The Dungeon Master. The Game Master. The Narrator. The Story Teller.
All excellent titles for the noble creature that is he/she behind the DM screen. Now, for those who are
uninitiated unaware, there exists a genre of gaming referred to as Tabletop RPGs. In these games a group of people use their imaginations to come up with characters and create compelling stories and adventures together usually with some assistance from a pile of various shaped dice. If you are one of the unfortunate few who has never roleplayed before, I weep for you. As a small steps towards rectifying this grave error I offer you these three excellent games, Dungeons and Dragons, Mutants and Masterminds, and Edge of the Empire.
Now for the rest of you who weren’t distracted by my mighty links to far more visually stunning and content filled sites, let us get to the meat of the matter.
Being the DM: What’s all the Fuss About?
An excellent question, dear reader, and I shall do all I can to enlighten you. When you come down to it, in a rolepalying game the players are the heart and soul. They are the characters whose stories we sit down to hear about and create. Whether it is how the half-orc Zaphnik the ‘Zerker finally avenged his father’s murder with the aid of his beloved elf companion Faliton, or how a bounty hunter tracked beloved galactic smuggler Talik Vast to the Outer Rim and held him at blaster point, these characters are who we love. We watch them fail, we watch them succeed, and we enjoy the ride of their adventure even if it ends in the “belly” of a gelatinous cube.
However, we need more than just a heart and soul to get anything done. Without the rest of the body you’re just gonna wind up with a bunch of blood and soul juice in a big pile on the ground. So if it is the players and their characters who bring the heroes of our story, then it is up to the DM to bring everything else.
Being the DM is a lot of work. That is just a fact. However, work is only bad if you don’t enjoy doing it, or if you don’t like the end product. Don’t think of coming up with the next session for your players to play like you would your accounting job. This isn’t about moving numbers around, this is about creating. Your not an accountant, your a carpenter. Build something you love. Take your time with it. Don’t prepare the next session because you have to, but because you want to. And when your done you’ll be left with something beautiful that you can’t wait to
show off share with others.
Now that we have the right mindset for being a DM, its time to breakdown what exactly it is the DM needs to bring to the table. The players have heart and soul, the DM needs to give them something to reside in. The Skeleton is going to be your structure, the setting which holds it all together. The Muscle is used to cause movement. These will be your NPCs, your dramatic events, and your plot devices. Anything and everything that gets those characters out of the tavern and into the dragon’s lair. And last is the Brain. As anyone who has ever DMed before will tell you, players bring a lot of passion and enthusiasm to the table, but they are about as bright as that table as well. It takes a lot of thought to construe what can feel like the random actions of your players into a coherent plot everyone can look back on with fond memories and clear understanding.
We’re gonna take a look at each of these three items the DM needs to bring to the table. You may find while reading that you do great with Muscle, but your Skeleton may need some work. You may have an awesome setting, but when it comes to the plot you could use a little more Brain. Pick and choose from what I have to say as to what you need. If something I believe is important doesn’t resonate with you, for the love of Glob ignore it. There are a lot of different people in the world, and an even larger number of ways to roleplay. What matters most is that you have fun, even if it doesn’t line up with what some guy on the internet says. With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s dive in.
The Skeleton: Setting and Structure
The Skeleton. Its your foundation. Its most likely where you started from before the players even knew they were going to be players. George Lucas didn’t come up Luke Skywalker, and then build a setting around him. No, he knew he wanted an epic fantasy space opera, and then he made a character for that universe. That was his setting. Everything comes from the setting. Literally. Its where the characters were born and raised. If you have a strong setting, that you as a DM understand, it will make everything better.
Some DMs like to use settings created by others, and that is fine. Settings such as DnD’s Forgotten Realms and Star Wars RPG’s A Galaxy Far, Far Away are excellent settings. These settings have had many different people work on them from writers of novels to designers of modules. It’s very hard to find a weak spot in them because so many different sets of eyes have looked over them trying to find any holes in hull. These settings certainly make things easier on you the DM because it saves you A LOT of time and effort that you can now focus on other parts of creation. These prebuilt settings are also great for your players because they can research the setting on their own. The players can read articles about the history of the world and the way its magic works. It gives them a better understanding of the world, and it lets them feel a more a part of something if they understand it. Having said all that, using a prebuilt setting doesn’t give the DM a free pass. You need to know the world as well as if you had created yourself. When Player A says, “I take the fork in the road to the left.” its up to you to know where that leads.
