Friday, December 16, 2011

How To Dungeon Master (The 10,000 Word Post)

IF YOU ENJOY THIS POST, then you should treat yourself still further by purchasing my book, How to Run, an Advanced Guide to Managing Role-Playing Games, which is available on Lulu (eBook and Paperback) and Amazon.

Blaine H. wrote a cutting and insightful comment on the previous post, ending with a call for this:

"Perhaps what is needed is a GM's guide book to story telling more than a book with more advanced rules and traps in it. What makes for a better story and how to keep the momentum in a world, how to make it all link together in a way that is believable or to at least some suggestions to be able to justify and back up those decisions instead of another splat book with new combat rules in it."

Very well, how might such a book be written?  I've contemplated the problem now for more than a year, since being called to the subject by Carl-the-cryptic-soul without a blog who built my wiki for me in 2010.  I am unquestionably in agreement with Blaine.  Screw the new rules and the traps.  Screw the endless splat pages reinventing the wheel.  Present a rule book on how to Dungeon Master.

Uh ... sure.

Let's break down Blaine's elements.  He's asking for:

1)  How to deliver a narrative.
2)  How to keep up the momentum.
3)  How to build cohesiveness in various narratives after they occur.
4)  How to keep your narratives believable.
5)  How does a DM justify the decisions he or she makes regarding the development, and ultimately the resolution, of narratives.

Did I miss anything?  If not, then ...


I think to tackle any of this we'd need to define the 'narrative.'  We'd need to have a clear idea of what 'momentum' is.  What is 'player disbelief,' and under what circumstances does it occur?  And why should a DM have to justify presented events and resolutions to narratives, i.e., adventures?

To begin, a Narrative is a constructive format that describes a sequence of events - that's the dictionary definition, anyway.  In D&D, since the sequence has the potential to be determined by the players, the narrative is limited to the DM's description of those events as they occur.  In effect, the DM calls the play-by-play to the event, while filling in all the details behind the event.  It's a further bit of work than a radio announcer describing a football game - the DM also presents descriptions of the field of play, the colors of the uniforms, the personalities of the players and so on ... like the 'color' announcer, but more so, in that the color is provided as the events occur also.  The color, in effect, becomes more than addendum for the action, it becomes the motivation for the action.  The manner in which the color is presented determines the reaction of the players, whose play-by-play activity is then adjudicated by the DM.

Momentum is a physics term that has been co-opted to suggest that any action - in this case, mental action - contains within it a given speed (forward movement) once it has been set in motion.   Activities which seem to cause time to fly are considered to have 'momentum' in the artistic sense, while activities that do not eat up time are considered to be 'dead.'  Given these antonyms, we can equate momentum with 'life,' and therefore suppose that when the elements of a given campaign seem to be alive, the campaign can be said to have 'momentum.'  I recognize this is going a bit around the barn to make what appears to be a very simple statement, but it's important that we understand the lack of momentum is the lack of life ... i.e., something that just lays there and does nothing of interest.

In effect, lack of momentum in a campaign is comparable to the lack of vibrancy in a lover.  So momentum can also be defined as 'engagement' ... the greater the engagement in the participation of having sex, the better the sex.  So the degree of momentum that is desired in one in which players are engaged, i.e., in a state of interest that equates with being fully 'alive.'  The more alive your players are, the greater the momentum experienced.

Cohesiveness is the condition of things being linked together as a whole.  As various games occur, and as various tracks of behavior are described and carried forth (the narratives each having their own momentum), inevitably a discontinuity threatens to tear the campaign apart.  This can result either from various narratives conflicting directly with one another, creating inconsistencies, or by digressing to the point that both narratives cannot be managed in the space of time available to the parties playing the game.

A lack of cohesian can cause a DM to present excesses of information or improbable events in an attempt to direct or manage cohesiveness, which in turn reduces the momentum of a campaign.  If this circumstance becomes constant, the campaign will probably die.

Giving into the tendency to retain cohesiveness at any cost can result in Disbelief.  The suspension of disbelief is an action taken by the players during the game, encouraged by the belief that the DM is not actively directing the narrative in order to retain an amount of momentum and cohesiveness that satisfies the DM's 'plan.'  The DM may have a plan, but it is important that evidence of that plan be below the level of perception of the players.  If the players perceive that the various events of the narrative are moving forward of their own apparent accord, they can suspend disbelief and enjoy the game for its escapist possibilities.  If, however, the DM manages some element of the game in a heavy-handed, clearly manipulative manner, suspension will disappear and the players will be left disbelieving, and more importantly distrusting the DM.  If too much disbelief is forced upon the players, eventually they will take for granted nothing the DM says.  Narrative at that point will become impossible, and the game's momentum will degrade into backbiting and rules lawyering.  This will also kill a campaign.

Thus the DM must be prepared to Justify his or her behavior in such a manner as to to encourage the players to trust the DM's motives - specifically, that those motives are directed at the advancement of the narrative and the creation of momentum, and are not attempts to establish an improbable level of cohesion ... particularly when that 'cohesion' is something made to fit a DM's predetermined plan for predetermined events (i.e., 'railroading').  If the DM can present the series of events leading to a particular event as logical or reasonable, he or she can then justify any momentum-killing event in the chain as 'bad luck' - such as the death of a character, the loss of a great deal of wealth or status, or the obtaining of otherwise improbable amounts of treasure or success (which can also result in a momentum loss).


Very well, how does one build a narrative?  It is not like writing a novel, or even a video game.  To begin with, the DM should erase any preconception of an 'ending' or a 'resolution.'  Although resolutions may occur upon points of the narrative, these can only be temporary moments of 'tying up' a given course of events ... they are NOT endings of themselves.  More often than not, a supposed resolution will in fact create more questions, that is more events to be described as part of the narrative.

As well, the DM should remove from the imagination preconceptions of a 'climax' ... like resolutions, these will occur of their own accord.  They do not need to be pre-ordained or managed.  When a climax arises, it is up to the DM to milk it for all its worth, but if the narrative is allowed to progress in a lively, open manner, climaxes will occur without the need of engineering them in advance (qv).

