So we’re a year on, what have I learned?

Bit of an odd first post, but yeah:

Just over a year ago now the whole world and it’s significant other were turned upside down, inside out and all hell broke loose. Yes, that’s right the viral equivalent of Voldemort and Sauron combined, COVID-19, sashayed its way into our daily lives and has been having it’s merry little way with it since.

I remember at the time the uncertainty, confusion and frustration everyone felt about the situation. It didn’t seem real, or at the very least transitory. I know I didn’t think we would be here a whole year later, pretty much in the same situation. Yes, I know we have vaccines and places are reopening but more on that another time.

What I did think though was if we were to be in lockdown for a few weeks or months, “we” needed a distraction. This got me thinking, and I decided “we” might as well do something we had occasionally talked about but never got round to doing. Dungeons and Dragons. As a kid I had flirted with tabletop RPGs through games like HeroQuest, and its space aged equivalent, but for some reason never really “got into it”, and with the recent resurgence in popular interest in the game I thought why not. A handful of people including my boyfriend, were interested, so after a bit of internet searching (and not really finding anything at the time) I figured out how we might be able to do and it and bish bash bosh we got going.

Setup

Our first few sessions were a MESS! We ambitiously set an insane session calendar, twice a week. I was totally over preparing. And our set up… was crazy.

Let me set the scene, a living room in a house in North Wales, my boyfriend Adam and I are sat on the floor around our coffee table. Suspended from a broken easel is my phone streaming the tabletop via Google Hangouts. The coffee table was littered with crudely drawn maps and tokens made out of bottle caps and god knows what. We had a seperate microphone on a different google account sending out our audio. Our broken easel was held together by sticky tap, elastic bands and hope and if Adam or I attempted to move the whole thing would come crashing down. We did that twice before we realised it was not sustainable. A year, and various itterations later, we have arrived at our current setup: Living room, Owlbear.Rodeo when we need it, the trusty Microphone and discord. In that time there was also a considerable change in campaign style and DM methodology.

Campaigns

Our first campaign was the Mines of Phandelver module from the Dungeons & Drangons Starter Set. This campaign gets a bad press, it really does. It wasn’t that bad and we got through the whole thing. At the time I was trying to do everything verbatim and at times it felt very stale. But we perserveered, with one player character dedicating themselves to Tymora and used their fortune to build a monastery in her name on the ruins of the manor house, another became the mayor of Phandalin. It was fun and we had a laugh and that’s what mattered.

Emboldened by the success of the first campaign I decided to embark on an ambitious adventure of my own devising in the Forgotten Realms. I have long been a fan of the setting having played the early Baldur’s Gate/Ice Wind Dale PC games, and having by now read several R.A. Salvator books. This campaign was fun and ambitious and I began experimenting with different mechanics. I had also expanded my collection of DND Source books, which was a good and bad thing. It went well but I was still in the trap of over planning and the stress of running what was at that time most often weekly sessions, I burnt out and needed to take a hiatus.

Two of my players then put together their own short campaigns to give me a break and a chance to play as a playable character. We had fun, and I got to see a more experienced DM (from fourth edition DND) at play and my boyfriends somewhat archaic approach. This inspired me, and when we restarted my campaign I attempted to plan significantly less and spitball alot more during the sessions. But things still weren’t quite right, so I aimed to get them to a stable point, a likely place to pause the campaign shall we say and started planning a new setting over the Christmas/Holiday period.

At the start of 2021 we began a new campaign entirely of my own devising in my own setting with a myriad of homebrewed rules. Our sessions now run twice a month, allowing me more time to plan at a comfortable pace. I also plan alot less, drink less during gameplay (so I remember to make notes) and improvise alot more to keep it fresh and flowing.

So what have I learned?

