Tuesday, January 8, 2013
Extremely Expert DM Advice: Issue #0 - Why You Should Ignore Most DMing Advice
Barking Alien had a post on this, spurred by Noism's post here. I thought I would try to contribute some useful information on this topic.
Before we begin, I think it takes an incredible amount of ego to position oneself as an "Expert" DM and I dislike it when people do so. "Experienced" - sure, but "Expert" implies some level of mastery of the role. Then there are the people who try to sell books on how to be a better DM. Right. Knock yourself out. Lets move on.
First, I believe the best teacher (in many endeavors but in this one in particular) is experience. You can only read, listen, or watch so much - the rubber meets the road when you actually take on the responsibility of running an actual game, for real players, at a specific time and place. I don't care how much theory you read or how many sessions you've played in, the transition to running a game really only begins once you do it. Once you have done this, if you want to get better, keep running a game. Regularly. Once a year isn't going to see much improvement. Once a month is a big jump. Once a week can turn into a job very quickly so pace yourself. The bottom line is that this is an active skill that exercises muscles you can't really practice on your own.
Further thought: If you don't have a group why would you care about being a better DM? Worry about getting to BE a DM first - then start worrying about getting better at it. It typically takes months of regular play with a steady group before people start considering it an automatic thing and it can be blown very easily with just a few missed sessions. So get some players and get a game going - then start looking for advice. Issue #1 of this series will deal with getting a game together. Once I have that up I'll even put a link to it right here.
Second, the skills you develop in running a game are only partially portable. Much of what you learn (again, IMO) is specific to the game you're running and the group of people you are running it for. There is a lot of advice out there on the net that claims to be universal - it isn't. It's either too general to be much help like "Be prepared" or "have snacks" or it's flat out wrong for the game and the people you run. If it's not specific to your game you can probably ignore it. Example: When I run 3rd or 4th Edition D&D I make sure I have maps and miniatures ready to go for combat encounters. When I run ICONS or Marvel I don't worry about either of those things. In fact for some games even "Be Prepared" is bad advice. I've read checklists posted by DM's that don't look anything like what I do and would be a huge waste of time for me. Presumably it works for them and their group (that's why they're posting it, right?) but it has no value to me. Early on you may not be able to tell the difference and that's alright - down the road you will.
Further thought: Much of the advice on running a game out there comes across as if the DM is on an island - and thus is worthless. RPG groups are more like a band - there is a group dynamic at work that influences everything from choice of game to tone to length of session to how serious the whole thing is. You can't ignore that and it's the main reason I find most advice like this near-useless: because your group is not my group, and it is likely that they are quite dissimilar, to the degree that specifics on how to run a game that would work for your group would not have any value for mine. Keep this in mind when people start to tell you the "best" way to run something.
Following along this line of thought:
Third, players matter. Every campaign nowadays involves some level of compromise because it's a group activity. The days of taking whatever the DM runs are largely gone because most players will say F-it and go play Warcraft if they don't like your game. Or they will slowly become less and less available as they lose interest in a system or a setting they don't like. Find a game to run that you like and they like - it shouldn't be terribly hard. If you don't like it, you won't want to run and if they don't like it they won't want to play. It can take a little while to settle in but you can get there. Find a game everyone can live with and help them figure out what is fun about that game for them. In the long run hopefully things come together and it ends up being like a great band - greater than the sum of its parts.
For a lot of games and a lot of players, combat is the pinnacle of the experience - stomping imaginary monsters into the ground is at the core of why they come. If that's what your group likes and you find it interesting to run the go for it and don't sweat your lack of in-character NPC speechifying and heavy, intricate plots - if it doesn't jazz your players then the opinion of some guy on the internet shouldn't phase you. In contrast, if your group does like to focus on non-combat action then make sure your system supports it - not all of them do that well . If a lot of your players are new to the game (and new to your game) they may not know what they like so experiment a little. I can't tell you what your players like but I can tell you it's a handy thing to know. I can also tell you that what they say is not always how they play. Sometimes people have an image of themselves, or at least of their gamer selves, especially if they spend a lot of time on forums, that doesn't quite match up with how they actually play. I give more weight to what they do than what they say but it's a good idea to check yourself every so often by changing things up. If they keep saying how much they like NPC interaction, give them a chance to do some. When they start talking about their next fight, or their last fight, and seem bored with the NPCs it might be because you suck at character interactions, but more likely it is because they just don't care much about it and would rather be doing something else in the game. It's good to know.
Further Thought: After a fairly short period of time YOU will be the expert on how to run a game for your group. It doesn't hurt to listen or read how other people do things, but they don't know your game, your style, and your players - you do. That makes you the expert, or the closest thing to it on the planet.
To wrap up this introductory issue, here's one final "what I do" tidbit: When it comes to getting better, I don't really worry much about session to session improvement. Sessions rise and fall - maybe someone had a crappy day, maybe a key player for this situation didn't make it, maybe everyone straggled in late - there are things you can't control. I know the things that matter to me* and I try to do them each session and over time I expect them to get easier. What I do focus on is making this campaign better than the last one. I don't know that I always succeed, and it's definitely a longer view of things than some but I've had a steady group for a long time so I can do that.
* For D&D specifically I try to be organized and keep the game moving during the action parts and prod the players into driving the direction of the game when we're not in combat rounds. The moving part works most of the time I think, but the organized part - well, my notes are organized but having a lot of mini's seems to mean that the ones I need are never in the place they are supposed to be when it comes time to plonk them down on the table. It's good to have goals for the future.
Also, if people seem to be more interested in talking than playing at first, I let them. You can't force the game on people and it's better to get it out up front. This does not always work, and it's probably why we only get through two 4E encounters in 5-6 hours, but it's how I handle things right now.