In effect, the various storywriting priniciples that you were perhaps taught in school are designed for artists telling a story to suit a thematic purpose.  This is a roleplaying game: the thematic content is the same as that offered by life; there is no structured 'story' that builds to a climax and ends with a denouement ... any more than there is in your actual life.  Your actual life consists of moments of panic and discord; of terror and bliss; of boredom and intensity.  The DMs goal is to reduce the boredom circumstances as much as possible, but to otherwise provide for the same opportunities as a real life provides in terms of distraction and interest (qv).

Fundamentally, the first step is to present a setting.  Without burying ourselves in a long discourse about what settings might be presented, the principle purpose of the setting is to 'ground' the campaign in something tangible that can be incorporated into the player's imaginations.  If the player cannot visualize the setting. or how to move or interact within that setting, then the setting is worthless to your game.  Flogging a setting for the sake of novelty over the principles of interaction is a poor proposition, and will result in a sharp decrease of momentum once the novelty departs.  Your setting cannot exist for the sake of itself - it exists to give the players identifying markers upon which to play (qv).  No one appears for a football game in order to watch the field.  The field is lacking as an entertainment medium.  It's sole purpose is as a measuring device to determine who wins and who loses (qv).

A preferred setting will be that which allows as much latitude for your players as is reasonably possible (qv).  The gentle reader will take note that when you play football with your friends, the field's measuring capacity hardly needs to be as complex and detailed as its NFL counterpart; 'Ten Yards' requires no precision; the number of players on each team do not need to be exact, and can even be unequal.  In short, where it comes to playing the game for the sake of fun, excessive rules monitoring is a detriment to game play - that is, momentum - and thus needs to be incorporated into the setting and the narrative as sparely as possible (qv).  Whenever possible, principle behaviours of the non-players in your setting should not be required of the players - if your NPC's rub blue mud into their bellies every day, the fact that your players choose not to do so should not automatically cripple their freedom to play as they wish.  Have a setting that does not depend upon a character's behavior matching that of the natives ... this sort of constraint will build up resentment that will ultimately erode the suspension of disbelief, in that it will be perceived that the DM is fucking with the players for personal reasons (qv).

Having produced a setting with these characteristics, as DM you must perceive that your principle goal will be to provide CLARITY (qv).  Having plopped your players in your setting, it is less important that you provide options for your players to follow, than that you begin to create their suspension of disbelief by completely and accurately describing what it is they see and understand about the place they find themselves (qv).  Dimensions, from the distance between themselves and the table, to the distance between themselves and the nearest coastline, or the end of the world; circumstances affecting their senses, sight and sound being foremost; conditions of their memories of events, from how they got here to how they got to be adults or how they came to have the skills and abilities they have; comprehension of behavior and attitude towards themselves by others, and by others towards others, from the bartender's behavior towards the barwench to the interrelations between states and religions.  Wherever possible, these should be conveyed as follows:

1)  Quickly.  Infodumps are annoying and are highly abusive to momentum, even at the beginning of the game.  Give as much information as you possibly can, but don't let it flow out in thirty minute blocks; most of your players will have forgotten virtually everything you've said after the first thirty seconds.  You will do well to present information, therefore, in terms of its importance for the given moment, and in more generalized particulars of interest as time and player patience allows.

2)  Repeatedly.  Note the point above; your players will have forgotten, so don't hesitate to remind them over and over and over ... don't presume that, having been informed once, they have the detail in their head when they identify the action they wish to perform.  In reality they would find it hard to forget the huge purple elephant in the room.  The player's imagination may need to be provided this information again, since the player's sense of hearing, smell and sight cannot be relied upon (qv).

3)  Accurately.  As already stated, comparable with 'consistently.'  If the elephant was described first as purple, it must remain purple forevermore.  If your original purpose was to make the elephant green, you should have remembered to describe the greenness of the elephant accurately from the outset.  Describing a setting is comparable with telling a joke.  Every word must be presented exactly, as the humour of the joke depends upon the presentation behind the punchline.  If your presentation is sloppy and inaccurate (inconsistent), your 'joke' will fall flat and die.  So be accurate the first time, or suck it up and accept that the inaccuracy of your first telling is now absolute, unchanging dogma.

If the elephant's greenness was somehow incredibly important to the backstory behind the elephant, then change the backstory that hasn't yet been told to the players (qv)This will create the appearance of accuracy, which in turn will enable the suspension of disbelief that will allow for an unrestricted momentum in the game.

The narrative, if presented in this fashion, will grow of its own accord, as events follow events in the player's imagination.  They will, as they understand it, move from the town to the road to the wilderness to the dungeon to the treasure vault and back again in a smooth, imaginable manner, as each element is described as fully and accurately as the DM is able (qv).

This will not, in itself, create a good game.  If we rely only upon the player's narrative, the momentum of the campaign will quickly diminish.  It is not what the players know that creates a fast-paced, unexpected game - but what the player's do not know.

What do I mean by this?  For a good game, it is necessary for the DM to create other narratives which take place simultaneously with the party's narrative.  We can call these "NPC Narratives" ... side stories the players don't get to see, but which occur chronologically in tandem with the player's decisions and actions (qv).

For example, let us suppose that the players are represented by Han, Chewie and Luke going to rescue the princess.  For simplicity, we'll presume that these particular players have chosen to take the actions that Han and Luke take, and that the results from these actions follow in accordance with the familiar narrative.

In this example, we must consider the actions of Kenobi, the droids, and all the various groups within the Death Star as NPC narratives ... NPCs going about their business in a manner that will interact with the players, IF the players take certain actions.  C-3PO and R2 are hiding in a closet at the exact moment Luke needs technical help, but of course Luke the character can't know this is what is happening.  THE DM KNOWS.  The DM has patiently worked out in his or her head that, at approximately the moment Luke is getting the princess out of her cell, there are a group of troopers trying to get into the room where the droids are.  The DM rolls a die, and determines from the die that at the moment Luke needs to make the call, it's too late - the droids have been forced to relocate.  Or, alternatively, the DM doesn't roll dice ... it just sounds like a really good matching up of differing narratives, and the DM goes with it in order to create tension.  It is better, obviously, if the droids are contacted just in time and the players are saved.

