Foreword: Apprentice Ian has been hard at work developing a successful Curse of Strahd campaign...between two groups. Now, it would always work out that one group (meeting monthly) would take place before the other (meeting weekly), allowing the DM to take the lessons learned from the first group and apply them with great success with the second. This is the lesson of practice and learning from the feedback you receive through play to make satisfying encounters. His main struggle here is trying to re-apply the successful lessons from the second group to the first, so that both tables have satisfying sessions.
Originally Transcribed on 5/12/20
As a new DM, one of my greatest goals is to create an engaging and satisfying story for both myself and my Players to enjoy. In my eyes, the ultimate goal of a game like Dungeons & Dragons is to have fun with your friends. And so, when a social encounter I’ve set up falls a little flat, for either of us, it feels disappointing. Now, it’s important to take this with a grain of salt - even the most experienced DMs will go through this, and it’s not the end of the campaign just because your goblin merchant doesn’t quite harmonize with the Party. These things happen.
But it’s not what this entry is about.
I am in a fortunate position as a new DM: I am able to take what is essentially the same encounter, and present it to two groups, one after the other. Because of this, I am able to learn from any missteps I make, and enhance the things that went well. However, I want to take even the lessons I learn from the second chance, and apply them to the future scenarios I set up for the first group. And so, I have found myself asking a few questions.
What are the goals of my PCs, and of the Party in general? This is important to understand, because each session should feel as though the Party has in some way furthered their goals in the campaign. Whether this means defeating an ancient dragon, removing a political figure from power, or seeking revenge against a Big Bad Guy, the encounter must somehow relate to that goal.
What are the goals of my NPCs, and what knowledge do they hold? When I begin to plan my encounter, one of the top things in my mind is to create an interesting NPC with depth of character. This means that the character will have their own motives, which may not be aligned with the Party’s. The answer to this question which shapes the dynamic of the conversation, and determines whether the NPC can be considered antagonistic or protagonistic in the eyes of the Party.
Finally, how do I best reward the Party for their time invested in the encounter? This is honestly one of the things that concerns me most. An encounter that does not have a significant impact on the Party is meaningless, and a waste of time. The Party members are making an investment each time they interact with an NPC, so it’s important that they feel like it changed their perception of the world, helped them further their goals, or fleshed out the setting overall. For example, learning the location of a magical artifact, understanding the motives of a powerful enemy, or making a crucial ally who will provide safe harbor from the city guard.
These are not all of the questions one could ask when creating a rewarding and satisfying encounter, but they are effective at enhancing a DM’s creative faculties. They touch on key points that will bring your interactions to life - even when improvising the lines. I am confident that this lesson will prove invaluable in all of my campaigns, and I hope it will help you as well.
Good luck on your journeys.
Foreword: Every person trying their hand at running a tabletop scenario runs into the realm of creative bursts, circumstantial rulings, and an overall desire to put spins on the game world. Though these moments are what breathe life into the table for me, they blossom from a strong understanding of the core rules first. I'll often tell my music students, "Walk with me now, so you can run later." Learn the rules, so you can bend and break them later at appropriate times, and it's amazing how freeing it can be to just...master the rules of the game first. Your players will also be stronger moving from table to table, and the more tables they can be equipped for, the better. :)
Originally Transcribed on 5/5/2020
Besides the official material printed in the Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual, there are veritable terabytes of information out there in the shape of online forums and posts discussing helpful tips to becoming an effective DM. Immersing oneself into the vast expanse of resources, tools and video-blogs can often be overwhelming, however, and so I find myself forced to turn away from the immense forest that is D&D and start with a single, tall oak tree: the Rules As Written.
Many people come into Dungeons & Dragons with a sense of inspiration and wonder, excited to be able to tell any story they want in this unique game. All campaigns have the goal of creating a satisfying story for both Players and DM. However, it can be easy to let this unbridled creativity get away from us during play. This is why it is important for new DM’s to mediate and regulate the mechanics of the story through the Rules as Written in order to bring out the best in their Players.
This is especially true for a table with new Players. I run a home campaign in the Tyranny of Dragons setting, and four of my five Players have no experience with D&D whatsoever. If I were to introduce special homebrew rules, such as drinking a Healing Potion as a bonus action, then I would be setting them up for confusion should they eventually crack open the Player’s Handbook to learn more. Or, if a Player has already done their homework before attending the session, the confusion could bog down gameplay and change the dynamic between Player and DM.
Generally speaking, one can look at the game of D&D as a blank canvas, and the Rules as Written as the pencil. When learning to paint, you must first learn to draw, and so you use the pencil to learn the essentials: lining, shading, perspective, and more. Once this has been mastered, you begin to introduce new elements to the game to increase satisfaction and fun. When starting out as a new DM, there are so many other lessons to learn - it’s unnecessary to worry about homebrew at this stage. But don’t worry, there will be plenty of time to discuss that in a later entry.
Good luck on your journeys.
With the advent of offering a mentorship program for aspiring Game Masters, I have taken two under my wing recently. They have contrasting skills and styles, and it is an absolute honor to share tables with them as we all continue to grow and become better communicators, storytellers, and world-builders. One of them, Ian, took it upon himself to jot down his reflections here and there during the process, and with his permission, every now and then I'll share them with you all. We'll call this segment topic: Notes From The Apprentice. Enjoy!
Originally Transcribed on 4/7/2020
Hello, everyone! My name is Ian Ohlsson, and I am the current test-pilot for the Dungeon Master Apprenticeship Program created by Adamus Drake Productions. A short background on me: I am currently a college student, studying as a Biology major and pursuing a degree that will lead me to a fulfilling job in the medical field. I have experience in creative writing and storytelling, and I am absolutely infatuated with this wonderful game of Dungeons & Dragons, as well as all of the creativity it inspires in the people around me. I am looking forward to getting to know each other further over the course of these Entries, where I will share with you the lessons I’ve learned about how to become a skillful DM from my mentor, Adamus Drake.
Today, I would like to discuss something that I was forced to acknowledge early on: when I get excited about a particular topic, especially during conversations with friends, it can be easy for me to turn off my inner filter and barrage my comrades with a stream of consciousness. As you can imagine, this lack of control over my speech can be a detrimental factor as a DM, where I am guiding my Players through a world of floating plot hooks and narrative descriptions. And so, the first lesson I learned on my journey to becoming a great Dungeon Master was the lesson of clarity; the ability to say more with less, and having confidence that the information I’ve provided is sufficient. It is important, my friends, to place value in the words you choose. In a more scientific context, we increase the quality of our words in place of quantity.
Now, this might sound restrictive to the creative flow that is crucial for being a DM, and counterintuitive considering how many 2000-word papers many of us have written during our youth. But in fact, it instills a sense of freedom in the speaker - no more will you find yourself compelled to defend your statements, or accidentally reveal secret narrative points, or fill the air with just sound for its own sake. With clarity comes the confidence to trust in your skills as an aspiring DM. Once you take this step, the wonderful world of this game will open up to you, and you will be able to harness the inspiration it fills you with.
Thank you very much for reading, and I hope this Entry has helped you on your own path. I am looking forward to continuing these posts weekly, and discussing more about how we can become our best selves through gaming.
Good luck on your journeys,
Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, and aspiring fiction author.