You come here for the video game content, right? Too bad. This isn’t a video games blog. This is an Aether blog. Usually I talk about video games, because that’s what’s fun to me. But really, I talk about whatever the hell I want.
And today, whatever the hell I want is a different type of gaming. Dungeons and Dragons. Recently, I picked up the role of ongoing GM for the first time. Building up a campaign, not just a few one shots. And it turns out, GM’ing is hard. Most of the group of players I have here are the same group I learned to play with, and they’re all much more experienced than I am. Most of them are even more experienced GMs than I am. As it turns out, GM’ing is hard. And I think GM’ing for this group is even harder that it would be with a group of complete newbies. These guys, they freakin’ see right through everything I’m doing.
In any case, I’ve got a handful of sessions under my belt, now. It’s been an odd experience getting this far. Here’s a handful of thoughts I’ve had on the process the way up here.
All the Resources are Worthless
Everything geared towards the “New GMs.” All of it. Absolutely unhelpful. Even the things that you think might be helpful. You would think the Dungeon’s Masters Guide would be essential. That’s what teaches you how to do the whole thing, right? Nothing. If it didn’t come with a list of magic items, it would not be worth anything. Sure, it has a whole bunch of tables if you’re wanting to roll the dice and randomly generate your world, but just like how procedural generation leads to boring level designs in video games, would you ever expect that to lead to something engaging on the tabletop? Anything else it has, if you’ve been a player, you already know. You’ve seen it in action. You’ve lived it. And it’s easier to translate that experience than it is to try and pick something up from reading.
But that’s okay, we’ve got the whole wide interbutts at our fingertips, right? Ehhhhhh………….. No. For whatever reason, I’ve yet to see a good newbie GM’s guide. I’ve even yet to see some newbie GM tips that are helpful. They’re all either floofy platitudes that don’t really give you anything, they’re concepts that are either over your head or too advanced to work in until you learn to manage your players, very specific things that would not work with the way that you or your players intend to have your fun, or they’re so obvious as to be pointless if you’ve ever been a player. All of it. Absolutely all of it. Even the newbie guides I’ve seen from people who otherwise have intelligent things to say about D&D fit everything into one of those four categories. And for Kord’s sake don’t go into any sort of online discussion on the subject. For whatever reason, it seems that the only people heading to talk to others about it have absolutely no interest in actually listening to anyone else. So many opinions going in all sorts of directions, and no way to figure out what’s good there.
So what do you do if you want to learn GM’ing? Well, first, spend some time as a player. You may have noticed that was a common theme of what I had above. It will do a lot for you if you’re wanting to build worlds of your own to spend time in other’s. It will teach you things. From my experience, it’s the best way to get at what you need to know. Beyond that, just look up regular tips for GM’ing. Go for the ones for more experienced GMs. For whatever reason, when they’re talking to the newbies it makes people’s brains go all weird, but you can see some solid material that still gets you what you need to know if you look at what they say to some peers. Thinking your way through that stuff will teach you a lot more than the weird stuff they’re flinging at the fresh GMs.
Your Players Will Follow Your Lead. Easily.
From what I’ve been seeing from other GMs, it’s a common struggle to get players to follow on your plot strings. To actually heed the call, pick things up, and go where you’ve got your material. Either that pesky free will comes into play, or they completely miss all your intricately laid breadcrumbs, and it’s hard to get them to do anything without railroading.
I have not faced that at all. Possibly, my experience may be different, because although I’m new, my players are outright D&D fanatics. They throw around terminology that I don’t even know what it means years after playing. They seem to have thoroughly explored every new piece of official content before it’s ever even released. And as I said before, they’ve been seeing right through me. Oftentimes, they’ve been moving in the direction of the quest before I’ve even laid it out for them.
I just need to hint “hey, there’s a thing there” and they’ll be making preparations for it. Unless I’m unknowingly being railroady, they’re all actively reading into my intentions and making sure they’re playing along with it. I’ve gone in some rather off the map directions, and they still keep on top of it. I had a part where I had the guys basically taking over a town, allocating workers, distributing resources, working out policies, things like that. I was expecting to actually have to explain this, to more mechanically prompt them into doing it, but no.
