Lessons from my real-life DM

Even though I’m a D&D 4e blogger, I’m still relatively new to the game.  I’ve been playing since early 2010 in a game with my wife Barbara and our friends Nate, Bree and Kyle.  Nate is our DM, and based on my admittedly limited experience, I think he’s really good at it.  I plan to think about the things that Nate does that make our games so much fun, and try to take those lessons to heart in my own DMing.

First of all, I think Nate has taken a lesson from the fourth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide to heart – the goal of the Dungeon Master (in person or online) is to help everyone playing the game to have fun.  I’ve heard that earlier editions of D&D pitted the DM against the players in a contest to see who would “win,” where “winning” as the DM basically meant killing off the party.  In fourth edition, the focus is on fun.  If certain aspects of the game aren’t fun for your particular group of players, then try to avoid those aspects if at all possible.  Wiping them all out probably won’t be much fun for the party, for instance, so try to avoid that!

We’ve played for about five sessions now (just leveled up to level 3 – woo hoo!), and I can tell that Nate is trying hard to observe what we like and dislike when we play.  It helps that our group gels really well – we like each other outside of our D&D time, too, which is a big plus.  So even if something weren’t going well at the table, we would still have fun spending time together. Still, things have been going quite well at the table.

At the end of the session, Nate asked specifically if we felt like we had the right amount of combat in the session.  We played for about five hours, during which time we had some discussions of how we would disguise ourselves to get out of the city we were in, a tense encounter at the city gate to see if we could escape, a pair of back-to-back combat encounters in a forest, and some open-ended role-playing time in a small rebel camp. So, combat in the middle with non-combat at the beginning and end.

It was great!  Nate was careful to let us run with our suggestions, but still helping us look for flaws in our plans (such as the fact that some of our characters were on “Wanted” posters in the city we were escaping and would therefore probably want some disguises in order to get past the authorities at the city gate without a fight).  The fights were tough but fair (boy, spiders that can jump on you from 30 feet away are vicious!).  And the roleplaying at the end had some conversations with NPCs that led into our two magic users spending time helping a wizard examine a magical sword to figure out its properties while the other two characters had an entertaining (non-combat) time hunting in the woods.  There was something for everyone, both inside and outside of combat.  We even had an NPC of a much higher level fighting with us, but she didn’t completely take over combat or anything like that.

So, what lessons have I learned so far?

  • Watch your players to see what they like and don’t like.  This will probably be more challenging online, since I won’t be able to see their faces, but we should have audio chat.  I’ll have to listen carefully and ask questions.
  • Make sure everyone has something they can do, whether in combat or out.
  • Go with the players’ ideas for how to solve problems, but provide coaching as needed, especially for new players.
  • Don’t feel obligated to hand out loot if it doesn’t make sense to do so.  If your characters kill some wild animals (like those darn spiders) in the wilderness, they probably won’t have any treasure on them, and that’s okay.  It’s fine to give extra loot at some points and none at others – it all balances out.
  • Reward characters for creative thinking – even if the reward is just the chance to play out a crazy scenario, with no XP or gold.

I think I can use these lessons in my own games as I start DMing.  On that point, by the way, we have set up this coming Friday as our targeted first session for our online game.  We’ll be using Gametable for the map and dice rolling and Skype for audio chat.  For this first time, we plan to mainly try a technology check to make sure we can all hear each other and see the map, but I’m hoping we have time for at least a little bit of adventure!

2 thoughts on “Lessons from my real-life DM

  1. “I’ve heard that earlier editions of D&D pitted the DM against the players in a contest to see who would “win,” where “winning” as the DM basically meant killing off the party.”

    No this was absolutely not the case.

  2. Oh – well, I guess I heard wrong, then! I have a feeling that this was the case for certain DMs, but not all DMs in general. I don’t think those were the good DMs!

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