Moving Force

Last night was the night for me to run a public game at the local game store. I do this every week as a way to both help the store grow the local Dungeons & Dragons community as well as provide a game for players who otherwise wouldn’t have a group to play with.

A big part of being a Dungeon Master for a public group like this is being able to manage multiple players with different personalities that I know very little about until they’ve played in the game a few times. It is often a challenge to find out what player personality types are in the game in such a small window and then find out what invests them in the game or what takes their interest out of it.

In managing these groups, dominant personalities often emerge. This is particularly prevalent when the game is going “well” and people are having fun. When the game is lively, players will be eager to shout out what they’re doing as soon as its their turn. Often they’ll roll for the check they want to make before you can say a single word.

In last night’s game, the 10 players involved were having a lot of fun. Much laughter was had, a great story was being told and people were generally in very high spirits. There were multiple moments when I told a player it was their turn that they quickly shouted out everything they planned to do and immediately began rolling dice.

I can attest to you that games like this are when your Dungeon Mastering skills are going to really be put to the test.

In Gary Gygax’s book, “Master of the Game”, Game Masters (aka Dungeon Masters) have seven principal functions which are intrinsically connected to the game. The first of these is that GMs/DMs is “Moving Force”. Gygax defines this as the ability to muster players and inspire continued vitality. On the surface, that sounds like the Dungeon Master has to keep the game moving. However, motion is directly related to speed and Dungeon Masters also have to make sure that players aren’t moving so fast that they shirk the game rules, the spirit of the game or both.

Back to the player who has already planned out their turn before they take it. Don’t be afraid to tell players that the most important part of their turn isn’t deciding which skill they should use for the check. Human nature to succeed is going to push them towards the skills they have the best modifiers for.

Its more important to know what they want to do rather than what skill check they should make to do it. Remind them that as the Dungeon Master you will help them decide which skill is best suited for what they want to do but first and foremost talk about what they want to do. Talk with them about their actions without using game terms such as character stats, skill checks or modifiers. Only after all of that is clear should you bring in the game mechanics of how that will be accomplished, what checks are necessary, what dice need to be rolled and so on.

So how does the Dungeon Master do this? The rules exist to complement the story so let the story come first. Its going to be difficult with some players, as player personality archetypes will greatly affect how you communicate with the player. Some players have to be told directly not to roll for the skill check first. Others need a more indirect approach first where you put the emphasis on telling them what to do (i.e., say what they want to do first) instead of telling them what not to do (roll a skill check first). You as Dungeon Master will have to find which approach works best and use it to gently point them in the direction of keeping the story moving forward.

Last night I had quite a few moments where players were tossing dice in their hand as soon as their turns began, ready to roll them to see if they succeeded on the skill check they were about to take. I tried to always ask them to first tell me what they were doing without using game terms by saying things such as, “So how are you going to do that?” and “But tell me exactly what you’re (looking for/paying attention to/investigating) after they announced what check they wanted to make. The reason this was so important was that we were establishing story first before we saw the results of the dice roll. A critical failure can quickly crush the plans a player has made if the dice roll is the end all be all of the moment. As discussed in my previous article on critical misses, even failures can be turned into narrative opportunities.

The job of the Dungeon Master is to keep the moving force of the game going in a direction that creates a good story and provides fun for all by establishing the story first then using the rules as a complement to that same story. As Dungeon Master, make sure you are the force moving your games in the direction that maximize both good story and good fun.

What can Dragonball Z teach a Dungeon Master?

Dragonball Z. Just the mention of that television series brings forth emotions from people Some good, some bad, some indifferent, and some who still don’t understand it.

A popular anime series in Japan in the early 90s, Dragonball Z gained a tremendous amount of attention when American audiences were first introduced to it in 1996. The series had just ended in Japan but Funimation hired Vancouver, Canada based Ocean studios to dub the first two seasons into English. This ran until 1998 when funding ran out for the dub. Reruns on Cartoon Network’s Toonami afternoon programming series increased its exposure and Funimation began dubbing the rest of the series as a result of that. They finished the dubbing of the series on their own and it ran until 2008.

Enough history. What does this have to do with Dungeons & Dragons?

Humans love to analyze things. We want to figure out “why” and “how”. Dragonball Z’s popularity is not immune to this. People have long discussed, debated and argued over why the series was so popular. Some say it fed into our inner child. Boys in particular loved the violence in the series but there were also many girls who loved it just as much. Its appeal spanned across gender, race, social status and age. People even wrote books about the culture behind the series.

So what can a Dungeon Master learn from this series? First, go watch it. Ok well maybe not all of it. Read the synopsis of the series if you don’t want to watch the hundreds of episodes. (I certainly wouldn’t). Then, pay attention to some of the common themes:

  1. Good versus evil is a constant struggle.
  2. Good often wins but at a price
  3. The price for victory can mean death, even for the most beloved characters
  4. Idealism is a constant. Never give up, you can always train more and you can always improve yourself. This idealsim is often what overcomes #1-#3.