Although by no means are our current sessions perfect. I do think in the last 12 months we, and especially I have come a long way in our DND Game. Here is a list of some of things I’ve learned over the year of being a Dungeon Master that I think you might find useful. In no particular order here are my 10 ips on being a good Dungeon Master:

  • Remember your playing a game! Even when you’re the Dungeon Master you MUST make sure your having fun as well.
  • Planning is great, but in my experience, LESS IS MORE. Spend a few hours max planning your overall (macro) story at the start of the campaign and reveiew occasionally (only if you have one of course). Spend at most one third the time of a normal session to plan a session or (micro story), otherwise you’ll over think the whole thing and it won’t be as fun.
  • Guide don’t control situations. Don’t snowball your players when they are trying to make a plan that is different to what you expected, what they as a group will try and do will either be a camel (design by committee job) which will be funny, or they will come up with something far better and cooler than what you had in mind.
  • You don’t need maps all the time! To me this is sacrilidge to say because I love maps. I REALLY LOVE MAPS. Maps of worlds, areas, buildings! I like looking at them, designing them and drawing them. All of them. All the maps. I want. Now. But seriously, sometimes they slow things down or aren’t really necessary. If your like me then maps can slow your planning right down as well, because you can spend hours looking for that perfect map, and you end up not really being able to afford it or eventually realising it doesnt exist so you make your own… It’s an extra thing to worry about so ask yourself “do I really need a map?” if you say no then don’t waste time making/finding one. Maps also for some reason make players think differently, more mechanically, to when they are in the theater of the mind! (or non mapped gameplay for the less dramatic). It’s also alot more practical most of the time not to have a map, because if your party are for some reason stuck opening a door or figuring out a puzzle you can, as the Dungeon Master, simply create a hidden passageway or alcove etc. for your party. When you have a physical/digital map there is less chance of doing that without making it obvious.
A handrawn map of a Neverwinter Sewer system I did on a reusable map mat.
  • You’ll read in a lot of places that “the Dungeon Master is always right“. In principle this is accurate but I like to think of it more as “the Dungeon Master has the last say“. The difference is slight but important. I think it’s impossible to know all the rules, so even if you have gotten rule x wrong or applied it at the wrong time it doesn’t matter as long as people are having fun and the game is carrying on it’s fine. You can check the rules later and let everyone know at the start of the next session if necessary. Just say, in this situation this is the case. Afterall your players don’t know whats coming or they may have missed something… *wink wink*
  • Don’t get carried away with technology. I was bad for this. In the real world I am a researcher, and theres nothing more that I love (with exception to maps, my dogs and Adam… maybe) than a good powerpoint presentation. At one time I had animations sound effects and everything going on and although I learned alot about Powerpoint in doing that, occasionally something would go wrong and it not work. I also became an avid user of OneNote, with interlinked pages and sections. I had rules, character sheets, random generators everything it was beautiful but after 10 or 20 sessions it became unwieldy. All too often I would loose an important note or something and waste time looking for it.
  • Take breaks. I learned alot from Adam and another player Dungoen Mastering. So if you have people willing to do that then let them. Everyone has their own style or way of doing things and they’re all equally as valid as the next. Seeing how someone else does things can really broaden your skills as a Dungeon Master as well. It can also give you a chance to understand what its like being a player and how to better their experience in your campaigns.
  • This sounds really pedantic, but it can be a very real issue. Consider the themes and plot elements of your campaign and how they might effect your players. For example I had an incident in one of my sessions where a member of a city guard (an NPC) went to throw a young girl (another NPC) off a very high wall (100ft) for pickpocketing. At the time it hadn’t been long since the killing of George Floyd and two of my players had been particularly effected by it. As a result this little scene which was originally designed to introduce a magical item (a runic patch that would slow the girls fall before hitting the floor thus saving her life) turned into something else very different, which no one enjoyed. So the morally of this story is know your players and be mindful. If you think something might “trigger” something either cut it from the plan, or at the very least discuss it with the appropriate individual(s).
  • The last suggestion ties in with this one as well: Ask your players for constructive feedback, to help keep your campaign relevant and enjoyable for everyone.
  • It bears repeating! The Dungeon Master must also be having fun, not just your players. So if your not, sit back think about what your doing and how you can change it!

So that’s it for now. My ten tips for being a Dungeon Master. More to come. I hope you find them useful. Take care!

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