I didn’t feel like I even had to suggest it, they picked it up right away. That was a good feeling.
And it makes sense. The game’s not about having the GM against the players. Well, I mean, it kind of is, given that the GM controls the enemies in combat. But it’s not really. They’re working together. And yeah, railroading is no fun. But if players go outside of where the GM made the game, well, there’s really no game. They’d have to sit there while the GM just hammers something out on the fly, and it won’t be as well-thought as the stuff they put prep into. And they know that. So they’re not going to go marching to the east if the adventure is in the west, because that’s not fun for anybody.
That said, you do still have to know their character motivations. Had one player recently who decided that a villain marching through their town wasn’t worth getting out of bed for. Was totally in-character for him, but not super helpful. So sometimes you do have to make the call something that connects with them. In this case, I set his house on fire to get him to do something.
Take that sentence out of context.
Give Them an Inch…
One of the less obvious skills you have to use as a GM is that of managing your players. Not their characters, not the plot, the players themselves. You will see them from a completely different perspective when you’re GM’ing their game. I didn’t pay much mind to all the “Hey, can I do this ridiculous thing with my character build?” questions when I was a player, but oh man, if you open it up to anything but just “we do what’s in the rulebooks” that will never stop. Which, to be fair, sometimes they’re asking things that you can work with. Yes, I suppose if you do manage to run 200 miles per hour you can inflict fall damage by running into someone. And yes, that would be awesome to see. We should try to set it up sometime. But no, you can’t have the broken playtesting ability that gives you infinite opportunity attacks. No, we can’t workshop a new ability that gives you a fifteen foot reach. No, if you have one ability that gives you a bonus to attacks, and another that lets you cast a spell instead of attacking, you can’t use the bonus on the thing you’re doing instead of attacking. Tons of things like that. Not helping that I don’t quite know my way around all this stuff yet.
Of course, the management goes beyond that. You’ve got to get a group of people all on the same schedule. You’ve got to keep everyone involved in the game. I’ve got one player who doesn’t really seem to know what to do with the roleplay aspect, but thrives on the minutiae of the combat rules. The rest seem to really love the roleplay part, and would only have half the experience without it. You’ve got to design for both. And you’ve got to give something that keeps all personality types satisfied. Do they enjoy having a good lived in world? Feeling accomplished in combat? Getting tons of loot? Acting out their character? All of that’s in there.
And then, on top of that, you have to predict their gameplay behavior, and design with that in mind. And they will constantly surprise you on that. They will put way more emphasis than you intend on certain things, and less than you want them to have on others. Right now, the campaign I’m running is kind of post-apocalyptic fantasy with some vague horror themes. I’ve been trying to capture to some extent the atmosphere of Kingdom Death: Monster, if that’s familiar to you. If not, think like Dark Souls or Berserk. I want the game to feel threatening. So, early on, there was an ambush. I thought it was telegraphed so far a blind man would have picked up on it. They were running a gauntlet in a forest, full of dangers, after having been told by someone who just rescued them to trust nothing there. I had a weapon left in the middle of nowhere, in front of a stone face, with a bunch of hidden enemies waiting for them to go and pick it up. As obvious as I could make it, I thought. They thought nothing of wandering in there and falling right into the trap. Ok, whatever. The enemies were all sprites, dinky little things that only do 1 hp of damage. They have status effects, so they’d be dangerous alongside other enemies, but on their own, nothing. They fell in, so threatening atmosphere established, right? They ended up being so scared of that ambush that they passed up other times when I was legitimately trying to create opportunities for them to earn some new gear, then found themselves unprepared for challenges I built in later. On the flip side, after that, they were attempting to infiltrate a building in an abandoned town, where they were worried they could be attacked at any second. I had made obvious that someone else had been in there recently, doing mysterious things. They walked into a trap immediately upon entering, but it was incredibly minor, and I put it there partially to indicate that yes, there are traps in here, so be ready for that. Did not stop them from basically running full on screaming into the second trap in there, which triggered a monster fight that again, they were under-equipped for because they were passing on the equipment I had been trying to find ways for them to get, and that’s how they ended up getting a Total Party Kill.
