Friday, October 31, 2014

A Quick Thought on Dungeon Mastering (DM'ing)

Hi folks, time to change gears for a moment and talk about something outside of the Grim Dark. Recently I started putting together some elements for a D&D campaign which takes inspiration from several sources, and mixes them together into the core ideas that make up the setting and the mechanics for my party.  One of my favorite parts of Dungeon Mastering is the sheer freedom of creation available to you before you even have the party members selected.  Creating a world, often from scratch, is such a test of creativity that I find fascinating each time I delve into it.  I myself tend to take bitz and pieces from one source or another and merge them into a whole new universe for my players.  While this can have it's own challenges, it can often have heightened rewards.  But it's a delicate balancing act no matter which way you slice it.

This campaign marks the first one I have officially run in quite some time, and if you don't count the last one, which was more or less a last minute decision, it's been a solid few years since I have had the joy of putting together a full blown campaign of my own.  But unlike my previous adventures into the realm of DM'ing, I thought I'd challenge myself with something different this time, and it's the source of my thoughts here.  The challenge is that while I have put together a fair number of background elements and an exhaustibly large amount of time into mechanics alterations (which I feel are necessary for any DM wanting to introduce their players to a unique world of their own creation), I intend to run this game off the cuff.  Sessions won't be planned, nor will the layouts of buildings or the consistency of enemy ranks for combat.  With the exception of a lose, somewhat ad-hock plot that will be seen more and more as the game progresses, the goal here is to produce a game without really planning ahead.  It's an endurance test of pure imagination, where the possibilities, and of course the pitfalls, are endless.

But before I go on, I want to stop for a moment and compare these styles of Dungeon Mastering, both of which I have utilized to some extend or another.  However, no matter what conclusion I reach, or the pros and cons I find with each... I don't think there is a right way to DM.  These methodologies of approach will not fit everyone's taste, as everyone will tweak things differently for a variety of reasons.  I'm merely presenting the methods I have used over my many campaigns, and commenting on what I enjoyed and didn't care for along the way.  So with that, let's jump behind the screen and see what awaits us there.

The Prepared DM
This is what I feel most people expect to see, or even want to see when they join a D&D group... and it's for very good reasons.  A Prepared DM (or PDM for this purpose) will come ready for the expected, and in most cases will have every detail ready for their players.  The story line will be ready to be uncovered, and usually at what is considered to be a relevant pace to keep the party invested in it.  Entire maps will be drawn and used to give players a real sense of where they are in relativity to the dungeon, city, or even world.  Fights will be drawn up, built, torn down and rebuilt, and finally balanced against the deeper mechanics like challenge rating value comparisons, gear limitations, character abilities, party cohesion and composition, and so on and so forth.  NPC's will often be flushed out, with their own gear, mannerisms, etc.  Basically, most of the details which will make up the player's path will be balanced and presented long before the session starts.

Having grown up with a lot of this style, I have to say there is a lot to love here.  The game feels solid and at its core, that is because the PDM has taken a long amount of time investing their self in understanding the rules, and their players from both a personal and a mechanical standpoint, and then applying that knowledge into an investing story where the players can often affect real change on certain elements.  The fights are well thought out and often have a variety of mechanics which are used to keep one fight unique from the others.  Treasure will be accurately provided at a challenging, yet fair amount.

All of these details are par for the course for a PDM, and their players get a well designed and fun experience.  There is no doubt that this style of game management provides excellent results for the players.  The one issue here, and of course this isn't always the case, is that at times the game can become a bit direct.  The plot can often direct the players down a well-designed, but still somewhat linear path.  While I can say that I really enjoy the great storytelling that a well thought out story provides, I equally dislike being forced into a hallway, or stuck following the path of a narrative railroad.

This again, is not always the case.  Most PDM's are more than capable of improvising when players don't follow the path they expected.  Entire sessions are run sometimes off the cuff because the party decided to take a turn down a different alley, pursue a different lead, or otherwise abandon the path laid out before them.  This isn't because they actively want to derail the plot (at least not always), but the sheer fact of the matter is that the players simply don't know what the DM has in mind.  That's the beauty of the game... it's centered entirely around imagination, and sharing that experience.  Which is where we examine the other style of Dungeon Mastering.

The Impromptu DM
This style of Dungeon Mastering is at it core the antonym of the PDM, as it is based entirely, or at the very least mostly on the idea of running each session without the use of pre-readied maps, character logs, NPC's, and basically the majority of that stack of papers and notes behind a PDM's DM screen.  The concept of the Impromptu DM (or IDM) is allowing the freedom of imagination to commandeer the narrative construction of the game.  Not always without its faults, the style can be somewhat erratic, but on the same note, it can be enjoyably unpredictable.

