Friday, December 6, 2013

Don't Let the Lack of Fun Worry You

The reason I took so strongly to D&D from the very beginning had much to do with my previously possessed fascination with all things Earthly and humanistic. Before I had sat down for my first game, I had already possessed a passionate adoration for geography and for all things in maps; I had studied and adored almanacs and statistics, and had gotten a World Almanac every year for Christmas beginning at the age of 8. I had once gotten into trouble in the 3rd grade for reading medical & biology books that the librarian felt were better suited for older children, and my mother had to come to the school and sort the administration out. I had read quite a lot of books about both world wars, my particular favorite being about the Sinking of the Bismarck. I was stunned and intrigued with amateur astronomy, and spent many cold, cold nights with binoculars and small telescopes staring at the sky. I had read everything by Asimov and most of the major science fiction authors I could find, my share of occult books ranging from Stoker to Stephen King, with abridged and unabridged versions of classics by Dumas, Tolstoy, Stevenson, Wells, Verne, Lew Wallace, Kipling and many others - I would return and find the unabridged copies of books I'd read at age 10 later in life. I would probably have read the unabridged book from the start, but they were not included in the libraries I had access to as a child.

What I am trying to say is that I already had mountains of stored, untapped knowledge that had been sitting in my brain for years, with nowhere to go, before I'd even heard of D&D. I played a lot of strategy games, Avalon Hill stuff like Panzer Leader and Squad Leader I mentioned yesterday, Tractics and various lesser-quality games, in some cases weekly with people I knew. D&D wasn't wonderful because it was so new and different and incomprehensible. It was wonderful because I could see immediately that there was so much I could do with a game like this. I only needed to plug myself in and get started.

Of course, it did not go well from the start. I was reworking this part of my Advanced Guide on Monday:

From the very beginning ... from the first time that I played Dungeons and Dragons ... I wanted to be a Dungeon Master.

It took months to pull together the courage to draw out maps and create a world, and to convince my friends to run through that world. It did not go well. I did not know the game as well as I should have. I did not have answers for all the questions I was asked. I was nervous, terribly nervous, so that my voice shook and I was easily flustered. My ideas were vague because I hadn’t prepared enough … and did not know how to prepare. I hadn’t committed the tables to memory and I scrambled for them through the game. I’d only been a player, after all—and at that, for only a dozen actual runnings. Heck, I’d only played two of the character classes. The monsters, too, were unfamiliar ... and of course, combat from the DM’s side was new. I think of all that now, and I shudder."

Initially I misunderstood it for the complexity the game possessed; and recognized as well as anyone how overwhelming it could be, how impossible it seemed to be on top of it all and actually manage the game. And now, when I see other people run, I possess a lot of empathy for their difficulties. Even someone 'great' like Chris Perkins ... you can hear in his voice when he gets past his quite clearly practiced script and is stumbling around for the right words ... "uh, um, you see ... I mean you walk into the room first ..." as he and any DM forgets for a moment where you are and what the party is doing and what should have been said first before already saying what should have been said second.

This is normal.

I was a really bright guy when I started playing this game, but I made a LOT of errors and misjudgements. I did a lot of the things that this blog rails against ... and it rails all the more BECAUSE I used to do those things, and I know from personal experience how shit they are. It has been much, MUCH harder to be a good DM that it has been to produce maps and designs and rules for the game, and to tell the reader the truth, I have no idea if I'm a good DM.

I know what a bad DM looks like, and what they do. I remember when I sat behind a screen. I remember when I couldn't stop grinning nervously while describing things. I remember when I couldn't keep a combat on track or when I pushed and pressed parties into adventures full of invisible walls. It was twenty and thirty years ago, but I remember.

I so wanted to be a DM when I first played, and I so think I was somehow preparing myself for it as a child. But sometimes, I think that it's only now, when I've become an old man, that I truly realize what was necessary from the very beginning; and now, as I write a book about it, it is goddamn hard to get that across. In a community where FUN is the watchword, the answer is that the DM shouldn't be having it. The DM is a sacrifice so the players can have an alarmingly good time ... compensated by a sense of satisfaction. I can get that through other artistic pursuits - a book, a performance, a job well done - but in every case it is WORK, not play, that produces that satisfaction.

