustrate Nosnra, and that would be it. He'd shake his fists at the game's inadequacies, lose his personal investment in the campaign, call it quits without admitting his own hand in the campaign's downfall, and try to talk us into starting over at first level.
Dungeon Master #2: "Grugnur"
Grugnur had his campaign thoroughly mapped out to the absurd extent that nothing the players tried ever took him out of his comfort zone. For him, preparation was the key to victory. On those rare occasions when we tried to venture beyond the invisible fence he'd erected around the campaign, something momentous would occur that lured us back from the fringe toward the heart of Grugnur's domain. We were his prisoners and, at least for a while, didn't even know it. But we caught on eventually, and like prisoners, we'd occasionally rebel. We'd undermine every carefully constructed attempt at suspense. For example, whenever a bad guy appeared on the scene, we'd give him or her a stupid name that would stick for the rest of the session, if not the entire campaign. Grugnur would shake his head and sigh when we dubbed his villain "Lord Melonbrain," and when Lord Melonbrain started ruining the game with every appearance, he would unceremoniously vanish, only to be replaced by "Captain Chamberpot," "Count Donkeyface," or some other walking joke . . . I mean bloke. Grugnur took strides to punish us for defaming his NPCs the "uppance" might come right away, or he might stew for weeks before unleashing his cold-blooded fury upon us.
Dungeon Master #3: "Snurre"
"Snurre" was the absolute authority on the rules knew every one inside and out. A tad sadistic, he also believed that good drama resulted from a relentless increase in tension, and thus he rarely let the player characters gain the advantage. They were threatened or cajoled into completing quests by NPCs much more powerful than them, they were insulted and put down by peasants and nobles alike, they were poorly equipped (with nary a healing potion to split between them), and every dungeon was a harrowing slog that wouldn't just kill characters but also scar and maim them. In other words, there was no frying pan just the fire. My first character in Snurre's campaign was a wizard, and given that the campaign was a low-magic one, Snurre insisted on choosing my spells and equipment for me. My 1st-level spell list consisted of two choices, erase and ventriloquism. These are, as you well know, two of the most useless spells in the AD&D game . . . particularly when you're fighting an ankheg. I was given no weapons to fight with, only a 50-foot coil of rope. I hit upon the idea of using the rope to lasso and snare the ankheg, but Snurre would have none of that silliness. As soon as he caught wind of my plans, the ankheg burrowed underground and devoured my wizard from below. That'll teach me for trying to outfox the DM!
Nosnra, Grugnur, and Snurre aren't upstarts. All three DMs are seasoned pros with tons of XP under their belts (and the trophy-corpses of many slain adventurers to prove it). However, they all share a common flaw: They let their egos get in the way of the fun.
Ego is like a shield that protects us against embarrassment and other things that threaten our pride, confidence, and self-esteem. I control my ego by first acknowledging that I have one; everyone does. I like to say that I have no ego, but it would be more accurate to say my ego is kept in check, and I think that makes me a better DM. Letting go of the ego allows one to play the fool and focus on what will make the players happy. It incentivizes one to prepare less and improvise more. Once the ego gets out of the way, it's easy to see that you don't need to be in total control to run a good game.
Nosnra likes to DM because it pleases him, but he's rarely satisfied with the game system enough to give his players the same sense of pleasure. When he can't deal with the campaign he's created, he quickly abandons it. Grugnur is the opposite; his campaign is so cleverly and proudly constructed that it's virtually indestructible, but it doesn't allow players as much free reign as they sometimes crave. Snurre doesn't like it when the players win; in his campaign, the house always wins, and that makes him feel mighty and bolsters his reputation as a Killer DM.
Ego manifests in many different ways. Recognizing this fact is the first step toward dealing with it. Ego's not a monster to be slain; it's more like a beast to be tamed.
Being a Dungeon Master means putting yourself out there, on center stage, with only a thin DM screen (and sometimes not even that) separating you from the players, all of whom are counting on you to deliver a memorable gaming experience. In many respects, you're like an actor standing on a stage.
Let's run with the actor analogy for a moment. When I think of actors whom I admire, most of them are razor-sharp, funny people who are looking for more than self-gratification through their art. They also tend to be a bit awkward and uncomfortable in their own skin. The "greats" such as Robert DeNiro, Helen Mirren, Clint Eastwood, and Meryl Streep use ego to spur great performances and drive professional success, but somehow they've figured out how to keep their egos in check. It's no wonder people enjoy working with them; they come across as modest, humble, and self-effacing. While they take their careers seriously, they don't take themselves that seriously. They have the power to laugh at themselves a rare gift, and a surefire way to keep the ego from ruining their careers. It's the ones who can't control their egos who are the Hollywood train wrecks. I don't need to name names. Good entertainers derive the most pleasure from entertaining others, not themselves.
Let me be the first to point out that everyone wrestles with his or her ego, and sometimes ego gets the better of us despite our vigilance. I could be the most self-effacing and humble DM in the world (although I admit that I'm not), but woe to anyone who cuts me off on the freeway or thinks they know more useless Star Trek trivia than I do. You want to see my ego take charge? There are plenty of arenas in which I let my ego go a little wild, but the gaming table isn't one of them. Here's what I do to keep my ego from wreaking havoc with my campaign, which, I imagine, is what a lot of humble actors do when they walk out on stage to face a captive audience:
- I remember that every session is a fresh start . . . and a chance to take a risk.
- I expect to make mistakes (and never fail to disappoint), and I hope to learn from them.
- I tell myself I'm on my players' side. The campaign is not about Me vs. Them.
- At the end of every session, I look for smiles on the players' faces. If I don't see any, I know something's not right.
Along with the creative ability to improvise, DMs need self-awareness and the ability to poke fun at themselves. Every DM who reads this article thinks he or she has the ability to do both. Yeah, well, we all have the ability to breathe out of the nose instead of the mouth; doesn't mean we all do it. If you're truly self-aware and willing to laugh at yourself, you don't need a true seeing spell to know when your ego is getting in the way and doing more harm than good. It will always be there to protect you, but sometimes you gotta let it go.
Until the next encounter!
Dungeon Master for Life,