Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Styles of DM'ing - In Brief.

Over the years my DM style has varied, depending on the gaming system used, the number of players and my own quest to find what suits me (and my players) best.

I have tried the bought scenario route, the best being Ravenloft, but found using the bought scenarios of any game system sometimes too linear.  On the odd occasion I have tried the powerful player character option (high level with magical items and armour) with a fast 'n' furious game style, but mortality of the player characters is limited drastically.  I have even split the DM'ing duties with another player, breaking the game into sections, which would then span over a number of gaming sessions.  Once my section was complete the following session was then run by the second DM.  An interesting route, as it gave me a chance to sit back and be a player, but also a chance to experience someone else's rp session style.
It was probably three months or more ago that I ran a very small, and brief, intro to role playing games for a couple of friends of mine.  In order to keep it nice and simple with an easy flow in terms of combat and setting, I chose my old favourite, 'Dragon Warriors'.

Things were going reasonably well, and on one particular day, Hana - who was playing a female barbarian - mentioned that two of her friends (a couple, and for the sake of anonymity I shall just refer to them as Mary & John) wished to join the group.  Fair enough.  So I arranged to meet and role characters with them and explain a bit about the rules system I was using, seeing as they had both experienced Dungeons & Dragons, as DM'd by John.

So, characters rolled and chat over with, we arranged a time and place to meet for our first session as a four player group.

The day arrived and Hana, Tegan - playing a male Knight - and I piled into the home that belonged to Mary & John.  So, the session began and time plodded on.  Eventually, I halted the session at 10:30pm.  We packed away, said our farewells, and I drove Hana & Tegan to their respective homes and returned to my own humble abode.

It was Hana who informed me that Mary said that she and John wouldn't be playing any more.  When asked why, the reply was, 'Because we don't want to.'
Okay, I thought.   Although I was puzzled but felt there was something underlying this decision after only one session?  Truth will be out, I suppose - it has a nasty habit of doing that.

So, only two days ago did I get an answer as to why Mary & John dropped out after one session - apparently the game, or I as a DM, was 'too slow'.

*Update as of May 5th 2011 - apparently, John felt that Dragon Warriors was a "...faggoty game...", so if that was his logical, carefully considered and intellectual opinion of the game system after one four-and-a-half hour session, it beggars the question, 'What of the DM?' - you win some, you lose some, and this time round, I wasn't particularly bothered about losing.  But at least it ties nicely into the section below ... oh, the symmetry!*

Playing Style
As a DM, playing style is a personal thing, and that is what makes role playing games such a wonderful platform for all ages, skill levels and tastes.

My own is run along the lines of a book written by the players themselves; they get to experience the atmosphere and tension, the grittiness of their surroundings and the people and creatures for whom it is home.  I try to create a sense of being and reality - as far as that is possible within a fantasy setting of make-believe - to make the players feel their characters have substance and a place within that world.  So, if giving the players descriptions of places, people, locations and working on actual role playing between characters and NPCs, then I suppose I am guilty of being 'slow'.

I have experienced the other side of the DM screen as a player, in terms of good, and not so good DMing.  I cannot subscribe to the cut scene style of play.  As an example:

GM: You have received a message to meet your contact on the other side of town near a warehouse.

Players: Ok.  How do we get there.

GM: You've arrived.

Players: Eh?  What?  Erm ... ok.  So where's our contact?

GM: He's given you another address to go to, and he's gone.

Players:  Right (brief discussion).  We want to kit up before we go there.

GM: Ok, you're kitted up and outside the building.

Players: Wtf ...?

That play style might appeal to folks who just want 'wham-bam' action all session, but trust me, it soon gets very, very boring, and I can't stand it.

Other DM/GMs might run things with a watered down sense of narrative/descriptive, relying more on game mechanics to produce the 'fun', but then that becomes a book-fest of rule recitals and endless dice rolling.  Not exactly what I feel rpg is all about.

A balance between action, rules and narrative/descriptive is the DM's holy grail.  A difficult thing to get right, and more often than not, is missed, but so long as you get near that mark then your games will be better than average.  I try not to rely too heavily on the rule book.  Basically it should only be referred to in times of dispute or clarification.  Primarily, a good DM/GM exercises common sense and a logical approach to situation resolution.  Though there will be times when a player, or players, argue the toss, then you reach for the book of rules (and resist twatting them across the head with it).

If a game consists of nothing but action, action, action, then when it comes down to the finale between your campaign's major boss, it will have to be something majorly spectacular on a level you've never attempted before.

Needless to say, all action campaigns are short lived, as this pace cannot be sustained - not without pushing the boundaries of disbelief into orbit - and your players will no doubt be over-whelmed with uber items, armour, trinkets and so much gold that they make a rapper from 'da hood' look like a pauper.  Action that is all out requires reward to balance it, otherwise you have a situation where players have to make a decision about attacking that tenth Ogre warparty or not, and if they do, what loot will be gained for their efforts.  It goes beyond survival or adversity, and just becomes a state of 'yes, no, maybe'.

Not saying that rewards should be measly, but you have to keep your player characters on the threshold between being poor and not-so-poor.  Plus you must ensure the game world receives its rightful price for services rendered, consumables consumed, beds slept in and wounds healed and repairs carried out - all these things prevent characters accumulating wealth and power beyond the remit of their social bearing within the game world society.
There is nothing worse than for a player to lose sight of their main reason for joining your game session due to the fact their character is now in a position where nothing is beyond their reach, as they can now throw gold at it and not have to worry or make an effort.

Players are there to be heroes, and in all good stories a hero's path is never an easy one, often filled with misery and suffering, obstacles to be over come and hardships to be endured.  It is what makes for heroic tales in the retelling and satisfaction in the partaking.  Anything worthy of the effort has to have an equal amount of risk, be that risk personal, material, monetary or physical.  No amount of fast paced, all out action over and over again every session can ever be as rewarding, and eventually those players will run out of steam, things to do, challenges to meet and then lose interest.  End of game.

One element of the DM's psyche that must be left out of the game is that of EGO.
Dangerous in the extreme, a DM's ego has caused more players to dump the role playing group faster than a flatulent dog after a binge on garlic bread.

Mainly because the ego assumes the role of being all powerful and all controlling, and as soon as players come into conflict with that ego, be it a query on a ruling or a combat resolution, or line of sight issues, or magic casting, it then becomes a one sided war of attrition at the expense of the players and their characters.


  • Suddenly dice rolls become fumbles, or criticals, and being rolled behind the screen, no player will (initially) suspect something is not quite right. 
  • Items begin to fail or malfunction, saving throws no longer save, and the effects of potions or poisons are either increased or decreased depending on who is on the receiving end.
  • No matter what the party do, they are always out-smarted by the mobs or NPCs.
  • Thefts begin to occur and prized possessions are targeted.
  • But worst of all, player characters are systematically murdered by the DM under numerous pretenses of failed rolls, traps, magic and death by monster/NPC.

How do you spot an ego driven DM?  The moment they utter the words, "You can't do that!" in response to a reasonable proposal that would quite clearly circumvent a situation or scenario of the DM's creation, or the foiling of their NPC's darstardly plot, and no amount of level-headed reasoning can convince them otherwise.

"It's their game and you must play by their rules!"

My way of DM'ing: I provide the setting, the backdrop and all its inhabitants.  I then produce a plotline, and from there the players write the game by their actions and their decisions.
I act as a cast of many, including that of fate.

Slow?  Maybe.  Descriptive? Yes.  Engaging? Definitely. That's why my group ran for twenty years, which alone, speaks for itself.

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