Monday, May 9, 2016

Proposal for DMing Tutorials

After much discussion, advice, research, devil's advocacy and contemplation, I feel that I will be ready to offer one-on-one classes in How to DM starting no later than a week today.  I feel that there is a marketable demand for this service.  I feel that I am up to the task and that I'm perfectly capable of teaching such a course.  And I feel that a reasonable price for such a course would be somewhere between $45 and $60 per class (three classes would be three times that amount).

Sessions would be enabled through Skype.  I've used Skype before, though not for a long time, so part of my task this week will be to take a refresher course.  I foresee sessions would run between 60 and 90 minutes, in order to allow flexibility regarding the end of a session.  At this point I'm going to offer three classes (and undoubtedly with some sort of deal if the DM wants to buy three sessions in advance).  For the moment I want to concentrate on three things: presentation, communication and adventure planning.  I'll be more specific about these in a moment.

I could talk about other things, but for the moment I feel these are universal and don't require any discussion of rule systems or specific character design.  Like the book I wrote, I would rather approach the material from a genre-free perspective, since how the DM acts, speaks or creates drama is a universal condition based upon our being human beings, not based on what system we play.

For the moment, I feel it would be wisest for me to offer a few well-considered subjects until I get my legs under me.  This is a learning curve for me as well, for while I have given advice now on the blog for 8 years, I have answered hundreds of direct questions about games and I have been there to counsel other players and DMs in role-playing games for more than three decades, I need to integrate these skills into a lengthy, personal approach that will work with people through the internet who are unfamiliar to me.  I am glad that I had the experiences I've had with fans of RPGs in Toronto and Edmonton recently.  I do believe, from talking to literally hundreds of strangers at those events, that the chances of meeting someone toxic (and willing to pay money upfront for the privilege of being such) is virtually zero.

There are some who will be against this; and some who will feel that I'm not the person they'd want to get advice from.  However, the response and the numbers of people who have expressed interest has been very encouraging.  The rest is up to me.  As I said before the weekend, I have a firm belief that the solution is not to preach an ideal but to promote investigation into each DM's individual challenges and to find solutions that will work for them.  To this, I'll add that a very strong part of the lesson plan will be to help create confidence and assurance in the DM, to encourage a greater willingness to run and to run well.

I feel I am able to teach DMs how to turn left when they say right.

Here is a breakdown of the three classes:

Class 1: Presentation:

Many will feel that this is their biggest hurdle, for many DMs are over-aware of their own failings where it comes to engaging their players, gaining their focus, delivering descriptions and ideas that are compelling, creating a positive impression and worst of all, learning to "think on our feet."  Obviously, no one should expect miracles after an hour or so of evaluation.  However, having a voice that can deconstruct what we're doing, encourage our ability to speak more passionately and with greater energy, while enabling us to "hear" how we sound from another person's perspective can put us on the right path in finding out what we need to do in the future.  It isn't that we can solve problems overnight, but we can gain insight into how to solve those problems.  We are each one of us different - but an ear other than our own, unafraid to give us real perspective and offer real direction, that is something everyone can gain from.

Class 2: Communication:

The way that DMs and Players interact is so often presented in the worst possible light in our hobby, with one side claiming that DMs are absolute rulers and the other that DMs take the game way too seriously.  It's very important that we understand that it is not the DM's role to impose our will upon the players or to use our title as DM to win an argument.  At the same time, Players must be guided to understand that we have limitations, that we are operating within those limitations and that the underlying principles of a successful role-playing game demands that we are all on the same page.  This class wants to help DMs better connect with their players, producing a symbiosis in the game that enables both DM and Players together to move towards a common goal: DM as facilitator and Players as participants.  A substantial part of this class would revolve around the student "running their world," supported by propositions on how we, together, feel that we could improve the message that has been given.

Class 3: Adventure Building:

Here we are speaking of creating the adventure that the players will run on, not the world that Players will run in.  First and foremost, I will focus on the DM's role in these adventures: how the DM 'fits' into what's happening, what elements we will want to include - and most important, how we should not be bullied by the expectations of the Players and ourselves to make bigger, better, greater, more imaginative games.  All too often, we bite off more than we can choose, trying to 'impress' in order not to fail, only to build adventures that fail catastrophically.  Here I can offer considerable insight on what Players really want from a campaign, what they can expect and how we can train ourselves to start easy and build confidence and ability before asking ourselves to build the moon.


Let me say as a placeholder that the exact means of how payment is delivered will be left for the next post that I right.  For this post, it is best that we limit any consideration to content alone.

