You’re In My World Now: First Thoughts On Being a DM

ThumbnailWarning: I’m about to geek out big time!

I play games. All kinds of games. While many would immediately think I’m referring to video games, which I do play sometimes, I’m talking here to good old-fashioned tabletop games. You know them: Chess, Scrabble, or things with dice. In particular I like role-playing games, and for the last year I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons for the first time in close to twenty years. This is primarily thanks to the D&D Encounters program that Wizards of the Coast is running, in which an official game gets played at participating locations (usually game stores) once per week, and it’s a short session so you pop in, play for an hour or two, then come back next week. It’s really convenient and has pulled me back into the fold.

It is 4th Edition D&D. I know that many people deride it, sometimes for being simplistic, but more for having such a heavy focus on combat. I understand the criticism, and yes, most of the mechanics have to do with combat and not role-playing or exploration and puzzle-solving. But that should be expected because combat was always the most mechanically intensive part of the game through all editions anyway. As with most things in pen and paper role-playing games, it all depends on your game master. I’ve played some session that were very heavy on role-playing in the new system, and it was really a testament to the skill of the dungeon master, or DM for those don’t know the lingo. If the DM knows what they’re doing and can adjust to player styles and creativity, then a fun time is had by all.

So it came time last night to explore my own abilities as a DM, as I volunteered for the new season of Encounters (titled “Lost Crown of Neverwinter”) to run one of the tables at my local game and hobby store. For a little more information, this is what I’m talking about:

It was interesting and will likely prove to get more interesting, especially because this one takes place in the Forgotten Realms setting, which I have never played in and have only a passing familiarity with. And now I’m running a campaign in this world I have little familiarity with. Fortunately, I have a couple of players at my table who know more about the setting, which adds another layer of interest when the players no more about the world than the DM. Meta-gaming, ahoy!

A learning experience was had by all. It didn’t help that I got the module right before the game started, so I was reading it and flipping through it to look things up as the game was going on. But, then again, I wasn’t the only one, as the other two DMs were in the same boat. This led to some major confusion on my part and I had to correct myself and the course of the game a bit while playing. It also didn’t help that I had eight players at my table, as Encounters are typically designed for five to six players. We should have a fourth table running next week, if necessary, so we’ll hopefully have smaller tables which are more manageable, not to mention faster.

What did I learn from last night during my crash course as a DM? A few things.

Patience is the key, especially when dealing with kids, who tend to play a little slower because they ask a lot of questions. This isn’t a bad thing, though, because it leads to the second thing I’ve learned, and that is the need for creativity and to accommodate creativity. In playing over the last year, I’ve found that the younger players seem to come up with more creative solutions and actions, and it’s the DMs’ job to handle this. This was something I knew before hand, but knowledge and practice aren’t always the same thing. I started out by keeping to the rules and standard turn fairly rigidly, but then realized I was doing exactly what I knew I shouldn’t be doing and was making a huge mistake by not being flexible and knowing when to bend the rules a bit to make it a more fun experience. It’s all about player fun, and if you don’t achieve that, then you’re not doing your job.

It was difficult to get into the mindset of the DM. The hardest part was realizing that now I was making all the decisions for the course of the game and the world, not to mention controlling all the monsters and the characters that populate the world. I really need to work on my acting abilities. Plus, I’ve got to keep track of everything, such as initiative order, monsters’ health, character statuses, etc.

It’s a lot of work, but I still had a lot of fun. The work is definitely not without its rewards. You get to tell a story, which is kind of my thing if you haven’t noticed. I get to vary my characters as I play several different ones in a given session as the characters wander around town. It’s a good way to practice character voices in writing by actually trying to use them out loud and interacting with people to see how well they work. It’s also a good way to practice public speaking in a friendly and fun way.

In short, I need practice. I know I made mistakes, but I recognize them, which is the first step to correcting them. This should be a fun season, and I’m looking forward to continuing as the DM for the remaining sessions, although reading ahead and being a better prepared rather than getting reading the material right before we start and during the encounter. Overall, a really great and rewarding experience that may unexpectedly help me in other areas, especially in character voice which has been one of my biggest struggles in writing. I’ve committed to running the table for the whole season, which is thirteen weeks. It will be interesting to comparing how I feel at the end of the season to how I feel now. Anyway, onward to Neverwinter!

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