I’ve written a few posts about playing D&D and about the neat stuff I’ve made or collected as a result of my last year’s developing interest in the game, but I don’t think I’ve said much about serving as dungeon master, which I’m now doing.
It’s fun, and it’s difficult. Pictured above is my setup for my latest session, which includes maps, monster stat blocks, many pages of notes, various tokens and minis (some of which I 3D printed), and of course lots of dice.
What makes it difficult is partially my still nascent familiarity with the game itself. There are still rules I need to refresh myself on sometimes, for example. If a wizard is concentrating on a spell and takes attack damage, does she lose concentration on the spell? (Answer: Maybe. Take the higher of half the damage or a rolled d20; if greater than 10, concentration is lost and the spell’s effect drops.) When do you roll for random shenanigans for sorcerers? If somebody wants to ride a horse, how do you resolve travel? There are all sorts of oddball scenarios that are covered by the rules but that you don’t even always know you need to know until you run into them mid-game and bring things screeching to a halt while you look them up (or make a potentially incorrect and frustrating ruling).
And then there’s improv. Your party is in a town and somebody asks you some random question about the history of the town or someone in it. Well, sure, you can make something up. But then you need to think about how your making things up on the fly might impact other things in the game. If you’re working from a published adventure (as I currently am), you have to try to make something up that won’t either break or spoil later important pre-written content. Here’s an example: I recently introduced a non-player character (NPC) who the written adventure describes has having a streak of white in her hair. I had forgotten the hair detail. Meanwhile, I had also introduced a teaser about another future potential NPC of my own devising who I had also given a streak of white in her hair (perhaps coincidentally, perhaps just inadvertently bringing in the detail from the original NPC). This entirely unintentional detail made my party perk up. Now they’re in the position of wondering what the significance of the detail is. Is something causing women to grow white streaks? Can we infer anything about people with white streaks in their hair? What if my character has white hair? Is this the key to unlocking the whole adventure? There’s so much room for inadvertent pitfalls like this.
Then there’s the need to give life to NPCs, and to have a stock of NPCs ready for whatever may come up. I’m not especially comfortable doing accents or voices, especially among grown-ups. I’m trying to push out of my comfort zone, though, because without a little play-acting, it’s hard to distinguish NPCs from one another and to give more texture to the game. Once you’ve invented a distinctive personality for a given NPC, you then ought to try to remember it and switch into that personality when playing the NPC, and this too can be tough if you have a bad memory like me (using distinctive personalities from your life or from TV/movies as references can help with this). And then there’s the case of the randomly spotted NPC to whom you must give a name and some personality and perhaps a memorable physical characteristic, without necessarily imbuing any of this with a great deal of significance (see above re white streaks), and without having them divulge things they shouldn’t or send players down the wrong paths. And without having everybody be “uhh, Kevin, who uh looks kind of average and sounds pretty much like me.”
Managing combat can be tough too. In my latest session, I ran four hours of multi-stage combat that incorporated something like 30 monsters, the four player characters, and four NPCs the players also operated. This battle included two big hand-drawn maps, four or five different character types whose weaponry, health, and other stats I had to track, and combat on two fronts that could have gone in any number of directions. One player split from the rest of the party right off, and I had to try to spend some time on his lone combat without neglecting the other players, and vice versa. The players could have chosen any of several paths I had prepared, or they could’ve done something bizarre and unexpected.
Because I’m new at this and still lack confidence in all of the areas above, I spent loads of time preparing. I’ll bet I have 12 hours of prep work involved in being ready for that combat session, for example. This I believe will get easier over time as I develop more comfort with the overall game mechanics and with improvising when something goes in a direction I hadn’t imagined it might.
Don’t get me wrong — this is a lot of work, but it’s also pretty fun, and I think it’ll get more fun as I get better at it.
Right now, I’m running my son and a few other people through an adventure called Storm King’s Thunder that so far has been really fun. We’re heading into a part of it right now that’ll afford me a lot of leeway in terms of what we do. It’s what you call a sandbox style of play. This is cool because it gives me a little latitude to steer things however I’d like to. It’s also tough because I have to sort of make up a lot of it and be more ready to improv if the party heads in a direction that the written adventure doesn’t really cover, or if they head in a direction very different from where the next portion of the adventure really calls for them to go. In our next session, we’ll head toward a city called Waterdeep that’s well known within the D&D canon. It’s neat because there’s a lot out there about Waterdeep; it’s intimidating for the same reason because there’s so much I could get wrong and there’s so much opportunity for the players to push me to improvise. I think and hope I’ve done enough prep that I can make the next session fun.