If you watch films for this sort of bi-lateral narrative intervention - or interconnection, you'll take note that when the subordinate character's narrative reaches a moment of tension at the exact point the predominant character's narrative reaches one, you have a climax.

Your role as a DM is to create the backstory behind the NPC Narrative so that it intervenes positively or negatively with the player's chosen action, depending upon that action.  If the NPC Narrative does not intervene, there is no reason for it being there.  There's no need to remember that the baker finishes his work and makes love to his wife and beats his kids after the players have bought bread and left town.  But if the players have bought a load of equipment, ropes, picks, weapons, sacks, etc., a reasonable NPC Narrative might begin with a group of youths deciding to follow the players, with this narrative not being explained to the players until the proper time.  You, as DM, have posited the existence of these unrevealed NPCs on the spur of the moment - and having thus determined their existence, you as DM begin the NPC Narrative as you in turn provide data for the Player Narrative. 

The players may not be aware of this other narrative when they find a family living on a farm way out of town and butcher them all, unaware of their being followed.  At this point, the DM could decide the NPC Narrative rushes back to the town to tell everyone, but this decision does not provide for the right kind of tension.  Remember that you WANT your narratives to interact!  The better narrative turn, therefore, is to have one of the youths demonstrate their presence at the moment of slaughter, crying out, "OH MY GOD" and then running away.  This presents the possibility of the party attempted to catch the NPC Narrative before they can tell others, or running away knowing full well that the nearby town is onto them.  Result: more knowledge of a specific kind creates tension, and thus momentum.

A DM should try to keep as many possible NPC Narratives going on as is reasonably possible, with the recognition that some of these narratives can be abandoned once the party has changed their circumstances enough to warrant it.  The town sheriff will only pursue to the edge of town.  The town marshall will only pursue as long as time and distance allows.  Eventually the party's behavior at a given time can be ignored by the various NPC Narratives you've created (though you could reinsert one at a particular, clever moment in the distant future).  Thus the DM should never become so invested in a particular narrative that it cannot be either dropped or shelved for long periods.  New narratives can always be created on the spot, and with practice the logic and behavior of NPCs within these imagined narratives will become more usefully interactive with the player's narrative.  By useful, we mean in the providing of a good game (qv).


I have already made a number of points about elements that have the potential to kill momentum, and how the presentation of how other narratives going on 'behind the curtain' can help increase or improve momentum.  At this time I wish to discuss other non-narrative related means by which momentum can be upheld or increased.

First and foremost, the manner in which hard to perceive information is uncovered by the players as they move forward in the game.  I made the point about information being given accurately and uniformly, but I also pointed out that said information should be 'complete' ... a point upon which I have not further embellished.

Complete information can be defined within the game format as all the information that is necessary for a player to make an informed decision ... with the understanding that if harm arises from that decision, it is not because the DM failed to tell the player something the player would certainly know about in that moment (qv).

If I, as the player, throw a hammer at a closed box, intending to break it, and there is a magical device inherent in the box that causes it to explode upon impact, the player is rightly killed, though the trunk was revealed and the bomb was not - since detecting the bomb required more than the player's eyes.  If, however, the player detected magic about the box, and was told there was no magic, and then caused the explosion, the DM is at fault for not giving COMPLETE information (qv).

Yet "complete information" is tricky.  The exact line between 'what the players ought to know' and 'what the players shouldn't know yet' is very, very fine indeed ... and playing that line is the best way to build momentum in a campaign.  People have a built-in need to know (qv).  In D&D, we not only have curiousity, we have a guarantee that we WILL know, once the right actions have been taken.  This is what is promised by a book or a film, too - but in D&D we are not passive.  We are active, we make the decisions about what we want to know, and what we'll risk to know it (qv).  This dynamic has the potential to spin players like tops ... if it is played right.

In order to inveigle the interest of a party, it is necessary to produce enough information to prove that knowing is in the party's interest.  If you as DM produce some weird, strange, apparently impractical device that inherently shows no personal gain for the players, they will look at it, shrug, yawn, and move on - no matter how really queer and strange it is (qv).  The game is about obtaining power; power through coin, power through ability and power through influence; if you do not tease your players with the offer of one of these things, you are barking up the wrong tree.  You are a prostitute offering clients the promise to walk their dog (qv).  Unless 'walking the dog' is a euphemism for sex, you are selling the wrong thing to the wrong people.

Therefore, when something shiny is showing through a crack in the floorboards, it needs to be the right kind of shiny.  It needs to convey information that more shinyness is somewhere about, and that it can be found if only the party will start looking.  If you will increase further still the momentum of the event, the shiny object that's found will inherently contain other information, such as the promise of danger, and the promise of terrific good luck.

Having initiated the search, then - or whatever other encouragement to action causes the party to believe that vast wealth and power lays just beyond - don't make the search nigh impossible.  In fact, don't even make it excessively difficult.  Luke & Co. do not wander all over space for a half-hour of screen time before discovering the cause of Alderaan's destruction.  They don't know the Death Star is the cause, but they find it fast enough, and finding it almost immediately keeps the narrative flowing.  There is nothing more crippling to momentum than too many moments stacked together which turn up no results.  Whenever possible, fast-forward the narrative to the next immediate result, and press pause when you get there.  Each result will create interest, and discussing the results will create more interest (and some inspiration for you, the DM, vis a vis NPC Narratives, as you determine in your head what the NPCs are doing at that moment and what they're discovering, to give to the party later).

Not fast-forwarding, i.e. wandering through endless empty rooms in dungeons without finding anything, is a very poor way to build momentum.  The theory has long been that empty dungeon rooms creates tension and makes the bang at the end more interesting.  Hollywood has made horrid bad films for years on this logic - remembering that its cheaper to film talking heads blabbing about how to destroy the alien race than it is to film the destruction of the alien race.  So you are awarded with five minutes of destruction and 65 minutes of talking heads.