My first TPK. I feel like I’m finally a GM for that one. But I can’t take credit, they earned it.
Your players will go after things that you planned on being insignificant. Do they become significant if the players are spending tons of time on them? What if they do something in good faith that would logically get them killed for reasons they may or may not be aware of? Do you adjust the story on the fly, or be consistent with it? If they look for secret passages in a place that wouldn’t have any, try to find something magical in the mundane, or hunt for treasure in a place where they’d normally find something of value, and they roll highly at that, do they find something corresponding to their search?
And you’ve got to manage for yourself. You’re playing a different game, but it’s still a game for you, too. You need to have fun as well, in your specific way. If you’re doing it in a way that you’re not having fun, it’s not worth it to you to do it.
The Basic Model
I’ve been finding the roleplay to be the easiest part. And the funnest part. Doesn’t require me to search out pictures, set up maps, worry about balancing combat, create extra characters, etc. Almost everything is absolutely in my control. I don’t have to worry about the players absolutely guffing things up and ruining the plot if I don’t want them to. Sure, they’re going to do things I don’t expect, try out ideas outside of my own, act out their characters to a deeper level than I had accounted for. Thing is, I can handle that. For one, there’s an element of trust there. As above, if they see what the goal or the destination is, they’ll go for it. They’ll act in a way that, although they may not follow my line, they’re still going in the same direction. And for another, I present and teach all the time at work. The skills the roleplaying aspect calls for, improvisation, communication of ideas, encouraging people to speak, they’re all old hat to me. Roleplaying was where I thrived more as a player, and naturally, it’s where I’ve found more satisfaction as a GM. I like my stories, and this is where I can move them forward.
Funny thing is, once you learn how to react to the players, the roleplaying aspect in D&D falls into a very basic model. It’s “This happens. What do you do?” Then, “Because of what you did, this happens. What do you do?”. Then you repeat the second part until they stop doing things or you introduce some other stimulus. Then you start at the top again.
That’s it. It’s more complicated in practice, but that seems to be the most effective method I’ve come across. If one of the player’s not really engaging in the roleplay, have something happen to them or address them directly. If you’re delivering long story beats, have your players lead the questioning, and use this model. If you’re needing to involve multiple characters, have their interactions be in the background, in somewhat short form, and use this model. If the GM is delivering too much of the story by themselves, the players will get disengaged. They need to be an active element and central characters in whatever you’re doing. And for that, you need to make sure you’re getting their input.
Combat: Try Not to Kill Them but Also Try to Kill Them
Combat is where you get the G part of the RPG coming full force. There’s mechanics around the roleplaying part, absolutely, but their scope pales in comparison to the gameplay around combat. Combat in D&D is designed to accommodate hundreds of different builds, playstyles, and party compositions. The amount of options that players have at their disposal in a given situation is literally unlimited. You get to design something that’s going to accommodate that. Good luck.
D&D combat design shares something I believe is pretty similar to video game combat design. You want to build encounters that, at times, are going to come very, very close to killing your players, because that’s thrilling and exciting for them and it makes it very satisfying to overcome that. If you actually kill your players, though, it’s bad for the experience. And in D&D, character death is a big deal. You can’t just reload a save and get back into it. If your game allows for resurrection, it is prohibitively expensive at the early and mid levels, ruinously expensive once you get past that point, and then trivial once you’re at a very high level. For much of the game, if a character dies, that’s it for them. And it’s painful. Your players put a huge amount of work into them, have spent a lot of time as them, and to some extent, see themselves as them in the game world. And as a GM, you’ve got story in them. You’ve developed them. And that’s all gone. So yeah. You want to skirt your players on the edge of death, but never actually push them over. All while a million other things could potentially be going on.
