The Call to Adventure
For those of you that don’t know, I’ve been playing RPGs for almost 30 years now. I started waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay back in 1988 playing Champions: Hero System, which is a superhero RPG that is still kicking around. Not long after my first few Champions games, I was introduced to Second Edition DnD and the next 5 years of my life were lost to countless hours of games, almost failed out of High School, didn’t have much of a social life. Most of you probably know that drill quite well.
Cross the Threshold
The first time I DM’d a game, I foolishly signed up to DM a two hour DnD session at the local game store’s (Eagle’s Games and Hobbies in Bellingham, WA – RIP-) yearly “Convention.” I had NO clue what I was doing. Terrified isn’t a descriptive enough word to put words to what I was feeling as that day approached, even though I’d been playing AD&D for 3 or 4 years at this point and could quote page/paragraph both the PHB and DMG by memory. I spent hours and hours developing the adventure, drawing maps, generating NPCs. The game went as well as you can expect. Which is, it completely went off the rails 10 min into 2 hours allotted for the table. Thankfully, the people the table were super awesome and cut me some slack, while giving me useful tips.
Each time after that I got better and better until gamers would stop me on the street and ask me if there was any room in my games or if I was starting a new one. Such power…
Lord Acton once wrote: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”
I was a great DM and therefore a bad DM.
Trial and Quest
My adventures were to be followed as I had planned them, whether it was a DnD, Rifts, Mage, Vampire, Cyberpunk2020 or any number of other games.. Players were railroaded down the path of adventures I had created. Rules were broken or enforced erratically to suit MY needs. Tempers flared. Games broke up. Friends gave me the finger and wouldn’t play in groups with me. Dice rolls not in my favor suddenly were or vice versa. I turned into the DM that people hate. Sure my adventures were interesting and colorful but not that fun for a lot of players. For probably 2 years, I was the asshole DM that carry on in legends amongst gamers. Epic stories and epic asshole, sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. My regular player’s PCs slowly changed from creative and inventive adventurers to munchkin combat monsters. I’d swore that my games weren’t combat slaughter-fests, but the change in characters being created told otherwise.
The Ordeal – The DnD Way
I did some soul searching and came upon what my failing really was. I misunderstood my role as the DM. I wasn’t God, I was part story teller. Yes, I am Peter Falk from the Princess Bride. This was hammered home after being in a DnD game with an older guy named Mike, who claimed he knew Gary Gygax and played with him. He ran this amazing one shot game for me and my friends over the course of 2 months every Sunday afternoon.
He didn’t dictate the story, he let the PC’s create the story and he linked it all together in a bigger overarching story. He’d reward good ideas, punish bad behavior and gave consequences to actions. None of it was with random Deus ex Machina type stuff, it was with logical things you’d encounter in life. No sudden arrival of the City Guards or some random NPC. This is what a DnD game was all about.
- Be an ass to the local innkeeper or get handsy with the barmaids? Next time you came in, prices doubled or there were out of whatever the players wanted.
- Timmy, the one legged boy follows you around and idolizes, one or more of the group. His life is the village, his entire life is the 2-mile area around the hamlet. Adventures are the stuff of legends and here they are now. Gods among men. Sure Timmy helps you get people to talk to you or know where some hidey-hole is, but he follows you into these dangerous places and you have to escort him out a number of times before he gets hurt.
- Going to cast Fireball in the middle of the village to nuke the BBEG and his 2 minions? Well congrats, Timmy, was hiding around the corner of the Inn watching the fight. He’s done it before, you all shooed him away many times and no one checked to see if civilians were around before raining fire from the sky. Now he’s dying of serious burns and oh yeah, the horse stable they were standing in front of is burning.
- That other little hamlet you stopped by one night six months ago? Where the Paladin detected evil from the “mayor” of the town and you all slew him and his minions? Yeah, sure they were pirates, but they kept the hamlet safe. It was a stop off point for their pipeline of smuggled goods, they kept the hamlet safe because they needed a place to rest and resupply as well not draw the attention of the local lord or nosey adventurers. Well, with their protectors gone the residents are dead or slaves in the nearby mines after an Orc raid. You get no safe harbor here. People view you with disdain and the reason they are in the situation they are.
It was brutal and the most fun I’d ever had with my clothes on.
Resurrection and Rebirth
Mike, in that game, caused me to realize that a DM is both a Story teller and a Karma-Hammer. You let the PCs be the story, let them go the route they want to go. If they stray from their alignments or how they play they characters you do a bit of karmic justice to bring them back in line. This Karma hammer can easily be abused and used at the wrong times. There are two times I pull it out:
- When the PCs are acting out of character or doing something epically stupid. Sometimes the hammer hits immediately, other times its months done the road. DnD has many options RAW-wise to help, but so can creative storytelling.
- When you need some dramatic tension. If you use this trick, this is something more minor that happens immediately that adds to the story and not punishes a character. To determine if I need karmic intervention I roll a d6, on a 1 something bad happens.
The Long Road Back – The non DnD way
I won’t go into examples of #1 since there are some examples above. One good example of #2 was actually in a Champions, not a DnD, game I ran. One of the characters, Black Hole, was basically a Superman/MCU Captain America/Boy Scout type with flight, super strength and Density alteration powers. The team was fighting a 50 foot tall pissed off toddler (long long story on that one), the PC decided to become super dense and slam into big dude hoping to knock him over. A critical failure later, Black Hole is being smacked out of the sky like a gnat and crashes through a car into the subterrian area of downtown Seattle. I thought this would be a good time to trot out the Karma dice and let’s say the Dyce Gawds were on with Black Hole that day. He comes to and hears the cries of a woman and baby. Shit, the car he landed on was occupied, the speeder character missed someone when he cleared the block. They are alive, bleeding but not seriously hurt he does what he has to do, rips the car open, pulls out the woman and her baby and then immediately flies off to the hospital. Suddenly the group is without their heavy hitter, left to fight this toddler and its friends by themselves. After the fight, Black Hole made sure she was taken care of and for months in game time, he was super vigilant about doing certain things if civilians might be around.
Master of Two Worlds –
So I can wield my DM-Fu with much might and epicness now. Currently I am DM’ing a Rifts game that’s been going on for about a year now. I’m getting ancy and would love to play a DnD game, but it is hard to find enlightened DM’s that can walk the tight rope of running a game. Hopefully, some of you came away with something to help make your games betters.