Empty rooms are also easy to create, and can be created in abundance, and inherently fill up a whole evening with their investigation, enabling the DM to put all his or her eggs into the one interesting room at the end.  It takes four times as much effort to create four interesting rooms, plus more if you want the interesting rooms to have any continuity.

I argue that the whole week before playing D&D is a slow, boring time waiting for the interesting room, and that players shouldn't have to wait through unnecessary time drags before getting to the good stuff.  They've already waited to play the good stuff.

Thus, reason in your mind how your players can be awarded with power, coin and status each time they overcome an obstacle; this will keep the carrot firmly in front of the horse, and will discourage the horse from wondering why they never get a bite from the carrot even though its always there.  In other words, once in awhile, and not too long a while, let the horse eat the carrot.  You can always create another carrot and horses are ready to eat a lot of them.  Obviously, you have to keep carrots out of the horse's mouth long enough to make them pull the cart ... but if you never give the horse a carrot, it will just stop pulling.  And there's the end of your momentum.

This brings, then, the question of obstacles.  For a horse pulling a cart, the obstacle is the weight, the harness, the slope of the road and the distance.  These are obstacles enough to make a horse's day a hard one.  They are not, however, enough to create momentum in a campaign.  Getting through the player's day has to be more than just work.  The obstacles have to be interesting, occasionally life-threatening, and by and large the stuff that dreams are made of.  By that, I mean that they should hit a standard of things that one would tell stories about afterwards.  Players like to think back upon their past exploits as great things they were able to do.  In the end, the treasure, the gained experience will be forgotten, and the memory the player will retain was that once they flew a cow with wooden wings into the side of the Lord's Tower, causing it to collapse with profound consequences.

Your obstacles should be the sort that require inventive solutions, but NOT the sort that require a predetermined solution.  Create the obstacle.  Make the obstacle complicated and difficult to overcome.  Let your players invent the profound, elaborate and dangerously insane schemes that will breach it.  When they fail, it will be as much fun for them as succeeding, for in most cases they will expect to fail.  Succeeding in the face of that will provide a thousand times the momentum your campaign needs than succeeding at fitting piece A into slot B while holding lever C with device D.  While puzzles and traps are obstacles, they are not interesting obstacles.  You will not hear a player tell in excessive detail about the time they picked the green door over the red one.

If you have, how boring must be the ordinary obstacles of their campaign?

Like inertia, momentum in a campaign has a way of building up over time, in that a certain number of events experienced by a group of people crosses a given threshold and those participants find their mouths watering for the next opportunity to do something again like things they've done in the past.  This will allow a certain amount of leeway where it comes to the slowness of a particular campaign session ... in that they will forgive the DM these indiscretions since they have experience with what the DM can provide.  Eventually that credit will crumble and falter, if not kept up to the standard of the past, but the more credit you have, the more you can expect from your players between giving them a carrot.


While it is true that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, it is also true that the Devil is in the details.  But before we talk about consistency itself, let's apply it first to narrative, and then to momentum.

It is a true failing of DMs that they fall in love with their narratives, particularly those which players do not happen to follow up.  There is a perception that every performance artist has, which I confess to sharing, and that can be summed up in the words, "You wouldn't believe what I had waiting behind Curtain No. 2, if only you'd picked THAT!"

I think there is only one metaphor for this, and thankfully it affects both sexes.  It is what happens mentally when the girl gets up, or the guy pulls out, before you are done.  It is an awful, empty, heartbreaking emotion, and we all experience it from time to time.

For some DMs, it is enough to have created the Curtain No. 2 option, and they will quietly tuck away the props and elements therein for the next opportunity the party has to step into a similar situation.  For some DMs, the Curtain No. 2 option is SO cool that they can't resist talking about what was there, getting the coitus interruptus of the moment out in the open and at least off their chest.

And then there are DMs who do not let go; who cannot let go; who immediatly set about to reorder time and space in order to ensure that, no matter what, Curtain No. 2 shall be pulled aside, the way it was MEANT to be!

Not to torture the metaphor beyond all reason, but for me personally, this is where you end the sex act and your partner rapes you.

Where it comes to cohesion and the narrative, there is a disconnect in that some DMs are unfamiliar with the principle that the cohesiveness of the campaign is not centered around the DM and his or her concept, it is centered around the Players and their concept.  While the DM may own the funhouse, and may have built the funhouse, the DM's fun is not considered when the payers have entered the funhouse.  When was the last time you took a ride on the rollercoaster and thought about the vendor's mindset as you tumbled and spun?

So where it comes to cohesion and the narrative, I say to the DM, this isn't about you.  This isn't your narrative.  The NPC narratives you create behind the curtains of your design are meant to stay behind those curtains if the players want it that way.  You must, if you will run a good game, allow those set-ups to gather dust, if necessary forever more, rather than foisting them upon your characters.

If you will create cohesiveness, it must be from the player's perspective - which is, in fact, far easier than creating a cohesiveness for your entire world.  The players move about as though the world is a great conveyor belt, and the cohesion that you create must only extend to what the players happen to perceive.

Most of this will be quite common:  merchants will sell wares, lords will manage lands, street cleaners will clean the streets and so on.  Allowing normalcy in most of the things the players interact with will go a long way to building trust and - if you can believe it - suspending disbelief.  If they see the DM as a caretaker and not an experimental scientist, they will more freely interact in your world, enabling deeper and more complex narratives that don't 'blow up' when the DM has to put his finger in here or there.  You're managing a garden, snipping a branch here or there, tying up a plant now and again for its health.  You're not a construction company, blowing things up so you can build other things.  Get out of that mindset.  Let your towns be towns, and let the citizens within deal with strife and hard times as citizens will ... the more often your NPCs, and your world in general, responds as you would expect things to respond, the more your players will buy into your narrative.  Then, when something weird happens, they will assume a cause other than the DM creating another railroad.  They'll assume its something they don't know, and from past experience they'll begin to understand that knowing will probably bring another reward - on their terms, not the DM's.

