Friday, February 20, 2009

Dungeons and Dragons DM's Corner: Good DMing is being prepared AND Making it up as you go along

I've played Dungeons and Dragons for decades now. Well, almost three. Off and on. Call it two decades of solid playing. Ok, maybe just one solid, one off and on.

I've learned that to be a good DM (Dungeon Master) to run a game, you really need to be prepared. Strangely, you often need to be more prepared with a published adventure than one you've made up yourself. This is because the published adventure you will not be as familiar with, so you need to learn all the details so you don't mess up, miss something important - and leave your players stuck or mad that you "forgot" to describe some minor but important detail very early on that throws them off for hours.

But I want to get beyond even that distinction to get to what I mean by needing to prepare and also make it up as you go along. Because even the best preparation simply can never cover every possible thing the players may wish to do. That's the beauty of a role playing game in person as opposed to on the computer. In a computer game, you have a very finite number of choices and a finite number of ways to choose them. In person, the world is wide open. That can be scary for a new DM. It can sometimes be scary for players, too, and players will try to stay on track. (Well, some will - others may take delight in going a different route or just like to be creative).

Preparation, be it published material or your own, means being familiar with the capabilities of the monsters and NPCs the players may face in a given night. Know their tactics. Even better, come up with tactics that take advantage of their unique capabilities, especially in combination with foes of differing abilities. A well planned ambush utilizing intelligent tactics can turn what would otherwise be an easy PC slaughter of goblins into a challenging fight to the finish that the PCs barely escape by the skin of their teeth.

It also means being familiar with the overall plot and what is relevant and what is not. You can provide hints and clues to the plot, even ones not in the published adventure, if you are really familiar with it. You can also craft some nifty red herrings that way that won't inadvertantly tie into the plot (or maybe you want them to).

You also need to make things up as you go along because players will never just stick to what is outlined in the adventure. It may simply be a small trip to a magic shop for some trinket in a place where there is no magic shop described. So now you can either say there is no shop, or you can make one up on the spot, complete with proprietor, selection of items, and shifty-looking bodyguard, who seems vaguely familiar. Maybe you throw in the item the player is looking for, maybe not. But on top of that you can include all sorts of other items of interest. Perhaps one is cursed. Perhaps another is stolen. The possibilities are endless. Or perhaps you want to keep things "on track" and so you just make the bare outline of a store and owner and leave it at that. The key to making the most of this is keeping a blank sheet of paper labeled with the name of the city (or whatever the locale is) and to fill it in with all of the details as you create them.

Now, once the players have visited the shop once, you create it on that paper, on the spot. You name it. You name the NPC who runs it. You list the inventory and whatever other notes arise from the interaction in the store with the players. This place now exists and can be visited again and again. You can add notes to it each time. I've often found this is the best way to design a locale. It simply takes too long to fill everything in, particulalry in a large city with thousands of inhabitants. I could spend years writing up details of every locale in my home-brew world. Of course, I don't have time to. Instead, I do "just in time" world design by filling things in as they are sought-out by players. The longer players linger in an area and seek things out, the more details emerge as I create the city around them. As far as the players know, those places and people were always there (and some of them were - I do create SOME of what is there in advance, as I have time).

I've often found that the locales and NPCs I create on the fly like that are more interesting and fun than those I try to come up with in advance. Nothing gets the creative juices flowing like the interaction of actually playing. At least, that's my theory. It can be hard to just make up a whole city in isolation, sitting by myself with a blank page or an empty computer screen.

Now I have many cities with lots of interesting details all over my map, and I never would have had that if I hadn't filled them in as we played.

I've made up whole adventures on the fly this way, though that can be hard to do. Usually I'll at least come up with a general concept or story and then work things from there. Right now, in an effort to save brain cells and also utilize the vast numbers of books I've gotten over the years, I am using a published adventure - the first Pathfinder (as I think I mentioned before). But even there, there is room to fill in some details.

Another fun thing on the preparation side is to just come up with interesting encounters, designing some NPCs and their minions, along with complentary tactics, but not tying it into any particular adventure. Then when you need an encounter on the fly, you can grab one of those and adjust it for the given situation. You'd get the benefit of preparation but you'd have the flexibility of making it up as you go all in one fell swoop.

In sum, you really need to both be prepared and also make it up as you go to be a good DM. You will always need both. Because players are unpredicable. And because half of the fun is the open-endedness of the table-top roleplaying game. Might as well make the most of it! Save the railroading for computer games.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tips. =)