Monday, January 4, 2010


This weekend was my session off for D&D, the one where I play in my daughter’s world rather than running my own ... so the mass combat is slated for two weeks hence. I don’t look forward to it – there’s a little more prep that needs to be done (I failed to add any features inside the fort, as I knew the party wouldn’t get there the first night) – but that’s the lot of the DM.

Which is the core of this post. It felt queer Saturday as I found myself playing D&D and having nothing to do ... nothing except for the DM to investigate and finishing developing the illusionist NPC that we’d encountered, and other things, all through the session. Understand, after fifteen years as a DM and never as a player, being part of the game and having time to myself made for an unfamiliar experience.

And meanwhile, I had plenty of opportunity to watch the DM fragment as the evening progress.

I don’t think anyone who’s done plenty of game play will be unfamiliar with violently angry DMs who shout or make accusations at players for intentionally disrupting games, or who feel personally persecuted for doing nothing more than creating a world for ungrateful, miserable, disgruntled and unforgiving role-players. “HEY, I’m DOING MY BEST” are fairly common protests expected from the poor soul trapped behind the screen.

It’s the reason most players who take a shot at DMing quit after their first, or second try. The effort is high, there’s a lot of details to keep track of, the questions – both stupid and relevant – are constant and the players themselves can’t help growing bored as the play grounds down upon some technical point to be satisfied before things can continue. I have plenty of experience with it and I sometimes lose it. Once, I could be sure of losing it at least one time per game – the alternative is to throw one’s hands in the air, fuck the game and get a beer. A tactic which, in my experience, usually leads to apologies and grovelling on the part of the players, who realize they’ve pushed the DM past the point and that with no DM, there is no game.

I’ve been free from either tactic for a good long time now. Yes, I sometimes shout at people, mostly just to be louder than they are. I play with six persons, so my speaking voice only rates one sixth the total decibel level. I only feel really pressed by the emotional quality of running when there’s too much other shit going on in my life, and my stress tolerance is low.

Not so for a new DM, however. Like anything else, the sheer effort of acting as adjudicator is itself a practiced skill. Beyond prepping for the game, beyond having a working knowledge of the books or a talent for improv, the biggest failing for many would-be DMs or inexperienced wannabes has to be a lack of management skills.

This explains why many of the DMs I have played with or met turn out to be enormous pricks (Please keep in mind that while I haven’t played for some time, I have met people who did play – and stayed far away from them). Just like most low-level business managers, a great many DMs adopt a passive aggressive power methodology like the one I’ve suggested. They learn early on that refusing to play produces prostration – and most players who continue to play with such pompous bastards do so because, well, they have no one else.

Thus, if you are willing to put up with the questions and other player babble, and are able to keep going with whatever campaign you’ve created semi-consistently, you too can have your pathetic pawns who will suffer your abuse if it means they can play. (“I can have a +2 sword if I just eat this pile of shit here – this pile, the one that’s a foot high? Okay.”)

It is precisely the same state of mind that many workers adopt in order to keep their jobs. They don’t really like the boss, but it goes with the paycheque.

As it happens, most DMs manage to be almost human when they are not actually DMing ... which helps a lot of players forgive the DM a lot of sins. In my case, the one player I have who fails to forgive me these sins is my daughter – who figures, as I am her father, nothing really justifies my behavior. Sigh. Twas ever thus.

I may not have made it clear. I do have my failings, and many of them fit along the lines described above. I have been a manager of both a business and many an RPG ... and I have in both cases had underlings who were unsatisfied with my behavior and players who were likewise. In both it is necessary to make decisions that make people unhappy. Both, I feel, demand that I perform at a higher level that those around me – that I work as hard as I possibly can, in order to facilitate the process.

I hope most DMs feel that way. Thus the stress – however positive one might be that a good job needs to be done, there is the incessant feeling that we are perpetually failing. Players cannot help acting angry at their own failure, and this acts upon the DM’s headspace as negatively as can be imagined. The DM lives and dies on how appreciated he or she feels ... any lack of appreciation, for anything that happens to be going on, translates immediately as, “Fuck, your world sucks.”

Mind you, this is in the DM’s head. None of this dissatisfaction needs to actually exist. The players might actually be really enjoying themselves, swearing and shouting at each other. These are emotional states that produce consciousness raising drugs rarely to be experienced unless our lives are actually crashing. But violent emotional release and legitimate emotional discontent sounds disconcertingly similar – thus DMs get stressed, get angry, throw books and so on.