Cohesiveness as it applies to momentum obeys the same principle.  Allow your players to feel and experience the momentum as it occurs to THEM.  Don't try to pound momentum down their throats because you believe this is the time they should be experiencing it.  You cannot make the plants grow by beating them with a rake.  You must apply the rake gently about their roots, loosening out the weeds and clearing the ground, providing water and sunlight, and letting the players develop their sense of the big bad world on their own.  You increase the level of cohesiveness by letting your players create it.  Once they begin to expect things to be a certain way, beware of how you change things around.  Don't blot out the sun that's been instrumental in the present growth spurt.  Where it comes to momentum, 'new' isn't exciting, it's fucking annoying.  When was the last time something 'new' that was coming at you at 60 m.p.h. on the highway made you feel like you were on an adventure?  Hint: swearing, swerving and nearly getting killed isn't 'adventuring.'

Yet what DM isn't guilty of hands down changing all the rules in a night and finding the players are angry and resistant, as opposed to excited?

Now, cohesion itself is the principle element of world-building.  Whether the world you build is small and cozy, or ridiculously extensive, it is assumed that as DM you build the world in a manner that is suitable for you.  It stands to reason that having laid the garden in its place, and having chosen to grow the beans here and the cabbages there, one does not start replanting the cabbages three weeks into the season.  Perhaps next year you might remember you'd prefer the cabbages away from the fence, where they could get more sun, but this year you will probably leave them well enough alone.

The world design itself must be approached from the same perspective as the garden - once the location for the various elements have been established, and the seeds planted, the problem of what is to be grown and where it is to be grown is settled.  The gardener does not waste time upon those questions once the sowing is done.  There are other things to cogitate: how best to tackle the problem of weeds, how best to counter diseases, how best to fight off vermin and eventually when to harvest.  If creators of worlds would settle, once and for all, what the world is and what the world might present, and thus bring their attention to other matters, such experience teaches the DM to present that world well, or how experience teaches the players to interact with that world, than patterns of interaction can be recognized and managed, and the desired depth of the campaign can be plumbed.  But if the world itself will be destroyed every time a problem arises, as though it is the designed world and not some smaller element that is to be blamed, than no cohesion can ever exist because no cohesion is ever tried.

If every year you planted a garden, only to plow it up the moment a blight strikes the carrots, then you will never have a garden.  You will never learn how to manage blight, you will learn nothing of the ways of gardening and you will remain ignorant of the garden's purpose from one year to the next.

A D&D world is not put to the test in three sessions.  It cannot be expected to prove its worth with one party in an afternoon.  It must be coddled and pampered for years if it is ever expected to produce the yield you demand from it.

So, when the world has been constructed, and the players have been allowed to adapt to the world, and the excitement the world derives from the players exploring the world (and the DM's imagination, presumably), what then should the DM do to retain the cohesiveness of the world?

There is an old adage here.  If it isn't working, abandon it.  if you find yourself working to make something work, and you cannot make it work, then it is time to admit that it doesn't work and simply move on.  You may try a new combat system, but if the combat system is a failure, and everyone knows it, and the belief is that we CAN make it better, but all attempts towards making it better fail, it is time to recognize that you cannot cling forever to a lost cause.

You may feel that changing the existing - annoying - system would be destroying the 'cohesion' of your campaign, but you're failing to grasp the larger perspective.  The failed system is the element of your world that isn't working, amid all the elements that are.  The failed system is the non-cohesive element of your world.  Ridding yourself of it is not the destruction of cohesion, it's the preservation of it.  Bring in a new system.  Experiment to see if it is something that works.  If it does, embrace it.  And build from there.

Any system you bring into your world has the potential for increasing or decreasing the cohesion of that world.  Give it a set period of time, and if the new system does not accomplish what you hoped for, Let It Go.  Your world will remain your world.

This is the same principle for managing a garden.  Good gardeners move towards trying new strategies in the same way.  If, however, the strategy results in killing this year's crop of beets, you don't try it on next year's crop of potatoes on the logic that it may only kill beets.  You learn from your mistakes, you take your losses and you don't try the same strategy next year.

To which it must be added, do not embrace every idea which presents itself.  View every idea from that same perspective of the overall cohesion of all the rules you now play by.  View every new idea as a potential threat.  How much time will you waste trying to make this work?  How much momentum will be lost in your campaign as everyone in the campaign first learns how to use the new system?  Is it worth it?

I don't argue that you shouldn't try to change things up, and occasionally try systems that are unique and interesting.  A new, innovative system can bring much momentum to a campaign.  But if you insist on constantly trying new ways to do things that have been working perfectly fine for you, than you are the force that will bring your formerly cohesive campaign to wrack and ruin.  It can take years to build a brilliant campaign.  A few months of stubborn, inflexible innovation can kill it just as dead.

Why worry about whether an old, working thing needs to be changed?  Do you complain that the shears you've used to cut back your raspberries year after year make gardening a boring?  Do you decide that because you hoe every year, this year you'll won't, just to be different?  If so, perhaps you are unclear on the subject of things working the way they're supposed to work.

Cohesion begins, continues and ends with this rule: "Do as little as possible."  Leave your players alone.  Leave the world you've designed alone.  Stop messing with it.  Concentrate on running it, and letting your players run in it, and the world will take care of itself.


And now I have appeared to offer contradictory arguments.  Just above, I said that you should let the players act in your world.  And at the top of this post, when describing disbelief, I said that the players should do so, but only 'apparently' ... I further alluded to the DM's manipulation 'beneath' the player's perception.  These would appear to be, as I say, contradictory.

Let us be clear.  The DM certainly runs the world.  Events in the world do take place with the DM's manipulation.  My argument above was that to preserve the cohesion of your world, you should allow your players to run in it, and that you shouldn't mess with that world.  This does not mean that you should not run in that world also.

