Two Lessons on Dungeon Mastering — Part II

Today I’ll speak about my second lesson in dungeon mastering. As I said last time, I think it’s even more important than the first one, so I find it a bit weird that this is something that took me a lot of time (and the words of other DM) to understand. Before arriving at my second lesson, though, I’d like to address an issue about my first lesson.

I had some fellow DMs come to me and say something like “I like your text, but I don’t believe it would work for our group”. They gave me two reasons for that: the first one is that players build a strong connection to current characters and death breaks that. The second one is that they don’t feel confident enough to let things run completely loose. I understand both points.

First, I think it’s important to understand that “it doesn’t work for us” is a perfectly reasonable argument. Some people like the feeling of participating in a homemade Lord of the Rings where characters are more like heroes of destiny than gritty survivors trying to kill the orc before it kills them. Years have taught me that uncertainty builds excitement and excitement makes people come back week after week, but my experience is nothing but an anecdote.

That said, could we address the issues raised above? I think so. About players and their connections, I’d try to encourage my players in the way of seeing each new character as an opportunity for something as exciting as the previous one. Where they see the death of a cherished fighter, they could see the opportunity for a new wizard instead. Speaking specifically about 5E, I see a system with enough breadth to allow players to be always looking forward to the next different character. Work with that.

About being confident of your own skills to roll with whatever you get, this is a bit more complicated, but I don’t think it’s without help either. I would start by making sure from the beginning that no character is unreplaceable. More than once I made the mistake of putting too much protagonism into a specific character just to feel clueless when that character died. Assuring that the group can keep going — no matter what happens — is where you should start. Also, remember: total party kills happen, and sometimes it’s good to have an opportunity to start a new campaign. Now, to my second lesson:

Lesson #2: The group comes before the party

Some years ago, I got the opportunity to join a game of second edition AD&D, something that I spent a lot of time looking for. A bit of background information: before the last playtest package of 5E, second edition AD&D was my D&D of choice. It’s still my favorite edition, but I’ve decided to move to a game with current support and a modern approach to encounter building. At that time, though, it was frustrating that I couldn’t play my favorite D&D unless I DMed it myself. Thus, you can imagine I was excited with the possibility of playing AD&D again.

Before going to my first session, the DM wanted to put me up to date with some stuff, and used the opportunity to explain something that he considered very important. He started by saying that I would probably notice that the group had a very nice mood; everybody was friendly and players derived a lot of fun not only from the experience of roleplaying, but also from getting to meet each other weekly. He expected me to be part of that positive experience.

He asked me to have that goal of a positive collective experience always in mind when choosing to take any action in and out of character. Keeping the friendly atmosphere of the group was more important than anything else I could do in his campaign, and he expected me to uphold that.

I soon learned that my DM was not overstating their experience: the atmosphere was indeed better than what I have found in most groups to this date, and I looked forward to our weekly sessions, much like everybody else. I played with the group for some months before having to quit because of job responsibilities. I never felt so bad about having to leave a group.

To this day, I still see fine groups crumble under the weight of the words “that’s what my character would do”. In fact, left on their own, most players won’t realize how disruptive their behavior can be: they’ll become the worst rules lawyers, create min-maxed monstrosities or justify very bad things with “actor stance”. They make fellow players feel bad and want to go somewhere else. Fortunately, they rarely do that intentionally, and as a DM, you can help by openly speaking about what you believe is the most important thing.

How did I use this lesson? Since then, I’ve taken to my heart the idea that the group is more important than the party. As the DM, I’ve worked hard to set a good mood and help increase the overall friendliness in my tables, and (what I think is the most important thing) I took a very serious stance against disruptive gameplay. Players in my games know better not to justify disruptive behavior as “playing style”, because I have no problem finding someone else replace them.

Everything else is easy. If players look forward to your game because they know they’ll find a good atmosphere and a group that they feel is worth being part of, you should have no problem building a stable environment for playing.

Well, those were the two lessons I got to learn from DMs that I consider better than me. I felt the need to put them on written word for the first time because they helped me a lot, and I believe they can help someone else. For those of us who really love D&D and wouldn’t want to go long without a group, having the tools to build long-term stability is very important. I hope the two lessons above help you in the process of building that. At least I know they certainly helped me.