I used to think I was a good Dungeon Master. On that premise I invited six of my friends from all corners of my university to play a 4th edition campaign with me. It was very quickly made apparent to me by my very intelligent, very nerdy group that I could very much do with improving. So, throughout the course of this article I'm hoping we will all learn together what it takes to be a better DM in any tabletop RPG.
How to steal ideas
In our most recent session I introduced who would quickly become my favourite character in the campaign: a sentient ship. The Obsidian Dawn steers itself and loves to mess with its crew, but cannot speak or communicate its thoughts or feelings. I was faraway and glassy-eyed as I described the groaning of its wooden mass as it pulled away from the harbour, until suddenly:
"Is it also blue and called the TARDIS?"
"This is nothing like the TARDIS!" I protested.
"And that city entirely contained in a cupboard?"
"That was more of a p- like, a portal thing..." I stammered, unheard and completely thrown. Had I accidentally stolen this entire portion of the plot from Doctor Who? As we chugged along to the next island, it was revealed that it had the same name as an indie game developer that I had never even heard of.
And then one of my players accidentally referred to the impending evil force as the Darkspawn.
"This isn't Dragon Age!" I cried. "It's the Empire!"
"So, Star Wars then?"
I threw a scarf at him.
Is it possible to get a room of six nerds together and not accidentally reference things endlessly? A plant capable of thought is a huge nod to 'Hitchhikers'; refer to it as a 'shrubbery' and prepare for an onslaught of Monty Python impressions. Allude to the idea of Death as a person and for some reason the only thing that could mean is that you've been reading too much Terry Pratchett.
Fortunately - and bizarrely - however, they never seem to notice when I just blatantly lift content and drop it straight into the plot.
'The boat can't go any further until you put the equivalent of these ingredients into that handy cauldron,' and 'on this island it's Mardi Gras every day' just went straight over their heads.
Clearly they've never played Monkey Island. And thank goodness.
How to make your party throw things at you in frustration
I had hardly any plot written one lazy week, so I just translated journal entries into rot13 and threw a paragraph at them after each combat. There were about 500 words to translate... 3 of which were necessary. They translated it letter by letter, eyes watering and heads aching, as I ate my sandwich and checked Facebook. Then, out of nowhere, scarf to the face.
"You are evil," one says.
"Now that we've figured out the key, can you just say we've translated it all?" another reasons.
I think about it. I do. "No."
How to please everybody all the time
I like to think I take constructive criticism into account. You can please all the people all the time, I decided. One person wants more combat while another pleads for much less? Simple. Just add more non-combat encounters for XP and add special extra traps, pits and improvisable items into the existing combat as well as dialogue and skill challenges. Done.
To be honest, add in a Starcraft reference every few weeks and the Physics students are happy. Allow Henry to be a dick a few times a session and he's fine. Give the two quieter players the chance to think things through and reward them for careful preparation with success and all is well.
But Nathan was a challenge and a half. He turned up with a Fighter dwarf with an AC of 13 (is this possible??) and an Intelligence of 7. The other players had a field day with this. They gave him asthma, and said that he couldn't run away from enemies because of the weight of all his inhalers. A door they had to break down? The 80-year-old Cleric rolled ten higher and demolished it on his own. During an intense battle during which the dwarf is blocking the line of sight, the Cleric throws milk over him and yells 'you're lactose intolerant and so you pass out.'
"I can't deal with all this maths!" he finally cries in his defence. I look at the attack he is trying to pull off - '1d8+2' - and then at the two 2d6s in his hand, and then up at him. There is a silence. He rolls them, not breaking eye contact, and then we both helplessly state at the dice for an answer.
"Roll a d8,” I say, "and add 2."
"To your roll."
"So to 8?"
"No, roll the d8. Yeah, that one."
"Now add 2 to that."
"To my strength?"
"No, 2 is already your strength modifier."
"No, my strength is 14."
"No, your modi- it's 6. It's just 6. 6 damage."
He quit the game after a couple of sessions. 'Too much maths.' The party came up with an elaborate story to explain his sudden absence in which the dwarf tripped over his own beard and smashed his glasses into his eyes.
"But in the end, it was his peanut allergy that killed him," one says sombrely. We have a moment of silence for him.
I guess you really can't please all of the people all of the time. You probably will have to, at some point in the game, add two numbers under ten together.
Fargrim the anaemic, diabetic, hypoglycaemic, asthmatic, brittle-boned dwarven fighter will be sorely missed.
No scarves were harmed in the making of anything.