Back to Dungeons & Dragons. One of my previous articles about Critical Misses encouraged Dungeon Masters to take failures and turn them into narrative events. Dragonball Z executes this beautifully. No, it isn’t always realistic and quite often its fantastic in that if we were beat to a pulp we wouldn’t want to go fight again as fast as Goku does. However, that’s kinda the point of a hero like the characters in Dungeons & Dragons games. They will face dark times, they’ll make mistakes and they’ll roll critical misses. Bring in that idealism when the players need it most and remind them that this is a heroic story. They are the ones who bards will write songs about for years to come. They are the ones who are going to save the townspeople even if they can’t hit a goblin to save their life. Encourage them to never give up, to persevere no matter the odds and find those moments of Inspiration (pun intended – be generous with awarding inspiration to those who show Dragonball Z-like zeal) that will help the party make it through those dark hours of constantly rolling “1”s and failing Perception checks.

Critical Miss Hits for 2d6

I’ve been doing a lot of research for the upcoming Dungeon Mastering 101 class lately. There’s an incredible amount of information out there for new Dungeon Masters right now and I think more than any other time in the history of D&D we need it. The hobby is growing by leaps & bounds and that includes new Dungeon Masters being brought aboard.

There’s been gems, flawed gems and ugly rocks in the pile of material I’ve found. The gems are where I focus most of my energy and this article at Geek & Sundry (by the talented Terry Litorco was definitely one of the best gems of the bunch. She covers 3 great tips that all DMs, both new and old, will find useful. In this post, I’m going to focus on the first one. First, let’s have a short history lesson.

Critical hits are one pop culture’s favorite tabletop RPG terms to pirate and use often. Its fun to hit things for damage in games. It awakens a primal urge we have to see things be overpowered by our efforts. Surprisingly, D&D isn’t the father of this baby. Rather, Empire of the Petal Throne, a lesser known tabletop RPG published by TSR in 1975 by M.A.R. Barker, introduced critical hits. The rules said that they represented a “lucky hit on a vital organ”.

But what about when you miss? I don’t mean just any miss. I mean you miss so badly that bards compose songs of your epic failures. Kingdoms fall and rise thanks to how badly you handled your bastard sword on that dark day. You were forever banished from the cool kids’ table at school just because you missed that crucial swing in last night’s game. What is a player to do to overcome such ridicule?

That’s where the Dungeon Master comes in. One of the Dungeon Master’s core jobs is to make sure the game is fun for everyone. That includes Eric the Cavalier who finally picked up a sword and rolled a critical miss on his first attack. Critical Hits are almost guaranteed fun for everyone but does that mean a critical miss should provide the opposite and make sure everyone has a bad day? No way!

Just as Ms. Litorco says, Dungeon Masters have the golden opportunity to turn critical misses in interesting narratives. A missed attack deals no damage but just as hit points are more of an abstract than a true measure of health let that missed attack be more representative of the player character not damaging as they intended but the attack still happens regardless. Examples can include letting the missed sword swing still cause the enemy to dodge out of the way, avoiding damage but having to readjust their footing. Deflecting an attack means that the enemy had to focus on that attack so what else are they missing out on because of that? An intelligent monster might revel in its ability to avoid damage, shouting in triumph after it deflects an attack. Could the rest of the player characters then use that chance to sneak out of line of sight of the monster to escape? To sneak attack? To steal a treasured artifact? As Dungeon Master, these are questions you can decide because at the moment of critical failure the player is going to be focused on that dice turning up a “1”. They’re not going to see this as a winning situation but instead will most likely feel some measure of defeat. It is your job to give them the chance to refocus that and turn it into a heroic moment that might still have an impact on the game.

How to make a Dungeon Master

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March 1st I’m running a workshop for new Dungeon Masters (DMs) at the local library. My friend Michael will be co-hosting the workshop with me and we’re going to be using materials graciously provided to us by my friend Brent from up in the cold dark north of Canada. He’s run a workshop for new DMs and had great success in helping the organized play at his local store to grow as a result. We’re hoping to see the same thing happen locally, as DMs here are few & far between.

The local gaming store is selling Player’s Handbooks like crazy these days. I’m hearing 2-3 are being sold every week and I’ve yet to see a copy on the shelves when I’m there. So we have players. But DMs? Far & few between from what I’ve been told.

So how do you make a Dungeon Master?

I’ve been a DM for 35 years and last year I took up the helm again running a game at a local store. Very soon my friend and I will be teaching the aforementioned class and showing people who have never run a game what it means to be a DM. I’ve asked myself many times not just what it means to be a Dungeon Master but what it means to be a Dungeon Master in 2017. So what exactly does it mean?

March 31, 2016 - The first game I ran at Game Planet

The answer to that question, along with a few others, are things I’ll be covering in my next posts. For now, welcome to the Eldritch Seer.