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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 weekly game was postponed because of Gen Con. A bunch of us flew out to Indianapolis, where the weather was surprisingly enjoyable, particularly given the horrendously warm trends of the weeks leading up to the show. I have since returned to Seattle, and I dare say the highlight of my show was getting a big, warm hug from Wil Wheaton, who told me some Aeofel-related secrets that won't be revealed until the D&D Next Live Game at PAX this Labor Day weekend. I also ran a few D&D games, including a session with Ed Greenwood that was a bit randy. (Quelle surprise, as the drow say.)
My "DM travel kit" this year consisted of a short, homespun FR adventure (a sequel to the one I ran for the writers of Robot Chicken a couple years ago), a small plastic container of dice and miniatures, some rolled-up wet-erase battle maps, and the D&D Next playtest rules and pre-generated characters. No DM screen. No laptop. No special apps for the iPad. I like to travel light.
The summer evaporated quickly this year, like an ice cube in the sun. I suspect a lot of D&D campaigns will be evaporating as well, or at least going on hiatus as students segue into the fall semester. Meanwhile, other campaigns will be starting up in high school and college D&D clubs (I trust such things still exist) across the country, if not across the entire world, both "for reals" and on the Internet.
A lot has been published for DMs over the years for various editions of the D&D game, including a half dozen Dungeon Master's Guides, dozens of apps, scores of DM screens, hundreds of campaign-building accessories, thousands of adventures, tens of thousands of miniatures, hundreds of thousands of monsters, thousands upon thousands of websites and chatrooms, and millions upon millions of words of advice that basically distill down to "It's your game; do what you want, just don't be a jerk." If you want to be a DM, there is no shortage of materials out there for free and for purchase designed to help you. If you don't believe me, spend an afternoon roaming the floor of the exhibit hall at Gen Con.
While waiting for my flight home in the Indianapolis airport, I had a chance encounter with a fairly new DM who recognized me from the Penny Arcade D&D videocasts. After thanking me for ushering him safely through D&D's terrifying wrought-iron gates, he confessed that he was having some problems keeping his new campaign afloat. He then asked me a couple of back-to-back questions which I get asked a lot, namely: What do I use to create and run my campaign? Are there specific products or resources that I use to run my game? My answer surprised him.
Although I place a number of DM resources on pedestals and swear up, down, and sideways that they made me into the DM I am today, I'm what you'd call an "old-school" DM. In other words, I use very little. When I started running D&D games, I had one Dungeon Master's Guide (as big, heavy, and monumentally important as the stone slabs borne by Charlton Heston's Moses in The Ten Commandments), one campaign setting (Greyhawk), three books of monsters, a few dozen published adventure modules with cool duotone maps on the inside covers, a few issues of Dragon magazine, and that's about it. No initiative trackers. No magnetic condition trackers. No pre-painted plastic miniatures. No foldout battle maps. No boxed sets. No Dwarven Forge. No Internet.
A little later came Dungeon magazine, which I hold up as the best DM accessory ever created (and no less helpful today than it was back in 1986). And though my opinion is colored by the fact that I consider myself the magazine's biggest fan, in truth I (like many DMs) run very few of its adventures as written and rely on it more for ideas and inspiration. A DM without a Dungeon subscription is like a boy without Lego. It's just . . . unwholesome.
"My brain," I replied to that young fellow in the airport. My brain contains pretty much everything I need to run my D&D campaign: ideas, imagination, improvisational know-how. It also contains the memories of lots of previous game sessions both successful and disastrous (mostly successful), not to mention old adventures and 87.333% of everything that Gary Gygax packed into the original three AD&D hardcover rulebooks. As for the other 12.667%, well, let's just say my mind is not the steel trap it used to be.
Miniatures and iPads are great and all, but as far as I'm concerned, a DM doesn't need much to create a long-lasting and memorable campaign beyond the three I's:
I must admit that I don't read or collect a lot of RPG products, nor do I have a single RPG-related app on my cellphone or iPad. I also don't have much time to surf the net. However, adventure and campaign ideas can come from anywhere. If you've read previous installments of this column, you already know where I get most of my inspiration from television shows, movies, nonfiction, fiction, and published D&D adventures. Imagination is what takes all of those ideas those influences and combines them with my own in new and wonderful ways to create something that feels fresh. It's also the thing I rely on to help me decide how to start a session and how to end it. Improvisation is the coping mechanism I use in between to energize my players and propel the story forward. It's more of a muscle or a skill than an inherent power of the human mind, so unlike ideas and imagination, it takes practice and repetition to develop it.
In a live Gen Con "Gamer to Gamer" podcast hosted by The Tome Show, I was asked what advice I could offer with regard to helping DMs improvise better. In retrospect, I am not altogether satisfied with the answer I gave in the moment, which was something like (but not nearly as articulate as): Let down your guard around your players, and overcome that fear of playing the fool in front of them. It actually bothered me that I couldn't conjure a more satisfactory response or offer up something more tangible, something like "Eat lots of Frosted Miniwheats!" or "Don't skip gym class!" It was, in short, a poorly improvised answer, if I do say so myself (proof positive that even the strongest human muscle gives out under enough weight).
I have no background in theater or any formal training in "improv" (which is why I feel like a skydiver leaping out of a plane without a parachute whenever I do a D&D live game), but this is one deficiency I've taken strides to overcome. Improvisational skill is fueled by inspiration and imagination, but it is born out of self-awareness, and a very smart teacher once told me that you can't begin to improve without first realizing your own shortcomings. Although it's not one of the three I's mentioned above, improvement is very much a part of being a DM. There's always room for it, and I don't care how good of a DM you think you are, you can do better. A self-aware painter improves with every painting, a self-aware actor improves with every performance, a self-aware writer improves with every story, and a self-aware DM improves with every game session.
One last remark about improvisation, and then I'll wrap up: When you look at the vast amount of material produced for DMs over the years, very little of it helps Dungeon Masters become better improvisers. If you know of any resources out there designed specifically to help DMs pump up their improvisational muscles, feel free to leave a quick comment. This old-school DM may not use a lot of fancy tools and toys at his gaming table, but he's just as eager to improve as that other Dungeon Master he met in the Indianapolis airport.
P.S. I lied. There's one other thing every DM needs: a velvet napping pillow shaped like a d20. Why didn't anyone tell me these things existed?! They used to sell them on thinkgeek.com, but now they're gone! If you have a drool-free d20 pillow you don't need anymore, feel free to send it my way.
Until the next encounter!
Dungeon Master for Life,