If you want to convey a suspension of disbelief in your players, then you must be prepared to present your manipulations of your world as though the world is as unchangeable for you as it is for them.  You may create NPC narrations; you may incorporate teases; you may impose obstacles - but these narrations, teases and obstacles MUST obey the same rules, structure, format and constraints your world demands of the player.  A demon may teleport at will from town to town; demons do that.  But ordinary peasants cannot.  The rules are varied and far reaching and - as DM - offer you one hell of a lot of "gee, let's fuck with the party" possibilities ... but if you don't want the party to cotton onto your cleverness, you'll reach into your bag of really bizarre tricks only so often.

To restate the difference here:  don't mess with your world; but hell yes, mess around IN it.

You have a lot of opportunities for manipulating events by what parts of the world you care to describe, as opposed to what parts you don't, and you can have a party dancing on a string to a lively tune if you go all out.  But puppeteer, hear me good when I tell you, DON'T let the party see the strings.  They will never, ever forgive you.

This will require something from you that, maybe, you're not capable of doing.  If you can do it even a bit when you're of a young age, you'll find you're brilliant at it when you're fifty.  The thing you must do is shut up.

Stop talking.  Stop explaining yourself.  Stop revealing what you've done, or why you did it.  Just stop.  These are things that you have to learn to enjoy yourself, in your own brain, without the added satisfaction of smarmily dancing them under someone else's nose ... or else you will spoil the brilliance that comes from inscrutability.  If you want to be a good DM, and you want to run a good game, learn to be inscrutable.

What does that mean?  Well, we do want people to be able to understand you when you speak; we're not talking about quite that much inscrutability.  But we do want a level of enigma; a degree of impenetrability; a dash of the mysterious.  In short, my gentle readers, we do not want your players to be able to 'read' you, or your intentions.  With practice, you must be able to look them straight in the eye and LIE.

Not that you are always lying, you understand.  You're expected to be accurate, so sometimes you will also be truthful.  What's wanted here is for your players to be uncertain about when you are lying, and when you are telling the truth.  More to the point, it will probably come about that they fear in certain moments that you are lying.  If you get very good at it, they will fear in other moments that you are telling the truth.

And they won't KNOW.

The more you talk about what you're planning, and how it will happen, or how it happened last time, or what this party did when you tried this, or how this party reacted when you presented this situation, the more your present party is learning about how you play.  You're blowing your greatest strength!  Don't give them clues!  Don't tell them what to expect!  Shut up!

When you don't reveal your motives, you create a powerful aura around yourself, forcing others to question themselves when they find they can't get a straight answer from you.  If you can, train yourself to develop a flat, poker stare, so that when players ask pertinent questions, your expression does not give away the answer.  This will drive your players crazy.  If they don't know what to expect from you, they won't know what to expect from your world ... and they will love that deep, mysterious quality.

Developing this strategy will enable you to move more adroitly shift under the radar, as you won’t show your hand to your players, even after you’ve played it.

Now, you must take this advice with a grain of salt, since most of the time you will want to be completely straight up with your players.  You will want to present your NPCs as what they appear to be, since building engagement for your players sincerely demands they be able to predict with in a certain measure the responses of others – or else they don’t dare DO anything.  Your players should feel comfortable approaching NPC’s for favors, or to hire them as retainers.  When someone proposes to be of help to them, 99 times out of a hundred you want that NPC to be helpful.  However dangerous your world may actually be, populate your world with good-intentioned, well-meaning characters.  This is the player’s experience in the real world; having this be the experience in your world will bring them a level of comfort, which will increase their trust in you.

Having your players trust you is invaluable capital.  Spend it carefully and wisely.  Once you have built it up, do not squader it.  For the most part, label the killable creatures and personalities in your world with a big bright marker … this will enable you to present the odd, truly dangerous deceiver in your campaigner as someone truly to be feared.  The party, trusting in the decency of your world, will tend to view such persons as something to be eradicated.  Note here the suspension of disbelief – the party will see the deceptive entity as something that needs to be removed, and NOT connect that individual with your DM’s imagination.

The further you separate yourself from the personalities you create in your world, the more willingly the party will retain that separation in their active dealings with said personalities.  The party will not interpret the villain as “The DM fucking with us,” and will interpret the villain as “the sort of person who is expected to exist, and who must be eradicated.”  The gentle reader should understand that our imaginations have a tendency to fill in the blanks regarding the behavior of virtually any characterization you care to present … by presenting characters who deviate from expected behavior a little bit, but not excessively, you enable the players to create images for these characters which do not superimpose YOU into the fabrication process.

At times, you may find yourself going over the top; you may make errors and bring into existence beings or situations so outrageous or camp as to be laughable or phony.  Should this happen, do not fret.  Take a page from above: ditch it.  Ditch anything that proves it isn’t working.  If you can’t ditch it, posit a reason why the being or the situation appeared to be more ridiculous than it really is.  Reshape that sucker and bring it back down to Earth.

It may seem wonderful to populate your world with freaks – but you will find your human players will quickly adapt to any level of weirdness you try to create, and will return to their ordinary, everyday suppositions about things.  This is our nature.  You must play up to it, and not against it, or your players will know your world isn’t real.

Justifying Decisions

If you stay true to the practices above, you will rarely find yourself having to justify anything.  For the most part, since you are playing your hand close to your chest, you will be able to present a realistic argument to the party that they do not yet know all the facts.  Beware of making that statement, however!  There had better be facts to be known, that will eventually demonstrate how the matter is properly resolved, or you will be declared for what you are: a liar and a phony.

Please believe me when I say that lying is not necessarily a desirable characteristic in a person – it is, however, a defacto necessity in a DM.  In the first case, you cannot always tell the truth to your players.  Occasionally you will need to present information to them through the mouths of NPCs, and let’s face it, everybody lies.  Occasionally your narrative, or the NPC’s Narrative, will require that this particular NPC at this particular time needs to lie to the party, to carry forth the various elements of what’s going on to the best possible conclusion (i.e., that you don’t know the NPC is there to save his son, who is in fact the big bad for the whole adventure).  Every narrator knows that, now and then, not telling the truth about something is the best way to demonstrate that something is very, very wrong about this situation … leading the players to engage, as learning more about what’s happening is – as I said – the main ingredient of game momentum.