Other DMs prefer to make their own settings. Personally I prefer this. Its a chance to truly create everything in your players world. Worldbuilding has been some of the most fun I’ve ever had as a DM, and I still look back on my various worlds with pride. However, as we all know, with great power comes great responsibility. If you think your up to the task of making a setting, I believe in you, but I also have to say “good luck”. Its hard. It takes a lot of time, and it takes alot of thought. You have to understand how your world works from the top down. You don’t just have to know where the fork in the road leads, you have to make the fork, the road, both places the road leads to, and it wouldn’t hurt to know why someone built that road in the first place. It can be daunting coming up with all of that information. And only once you’ve done all that do you get to the hard part. You have to make your players understand as well. They have to believe in your world and its rules. The DM needs to give them the knowledge they need to act as if this where their characters were raised and live in. What’s more, this all needs to be done in an organic way. If your players feel like they are sitting in on a history lecture, you are just going to bore them. Introduce the world to them, explain it as best you can, and encourage them to ask questions. Once you think they have a good grasp on the setting, move on to actually making characters that could have come from this world.
Muscle: Let’s Get Things Moving
Item number two the DM needs to bring to the roleplaying table is Muscle. Muscle encompasses all the outside forces that are going to act on the players and their characters. The bouncer at the tavern tries to rough them up? Muscle. A storm is coming into town? Muscle. An old man shows up on your door step and tells you to throw a ring in a volcano? Muscle. All of these are forces upon the characters.
Players have a bad habit of siting on their laurels. “We just killed a dragon, and I just got my mug of ale. I really don’t want to go out into the cursed forest tonight.” This kind of attitude is fine. It’s good to let your players celebrate their victories. It’s what any real person would do. But its not very exciting. We roleplay to create epic stories and tales of adventure and overcoming conflict. And I’m sorry Player A, but no matter how difficult it was to decide to between the chicken alfredo and the pasta salad that’s not a very good story. Thus it is up the DM to shake things up. A giant attacks the town, you receive a vision of an injured unicorn in the woods, one of the party members has been framed for murder. Any and/or all of these things are going to get your players off their chairs and into their saddles. It is up to you as a DM to bring these moments to your players. Frodo, Aragorn, and the rest of fellowship were some pretty awesome guys, but no one would read their book if they didn’t ever get up and do something.
There is one other interesting point I’d like to comment on in the Muscle category. The Heart is also a Muscle. By that I mean, your players can also take actions to drive the story. Maybe you had a bounty out for a werewolf, but the Paladin of the group decides he must slay an owlbear to prove his strength to his god. Great! Go with it! Even if you had an awesome werewolf adventure lined up, set it aside. Any time your players show initiative it should be rewarded. Also their saving you a lot of work in coming up with their own adventures to go on. And if you are really feeling down that you didn’t get to use your cool werewolf, who’s to say that the werewolf’s hunting ground doesn’t overlap with the owlbear’s. That kind of plot twist will have your players talking about that session for months to come.
The Brain: There’s No Hole like a Plot Hole
The Brain. Its important. Incredibly important. But there is a reason it is listed last. You don’t technically need to have it. As long you as have Skeleton and Muscle you and your players are going to have fun. But if you have some Brain? Wow. It goes from a fun night to reminiscing years later about what an awesome campaign you guys played. And thats the thing, you don’t need Brain to have a fun session, but to have a fun campaign you really do.
The Brain is what is another word for the plot. The all important plot. It connects your adventures and gives them purpose. Let’s say you have one session where the players killed an orc bandit, then the next one they explore an abandoned wizard’s tower, and in the third they fight a group of ogres. That all sounds fine, sounds fun. But what if instead the party killed an orc bandit and found a map on his body. This map led them through an ancient forest where they found a tower. After braving the magical traps of the tower, the party reached the top of the sanctum. There they found notes saying the wizard of the tower had bartered a great treasure to the nearby ogres in exchange for them to attack the local village. The party sets off to the ogres cave to stop them before they harm the villagers and perhaps reclaim this mysterious treasure. Well one of those is clearly better than the other. That’s what Brain is for. It connects the adventures together to create a true story. No, you don’t need to have Brain, but you’ll miss it if you don’t have it.
An important point here to all DMs regarding Brain. Use Brain to craft a story, to connect sessions together, and to give a sense of purpose. Do not use Brain to tell your story. If you want to your story, go write a novel. That is not what roleplaying is for. A DM should work with his players to create a story. He/She should never come up with a story, and then use your friends as living marionettes to act out the little play you created. One of the greatest parts of roleplaying is that everyone at the table is working together to create something. The players should be able to affect the story and changes things, even if they do so in a way that isn’t necessarily part of the DM’s plans. If the players have no ability to change anything, or the DM doesn’t want them to change anything, why are they there?
Putting Together the Pieces
To make a truly great session of roleplaing, or even a whole campaign, its important for everyone to work together. The players need to bring the heart and soul of the adventure to the table. The DM needs to bring the Skeleton, Muscle, and Brain. It can be difficult to do. It takes work, and it takes practice. The DM must learn the art of balancing his responsibilities and using them effectively. Fortunately for all of us, being a DM is a lot of fun. Even if it takes dozens of sessions before you feel that you got it “right” as a DM, as long as everyone was having fun then that’s all that really matters.
If anyone cares to share their opinion or tell me what an idiot I am, please leave a comment. I’m always excited to hear what everyone thinks.
And remember, GEEK is a Four Letter Word.