Comments, please.  I strongly recommend that readers ask me to better explain any element in the above three classes that seems doubtful - not only for me, but for everyone else who might be reading who may not think to ask such a question.  I have no doubts whatsoever about my ability to deliver on these three tutorials - the more I talk about them, the stronger I will be on how to communicate the prospects that others will gain from each tutorial.

I think this is going to be a lot of fun, that it will be powerfully enlightening and that it could be the start that brings an end to many a new DM's frustrations.


Tim said...

This sounds awesome! I'm really intrigued by all the class descriptions. Any sense as to what sort of preparation DMs should consider before the classes?

Alexis Smolensk said...

If How to Run is owned: Class 1 applies to chapter 6; Class 2 to chapters 8 & 9; and Class 3 applies to chapter 4.

In each case, having something prepared from your own campaign would be a good idea. A series of room descriptions or place descriptions for Class 1; a plan to run me through your game as a new character for Class 2; and a skeleton of an adventure idea for Class 3. I'll have details for these when I officially price and launch the classes, expected May 16th.

Maliloki said...

Well, that answers my question. Now to start saving some of my limited spare cash so eventually I can get in on this...

Matt said...

Definitely interested. Will heavily consider signing up once you launch. This is a really neat thing to offer and I hope it provides sustained value both for you and participants!

Maxwell Joslyn said...

You often talk about the importance of the world being living and breathing, the NPCs/entities must be people and not just cutouts (or else they ought to be glossed over -- don't make the player talk to every prostitute and barkeep if they're just looking for a certain street), and so on. In my mind this means that "adventure" is something that arises out of action/reaction by players and NPCs as both go about their business. Have I got that right? In that case, how does that square with the dichotomy you seem to be presenting between "world" and "adventures in it" in the proposal for class 3? Is it the case that what you mean is that naturally some of the happenings or "hooks" the DM puts on the pile will be more "adventurey" than others? I'm kind of confused. You don't give quests (although players may find them.)

JB said...

Pretty exciting! And much less chance of injury.
; )

I'd expect you to charge the equivalent of a college class (credit hours per week). How many folks do you think you'll be able to accommodate on Skype?

These are uncharted waters, Alexis, and I'm glad you're going to give it a shot. I don't envy you (considering the high levels of insecurity and arrogance found in your average DM). Hopefully, the folks signing on for your course will approach it with enthusiasm and an open mind!

Yes, very exciting...I hope you'll keep your readers apprised of how it goes.

Ken Filewood said...

Hi Alexis. I think this is a great idea, and I admire your courage for following through. In the spirit of helping you develop the process, I have thrown together a number of questions and comments below. I realise this may be a longer comment than you were after, so feel free to abridge or focus on the bits that interest you.

Class 1:

The preparation for this is listed as 'A series of room descriptions or place descriptions'.

Is the focus here literally on describing the appearance of locations? Chapter 6 seems much broader.

What would the principal activity in this class be?

Do you expect the descriptions to be written out ahead of time? Or are you asking the student to prepare to describe some rooms and places to you, without regard to the kinds of materials the student might rely on for prompts?

Would you want to receive copies of written descriptions in advance of the session to read? Would you read them during the session?

Class 2:

This is a LOT of material to cover in one lesson. Chapter 8 seems to focus mostly on the practicality of handling the adventure in real time, much of which is about information management and on-the-spot decision making. The main thrust of Chapter 9 seems to be managing ongoing relationships with players and the bigger picture of how the game evolves. Both Chapters contain valuable topics, but it is not completely obvious to me why you have put them all together. Personally, I'm more interested in the Chapter 8 material right now.

Your post said 'a substantial part of this class would revolve around… "running their world"'. Does this mean "running" a session of play in the world? Or are you talking about "running" in the sense of managing the long-run development of the world? Or something else?

I am trying to work out what specific learning activity you plan to use.

Class 3:

I'm not sure I understand what you mean by players running on an adventure.

What do you mean by the skeleton of an adventure? This might mean very different things to different people. Is this a written document? A list of ideas for stuff that might happen? A list of characters?

I found Chapter 4 intriguing. But I confess that after reading it three times, I still have a much clearer idea of how to outline a '3 act play' style adventure than the 'here and now' style you also describe.

I can only think that the skeleton of a 'here and now' style adventure will be characters in a situation with interests that are likely to 'interact strongly' with the interests, values or actions of the players.

One of the most interesting parts of Chapter 4 was where you explored the role of the players in generating the adventure, and this is an aspect that I am interested in playing with. I am not sure how to link this to a pre-prepared 'skeleton' of an adventure.