If you will lie, you will occasionally be caught in a lie.  Even if you are a very good DM, a very good player will eventually catch you covering up for some mistake you’ve made by pointing out that you changed a detail that they remembered, and you did not.  I have said already that you shouldn’t let yourself be caught manipulating … but you WILL be caught, that’s just the way it goes.  All you can do is be honest in admitting that yes, you lied; you did it because you fucked up here and here.  Then apologize, admit that things were getting a little complicated for you, eat a little humble pie and mean it.  Your party will forgive you (providing they’re not having to forgive you every week.

It needs to be said that a DM must impose upon himself or herself a rigorous sense of what is correct behavior.  I don’t argue that a DM must be above reproach (you’re lying, remember?) … but you must behave in what was once called a gentlemanly manner.  Suppressing your personal wishes or expectations is a BIG start.  You may be bitterly disappointed that the big bad you built the party up for is going down like a glass-jawed fighter inside of two rounds, but your party isn’t disappointed!  They’re slavering for the treasure that’s sure to come, and they don’t give a wit for your disappointment.  Parading it out in front of them is as good a form as prancing around being satisfied with yourself when some monster has successfully killed half the party.

There is a degree of decorum here regarding DMs and players which is definitely a one-way street.  The players are encouraged to get as emotional as they want.  They are encouraged to scream with glee at every critical hit, to dance on the graves of their enemies and to spit tacks and gnash their teeth at every failing.  Emotion is a rich wonderful thing.  It is something that, ideally, the DM shouldn’t indulge.

Ideally, the DM should view the player’s triumph with a warm feeling of positive energy, feeling a bit of pride for being able to make a player happy.  The DM should view the player’s failures with sympathy and consideration, while contemplating means by which the player should be aided – subtly, of course – in overcoming this failure and bringing about another triumph.  The DM may have other emotional states of mind, but these should not be presented as part of the gaming experience.  Remember, you have to shut up.

Why?  Because, in fact, you cannot justify any strong emotion you have as a DM in the face of the fact that you can at a stroke recreate any part of the campaign to suit yourself.  There is no player anywhere who can commiserate with your angst, and every player will view your successes as nothing less than gloating – so if you must have emotions, don’t parade them.

This is only the same lesson every person in supreme authority learns.  Authority demands a level of behavior which appears, frankly, to be unfair.  But this is your lot as DM.

If you will impose this rigor upon yourself, and live by it – to stand up and accept your wrongdoings, to stiffen your upper lip, to behave whenever possible with the player’s interests held ahead of your own, and so on – you will find you’re able to stand up to any criticism by standing squarely upon your actual motives.  This position will enable you to justify your actions, because your actions will in fact be justifiable.


The gentle reader will please understand that no set of techniques for dungeon mastering a game will handle every player.  There are players who will simply fail to engage, no matter how much freedom you give them, or what is happening.  There are players for whom the momentum never reaches a degree they can appreciate.  There are players for whom the destruction of cohesion is a personal goal.  And there are players who will never, ever, suspend their disbelief.

As a DM, you will come to recognize the patterns of behavior that makes for a difficult player.  Some players will come to your game wounded and dripping from a hundred other campaigns that "All sucked!" - and who will still retain the core of a real player.  Some players will distrust you automatically because they've trusted DMs just one time too often.  Some players will be disruptive and anti-character because, well, they've never been shown the way.  If you're lucky, you may someday have one of these players in your world, and you may help them to at last find redemption for their obsession with this game in your campaign.

More likely, however, is that you will find yourself faced with a player who is quite beyond this redemption.  You will stretch yourself to the limits of your ability to please them, to find the key that will awaken the player within, only to fail.  You will slam your efforts again and again this poor bugger's wall, and if you are obsessive enough, you will destroy your whole campaign in the process.  You'll break your own long-held principles just to make them like your game.

But you'll fail, because these individuals are not merely bad gamers, they are bad people.  They may be fundamentally harmless and even well-meaning, but they haven't got the stuff for interactive behavior with thinking people, and they cover that up by acting up and demanding attention.  If you have the patience, give these people a try.  But keep it in the back of your mind that when the time comes, they may have to be bum-rushed out of your campaign.

All this advice that I've been giving here comes with a warning:  this is an ungodly amount of work we're talking about here.  Your brain will hurt, your senses at the end of some sessions will grow numb and foggy, and from time to time you will flat out lose your temper and your reason from the stress of answering and explaining and explaining and answering for hours at a time.  The requirement to run a good game is hellishly costly upon the DM.  Only a deliberately self-abusive person would make the attempt.

It requires far less effort to run a mediocre game, and even less to run a crappy game ... it's no wonder that crappy games are the norm.  To run a good game literally requires that the DM suppress natural emotions and change as a person.  And if all of this is what is required, why, why, why would anyone want to be a DM?

Most times, I think, you are the poor bugger who has been shunted into the position because there is no one else available ... and when you find yourself casting about looking for a means to improve your ability to play, you run straight into the splat books Blaine addressed at the start of this post - which are no help at all.  I could imagine that if you are the sort of individual who has thrown your hands up at what you've found already, and you have no natural drive to play - that is, you had to be roped into it - then this long post will be of little help to you also.  I am asking for behavior from a DM that is unnaturally difficult, which is not easily accomplished without already having a proclivity for at least partway having come to some of these conclusions.  If you are such an individual, that is one that hasn't the natural drive, then I'm afraid I've probably failed you today.  On the other hand, if you have already discovered some of the above things to be true on your own ... you may have more natural drive than you presently expect.

For those DMs who do have a natural drive; who find they must DM because playing alone does not immerse them far enough into this game, I hope they have found a greater sense of inter-relation between the various elements of narrative and momentum and cohesion.  I have written this for them, because they are at least halfway to the goal already.

But I'm avoiding my own question now, regarding the choice to DM.  It is easy to point and say, "Because I must," but that is a philosophical cop-out.  The better answer would be to provide cause ... and I think it is relevant to do so in this post, because I believe the cause of being a DM is also a motivation to running a good game.

