The Trials and Travails of Playing Dungeons and Dragons

Most of the time, I don’t play D&D. I run it. There’s a pretty big difference. As a DM, running D&D requires an understanding of the style of game you’re playing, a hefty knowledge of the world you’re playing in, a grasp on at least the core concepts of the rules (though an encyclopedic knowledge of them is frequently very helpful), and at least several reference documents because there is no way you’ll know everything you need to know off the top of your head.

It’s a numbers game with lots of narration and storytelling that requires you to set aside your ego so you can provide opportunities for your players to explore the world, tell a story, and try things. Generally, you want to avoid a focus on “winning” as the DM and instead focus on making sure everyone is having a good time. There’s a lot of social management since it is frequently up to the DM to intercede in arguments or interpret rules that don’t necessarily have a clear answer to the question the player is asking, all of which requires a certain amount of social consciousness as the DM. You need to watch your players so you can be ready to support them as they need it and challenge them as they want it. When you DM a lot like I do, it can be easy to think of playing as something that is incredibly easy.

When you get a chance to play though, and really get into it, your perspective shifts. Suddenly, you’re not thinking about managing numbers, turn order, and a thousand tiny details but trying to manage your expectations. Instead of trying to anticipate the players, you’re trying to navigate the minefield that is a combat encounter. Especially at low levels, one wrong choice can make the difference between a simple fight and a fight that uses up all of your resources and abilities. Whenever you’re confronted with a door, there’s no way to know what is behind it and, if you’re the leader of your sorry bunch of misbegotten misbegots, it falls on your to decide if you should open that door or if you should take the safe route and find a place to hunker down until everyone’s hit points are full.

While the effort involved is vastly different, the toll isn’t. As a player, you don’t have to manage a thousand little details, but your character’s life hinges on the success or failure of your actions. As DM, you don’t need to emotionally invest in each decision because there’s no risk of failure for you in a combat encounter. Your job is to help tell a story and provide a challenge. As a player, making the decision to stand at the back of the group is fraught with danger. If, like my character was today, you’re at half hit points and facing a swarm of creatures that aren’t tough but could easily overwhelm you when there’s over ten of them to your single you, that decision isn’t an easy one.

You, the player, don’t want your character to die, but sometimes that’s what happens. Sometimes characters die because of the choices they make. And I say “they” because Chris Amann would not choose for Lyskarhir the Elven fighter to stay behind the group of villagers as they flee the church they’ve hidden inside, but Lyskarhir the Elven fighter certainly would, even if he’s a cantankerous asshole. They didn’t ask to have their town wrecked and their loved ones slaughtered in front of their eyes, and most of them aren’t up to the challenge of standing firm in the face of an oncoming hoard, but you are. So you stand and hope they get away quickly enough for you to get away instead so you don’t need to find out if you’re the kind of person who’d let someone else die instead of facing an attack you’d probably survive.

Chris Amann wouldn’t choose to keep Lyskarhir exposed to danger so that as many of the enemies focus on him instead of the fleeing villagers, but Lyskarhir sure would. He knows he can probably get away and, once the group splits, idly walk up behind them with his longbow out and kill them as they chase the defenseless townsfolk. Chris Amann knows Lyskarhir can do this and Lyskarhir’s battle strategies are only as good as Chris Amann’s strategies, so Chris Amann lets Lyskarhir decide what to do and does his best to fight the duality of his mind so that he (I) can properly roleplay.

As a DM, roleplaying is swapping masks to be whoever the players are talking to. If you’re really good at it like Matt Mercer, you can become entirely new people with every new character. If you’re just alright at it like I am, you can try to change the tone of your voice and at least make them use different words to help the players see the difference between the people they’re talking to. When you’re playing, you’re putting on a mask, a costume, and assuming an entirely new persona. You have to manage the difference between what you know (which, as a regular DM, I know EXACTLY how many hit points each monster we fought had) and what your character knows. Lyskarhir doesn’t know that kobolds have five hit points, but he does know that not a single one has survived being shot by him. Chris Amann knows that Ambush Drakes don’t deal much damage, but all Lyskarhir knows is that there is a pair of wolf-sized dragon-ish lizards running toward him at an alarming pace.

