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.