When Good Dungeon Masters Go Bad

(“You’re ranting on that blog-thingy, aren’t you?” says Beta Max.

“Yes,” I say. “About the perils of unprepared Dungeon Masters.”

“The what? The tennis masters tournament?”

“No, the……yes, the tennis.”)

 

As you may know, I’m a nerd and proud of it. Not an over the top nerd, but one nevertheless. Every once in a while I get a chance to play a game of Dungeons and Dragons (D&D)*, sometimes as the Dungeon Master (DM)**, sometimes as a player character***.

Have you ever played a game where the referee just doesn’t know what they’re doing? In D&D, it’s the type who rolls up (pun intended) to the game with no preparation, no rule books, no dice and very little clue. I experienced a game like that the other night.

The DM had the adventure “all in his head” (the first danger sign), hadn’t brought any dice, pencils, books or materials to help him run the game, instead relying on his players to supply everything (the second danger sign). Throughout the game he would constantly reference Pathfinder**** rules (the third danger sign), wasn’t sure how the various D&D rules worked, asking his players for clarifications (the fourth danger sign), and would provide routinely easy challenges and overly large treasure hauls (the fifth and final danger sign).

You might be saying “that’s fine with me”. After all, some of the best adventures are often ad libbed, and if everyone’s having fun, then what’s the problem? Well that’s the thing. If the game is dragging to the point where people are checking their phones often and are saying “that was easier than expected”, then you know something’s not right (aside from the rule gaffes and absence of materials, I mean).

D&D is about having fun. It’s about fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants challenges and escapes. It’s about edge-of-your-seat dramatic tension as you wonder whether you’ll survive. It’s about the feeling of relief when you do. It’s about bizarrely humorous situations that naturally arise during the course of play. It’s about experiencing the wonder of battling and living in a fantasy world. It’s all these things that make for a great D&D (or other RPG*) game.

I have six basic rules I ask of DMs:

1 – Be prepared, but be flexible as well (those pesky players can basically try anything, y’know).

2 – Know the rules of the game you’re playing. You’re the DM, for Pete’s sake (and know what game you’re playing. That’s always a big help).

3 – DM honestly and fairly (if you’re making it up as you go along, please make it at least look like you know what you’re doing. And don’t play favourites, just because they know the rules better than you do).

4 – Involve all of your players (if they find their phones more interesting than the game, that’s a subtle sign to amp it up a bit).

5 – Learn from your mistakes so you can make the next session even better (read the rules, bring the dice, draw a few maps, bring along an adventure with some meat on the bones, as it were).

6 – Every game should be fun for you and the players (should be rule number one. If you as the DM are not enjoying yourself then you may need to prepare a little better. See rules 1-5).

Use this wisdom well.

And hopefully my next game with you will be better.

* For those of you who don’t know: D&D is a fun role playing game (RPG) played with dice but no board, where players become characters in a fantasy adventure, fighting monsters, gaining treasure, etc. There are lots of different RPGs, with different themes, rules and settings. Haven’t you read my earlier post Real Men Play D&D?

 ** The DM is the referee who adjudicates the adventure and controls the non-player characters. Just like at the tennis or the cricket. Except more hands on and with more power, death and destruction.

 *** The player character is the role undertaken by the player – it could be a fighter, a cleric, a wizard, etc. I told you, it’s a nerd game.

 **** Pathfinder is a fantasy role playing game originally based on D&D 3.5. The new D&D 5.0 and Pathfinder have diverged sufficiently to have various differing rules. You don’t really care, do you? Fine.

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