These games will often have a highly open ended and creative means of moving the players from one point to the next.  Depending on the IDM, the game itself will have a very unique and often un-written set of enemies, landscapes, and even abilities that aren't in the books or websites.  Unique takes on old ideas twist and reshape the game for the players in ways that just aren't probable using the game's rules as written.  Environments will be introduced with more of a feel and points of reference, with mechanical details being worked into the space as they're needed.  Combat will be unique, though with unpredictable challenges which could both keep them interesting but also dangerous elements of a game, as many of the strengths may be hard to calculate when the rules for weapons, abilities, and other aspects aren't balanced against design points such as the Challenge Rating System.  Treasure will vary, but will be one of the hardest single points for an IDM to really get right, as it has slightly larger ramifications.  In a way, the party's wealth is a miniature economy within a world's economy... so it takes no small degree of skill to manage it properly.  It's an element that has to be considered and to be frank, it has to be thought out and planned.

Just like a PDM succeeds by having elements of on-the-fly creativity, the IDM will have some amount of planning that personally I don't think any game could really have sustainability without.  But true to the fashion, IDM planning will be different than that of the PDM, or at least it can be.  Characters may not be thought up beforehand all the time, but it is important for those characters which are created in the moment to be given at least some notes.  When you control everyone who is not part of the party in a world that is in your head... you'll end up introducing the players to a host of people, and in order to maintain a certain element of realism and authenticity... they should feel different, and have a certain level of consistency to them.  Like Moriarty and his Empire... you'll need a little read book to manage it all.  This is where good note taking skills and memory serve to help, as they do with every element of a game designed around the impromptu approach.

What does it all Mean for Your DM?
If done properly, the latter of the two has what I feel to be the greater potential for creating a unique experience.  When only key elements are designed, it allows the remainder of the game to feel more natural and free-form.  This helps prevent the sometimes lack-luster impromptu elements of a PDM's game when they have to scramble to create something outside from their well-designed plans, as they just don't have the same level of detail, and can feel rushed and not as polished.  With the IDM, the whole game is based around the idea of creating elements on the spot, and while there are moments that will out-shine others, it's less of a contrasting juxtaposition here.  That said, it is by far the harder to execute properly.  Falling into predictable patterns is something that needs to be watched out for, and creating genuine and unique inspirations for every unpredictable turn means the DM has to be on their toes pretty much constantly.  As such, I feel the games with the work and dedication of the PDM will generally outshine the IDM at their height, but the overall experience from the unplanned session of the latter will present a far more player-driven experience.

I think at it's core, the more a DM plans, the more they want to see that plan come to fruition.  To showcase the excellent design aspects and perfectly honed and balanced elements of their story, their characters, their dungeon maps, and so on.  It's a subconscious situation that occurs, that while not meant with a malicious intent (usually), can often steer a party towards what they want, rather than letting the players drive the course of action.  Likewise, a common pitfall for the IDM is simply not having the drive to create a working and fluid set of "rules" more or less, for their impromptu game, leaving it a muddied mess of half-thought ideas, and poorly designed, one-shot use characters, leaving the overall experience one that feels neglected and hard for players to really invest themselves in.

But as I said, I think they both appeal to different audiences.  When done correct, both styles offer a different, but brilliant experience.  The PDM really excels when it comes to presenting a well-structured single session.  Apart from simply a tutorial, these elements are great for even the IDM to branch into when they have a huge dungeon which needs exploration.  Something to really give their players the joy of moving through a well-thought-out space.  Likewise, the PDM stands to gain by allowing his imagination to run wild when it comes to presenting paths for their party to explore.  Intentional "roaming areas" are great to keep yourself as a DM lose and ready for creating situations, quests, what-have-you's on the fly.

One thing I can offer is to simply meet with people you enjoy gaming with, and just make something up.  No prep work, no dice, no nothing... just let your imagination set the stage for the game, and see what the players make of the first steps.  Having done this a time or two, I can say there is something to be said for a group of 10 people all directing in unison, a world with no history.  It's just pure potential.

So in the end, I think that every DM will have a style all their own, and most of us will have a mixture of these styles.  I myself am really looking forward to my newest campaign getting underway, and I intend to make this a purely IDM style game, using a unique setting, unique mechanics to supplement existing ones, and a constantly shifting map and environment which requires players to be just as on their toes as I'll have to be.  But for now, I think that's enough thought on the topic.  Thanks for reading, and good luck with all your dice rolls, be they D6's or others.


1 comment:

  1. I'm generally of the opinion that overplanning ultimately leads to frustrated-novelism. I do think that if you're into mechanically dense encounters that encourage and reward good tactical engagement, a certain amount of legwork is called for, a certain sense of what the spaces are like and how the encounters will behave. The trouble lies in planning EXACTLY what an encounter's going to be like - I think it's better to have some watertight stats for adversaries, some involving maps and environments, and then mesh them in ways that respond to player choice and action.

    When I DM/GM/Storytell/whatever, I spend a lot of time on NPCs and, increasingly, on maps. Ravenloft (the module, not the setting) does it right, I think; you have a few set-piece encounters that will always do X when/if encountered, a roaming and very powerful 'boss', and a lot of detailed spaces in which things could happen, and a set of things which could happen there.