It's a hard pill for a would-be DM to swallow. No, I'm sorry, it won't be fun. Don't let that worry you.


  1. Have you taken an opportunity to read Gary Gygax's Role-Playing Mastery? He's got a lot of insight on this topic (in the first three chapters in particular. I've done a let's read on the book, but you can get a direct source copy of the book from Amazon for pretty cheap if you'd rather go that route.

  2. I hadn't actually thought I was looking for information, Charles; in fact, I'm rather restraining myself from pouring out. I've never seen anything from that book that enlightened me, but I have seen a number of reviews that suggested it was "nice" but "not useful."

  3. I think DMing is great fun. It can feel like I'm a cook that spends weeks preparing a menu, days shopping and many hours cooking to watch it all gobbled up in a couple hours by folks that might have enjoyed the subtle flavors and contrasts of the meal but lack the knowledge to communicate why they enjoyed it, but it's usually fun.
    I could be one of those warped souls that enjoys a certain amount of "work" as fun.

    Your library experience is amusing, I experienced a situation where the librarian kept kids in m grade out of the more mature parts of the library but she let me free on the whole place knowing I liked to read science and history books which were in short supply in the youngster section.

  4. I don't get the whole "DMing isn't fun" bit. Everything you discuss and describe... well, I think it's fun. I think it's fun to give my friends at the gaming table a good time. It is fun to challenge them. It is fun when they escape by the skin of their teeth a situation that easily could have killed them, and they cheer because their characters are still alive.

    I think it's fun to dig up photographs of different places, architecture, landscapes, etc. to give the players a visualization of what things look like. I think it's fun to draw flags, design tabards and surcoats, work out exchange rates, draw the obverse and reverse of coins, and examine the details of religion, ritual, and appeasing the divine. When a player sacrifices a hen for good fortune or a bullock for victory in battle, or after overcoming a disease, leaves a votive offering to the god of healing, that's fun.

    When a player learns through experience that it is rude to sniffle and not blow your nose in Cormyr but that in Waterdeep it is THE EXACT OPPOSITE that's fun.

    Some of these cultural things I come up with on the fly. That's why I try to have a notebook on me so I can always jot down random decisions about numismatics, religion, customs and mores, heraldry, etc., and arrange it later in an organized fashion so if I've forgotten I can go back and find it (because believe me, THE PLAYERS WON'T FORGET!!!).

    Yeah, it is a TON of work. I would spend about 3 or 4 times the amount of time preparing as I would running a session. About 2/3 of what I prepare never gets used... THAT session (much of it often gets used later, though), like tavern menus, beer and wine lists, and what various shops have in stock and what services are available at various places.

    I don't really tackle things from the statistical simulation angle but I do try to have a living, breathing world with which the players can interact and I have never, ever been bored. Indeed, creating the world is fun itself--having people actually interact with it is a blast!

  5. JD and Dave,

    FUN. noun. Enjoyment, amusement, lighthearted pleasure; amusing, entertaining or enjoyable; a playful, often noisy, activity

    SATISFACTION. noun. Fulfillment of one's wishes, expectations or needs, or the pleasure derived from this; a source or means of gratification

    I'm sorry language is such a barrier.

  6. I was thinking of 'satisfaction', too.

    It's interesting that you note language as barrier when on the whole it is a language game. Perhaps the purpose being to push at that wall and meet at the collaborative..or maybe something else, words escape me.

  7. No, scratch that. Not merely collaborative but collective.

  8. Enjoyment, amusement, lighthearted pleasure. Yes, I very much experience this. In the moment, during game, I often experience fun as DM. I also get satisfaction when all the hard work pays off.

    I think I understand that you're saying the DM's fun should take a backseat to the players' (I may be misunderstanding) and/or the DM's satisfaction at a job well done. I don't see work as necessarily being "not fun" (although 90% of work is). Therefore, I'm actually kind of surprised by the concept that DMing "won't be fun."

    Either way, this post prompts me to re-evaluate myself as a DM.


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