How not to lose it? Beyond practice and more practice, a few basic strategies:

Limit the number of your players. If you are in your first year of DMing, resist running more than three persons at a time. If there are four persons or more, give a long and sincere speech about your feelings that you’re not comfortable handling so many people, you’d like to not do it every week and you’re going to need lots of support. DON’T hesitate to ask for support from your players, ever. You do a lot more to stop, and say to people, “I’m feeling awfully pressed right now, please drop your voices or better yet, take a break and wander a few minutes,” than to scream that they’re all a bunch of orc cow-fuckers who need to DIE right NOW!

Take many breaks. Every five minutes might be a bit excessive, but don’t hesitate to call things in the middle of a combat if you need to catch your breath. Combat is the worst – it is the greatest pressure of the game, the point where the greatest number of details come into importance, and the point where players reach their greatest stress. It is also the point where people who are not attacking or being attacked reach their highest level of volume, and where they have the greatest opportunity to mock/support other players who ARE fighting. Add to this a feeling DMs have that they should finish the combat all as one block of activity to keep the tension going, and you have a recipe for disaster. Honest. Combat can be suspended long enough for tempers to subside, for tension to relax, and for everyone to refocus. Give yourself a break.

Run for shorter periods. You may have eight hours to play, but if you aren’t a hard-core experienced DM, you are going to run out of steam after four ... no matter how committed you are. The players will notice, and things will degrade to the point where people are unsatisfied, or you perceive them to be unsatisfied. From my experience, if you have large blocks of time in order to play, you will do better to have two campaigns played by different inexperienced DMs, one following the other, each occupying four hours. This will give the DMs a chance to rest and be a player, and will increase the amount of experience both DMs gain.

Don’t be the only DM at the table. Having someone else playing in your world who has at least tried to run a campaign will give you an opinion of your efforts that you can respect. As well, if they have DMed, chances are they will help ‘police’ the table, calming tempers, calling for less shouting and unnecessary chatter, and giving words of encouragement as the campaign is ongoing. The absolute worst campaigns I have ever participated in occurred where the one DM had never played, and where none of the players had ever DMed. I mean ever – not now, not in the past, not ever. Conversely, the best campaigns I’ve participated in happened where everyone was a DM, and everyone ran ongoing campaigns that regularly rotated from week to week. I once ran for more than a year jointly with three other DMs, where we all ran in each other’s worlds and we each ran twice a month. Ah, university.

Know thyself. If you sit down at the table on the night scheduled and if you don’t really feel like playing, DON’T PLAY. Apologize to everyone, break out a deck of cards and play poker. The hardest thing to do is to acknowledge that you are not equal to the task, and that if you try to be equal, you will dig a deeper depression for yourself than you are already in. From time to time I’ve just had to admit that running is over my head, and that I would really rather not. At the very least, let everyone know that you need to be in better spirits, and that maybe an hour of aimless chatter will raise your mood enough to break out the books and get started. Eat some food, drink and be merry, encourage your players that given time you’ll be ready and if they respect you as a person, they will WAIT.

Generally speaking, you will want to get some practice. You can add more players as you get that practice, you can take shorter breaks or less breaks or develop strategies for what’s best to do when on a break that will improve your focus. You’ll learn how to spend your time more wisely in preparation and how to spend your time more wisely during the session – particularly in picking out what is important right now as compared to something that can be discussed during a general break. You’ll learn when to say, “I’ll manage that later,” sparing you the effort of looking through four books while the party sits around doing nothing (idleness creating its own problems). You’ll have a chance to encourage one of your players to also make an effort to DM, giving you someone to commiserate with – and someone to run a session when you’re down in the dumps. Don’t try to take it all on your shoulders, even if your players push you into it – if they want to play, they should be prepared to take some of the responsibility themselves.


Vincent said...

Great post! Very thoughtful advice.

I will add my voice in particular to 'Run for shorter periods'... you are spot on in throwing the 4-hour flag, which has been a specification of my GMing for years now.

Chgowiz said...

I think adventuring with the family can be more difficult than adventuring with a group of strangers. If I ever kill my wife's character, despite our great marriage, it'll be a tense few hours I'm sure.

I've learned with the "book lookups" to try and make good rulings. "This is how we'll do it now, if that's OK with you all.. unless you have a better idea." The only time I'll really take the time to look is when life/death are on the line and usually the players are full-on in waiting for my ruling. I have to also confess that my memory is not so good for the AD&D spell list. I tend to sometimes misremember OD&D/S&W with AD&D effects/ranges. I have the spells marked with a "Post it bookmark" (the kind lawyers use) so I get to that page quickly.

JB said...

Your experience with DMing sounds as if it has been much more negative than mine!