You haven’t lived until a total stranger takes the time to post on an Internet forum that you should be dragged from your house and thrown in front of a bus. And that happened to me recently. Usually the people who wish that upon me are at least familiar with me, if not close friends and family. I am not saying that I have never done something to deserve this bus-pummeling, but it might lead one to wonder what I did in this case to unleash the kind of bile that is usually reserved for politicians, reality TV stars, and various deities. What I did, intrepid reader, was have the audacity to write a D&D adventure for an organized-play campaign.
I will admit that writing for an organized-play campaign–in this case Living Forgotten Realms–is usually punishment enough in itself. Hell, you’re putting yourself halfway under the bus at the outset. No dragging necessary. But what did I write into this adventure that encouraged someone to wish me the rest of the way? Honestly, I still have no idea. Whatever angered Random Internet Guy so much that he wanted to see me end up like that dude from the show Lost who got torqued by a Greyhound was not something I put into the adventure. It appears the part of the adventure that prompted the ill-will was a careful addition by the player’s GM.
This part of my column I was planning to save for another time, but it is so intertwined with the issue of GMs that I have to say it together.
- Writing game material, particularly adventures, for public consumption is very different that writing something for a home campaign that you will run yourself.
- The GM is everyone’s best friend: the players’, the adventure writer’s, and his or her own.
Based on the careful scientific method of me thinking for a few seconds of a number that sounded both exciting and reasonable with ironic undertones, 69% of the home RPG campaign being run these days consist of a DM using content that he himself has created. (I say “he himself” strictly for ease of use, and because if I included “she herself” to cover the female GMs, I would also have to include other permutations, and there are only so many kilobytes available in the Internet.)
Wait, where was I? Oh, right. So, a majority of the RPG adventures being played are homebrews created by the GM running the game. That means the material being created is done so by someone who knows the specific players and their various preferences, dislikes, play styles, and characters. He knows that in the last session, Fred got pissed and whipped his JuJuBes across the basement because the insubstantial, weakening, regenerating wraith asked his character, “What sorry-ass fighting academy did you attend?” when Fred’s character critted the wraith for 5 points of damage when using his daily power. And armed with such knowledge, assuming he is not sadistic, the GM will not put in more creatures of the same ilk–at least not without giving Fred a way to deal with the creatures more easily.
It is the other 31% of the gaming world who I want to speak to right now: the GMs who run games using published adventures. Pull up a chair. Have a Fresca and a Fruit Roll-Up. I’ve got something to say to y’all, and I say the following without a bit of sarcasm.
I love you guys. I really do. You guys are the ones who keep the RPG industry running in the face of (sad but true) its slow but inevitable descent into obscurity. You are the folks who don’t have the time to prepare your own material, but you still run the games and tell the stories and give of yourself so that other people can play the game. Whenever a player says to me, “I played your adventure, and I had a great time,” my answer is always heartfelt, and it always is some variation of the following: “I’m glad you had fun, and I appreciate the kind words. But the person you should be thanking is the DM, because that is the person who made the game fun for you.”
And it is. A fun game has to be a team effort among the players, the DM, and the material they are playing (which 31% of the time is the responsibility of the adventure designer). But the GM is the lynchpin of that relationship. The GM is the buffer and the facilitator between the content of the game and the players. He knows (or is in the position to know) what the players expect and desire, and what the content of the adventure is going to offer the players. If there is a disconnect between what the players want and what the adventure promises to deliver, only the GM is in the position to manage the players’ expectations or modify the adventure’s content so that fun can be had.
As an administrator and writer in far too many organized-play campaigns, and as a designer/editor of off-the-shelf content, I am going to say this loud and without even a modicum of hesitation: “GMs, please modify adventures as you go.” I know it is work for you. I know that you got the pre-fab adventure in the first place because you didn’t have the time or energy to create your own. But you have to trust me on this one. There are so many different types of players who play at so many different levels of expertise and ability, that it is damn near impossible to make one size fit all.
I don’t want to sound at all like I am trying to put all the responsibility on the GMs. Designers, developers, and editors of game material do need to take responsibility for their work. I have written or edited stuff that, when I re-read it later, makes me wonder if I wasn’t partying with Charlie Sheen while it was in my hands. In future columns I will happily tell you all about those mistakes. So don’t think I am trying to shirk my duty. When I fail as a writer, I want to learn from those failures.
But also let’s be honest: it is human nature to shift the blame when possible, especially when blame can be shifted to something nebulous and far-away. Sitting down to GM a game, especially when the players might be a group of strangers, can be a daunting experience. We want the game to be fun, we want to run the game well, and we want to look good in the process. All GMs (myself included) have the natural inclination to look for any qualifier we can throw down to protect ourselves. I’ve recently returned to playing regularly after several years of mostly writing and DMing, and what I have heard more than I like, especially in organized-play environments, is this from the GM: “This adventure is pretty bad, but I’ll see if I can make it fun.” Again, I understand the instinct, and I have probably done it myself on occassion. GMs who run games for strangers are out there on the high-wire, and it is only natural to want to put up that safety net.
So for those of you who do GM games with published adventures, either off-the-shelf or for an organized-play campaign, I shout out a big “Thanks!” You have a big responsibility, and you do yeoman’s work. However, think about the players who would through a writer under the bus before you throw the writer under the bus.
Next Friday, I will take the next step and talk about the lessons writers of published adventures should learn, and how those lessons can be applied to everyone: DMs who homebrew, DMs who use published adventures, players, and game writers.