Looking over the various aspects of DMing, one returns again and again to the expectation upon the DM to present a sort of playground for the players - and in this, it is easy to leap to the conclusion that a DM creates a world to be a sort of tourist guide, or comparable service functionary.  Having made the funhouse, it is presumed that the DM's personal satisfaction comes from others having fun in it.

I don't deny that there is personal satisfaction in that.  But I sincerely don't think that's enough.  I believe that for a lot of DMs, composing a world and a campaign goes much further than merely showing it off.

If I may impose a last metaphor - if you build a magnificent house, yes, you will receive satisfaction from showing off that house.  But the greater satisfaction comes from simply viewing or experiencing the product of your imagination, for its own sake.  I may run players in a particular part of my world, and they may travel through a composite of Russia or Germany or India upon a great adventure.  But rest assured, I am in Russia and Germany and India TOO.  I am travelling the rivers, I am fighting the monsters there, I am assuming characters and conjuring up great monoliths and fantabulous features in my imagination also ... and I am just as astounded as the players, though my task is to relate to them what I have already seen myself in my mind.  The principle difference is that since it is my world, and not theirs, they must do their best with something not quite tailor-made for their souls ...

But my soul rests in my world in a state of perfect contentment.

P.S.:  This is, in fact, more than 10,000 words.  I don't know how it will be received, but it was in fact written in one day, in just a little under 12 hours, from 7:40 this morning to 7:17 right now, at least by my computer clock.  Blogger might publish this an hour different, as I don't think I've ever fixed the time zone.


JDJarvis said...

Great post. I can relate to my past success and failures as DM. If you can't communicate in a dialog with the players that you and they enjoy the campaign is screwed. There is no perfect way to build,organize and run a campaign. Trying to slam square pegs into round holes with new hammers is only going to result in frustration in the long run. Allow the players to discover pegs that fit and everyone has fun.

Blaine H. said...

First off, I am astounded by the sheer volume of what was covered here and will be honest to say that it was a wonderful read, definitely one to give a copy to some of the other DMs that are floating about in my circles.

It put into more eloquent and descriptive words everything that I have tried to tell other people who ask how it is possible to run a single world for over a decade. It covered all the secrets that have been gleened off others who came before me, the little secrets that I had thought were just that, secrets. It was a wonderful validation to read, to see put into words.

One of my players read it along with me and gave a very knowing laugh at several points in the piece and pointed out that the most important lesson that makes for the good DM was, to put into much simpler terms, that they were consistent and accountable.

They are able to believe anything I do as a storyteller because I back up all my decisions and can prove and explain it if called to. I don't hide behind fiat. This allows the players to trust in me completely that I am not trying to screw with them. That the challenge is appropriate for them. It allows them to really let loose, knowing that if I pull a trick... by the gods they can do that trick too if they figure it out... a few try hard to decode it.

It lets them get immersed in the world and really get involved. Even the less than engaging players perk up... even if it takes a bit of a prod to do so.

So it was ultimately nice to see this in print. Too bad this or a variation of isn't the first chapter of every DM or Storyteller guide book.

Taskboy3000 said...

These tips apply equally to being an adult and parenting.

Thanks for writing these up.

James Wintergreen said...

I really enjoyed reading this post.

You have expressed some very important points about running a game, that tally with my experience over the years. I am particularly impressed by your observations about the necessity of being inscrutable, and the relationship between authority and responsibility. Running a game is a test of character, in some dimensions.

The one place where I found the post difficult to follow was in the initial description of 'momentum'. I think you are talking about a kind of state in which the players (I hope the GM also, although it may not always be so) are so absorbed in what is going on in the game that they lose sight of other things - and so the passage of real-world time goes unnoticed.

One of the difficulties I have in this area is that sometimes you will have amongst your players at the same table two individuals with widely divergent information needs. For example, one may be very trusting, intuitive and quick to announce decisive action, while the another is very cautious, precise, wanting to explore all of the details in a situation before announcing action. What is absorbing for one of these players is often going to be discordant for the other.

Now I understand that over time one might 'lead' one's players' preferences to converge. But the reality is that my players often have distinct preferences. And in practice I think that some of these types of preferences are very deep-seated and unlikely to shift very far, even with 'teaching'.

What do you suggest for handling this kind of situation in a way that promotes an engaging game for all?


Alexis said...

James W.,

That is as good a description of momentum as any I wrote.

The best you can do with players wanting a lot more information than others is to try as best you can to anticipate that particular player's information needs and to keep your answers to questions short. It's very easy while answering a string of questions to fall into longer and longer descriptions, but of course shorter answers are better at retaining the momentum.

Remember also that often asking for more information can sometimes be met with an answer there is no more relevant information. Like riddles or puzzles, the player should have all they need (you say) and has to act now. This kind of answer isn't always possible ... but when you find yourself describing things that you know in your world are in fact irrelevant, don't feel you can't say so to the players. Try not to let them get over-focused on things that are, in fact, of no importance.

Players will sometimes get far more interested about a piece of dungeon dressing than it deserves, convincing themselves somehow that understanding this thing will reveal some important secret. Be direct and tell them, and push them forward to things that actually matter.

The player with the high information need, remember, has that because they don't trust themselves, and they don't trust you. Do what you can to gain their trust by explaining, flat out, the truth of things from your position behind the curtain. And take note that often the answer to a complicated question would be, "your character has no idea."

It's a tricky situation, and the only possible solution is to do your best to change your information delivery style to quickly manage that player's needs.

connor mckay said...

This post is quite inspiring, and to me it seems that it could be very accurately described as The Tao of Dming, if not of D&D.

I very much hope that your book, How To Run, takes this post and runs with it. Though, I need to wait for $30 to become available to purchase it.

On another note, in relation to making sure the campaign remains cohesive, how do you go about introducing rule changes that you wish to try out to your players? Do you simply tell them, "Hey, I want to try this out so here is how it works, lets get going" or do you approach them and highlight it as more of an experiment, following some version of the scientific method?

Alexis Smolensk said...

The book investigates that question in depth, Connor, with very many other things. Borrow the money. You would find the book entirely worth it.