The good news is that it’s actually rather hard to kill a player in D&D, when they’re all on the ball. They’re not always going to be all on the ball, however, and with how reliant combat is designed on people working in teams, if one element of the group goes south, it’s pretty easy for the rest of them to follow even when they’re otherwise on top of things. It also doesn’t help that even the best of early level characters are really fragile. Survivability will go up as levels increase, even against similarly leveled threats.
The optimum thing I’ve found to do here, so far, is to design your encounters so that your players will win, although not by the same means every time. But then, in gameplay, use that design to actually try to kill them. Operate within the bounds of what you have set up, of course. Even in combat, roleplaying is your duty above all. A wild animal isn’t going to be able to identify a magical trap and know to avoid it, even if they just say it being set up. But yes, you do need to to the NPC’s best to try and beat your players. If your players feel like your just going to hand them a victory, that there’s no real risk there, it’s not fun for them anymore. Sometimes that’s going to cost you both, when things go really sour, but you need that in place, because your players need to feel like they earned their victory. For the most part, if you get the design component right, you will be able to honestly attempt to kill your players while trusting them to overcome it, because your original design should clearly enable them to do so.
It’s really hard to get the design part right, though. And I am not good with it. Our last GM was, in retrospect, a master of this. There were plenty of times where we were driven to the point where we had characters incapacitated, some rolling for their very survival, yet we always managed to come back from the brink an overcome without the GM obviously stepping in to ‘fix’ things. I am nowhere near that skilled. It doesn’t help that, again, the resources available for this are absolute bunk. Officially, there’s XP guidelines, where you can plug all your monsters in and compare them to your characters’ levels and get a result as to how challenging that fight should be. So far, I have found those guidelines to be absolutely worthless. There’s way too many variables for that to give a realistic depiction of how things break down. The fight that TPK’d my party was ranked a medium by the guidelines, which they describe as a fight that should consume resources and limited-use abilities, but the players should be in much risk of actually dying. On the other side, in another game, I’ve run the players through fights deemed ‘deadly’ by the guidelines and they had little trouble getting through them.
So… yeah. Combat design is a really important part of the game, and it’s incredibly hard, and the only way to get good at it is by experience. It will take you time to get there. You will design combats that are bad or go horribly. That’s okay. Learn from them, and get better.
Your Players Will be There for You
As I said, my players are all much more experienced than me. They’re all D&D nerds. I’ve only rarely played games without them, but they’ve all had multiple groups, and are connected with many other players. I’m not the best GM they’ve ever had. I may not even be the average-est GM they’ve ever had. If they got tired of my game, frustrated with my missteps, or even just felt like something more satisfying, they could go elsewhere. But they haven’t. They’ve all been there before. They know it takes time to get good, and so far, they’re sticking with it as I get there. Even after the TPK, they just picked up and started again. They’re taking the opportunity to do all sorts of weird experimental stuff with their characters, sure. They’re not necessarily making running the game easy on me, sure. But they are sticking with it, even through the rough patches. I am trying to run a good experience, trying to get to the point where I know enough to run some good quality times, and they are supporting me in doing so. That feels powerful to me.
Even if they weren’t, however, if I were interested in GM’ing for other groups, there would be other players. I may not know anyone else in meatspace who’d be interested in playing with me, or even know anyone else online beyond this group who’d be interested, but compared to the amount of players out there, GMs are rare. I could get back on Roll20, put out a call for players, and judging by what I’ve been seeing, be absolutely flooded with people. Granted, I may not like these new people. I’m GM’ing for this group because I like these guys and I want to keep playing with them, and I may end up with a group of jerks that way. In which case, I could just call off the game, invite the players I enjoyed back for another go in something else, and repost something. Rinse and repeat until I have another group I’m having fun with. If you want to GM, and you can work playing online, you can GM. Other players will be there. And the ones who know you may well be like my group, and be more than willing to stick with you as you work things out.