Monday, May 13, 2013


Wherever you happen to be right now, ask yourself how much attention you're really paying to your environment.  Yes, you know there's a street outside the cafe, or outside your front door; there are things on your desk, or beside your lap top.  There are people  behind you on the bus.  You can hear the wind blowing, or perhaps its raining where you are and everything is damp.  Perhaps its still cold, or its sweltering hot ... but ask yourself anyway, how much attention have you paid to it in the last five minutes.

And that's not a problem.  In fact, while the environment is very important to us, it rates second below what we're doing, doesn't it?  What we do - and our reason for doing it - is far more important than where we happen to be doing it.  Our response to a crisis is much more meaningful to us than the crisis is, nyet?  The fact that there's a flood descending towards the town where you live is an issue, yes ... but seriously, it is more important because YOU live there.

So where is the DM in the game, when things are happening.

Generally, its believed that the DM is the center of attention, and most DMs I think really play it that way.  Most DMs, I believe, are very easily bored - and all the more easily when whatever is happening is not about them.

Here and there, in answer to the post I put up about opening a game, I found people saying, "And after four or five hours, the party still has no idea what to do."


Let's put aside the simple fact that I have my grave doubts that I would have any social contact with people this passive.  Let's also put aside the reality that IF a DM can't get a response from a party, that there's clearly a lot more going on in the game-master-to-player dynamic than that the players are lacking in imagination, will or possible sentience.

Let me say instead, then,

So the fuck what?

Listen, you sit four people down at a table.  You have them roll characters.  You drop them in an inn, in a town, you tell them what they can see and answer their questions ... and they are so lazy, so fucked up, they can't get up from the inn table and do something?

Guess what: Your players are roleplaying.

See, what they're actually doing is pretending to be a bunch of losers sitting in a bar drinking, making jokes, riffing off each other, mocking, arguing, talking about things in their past and so on.  This is what people do in a bar before they actually go out and DO something.  Even if they're making plans to play baseball, go camping on the weekend, swap wives because that's what they're into, etc., they are probably sitting around in a bar swilling drinks.  Your players are doing exactly that.  They have drinks in hand, they're eating the bar cheezies off the table, they're dipping their bread in bacon grease (chips in dip) and so on, and if that's enough to make a couple hours pass for them, then that's fine.

If, as a DM, that doesn't seem 'fine' to you, then that, buddy (or chickie, if you're a girl), is your tough fucking luck.  The players ain't there to fill your dance card.  Because - and here's what you don't understand if you're another run-of-the-mill railroddin' bastard - YOU, dear reader, are the environment.  You're the rain.  You're the two people chattering away making a pain of themselves on the bus.  You're the sweltering heat.  You ... don't ... matter.

That is pretty near impossible for virtually every DM on the planet to comprehend.  After all, we're the ones the industry sells to, we're the ones the industry asks for our input, we're the ones everyone admires.  We are the GODS of the game, aren't we, since we have all the power.

Only thing is ... you're not a player.  What that means is, you're not there to play.  You're there to manage play.

Wow.  Sucktitude, huh?

Every once in a while, I'm sitting at the table having explained a given situation.  The room is this big, the door is this heavy, the monster's dead body is pouring this much blood onto the floor ... etcetera.  And the party gets involved with what they want to do next.  They start talking to each other.  Sometimes, for five to twenty minutes at a time, no one talks to me.

And I don't talk to them.

Back in the day, I used to use these lulls to slap together the next encounter, pick out the miniatures I was going to need, maybe draw out a few lines, look up shit in the books and so on ... but I'm better connected to everything now and I've found that these little moments are really a good time to relax.  That's why the last thing the Opening Module says is that I'm getting a cup of coffee.  That's because, whatever the party decides to do, even if the party decides to do nothing, it doesn't fucking matter.  I've done my bit.  I've given my speech.  I'm here for questions, if there are any.  But I don't have to take part in the discussion, any more than the table does or even the bar wench schlepping drinks.  I'm out of it ... and I like it that way.

If you give yourself a chance to shut up as a DM, and take stock of what's actually happening with the party, you might discover they're not as 'bored' as you are.  One or two of them might feel they're not involved in the general rancor; they might look to you for some kind of support, to "move the game along" as it were ... but what you really need to do is make sure these people realize that your contribution is as much as that wall they can see from where they're sitting in the bar.  You are not a cruise director.  It is up to them to get themselves motivated.

Now, obviously, you can get everyone going if you do something simple like have a loud BANG! occur in the street.  You can have the bar suddenly attacked by the halfling goodwives' guild, armed with rolling pins and apron strings.  You can do anything.  You're the DM.  And because you can do anything, and because you've been pumped full of The-DM-Rules-Juice, you probably will do something to drive the game into some direction that gives you something to do.  That is probably what you've always done.

Which is why your players - without your help - sit around with thumbs up butts.  They're waiting for something to go bang.  They're waiting for you to announce what's on this morning's itenerary.  They're waiting for you to get out your big bottle of pablum and announce it's feeding time.

You'll never make your players grow up that way.


lars_alexander said...

Good point on the growing-up of players.

Lord Gwydion said...

That's a lesson I learned the hard way. But it was a lesson well learned.

Luckily for me, I've now got players that have no problem going and doing things. They'd maybe fare better if they stopped doing things so quickly and spent some more time information gathering before hitting the dungeon (or whatever), but at least they're proactive. And I, when I DM, don't need to prod them.

Montagne Quentin said...

"I'm here for questions." pretty well sums up the role of a DM I must say.

Anonymous said...

Alexis, I kicked off my current D&D game this weekend after a few months off. We were starting months ahead of schedule and I had about a week to scramble in finishing up the bits I needed finished. The last thing I did was modify and print six copies of your "Opening Module". These were handed out to my players after the characters were rolled-up.

I then relaxed for about 20 minutes, munching a bit and sipping on a beer, answering questions as they came up. The night was entirely theirs and it was perhaps the best and easiest running I've had in ages. The players really did all of the heavy lifting.

They concocted a plan to defraud a merchant and slaver, managed to pull it off and then skipped town with their ill-gotten gains. They spent the proceeds of the caper on better equipment with the intent of exploring a nearby area littered with ruins and, it is hoped, treasure. They are currently in the wilderness, slightly lost. Meanwhile, the merchant now has an axe to grind...

Some of this early success can be attributed to the excitement inherent in running any group of characters for the first time in a new world after a break from the game. But a lot of the success was the explicit assurance that I was giving them right away that the show was theirs and I had no expectations regarding what the show would be about.

Alexis Smolensk said...


Hearing you say that, I begin to think that perhaps the "Renaissance" is over.

Perhaps it's time for the "Enlightenment" to begin.

YagamiFire said...

James C. you have just summed up my own experiences since running again. I have NEVER had it easier as a DM. Nor have my games ever been more interesting. I can get up, walk away, go to the bathroom, get a drink...whatever. And you know what? Unlike when I was 15, the game doesn't STOP because I have walked away. Nope, the game continues ahead at full speed as the players connive & scheme like the goddamn Legion Of Doom.

It's a beautiful thing.

I'm actually engaged in a conversation with this over in the Abyss (AKA: The Wizards boards) with some people that seem willfully ignorant about players having their imaginations neutered. "But they'd just sit there!" No shit Sherlock...because the only dipshit DMs they've ever played with had to pull them along by the nose and provide everything FOR THEM because the DM always wanted to be the center of attention like Homer reciting the Iliad.

Screw that!

I talk enough at my job...being able to let my players do most of the talking is a blessing.