My trip to DDXP last month did a lot for me, not the least of which was to make me hunger for playing D&D like a vampire in a carotid artery factory. (They come pre-filled.) It’s been over 2 years since I had a regular game going, and I was a bit lukewarm (read: had every popular misconception) about 4e. I played under some really good DM’s at DDXP, ones that emphasized the story and had lots of little tricks to make combat go smoothly. At one point, a little voice in my head started whispering “hey, you can do that too”. By the time I got home, it was very insistent. I had to have a talk with it. We’re friends now.
The end result of this, of course, is that I am scheduled to start playing with a brand new group in two days’ time. I’ve played D&D in some form since the late eighties, but almost exclusively as a player. I’ve dipped my feet into the DM pool a few times, though. There were plenty of ridiculous Monty Haul adventures in high school with a friend of mine, in which we rolled up characters and killed all the Greek gods (hooray for Legends and Lore!) As an adult, I’ve run a short games twice before, but they lasted no more than a handful of sessions. Regrettably, things went way off the rails during both and I decided to start letting everybody do whatever they wanted. The results were spectacular, but disappointing. In one campaign, a player polymorphed into a giant gorilla and defeated the main villain by — well, let’s just say it’s illegal in most states, at least when done by humans. (Feel free to contact a lawyer to find out other specifics.) In the other, I don’t remember exactly how it happened but somebody got the ability to set everything on fire. So they did. I think they won, if you can call it that. I can see in retrospect that I did what I tend to default to when nervous – go completely nonsequitur and hope people laugh. While I succeeded in making the table have a few laughs and what I believe to be a good time, it’s clear to me that this is an untenable strategy for the long haul.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t shaking in my boots. I have to come up with a cool plot, make (reasonably) balanced encounters, roleplay multiple characters, draw maps, track initiative, AND try to make sure everybody has fun…. it feels overwhelming right now. There are many bullet points flying through my brain right now. Look!
Is it annoying or worth it? Do I play it during battles or just when I think it might help the mood during roleplay? Am I wasting too much time thinking about the ramifications of music on my campaign? Is Chris Tulach right about the soundtrack to Bram Stoker’s Dracula being amazing for horror campaigns because it’s intensely oppressive? Do I have to worry about my players fainting?
Regardless, I think this ought to be one of the last things I consider. It’s just one of the easiest to think about.
My bane in previous efforts, I always had difficulty keeping track of who went when. I’ve seen several excellent methods of dealing with this recently, not the least of which was the use of colored index cards the DM rotated through. It seemed ecologically unfriendly, but easy to track. My old DM Dante had a little dry-erase board with magnetic pieces he moved around. I’ve seen other DMs do it with just pencil and paper. I have to find a way that suits my way of thinking. It may involve pepperoni. Only time will tell.
I’ve seen so many Dungeon Masters over the years curse when one of their monsters failed to hit a player. This always struck me as odd. They’re not trying to win… are they? Will I find myself consumed with finding ways to TPK that don’t seem too suspicious? Will I use secret knowledge about their backstories to blackmail them? What will I buy with all this ill-gotten GP? What will I become? What will I have done?
- Better DMing Through Technology
I am happy that I live in the future. Now I can have players create and/or level up characters quickly with the Character Builder instead of waiting forever for the people that forgot to do it the previous week. (Although, since I’m DM now, maybe we won’t have that problem…) I’d tried other automated solutions over the years, like PCGen. I never fully appreciated the complexity of a character builder app until using PCGen. It was like staring into the Abyss. While I have to administer props to those guys for making it work, there are a couple of my players that would self-destruct if they tried to use it. Say what you will about the new web-based CB, it will spit out an Essentials character for you in about 30 seconds flat. For a group of newbs, that’s a good thing.
I’m also planning to use Obsidian Portal to organize and track all the stuff in our campaign. We used to use a similar service. We called her Stupid Ranger, and while her notes were very complete, they were not available over the Internets. To be honest, I’m not even sure where to begin. OP does a lot of stuff. For now, I’m going to get through our first session and hopefully bribe someone into being the party stenographer in the Adventure Log section. I’ve considered asking Stupid Ranger to listen to our sessions over Skype and then emailing me her notes. She’s very good at notes.
I’ve considered several ways to harness the power of the Intertrons to make my job easier, like for handling maps, but I’m not convinced at this point that they won’t just get in my way at the table. Not everyone is going to have a laptop, and WotC’s tools are all built with Microsoft products that hate everything but Windows. So much for my dream of every player with a tablet computer and a battle-map. I’ve considered trying to roll my own solution for this, but it is definitely not going to happen in two days. Even with caffeine.
We’re trying something I haven’t done before in our group: we play every week, but D&D only happens every other week. The alternate sessions are for board gaming and other leisurely pursuits. We have a few players that either can’t commit to a regular D&D group or just don’t want to play D&D, and this lets them join in.
I’m also fielding a somewhat unique situation in that my wife is gunshy about playing D&D, but said she might join in on occasion. I’m willing to accommodate this because getting her to love something I do is one of the things I enjoy most in life. I’ve asked her to let me know several days in advance if she plans on playing, and I plan to adjust the encounters accordingly. There are a few obvious problems with this arrangement, not the least of which is I barely know how to set up encounters, much less adjust them. However, I was able to make sense in the story of her coming and going via the party being part of a larger army. My wife’s PC would simply get assigned and recalled (or I would take over if it didn’t make sense to have her disappear). I have every hope that I can make this work. Time may prove me a fool, but that never stopped me before.
I think it’s safe to say I’ve reached the “oh my god what am I doing here” phase. I hope it’s not like this every session. I’m trying to gear up for being a DM not so much as a rules-arbiter but more as a fun-causer. Dave the Game talks a lot about saying “yes” to your players whenever possible, and while I don’t want any more gorilla-incidents, that is what I plan to do. I plan to fail. Badly. Then, I plan to get up and try again as many times as it takes. That’s what they’re going to put on my tombstone. “Weird and Stubborn.”
I hope you enjoyed this glimpse as to what was in my brain during its last processor cycle. They say a man thinks about sex once every 10 seconds. Be glad it wasn’t that one.
Though I am nervous, I have a really good group of friends playing and I’m pretty much surrounded by the RPG equivalent of G.I. Joe Headquarters. I’ve got a lot going for me and I am so excited I might warp space-time. My group gets together on Thursday night. Some of them haven’t met, so we’re going to say hello and eat pizza, go over a social contract for the group, and I’m going to spend the rest of the time doing my damnedest to hook them into the story before we all turn into pumpkins promptly at 11pm (fact: pumpkin magic is all based on Eastern time.) It’s been awhile since I played on a weeknight.
Wish me luck! I shall recount the events that transpire in next week’s column.
P.S. if you’ve got any advice, for the love of Pelor, NOW’S THE TIME.