Once upon a time my boyfriend (now-fiance) and I were sitting on the love seat in his living room, and I noticed a long cardboard cylinder under his TV. I asked what it was and it turned out to be a game I can’t remember the name of, but rolled up inside that game were D20’s and mini figs. I immediately turned to him and asked “You play Dungeon’s and Dragons?!”
I’d never played, but I definitely knew what it was. I had read about it online, I’d read some of the fantasy books, seen the movie, heard the jokes made about it on TV, and sometimes heard of friends of friends playing the game.
My second question to him was “Can we play?”
Several weeks later I sat down nervously with Eric, one of his co-workers, and two new friends we’d met at the writers group we both attend. With Eric’s help I created Gerta, the human barbarian, with the intelligence check that wasn’t. Most of the game went along these lines….
Dungeon Master: “You come to a door.”
Me: “Gerta smash!”
Dungeon Master: “The door isn’t locked.”
Me: “Gerta smash anyways!”
I was totally hooked and I totally wanted to be the Dungeon Master (DM). Have you ever been that kid in class secretly critiquing the teacher and thinking of other ways the course could be taught that are ten times more interesting? Because I have always been that kid (No offense Eric!).
I saw what Eric was doing, and I wanted to have the control. I wanted to know what was going to happen next and gleefully watch the players react to the surprises. I wanted to write the story! Eric, bored with DM-ing, eagerly transferred the DM position to me at my request. But first, my character had to be gotten rid of, and so it was that Gerta the human barbarian died heroically by throwing herself (and a bad general) off a cliff.
Even though I had only played a handful of sessions (each roughly 4 hours long), and even though I didn’t have the firmest grasp on the many, many game mechanics associated with Dungeons & Dragons (DnD), I was excited. I was also nervous. And, like all DMs before me, I was definitely certain my take on the story would be the most interesting.
I became a GODDESS.
Because that is the kind of power you have when you are the dungeon master. You control the game, and your will trumps the rules if you so desire. As with all forms of power, it is better to use it lightly, to great effect, than to use it constantly and steamroll your players. If you are new to role playing games, the term “dungeon master” is unique to DnD. There are many other types of table top role playing games (TTRPGs) with different titles. A more generic term that is commonly used is “Game Master” or GM.
Essentially, the Dungeon Master, or Game Master, maps out one overarching story that will drive the game, but with lots of branches, side quests, and character development opportunities along the way. You describe the world to your characters, present them with situations, and let them navigate through it all. You fill in the details as necessary, and you introduce surprises and villains at every turn.
My first experiences as DM were hit and miss. We play DnD version 3.5, and the players handbook and Dungeon Master’s handbook are 320 pages EACH. In addition to those two essential books, there are many other volumes you can use to supplement them.
It takes time and practice to learn and apply all the rules in those books. Even seasoned players will go on tangents about whether or not something is allowed, be unable to agree with one another, and send everyone onto Google to check PDFs of the rule books and cross check obscure minutiae with various online sources. Secret nugget of knowledge #1: you don’t have to play DnD this way. My DM style is less slave-to-the-rule-book and more if-its-awesome-I’ll-allow-it. That’s the beauty of role playing. The rule books are a guide, but you can deviate as much as your heart wishes to.
I learned a lot of things playing as DM for the first time. I learned that the best laid plans are destroyed in an instant. You might go into an evening of DnD with a super-fabulous-awesome story that you think will blow your player’s minds, but then they go right instead of left (which is CLEARLY a bad idea, but for some reason they really, really want to steal that guy’s pants) which turns your original plan upside down and backwards, forcing you to scrap your hours of preparation. I learned it’s better to have a goal in mind (like, by the end of the night they need to meet the villain’s familiar) than an exact map of how that goal will be achieved. Because I guarantee you, your players are going to do something you do not expect. Like that one time when my group murdered an entire town…. (*shakes head*).
I also learned that who you play with very much determines the game play. When putting together a DnD group, diversity of personalities and levels of extraversion/introversion are important. If everyone’s shy it’s going to be a lo~ng campaign. If you have two rule junkies, they are going to derail the role playing with arguments over game mechanics. Balance in all things will a good campaign make.
And finally, I learned that when you DM for a bunch of dudes, they are going to try to flirt and have relations with women non-playable characters (NPCs). They will grill you on details of age, hotness, and maturity. If the mini-figs you use have cleavage, they might giggle over it. As a woman, I find this disconcerting at times, but I do enjoy derailing their attempts to get it on. I only allow the players with best intent and manners to score. Most importantly, those encounters were all consensual ones. (I’m sad I have to emphasize that, but I have heard of campaigns others experienced where rape became an element of game play. This is another reason why carefully choosing the people you play with matters.)
Once I had one campaign under my belt, I let go of the reigns for awhile and got to see how one of my other friends approached DM-ing. After seeing the contrast in styles between Eric, our friend, and myself I realized that there are many ways one can DM, and do so successfully. Something that had bothered me for a while was a nagging fear that I wasn’t doing it right. So here is my secret nugget of knowledge #2: each DM has their own style, and one isn’t more right than another.
Unless it’s my way, because my way is TOTALLY the right way. Duh. 😉
But there are things to avoid doing when you DM. The first is rail-roading. This is a term used to describe a DM who gives the players only one path to go down, and then forces them to stay there. Half the fun of DnD, and role playing in general, is that you get to choose your own adventure. As the DM, you should give them options, much like the page turning “Choose Your Own Adventure” books of old…
The second thing to avoid is focusing too much on one character. It is important for the enjoyment of all the players to create opportunities for each player’s unique skillset, backstory, and disposition to be highlighted. It sucks when you end up constantly watching your comrades do amazing things while you twiddle your thumbs wearing gloves of dexterity, just itching for a lock to pick.
Does this sound like a lot of work? Well, it certainly can be. If you enjoy world-building, writing fiction, or just planning and strategy in general, then you will enjoy the preparation. I’ll go into more details in Part 2 on how to juggle these elements of DMing. If you DON’T enjoy any of those things, don’t despair! You don’t have to create the story from scratch. There are a lot of pre-made RPG’s where your role as DM/GM is to familiarize yourself with the story beforehand, and then guide the players through the quest. The planning is done for you, and you get to reap the rewards.
I played just such an out-of-the-box TTRPG for the first time recently, and I LOVED IT. First, GM-ing without having to prepare too much is AWESOME. Second, the RPG was very well put together. We played WITCH, and I’d be surprised if you’ve heard of it, because they JUST launched their Kickstarter, and we are playing an ultra-exclusive Beta version. Jealous? You should be! 😉
WITCH has a rule system more focused on narrative and role play (i.e. no multiple tomes of 300+ pages to memorize). You get to play one of the Fated, witches and warlocks who have gained magical powers after selling their soul to a demon. My group isn’t finished playing through the campaign yet, so I won’t do a formal review here, but the game has my full endorsement.
Just in case you needed some more reasons to try your hand at Dungeon or Game Mastering, I’ve got one more for you. I’ve noticed that being forced to wrangle a group of wildly different individuals for four hours twice a month has been helping me be more outspoken and a leader at work. Once you get used to being in charge, you start to expect it in other places. I’ve noticed the skills I’m honing as a DM are helping me better navigate meetings at work. I think I’ll start adding “Dungeon Master” at the bottom of my resumes….
So how about you people? Do you have any expertise to share about being a Dungeon Master?
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