As much as I enjoy storytelling and being a Dungeon Master, I will never be as excited by a gameplay moment as I was when my Elven fighter survived four wild swings, three of which missed thanks to his excellent planning, that left him with one single hit point and the final attack he needed to take down the champion of the enemy forces. Even if the DM let me get away with 1 hp because I’d gotten lucky enough to reduce an enemy that should have wiped the floor with me to the single digits, it won’t change how great it felt to emerge victorious from a fight that went better than it had any right to.

Now, three hours after the fight concluded (which is when I’m writing this), I am still jittery and excited about that moment. I want more. I’m reminded of how much I love playing, of the highs and lows of tabletop gaming that you feel as a player who can only do their best in the given situation. I miss it. I wish I could get more of it. But it also feels pretty great to be reminded of the experiences I can provide to other people when I run games for them. I just hope I get to keep doing both as the world shifts and changes in the face of this pandemic.

Tabletop Highlight: Running the Game

During my current break from running any Dungeons and Dragons, I’ve started following a YouTuber/Author/Game Master named Matthew Colville. I’ve followed him on twitter for a while, because I love what he has to say, but one of my good friends encouraged me to start watching his videos on YouTube. She’d started following him because she’s working on plans for running her first D&D campaign and he has an amazing video series called “Running The Game” focused around encouraging new DMs to run a game. As a moderately experienced DM, I can definitely say that these videos are amazing and everyone who will one day run/currently runs/or once ran a D&D session should watch them.

When I was first starting out as a DM, I only had half a dozen D&D sessions under my belt as a player. I had an amazing DM as my role model, but I still knew almost nothing about running the game. Since I was a quick study, I read the books, found some online resources for rule adjudication, and took it to heart when the everywhere I read told me that I was the final arbitrator of rules. Things only ever happened because I allowed them to happen that way. Unfortunately, none of these resources prepared me for the way story-telling changes because writing or speaking a story and running a campaign with a story. I was unprepared for the way my players would insert themselves into the narrative I was trying to create, I didn’t have a firm grasp of how I should be running sessions from an administrative point of view, and I was woefully unprepared to manage the social dynamics that sprang up as a result of the campaign. I learned by making wrong choices and it almost scared me away from running games entirely.

Nowadays, I’m a much better DM. I’ve learned a lot of tough lessons and while I still am not great at keeping all of the gears and wheels hidden from my players, I can do it well when it is important to. Still, those two years of campaign and the year of avoiding new games kind of hurt and I wish I’d had a resource that taught me not just the rules but all of the stuff you don’t think of until the shit has hit the fan and you’re wondering what you did wrong. Matthew Colville is such a resource.

His first few videos establish what he’s planning to do with the series. He also sets up the basics by creating a first dungeon and the handful of encounters and sessions that would encompass getting the party together and running through the dungeon. He covers the basics of the rules and how to manage a group of people, along with everything you’d need to know in order to start your own campaign. All of the videos after that are focused around particular topics like the use of maps, how to modify monsters, how to create your own adventure, managing player dynamics, and pretty much anything you might want to know as a DM.

He is a bit of a fast-talker in his videos, but not so fast that he is difficult to understand. His videos go from eight minutes to over forty, so he has a lot of ground to cover and slowing down would almost double the length of most of his videos. He uses a lot of specialized terminology, but he does an amazing job of explaining it as he goes along. His editing skills are top-notch and he keeps the flow of information going constantly, except when he’s working in a few jokes or anecdotes to give examples of what he just said or to show that even thirty-plus years of experience doesn’t mean you won’t still make mistakes. He likes to emphasize that he isn’t a perfect DM and that even he forgets to make use of the advice he’s giving in these videos. All he wants to accomplish is to encourage people to play D&D and to share some of the knowledge he has gained and traditions he has been a part of since he started playing in the eighties.

