Monday, March 5, 2012

DM Strangelove or: When I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Game.

I won't beat around the bush and I don't say this lightly, but the fact of the matter is: I am a good Game Master. I would probably say 'great,' but I am terrified that it will come back to haunt me one day. For the past few weeks I've been thinking about the topic of GMing and what the major differences are between 'good' GMs and 'bad' ones. I also found myself asking, "Who am I to make that kind of judgement anyway?" I finally figured it out while sorting through our old campaign material. I can make that kind of judgement because for a long time...

[I was a bad Game Master.]

There it is -I said it- and it's true. You see, the hardest thing to admit (for me at least) is that you are no good at something you love. Fortunately for myself, it took only a bit of tweaking and a new point of view to turn it around. Before I go more in depth, here is what I found while digging through our old campaign stuff. It's a notebook that belonged to my good friend Matt, who played as our party ranger circa late 2009. For clarity, we were playing D&D3.5

Censored for young or objectionable viewers

Notice the writing between 9:53 and 10:11. It may seem obscure at the moment, but one thing is clear: He was NOT having fun. Allow me to explain...

This ended up being the last adventure of a doomed campaign. The party had invaded a fortress belonging to the evil Lord Mycoth in an attempt to reach an ancient temple hidden below. Mycoth himself was recently made aware of it's existence when his horde of prisoner/slave laborers accidentally uncovered it. The players were in search of a time-lost gauntlet hidden within the temple. This gauntlet allows it's wearer to use a cursed but incredibly powerful magical key with no ill effects. The key was forged with a single purpose - It opened a magical seal which imprisoned a severed piece of a chaos deity.

The adventure got off to a good start, but quickly slowed as the players began to argue with each other and pursue their own goals instead of the group's. At one point the game almost came to a halt when the players tried to cram all of their characters, as well as summoned creatures, two raised zombie minions and familiars onto one small mechanical lift that descended into a pit of unknown depth. The players with minions were frustrated that they might have to give them up, and the other PCs were impatient after ten minutes of listening to their comrades hair-brained schemes for transportation. Ironically, I intentionally made the elevator small to prevent them from taking along too many unnecessary acquisitions. Later, the PCs would butt heads again as some wanted to explore a series of abandoned rooms and others wanted to skip ahead and confront enemies. These events were the "BS BS BS" alluded to in the note.

 The Behipster is always watching...

The players eventually split up mid-dungeon and those who went in search of danger crashed headlong into it. They got in way over their heads and came barreling back to the area where the rest of the party was investigating, leading a horde of enemies right into the laps of their unprepared allies. They barely survived and the mood was foul for the remainder of the adventure. Frustration and infighting led to more problems as they encountered a helpful NPC and a few still-bitter players attempted to rob him blind while he was under the stunning effect of a Mind Blast. The story critical NPC abandoned the party and the campaign path was destroyed.

A few days after the adventure came to an end, I tried having a side discussion with one of the PCs concerning the unbalanced nature of some of his spells. To date, I still firmly believe that many spells in D&D 3.5 were horribly broken. We got into a heated discussion about the knock spell and whether it was too powerful. Frustrated that he was unwilling to budge on the topic and angered by his accusations that I was just trying to "nerf his guy", I wiped my hands of the whole game and called it quits. The infighting, the slow games, the rule jockeying and the overall negative vibe was enough to end it all for me. I felt like the time and effort I kept putting in was wasted.

This was the best thing that could have ever happened to me as a GM. I went home and licked my wounds for a while. After a few weeks I picked up a pen and started over. I began to create a world, starting with races and history. I made deities, forged items and sundered kingdoms. I forgot the rules and let my creativity take over. It was wonderful!

I eventually went back to the rules once I was satisfied that I had enough content and ideas to start a new game. I read them again and again, fixing anything that I thought was broken. I did research online to find the opinions of other GMs and used a dose of my own common sense to write a series of house rules. I also became a fan of Rule 0 - not to hurt the players, but to speed up game play and make it fun for everyone.

After a rework of the rules I delved deeper into game theory and the "art" of Game Mastering. I read official sites, blogs and forums; adopting the tricks and styles that appealed to me. I learned to better utilize floor plans, to think in non-linear ways, to talk in voices (yes, even lady voices) and to pace adventures so that players of all styles and classes can find something to enjoy. I learned that game momentum is just as important as the story and that I shouldn't get upset if the players skip four pages of my carefully scribed module. I should take it as an opportunity to get creative instead.

Time went on and I eventually approached a few of the old players and asked them if they wanted to try out a new campaign. Now I'm not positive, but I'm pretty sure they started rolling new characters before I even finished asking the question! The few games we played went well and we eventually switched to an entirely new rule set, moving from D&D 3.5 to Pathfinder.

Since then things have only improved. Word of the game spread and soon there was enough interest to start a second six-PC party, then a third! Players have expressed interest in trying out other games and different genres. Hell, I started a blog! My problems used to be infighting and slow games, now they are finding the time to play and keeping everything organized. Thankfully, the players I GM for are as dedicated and zealous as myself and help keep everything running smoothly.

I hope to use this post as a jumping point for a series on the art of Game Mastering. You never know, maybe I'll end up helping out another struggling GM and not even know it!

Until next time, good night and good gaming!       


  1. I'm in agreement with you on this 100%, Matt. GM'ing can be a thankless task, and sadly, there will be times when, no matter what you do, it will always be seen as being wrong in some player's mind.
    Hence my tag of 'EvilDM', gifted to me by my rp group of over 20 years. Eventually it became a running joke, but it still reminded me of how easily players' concept of a DM/GM can shift from focusing on the game and what's happening, to focusing on the DM/GM and seeing it as a player vs DM/GM situation. Not good. Not only does this ruin the immersion for other players who haven't fallen under this misguided way of thinking, but those irreverent players view everything, everyone (NPC-wise) and every situation as a direct challenge from the DM/GM to them. Once that happens, they do everything in their power to thwart all progress, right down to splitting the party at crucial moments.

    A good DM/GM knows the vibe of the group; knows when to ease off the pressure, when to lighten the mood and--most importantly--when to call for a tea/coffee/munchies break. Pace, trust, communication and patience. Forget the rules for now, for without those four simple elements any game is doomed, and the poor guy/gal running it will have the most demoralising evening of their rp career.

    Great posting, as usual, Matt :)

    Hey, maybe we should start up a DM/GMs union of some kind? lol ;)

  2. Good post.

    In hindsight could you have headed off some of that trouble before it came to a head?

    1. Oh I definitely could have. I didn't mean for this post to come off as a complaint about the players, I meant it to provide an example of learning through experience. I wasn't flexible enough with my own adventure and that's where a lot of the trouble started. I would say that currently our biggest flaw is occasional loss of momentum. But it is something we're all working on as the GM and players.

      I just read an interesting article by Peter over at Dungeon Fantastic that discusses "the rule of awesome." It's ideas like this that make the difference between a good game and a GREAT game. Click here to check it out.