The Fine Art of Being a Dungeon Master – By The Seat of my Pants

A post I wrote for Legends of Tabletop a few years back…

It was a cold, late afternoon day in the Autumn of 1983 as I sat in the back of my parents white 1980 Chevy Malibu attempting to contain my rising excitement as my mother and brother and I left the Moorestown BEST catalog showroom store parking lot and headed for home.

On my lap sat the Dungeons & Dragons Red Box Basic Set with cover art by the amazing Larry Elmore!

I was about to delve into the wonderful world of magic, monsters, and graph paper mapping.

I was mere hours away from learning the art of Dungeon Mastering…For the twelfth time I turned the box over to read the content blurb on the back and the content list – 48 page Dungeon Master Guide, 64 page Players Guide, six polyhedral dice, and a crayon to color in the numbers on each die.

I still have those light-weight, little blue plastic dice. <grin>

Following the short ride home, I sat on my bed and tore off the plastic shrink-wrap, lifted the lid with reverence and gazed inside – therein lay everything the back of the box promised.

For the next several hours I pored over the Dungeon Masters Guide. I was oblivious to my surroundings and the kink in my hunched back. I stopped, with much reluctance, to eat supper with the family, wolf down my food, then dash back to my bedroom – I couldn’t wait to continue reading and figure out how to be a DM in order to run my brother and our friends through “adventures”!

This proved to be no easy task for my thirteen-year-old self. How did one go about BEING a DM? Do I just read some room description text and tell the players what they are going to fight? What the hell is an NPC and how do I work that in? Game time and real time…that stumped me at first. Ah ok, we don’t all have to REALLY rest for 8 hours. I just declare “You sleep peacefully as the night passes uneventful and you awake, stiff and sore, but alive to fight another day.” Viola! Eight hours in-game time have passed.

Hm, says here I can roll on this table for wandering monsters if I want.

Initiative and combat order, movement, and mapping. So much to absorb. How can I explain and describe the dungeon effectively?

Thus it went. I was hooked. This was going to be so cool. I was, however, still unclear on the actual execution of being a Dungeon Master. Being a shy kid and one that was not all that comfortable in the spotlight was going to be a slight hindrance as well.

Where to turn to for help? Who to ask questions? Up to this point, my only exposure to a real game was watching one from a distance in the lunch room at school…and they were playing the complicated, or so I imagined, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons!

Basic will do for me, thank you very much.

I know it’s too late to make a long story short, so never mind, keep reading. Onward.

Fledgling DMs have a host of resources at their command.

The internet is nothing short of fucking amazing for gamers. Websites devoted to the craft abound – forums, artwork, maps, how-to-articles, podcasts, videos, Google Hangout games, Roll20, damn…the list goes on, so you get the idea.

There was no internet in 1983. Fortunately for me, my brother and our friends were around and willing to give this type of gaming a shot. Aside from finding school mates to play the game with, I am not sure what I would have done had they not been amenable to the idea. The only real outside resource we had available was at the local hobby shop(s) or bookstores in the area. There was usually a small gaming area next to the plastic car and plane models. There you could find a rack of Grenadier lead miniatures, a few paints and brushes, and a shelf or two of Dungeon & Dragons rule books and published adventures, or ‘modules’. Additionally, this was were you would find the resident cork board containing typed or hand written classifieds for “Wanted – Gamers! Or, “DM wanted!”

I fumbled and bumbled my way over the next few months whilst playing on a card table next to a kerosene heater in our friends shed. We played almost everyday after school. Billy, my brother, and I forged a tight-knit little gaming group that went on month after month. Eventually we added our friend John to the group and that following summer we played everyday in the sweltering heat and humidity under the car port of his house. I made mistakes, learned to improvise, and had a crap-ton of fun doing so.

So, my advice and suggestion to new Dungeon Masters, and rule number one – don’t over think it. The point is to have fun within the framework of the rules, which I might add, are really guidelines.

Watch how the game is played. There is nothing that instructs more than watching and listening to other Dungeon Masters work their craft…players, too, for that matter. Pay attention to the dynamic at the table. The videos put out by Wizards of the Coast that feature Christopher Perkins as DM are superb. If there is one DM out there to watch and learn from, this guy is it.

Next, you need an outline. It does not have to be too specific and can be as detailed as much as you like, however it’s good to have a general idea of what you want to do.

A bullet point list of encounters, notable NPCs, and locations works good. Thus, perhaps for some beginning 1st level players/characters:

Tavern meetup for dinner and drinks (standard-overdone, yet classic).
Meet w/benefactor/agent for assignment…is he/she shady or on the up-and-up?
First encounter on road – group of 6-8 goblins w/wolf “pets” led by a hobgoblin. Night? Day?
Rest – roll for wandering monsters – (perhaps a lone traveler arrives and asks to join the party?)
Continue next day – end of first session?

Whatever small notes and ideas you have for your encounter(s). From there, think of the background of the world you’re campaigning in, and the stories the players have set for their characters. For instance, my brother always likes to play formidable fighters with fun animal side kicks. Knowing this, I would craft funny and interesting plot points that involved them. For example, perhaps the animal companion fixates on the scent of something and takes off after it only to disappear down a hidden well or tunnel…and beyond is the secret lair of the local monster. Instant encounter, or mini side-adventure!

Some of my most enjoyable games had nothing to do with my skill, or lack, as a DM, but occurred when the players were completely into the game and lost in thee moment, talking and arguing amongst themselves, and going back and forth on what they should do next, “No, no, I think we should go THIS way!”

And above all this, don’t lose your shit when players go off on tangents within the adventure…let them, and then gently herd them back on track. Once again, watch Christopher Perkins (or listen to the MP3 recordings)…he’ll let the players ramble and joke for a bit, patiently waiting, perhaps letting lose with a laugh or calm chuckle, and then smoothly get them back on course. In fact, listen to his responses…he will agree with an outlandish statement, often amplifying it, which strips it of its derailing power, laughs and smiles, and then calmly redirects the game flow.

It’s brilliant.

Now, we all cannot be master DM Christopher Perkins, however, we can all use the techniques he employs for our own games, right? Of course.

In the end it’s all about sitting around the gaming table, snacks and drinks by your side, whilst slinging some dice with your friends!

Game on!

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