These videos are incredible. Even though I’ve learned most of the lessons he’s shared so far (I’m still working my way through the videos), it is an incredible aid to have them formally delivered in a way that makes me think about recent applications or how I can do better in the future. Even though I’d be hard-pressed to pick out even on thing specifically that I’m going to do better as a result of these videos, I’m really excited to get back to playing regularly with my group so they can see just how much I’ve improved. So much of it was just a sort of settling-in of what I already knew so it feels more natural. It’ll take a lot less effort to run well, once I start again, and less effort to prepare since the videos have a ton of great tips for stream-lining the process.

If you want to run D&D or know someone who does, I suggest checking out his videos! They’re so accessible that you don’t even need to have played D&D before to understand them! Like Matthew Colville, I just want to be a river to my people. Go, learn to run, and then share it with your friends!

Tabletop Highlight: Working with Your Players in D&D

I know I write about D&D a lot. I have a lot to say about it. Aside from general things like “video games” or “books,” I don’t think I’ve spent more of my leisure time on anything other than this campaign I’m running. I’m constantly running over details, thinking about what I think should come next, and trying to figure out what my players are going to want to see next. After the travesty that was the collapse of my first D&D campaign, way back in college (fun fact: it fell apart almost exactly 6 years ago), I take my players’ input, ideas, and desires much more seriously.

I did a good job, back then, of listening to what my players wanted and there were a lot more factors involved in the collapse of the campaign other than my DMing, but I know it certainly didn’t help things. Now, I listen, implement, and predict. I play mostly with people I know fairly well and I generally don’t get into “serious” story stuff until I know what everyone wants well enough to produce a story they want to star in. Before then, I keep it super generic, roll with whatever they respond well to, and do whatever I can to help them figure out where their characters are going.

My best example is a story I’ve referenced a few times now. How the Half-Elf (previously Halfling (previously Rilkan)) lost his body and why Raise Dead wouldn’t work on his Halfling corpse.

The campaign started simply. The players all made level 1 characters using my slightly-modified 3.5 rules and they were all acting as guards for a colony. Typical first-level stuff since this world sends colonies of mixed race out into the wilderness in order to expand the territory held by the federation and sent a large quantity of guards along because colonies had a bad habit of disappearing or falling to wilderness creatures. In exchange, the guards were given parcels of land, money to start a business in a new economy that was backed by the government, and any treasure they accumulated over the course of their duties.

They colony ran into the usual wilderness problems like kobolds, corpse-eating dogs, and zombies. It quickly became apparent that some force wanted the colony gone, so they players set out to discover what that force was. After a few horrible accidents that resulted in the death of a temporary character and the arrival of a permanent character for a new player, they settled in to figuring things out and protecting their colony.

I don’t know if you’ve ever played first level characters with new-ish players, but they often wind up changing their minds about the direction they want their characters to go in. Rather than scraping the character and making a new one, I usually let them make a few adjustments during the first half-dozen sessions. This time, the players got all the way through their first few levels before the Paladin and the Rogue told me they wanted to change-up their characters.

At this point, I had the basics of a story percolating and I instantly had an idea of how to work in their proposed changes AND give them a plot hook none of them would ever want to ignore. So the Rilkan’s subplot became a major plot and the necklace he inherited started becoming a bigger problem than he anticipated. Suffice it to say that, several failed Will Saves later, the demon inhabiting the necklace convinced him to free her of the last abjurations holding her in place and she then used her powers to displace his soul in his body.

After that, she trapped his soul, stunned the whole party (except the Paladin), and gave them to the rather old Black Dragon they were trying to trick. Bargains were struck, the Paladin learned that he couldn’t solo a Black Dragon, and the Black Dragon got to save on shackles because the Paladin had one fewer hands.

Eventually, they were rescued by the demon’s holy opposite. A “minor” deity saw their plight and a few other things that the players might not know about. Being concerned with Justice, he offered them assistance so long as they swore to do as he commanded–hunt down the escape demon and contain or destroy her. Needless to say, the party immediately agreed. Even the Rogue’s soul agreed. In exchange, they all got a measure of the deity’s power to bust them out of prison, the paladin got a divine-magic replacement arm that let him bypass some of the requires for a good prestige class, and the Rogue got stuck in the body of a recently-deceased Halfling that had similar, but slightly different training.