Is there some other way you could introduce/ prepare for this topic that promotes exploration of the player-driven, organically motivated adventure? Or is that for a later class? :)

Have you any further guidance to offer?

What would you do with that skeleton during the class?


Typically I am running for more than one player at a time. Classes 1 & 2 (and to some extent Class 3) involve dealing with multiple players and their dynamics.

Given that your proposed class format seems to be one-on-one, how are you going to sample/ observe/ rehearse/ explore the way group dynamics influence the DMing task?



Alexis Smolensk said...


Here and there I have written on the blog how the player's choices and actions can be affected by what scenes and possibilities that the DM chooses to create (finding two women stolen by goblins, stumbling across an island with adventures built into it and so on). It can be the player's "choice" to begin or not begin on an adventure - but I find that most players will jump at an adventure if it sounds like an interesting way to spend their time. Thus we give the players a situation that appeals to their greed, sense of moral rightness, aggression or desire for revenge, based upon what circumstances we've created for them to witness or be affected by.

If I take a party, introduce them to a village of suffering people, describe the suffering as due to a group of monsters who are now sitting on a big pile of treasure, it is probable that the players will assess that situation and think, "Sure, we'll do the right thing, if there's treasure at the end of it."

This takes adventure creation - more than just creating the structure of it, but also promoting a specific BEHAVIOUR in the players. Behaviour is everything: a DM must learn to predict behaviour just as any manufacturer does in designing an object for public use. When you think about it, every safety feature we have ever created regarding the use of anything (roads, buildings, phones, rollercoasters) is based on predicting behaviour.

We have to do more than create hooks - we have to make sure that the angler catching the players with that hook has a shape and is worth investigating.

Alexis Smolensk said...


Prices must acknowledge what people are willing to pay; I've considered basing them on all sorts of things, including community classes and the sort of thing you pay for when you want to take a tour. This being a new venture, I expect to underprice myself - but if the demand is there, it may come to pass that I have to raise that price (I don't expect to, but the internet has surprised me before).

I feel that I can probably manage the energy needed for four classes a day, particularly after I've been at it a few weeks. I don't expect that will come up any time soon, except on a rare occasion. All classes will have to be scheduled - but I think I'm open to accept a class anywhere between 11 in the morning and 9 at night (I'm not a late sleeper but I like my morning think time). I think I can manage any day of the week - though when I start running again, late Saturday afternoon/evening will be out.

I met the average DM, as I said, at the Toronto Expo and at the Edmonton Expo. Some insecurity, yes. Virtually no arrogance, except from two people out of hundreds who told me they did not "need a book." I think we overestimate the number of people who are naturally anti-social: just look at the amazing success of AirBnB.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Thinking about that 3rd Class, the one on Adventure-making. Perhaps it might be a good idea to assign a movie for students to watch, so that I can be sure to have examples to discuss where it comes to building up players to "join in an adventure." Film has to do this all the time: creating a motivation for the protagonist to get involved in a way that is believable to the audience. I can think of some very easy-to-watch films that do that; I could give three options, any of which I could deconstruct for examples: The Winter Soldier is good, Ratatouille and - if someone wants something more classic - Rio Bravo.

Incidentally, it's a sign of good writing if the character can be talked or influenced into joining the adventure rather than being kidnapped or directly attacked. Any film that opens with the main character being shot at and then forced to participate may yet be a good movie, but the opening is still weak. It's nice when the character is "forced" but has no idea this is happening, such as the beginning of Galaxy Quest or Sean of the Dead. This gives the protagonist time to make a choice and - even if the only choice is obvious - it builds a sense of believable commitment in the character.

That's what we want for the players. We want to put the idea into their heads while letting them think the idea was their own. This takes practice.

The Class I'm offering would not start by suggesting learning DMs do that. For the most part, DMs need to be shown how to take their players on a ten-mile hike. 99% of the time, that will be Enormously successful. Later on, we can talk about how to make really great hooks.

Michael Julius said...

This is a nice idea and you have a lot to say. Also, just as a suggestion, my wife and I taught ESL overseas and it was good, interesting, and profitable. While doing that I met a few folks who were teaching ESL over Google chat through various companies.

I can't make any specific recommendations but I know that there's a large market for this and it seems that you have a lot of skills that would be complementary. Just a thought.

Ozymandias said...

I'm in.

But not for another eight or nine months. Gotta finish this job and move back Stateside first. But then, yes, I want to sign up. Hopefully you'll have more than three classes/sessions by then.

You will have difficult students, even if they're fully cognizant of the relationship. I may be one of them. I love to learn but I'm stubborn (in part because some things are difficult for me to learn). How will you deal with those people? The ones who resist but aren't being overly assholish about it?

