Saturday, March 6, 2010

How to DM - Play to your strengths

I have a feeling that the one thing that all successful DMs have in common is that they play to their strengths.  The old maxim "be true to yourself" is kind of what I am getting at here.

When I was much younger, I tried very hard to run my games in a similar style to Alexis over at the Tao of D&D (this post was inspired, in part, by this post by Alexis, this response by G. Benedicto and this response by Trollsmyth - it actually grew out of a comment I left on Trollsmyth's blog).  I desperately wanted to create these incredibly detailed worlds with all this background information and prep work and I ended up spending a lot of time working on what amounted to a mediocre final product when I actually ran the game.  You see, I am just not very good at meticulous world crafting.  I want to be, but I lack the self-discipline and commitment.  I have great ideas spilling out left and right, but when it comes to fully fleshing them out and setting them in stone before a session, I just suck at it.  And when I tried to do this, I tended to flounder around at the table paging through my notes looking for the place where I wrote down whatever pertained to what the PCs were trying to do.

Now that I am a little older and wiser, I have come to realize what my strengths as a person are.  I do my best work, in RPGs and elsewhere, when I am under the gun.  Deadlines motivate me.  Getting something done at the last minute is not just my style, it is my forte.  I do better work when I have less time to do it in, possibly because I quit over-thinking things and just trust in myself and everything just flows out.

I have a ton of experience in improvisational speaking and acting - I went undefeated my senior season in high school in competitive extemporaneous speaking, and I was named actor of the year all four years in high school.  Extemporaneous speaking requires that you be able to structure your improv, to format your speech with an attention grabbing intro, a quick bullet point list of what you are about to say, a structured speech that hits those bullet points and then a conclusion that wraps it all up.  Improvisational acting requires that you not only be creative yourself, but that you play off the creativity of your partners and allow their input to shape what you do next.

Combining my speaking and improvisational skills and my last-minute under-the-gun get 'er done skills, I have come to my adult DM style:  Some last minute prep work (making sure not to spend too much time over-thinking things) and a ton of improvised details during the session.  The sort of prep work that I like to do is notes on possible NPCs that the party might encounter and their motivations, and maybe a few brief sentences on locations that the party is likely to be exploring during the session.

This probably would horrify someone like Alexis, but the truth of the matter is that is how I get my best work done.  And the truth is also that if Alexis tried to run a game like this, it might very well suck hard.  He may not have the same unique set of strengths and skills that I do, just like I do not possess his meticulous craftsman like approach to worldbuilding and running a game.  You see, the spontaneous details that I come up with in the heat of the moment are great.  They are pure gold. They are better than what I come up with when I try to lay out it all out before hand.  I take notes during the session of what I am spouting out, and I never end up contradicting myself or painting myself into a corner.  Play flows very smoothly and I never have to stop and shuffle through notes.  I am organized while I am improvising in a way that I am not when I am trying to work from something previously fleshed out.

From conversations with my players outside of the game, I know that they never have a clue how much of my games are improvisational on my part.  One of my favorite tricks (and one that I talk about in this post) is to listen to what the players are saying and include it in the game.  If they ask if there is a ventilation shaft in the ceiling, why not?  If they are asking around to see if anyone has found any other strange stone heads like the one they found at the edge of the swamp, why not?  Old Traggert over there is an amateur archeologist in addition to a hopeless alcoholic, and would probably fill your ears with tales of stone heads if you would just buy him another round!

I reward the players for their creativity and include them in the world building process.  My players love it, I attract new players to my games constantly because current players can't stop talking about all the cool stuff that is going on in game, and I find that I have the time to run two different weekly games and play in a 3rd while working full time, writing two blogs and writing reviews for a gaming website.  Not to mention spending time with my fiancee.

I could never do this if I hadn't figured out what my strengths were and played to them.  Awesome DMs come in many different flavors.  Find out what your strengths are and play to them.  Don't try to emulate what someone else is doing, because no matter how cool THEY are when they are doing it, you are not them.


  1. Bingo--this is exactly how I GM. I have to beat down my urge to worldbuild and just get the game on. For this reason, I'm using the Lemuria setting that comes with the Barbarians of Lemuria RPG instead of spending hours developing player origins for a world of my own making.

  2. What I have discovered is that worlds build themselves. Every session adds another coat of paint to the world, adds more details and interconnections, and pretty soon I end up with something MORE intricate and detailed than any sane person could create without spending an insane amount of time on it.

  3. This is a very nice post and I think it runs very well with this month's blog carnival. Ever thought of linking it there?

  4. Will do, Questing GM. Didn't even know about the blog carnival before. Good luck with that!

  5. Carl, this may come as a surprise to you; but virtually everything I do during a running is improvised. I have data to draw on for answers to questions, but characters, events, responses, actions, ironic connections and everything else - all improvised, usually within six to sixty seconds.

    I operate this way because in a sandbox campaign, you CAN'T prepare these things in advance. That is why I don't bother with lists of NPCs or dungeon maps. I draw all of that as I go, I invent it one step ahead of the players - my honesty and integrity works because once I come up with an intention to do something, even ten seconds before it affects the party, I never change my mind. My unique method is to make a quick decision about what is behind a particular door, or what a person will say, or what a creature will do, and then stick to that decision, no matter what. Because I am so quick, and so steadfast in my intentions, my party never feels as though they are being taken for a ride.

    This is in addition to all the steadfast, careful detail I invest in the campaign. You make the mistake of believing it must be one or the other. It need not be. It can be both. A fully conceived world AND an intensive, improvisational style.

  6. That doesn't surprise me that much, Alexis - as you say, I don't think you could run a sandbox without improvising at the table. I think I was talking more about the prep work before the game in terms of setting and NPCs - I get the feeling that you have a very detailed world worked out, probably before you even start a campaign! My world gets detailed in play, and after a campaign has been going for a while it may be very detailed as a result of everything that has arisen during sessions.

    I used to try to take the detailed world building approach, and now I don't. Its not that I am lazy, I just realized that the end product isn't any better FOR ME if I try to detail out the world before I begin play or if I just have a few sketchy notes before the first session.

    Your comment does make me think I would enjoy playing in one of your games much more than some previous comments you have made - to me, a lot of the joy in RPGs come from those improvised connections that could never be foreseen.

  7. I know I am years from the finish line of you getting this response but I have to say thank you for your sage words, I have found truth in them and it fills me with new confidence. Funny enough I share your same story and I find myself trying to emulate other DM's when I know dang well were my strengths are. I will take this information you have given and once again thank you for the inspiration.

    Wish me luck in my first Greyhawk world, its my first foray into OSR I have always been too afraid to embrace. You and many others give me strength to bring my visions to light.

    -Portocopen on Google+


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