All-in-all, the party got exactly what they wanted, I got a plot hook to carry them along, and the Rogue’s player got to deal with the fact that a Raise Dead spell wouldn’t fix him because it’d call the body’s original soul back. Reincarnate was the only way to bring him back to life that time. Now, though, the new body is his and Raise Dead will work again. Only, it is a Half-Elf and they kinda suck in 3.5, unless you’re specifically picking it for character reasons.

I like to work with my players when I can. The rules are plain enough that adjusting or tweaking things is fine with me, so long as my players are doing it because it helps them create the story they want to tell. If all they want is bigger numbers well… Those are fun, but their place is in a different campaign. I am even adapting a fun prestige class for one of my players because it is super awesome for his character’s arc AND it plays into the story I’m telling so while I might as well have scripted it. A lot of the time, the players are your partners in telling the story, so hearing them out can’t go wrong. They’re just as invested as you are, especially if they’ve been your players for two years, now.

I’ve Always Enjoyed a Little Dungeon Play

In news that should be surprising to no one, I am a huge fan of Dungeons and Dragons. I prefer 3.5 since the rule system requires a bit of ingenuity to be pretty broken, but I’ll play Pathfinder if people prefer. I tend toward DMing even though I prefer to play, but that’s mostly because I’ve got so many stories to tell and I’m generally pretty clever at sneaky little plot details or creating a world that’s just fun to experience.

I tend to stick to one of those two things. For instance, in the campaign I’m running for my friends from college, I gave them a climbers kit in their second session that they were then able to use to nail vampires into their coffins two months (nine sessions) later. At the other end of things, I’ve created a world where magic is the dominant force in the world so flying ships are safer than ships on the sea. I mean, physics is completely disregarded so often that it stopped caring and, as such, buoyancy is hardly dependable. All the fish already started flying, so the mortal races took the hint and switched to air ships. Not to mention the king of the largest city (by election, of course) is done in my best “Elizabethan Rich/Noble Mother” impression. Think Mrs. Bennet from the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice and you’re pretty much there.

I like to play because it gives me a place to get a feel for some of the characters I’m writing. Sure, I could sit down and writer some stories about them, but that’s getting to know about them rather than getting to know them. Place them in situations for which they’re entirely unequipped or force them to make difficult decisions they’d never face in their world and you really get to know them beneath the surface.

There’s this old adage common to lots of religions that more or less amounts to the deity of choice not making one’s life more difficult than one could handle. When it comes to writing, that tends to be especially true. What kind of story would it be if they character just quit halfway through or died and everything just fell apart without them? I’m not talking Game of Thrones kinds of deaths either, deaths that serve the purpose of advancing a story or making a point, but deaths that are truly pointless. No one would read it. That’s exactly why I like to place my characters, especially the protagonists or the people who are the sole stars of stories, into D&D campaigns. They’re always in the wrong place and they can just die pointlessly if they make the wrong decisions.

One of the things I enjoy the most, either as a DM or as a player, is the cooperative story-telling you can get with a good DM and a good group of players. If everyone is focused, paying attention, and genuinely participating, you can wind up with a story none of you saw coming. The DM lays the groundwork, they provide the opportunity for stories to happen, and the players take the threads and weave a story with them. There will always be loose ends and there will always be missed opportunities, but a good DM can weave them into the story to create something ultimately fulfilling for all parties.

The best DMs I’ve ever had weren’t the ones who could paint pictures with words, nor where they ones who fulfilled their players’ every fantasy. The best DMs I’ve ever had, and that I try to model my own DMing after, are the ones who helped their players tell the story they wanted while still making it a mystery to them. My very first DM was one like this and he was the reason I kept playing and started DMing. I was very lucky.

My weekly D&D sessions, playing or running, are the highlights of my week. There’s nothing like getting together with a bunch of my friends and doing some interactive story telling.