Sunday, August 21, 2011

DM Best Practices

At the behest of I feel like every non-art post on my blog is striving to discover these, but it's good to stop and try to boil down what you know.  Take these with the usual caveats: I'm still learning, I realize I have a lot to learn, and I'm constantly reflecting and revising my practices.

One really important practice I was going to list Paul and Blair listed first: keep the game flowing, anything that slows or stops play should be ruled on quickly, handwaved, or revised to be quicker for next time.  The exception I would make would be when the slowdown is fun enough to actually become part of the game (see #4).

Here are some practices I don't think anyone mentioned yet and that I think are essential to my game and that I'm good at:

1 Describe Combat
For old school play the randomness of the dice is essential but sometimes puzzling.  It's your job as DM to meld these into some sort of sense.  Especially in combats.  You are in the best position to do this because, unlike players, you have to pay attention to what everyone is doing, you have a sense of what the monsters look and act like, and you have a sense of what tone you want to give players (isolation, desperation, victory).  So, I do these things:
  • describe hits and misses for both sides
  • every few hits/misses back up and reiterate what has happened
  • leave critical hits and misses to my own judgement (no charts) so I can come up with whatever ridiculous or awesome things fits the context
  • if players make a great suggestion run with it as always
I learned to elicit some description from players by being DMed by Tavis, but I don't want to put too much of a burden on them and (for the reasons above) I'm usually better equipped to evoke the scene as a whole.  I do try to ask spell casters what their spells look like because a) that seems very personal, and b) I can reuse that over and over with slowing the game down waiting for a player to be creative.

This isn't just for combat either-- missed saves, made saves, reaction rolls, morale rolls-- you are the interpreter of the randomness of the dice.

2 Don't Worry about Time
The single thing that kept me from DMing for years was worrying about how to keep track of rounds, and when to roll for wandering monsters, and when a torch will go out, etc.  But I remember now, watching Tarzan movies on TV and trying to see if I could hold my breath as long as he could.  Invariably, there would be a cut to a commercial, a cut to a scene happening elsewhere, a flashback, whatever.  Tarzan underwater time was not literal time, we, the audience could forget about it to focus on something else for a bit and then be reminded of it with dramatic music and underwater closeups.  My D&D is just like that.  It isn't a simulation.  Time is emotional.  Time is narrative.  Some specifics:
  • If I forget to roll for wandering monsters then other interesting things were most likely happening and it isn't a big deal.
  • If I suddenly remember, "Hey, it's been a while since I rolled for encounters," then there is either a lull in action or, more likely, players are dithering about what to do next.  A fight to remind them of the danger of the underworld is just what's needed.
  • If there's a dramatic time for a torch to go out, a spell duration to run out, especially if players mention it, then I might roll to see if that does happen.
Now I realize that players need info to make decisions and I am always striving to come up with simple systems that will, for example, give them a better sense of when their torch will go out.  But for now this works and quite well: fast paced, tense and dramatic.

3 Try to Engage All Your Players
I don't see myself as a distant arbiter of rules, a neutral judge.  I'm there to have fun and see everyone else having fun.  The rowdy, confident folks that turn out to be natural party leaders are not a problem.  It's the person visiting and playing for the first time, the shy person, or even the person tired from work.  So here are some things I try to do:
  • I ask folks being quiet to roll initiative for the party
  • I ask quiet folks what they are doing.  To make sure they aren't talked over and forgotten.
  • I'll have characters with little to do (the 1 hp MU who's cast his spell) make rolls for hirelings or npcs in combat
  • If I roll a wandering monster I tell the quiet person that they hear something
  • I give one session visitors a perk and try to make them essential to the session
  • I try to make sure the players know their options "What was the spell you memorized PlayerNoobie?  Oh, you're saving it, cool, cool."
In a nutshell, the last thing I want to see is a player huddling in a corner of the couch, quiet and bewildered.

Here is a fourth for good measure:

4 Don't Worry About the 4th Wall
If breaking it is fun, do it.  This I learned from Jeff Reints.  My hireling traits chart can result in some real doozies: hirelings with no feet, bearded women, slobs and pervs.  It turns out players quite enjoy rolling to see the results.  So, I let them do that during the session when they get hirelings.  Other mechanics like pulling Jenga blocks or rolling a big d30 or whatever, if it adds choices, adds excitement, adds fun it gets added.  I don't worry so much about ruining the player's sense of disbelief.  The right mechanic will oddly make them more engaged. This all works better if you subscribe to my rule 1, because I will rewind a little and then narrate what the result of the goofy mechanic means in the game world, and this probably goes a long way to re-immersing everyone present in the shared daydream.

Other than that I'm not sure I have specific points for this practice. 


  1. Wow, #3 is especially useful, great tips there, thanks. And I am in total agreement with you and Me. Rients about #4.

  2. Good points and has Carter says, #3 is particularly important.

  3. Thanks to both of you. You know I'm a dufus, I should have said that the bullet point under #3 about giving a visitor the spotlight I learned from ZakS. His visiting player on IHiWMA that he made half-medusa I think. One of the many things I learned from him, I should have remembered to give credit.

  4. I use #3 A LOT really, and while all your points were good and important, I think #3 really is some great advice. In my current campaign I run, I have one player who is particularly quiet, and I'm constantly trying to get her engaged using many of the same techniques you mention there. We're only 2 sessions in, and she's a bit intimidated because she's fairly new to the game, and the rest of us are crusty grognards, but she's becoming more comfortable I think. Great stuff, man.

  5. I'm really happy to hear that R.W.Chandler, especially for a female player. Keep up the good work.

  6. * If I roll a wandering monster I tell the quiet person that they hear something.

    love this.

  7. Thanks. It does put a little pressure on that person, but I suppose all the tips for #3 do and that's probably unavoidable; hard to include some one with out shining the spotlight on them a little.