Alexis Smolensk said...


I do seem to be getting an awful lot of people concentrating on the downside possibilities of what might happen if something isn't all peaceful and light.

It almost feels I'm in a job interview, where I am being asked what would I do if I were speaking to a client who became irate and abusive? The right answer to this question is to say, "Our apologies sir, absolutely, you're right sir, please bear with me, I'm working on your problem right now sir, absolutely, yes I understand sir, yes sir, absolutely, you're right sir, one moment please, yes sir, I am working on it right now, I'm just talking to my boss on my system sir, I'll have an answer for you right away, one moment, yes, absolutely . . ."

Repeat as needed.

Is there some job where we don't have to deal with someone shouting in our face? Because if there is, I want THAT job.

Will I have a bad experience? Absolutely. Will I encounter someone who is stubborn and just doesn't get it? Yes, I will, and I will work on the problem. Will I earn my money? Yes, yes, of course, that's part of it.

I have no delusions about any of this.

It is only that I am relying on specific things that I think will enable me to muddle through in the beginning and which will serve me brilliantly once I am experienced with this different sort of approach to educating people about RPGs.

1. I think incredibly fast on my feet. I have all my life and I'm banking on it, the same way that a serviceman banks on their ability to hit a target with a rifle.

2. I am incredibly immersed and flexible where it comes to this activity. I've played it and designed it to a measure that most people can't say about jobs they have that took a degree to get. I know the field backwards and forwards.

3. I am willing to be vulnerable. I'm willing to say "I don't know, let's think about it and come up with an answer" - and then to ask questions about getting that answer. I'm not right a lot of the time and I am comfortable with that. I'm not trying to prove anything or measure my dick against anyone else's dick or even expecting that someone will do it "my way" - because let's face it, everyone else in the world doesn't have this kind of time, drive or peculiar insanity.

I know I've been accused many times of speaking one true way but in reality people with a strong sense of inadequacy use transference to attack anything that comes from a confident, clear position on a given subject. ANY way that is described in a complete, apparently impossible to duplicate manner will immediately attract a host of people who, from a place of threat, will use labels like "narcissist" or "grouchy" to bottle up the threat and somehow diminish it. These accusations are not who I am.

Alexis Smolensk said...

(continued ...)

People who meet me in person will find me unexpectedly reasonable, patient, empathic, unselfish and mutually supportive. People who meet me in person after reading my blog invariably say that they did not expect the real person I am. I'm not conceited, I'm not interested in power for it's own sake and I'm experienced enough to know that everyone's path takes them on their own journey.

There is no "right way" to participate because we are always looking for a better way: a better way for us personally, a better way for our players, a better way that the game can be communicated and shared and the experience heightened.

What we DO know is that there is a WRONG WAY. There is abuse, there is disconnect, there is selfishness, there is ignorance, there is inflexibility and a host of other things that cause participants to pursue Bad Habits and justify Bad Behaviour and ultimately subvert the principles of legitimacy that are necessary to making us feel that we are being treated fairly, respectfully and consistently day after day. We know this because human beings have spent a lot of time discussing and writing about it and the only people who don't seem to know it are those who treat reading, discourse or imagination as vices and not virtues.

So yes, I will get into a scrape here and there. And I will get out of a scrape here and there. And if I'm not very conscious of doing a good job, I will lose all my credibility on line, I will lose all the credibility that will enable me to succeed as a writer, I will lose all the credibility that will one day sustain me as a little old man with no income and I will lose everything I've ever dreamed about or wanted since I was a 12-year-old boy.

Is there a lot on the line? Yes. Am I conscious of it? Yes. Am I rushing into this? No, I don't think so. I think this has always been there, in the wings, just waiting for enough people to say "sure." My part will be to live up to all that I say: to cash cheques with my ass that I am writing with my mouth.

That's all anyone is asked to do who dares to lift their idea above the mud.

Maxwell Joslyn said...

I'm in when I return to the States this summer. I still might not have a game, though -- we'll see what the summer coworkers say -- and that makes me wonder: do you think these lessons will be better or have more effect on those who are currently running a game? Do you anticipate having to change or add to the subject matter at all for those who are stuck in "hot rod in the garage" mode, tinkering?

Jeez ... makes me wish I'd never had to move a single damn time these last few years ... my high school games may have been pretty bad when I look back on them, but I had so many players I had to run twice a weekend.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Ken Filewood,

I don't know if you'll get this message. For some reason, your comment was shunted to the spam inbox on blogger; so I didn't see it until today. I've since answered some of your questions with this post:

If you do see this and you have further questions, please address them to my email at