Obsessing over my own DMing skills (i.e. am I really any good or am I just the one most interested in and willing to run the games?) is a recent favorite pastime of mine. I haven't come to any conclusions, to be honest, and I've perhaps not-so-coincidentally taken several months off from DMing. I plan to play for a bit and maybe get some perspective on my own skills.
Alexis at Tao has recently stirred the pot a bit regarding what truly ails the hobby and a recent post by another one of my favorite bloggers, Chris K. @ Hill Cantons asks three related and pointed questions. So, while I recover a bit from an awful summer cold, prepare for a week-long vacation and continue work on a longer blog post regarding a proposed system for generating magical schools and societies to kick this blog out of neutral, I'll pick up the gauntlet thrown by Chris.
He asks the following:
- Name three “best practices” you possess as a GM. What techniques do you think you excel at?
- What makes those techniques work? Why do they “pop”?
- How do you do it? What are the tricks you use? What replicable, nuts-and-bolts tips can you share?
So here goes, apologize in advance for the navel-gazing but maybe you'll find it useful:
1. I speak with my whole body when DMing. I've read some opinions online in recent months and years regarding the use of boxed text vs. paraphrased text when running adventure modules. While I see merits in both, recently I realized that for me personally it made little difference whether I was reading or paraphrasing text, it could be equally engaging and evocative or laborious and tedious depending on how well or badly it was presented. What mattered most, of course, was the delivery. The times when I was moving around a bit, emoting, pacing my speech like a good spoken performance and treating it as such the game seemed better.
So recently I've been more consciously engaging the players with eye contact, standing up and throwing out my arms to describe rooms or scenic vistas and that sort of thing. Don't get me wrong, I'm not LARPing. I don't do funny voices often nor change my physicality much when taking on an NPC. I don't fault anybody that does and appreciate those who can. I'm just naturally more comfortable with a more detached voice as a DM. The problem is that detached can easily morph into dull.
There's a sweet-spot for me where I'm still the omniscient voice but I'm hopping up and out of my seat and waving my arms to make a point or walking out from behind the screen to really get into it. The non-verbal feedback form the players is that they're less likely to be staring at a phone or having a side discussion. This fool just stood up to demonstrate how awkwardly the halfling climbed out of a barrel. Way more interesting than this tweet or your story about the guy in line at the liquor store is what I'm seeing. If you don't do funny voices either, but feel your presentation is lacking some pop, just start off by standing up the next time you describe something and see what happens. Take it form there.
2. I Prepare. The party may go off on a wild tangent and me right along with them. On a good night the players can't tell that from whatever it was for which I was originally prepared. To some people this seems like winging it, but in truth it comes down to a broader preparation than just having the next 20 rooms statted out or an encounter table for the road between Bumbfuck and Timbuctoo. Know your world, know the beings in it. If your world is a dungeon and a town, know that. If its a hex map 200 miles x 150 miles, then know that. Et cetera, et cetera. But before you do that, live a little. Read and learn and go do things and it'll all come that much more easily. The more you've done, studied or seen the better shot you've got in presenting a believable and interesting world to somebody else.
On the subject of living I say this: If your game has gotten better than it was 10 or 20 years ago I would offer that this is not a result of you grasping the rules any better. Rather, you're an older, wiser and more seasoned human being. So, take everything you do from hiking through a rainstorm to negotiating a price on a used car to visiting a foreign country for the first time to dealing with a shitty boss and file it away with D&D in mind. Come back to it and use it as needed.
Further, if you're getting ready to create a city for campaign use, know something about cities. You don't really need to buy a city-based role-playing source book. Take a walk around the nearest city. If that doesn't help, check a book out from the library or hit the internet. Need some rules on dungeon delving? Read up on what real-life spelunkers do. I swear there's probably 40 hours of this kind of preparation, away from graph and hex paper and anything resembling an RPG rule book, that goes into every playable hour of any game that I've ever run. It's also stuff I'm doing anyway, really.
3. I Resist Clutter. I've found that it's a simple enough practice to explain, but much harder to execute. But from my experience the extent to which one can limit the amount of crap at the table, the smoother things run. It's tough to draw on the battle mat when you've got a bowl of chips and a plate of aged cheeses and finely seasoned meats (mmm..... meats) in the way. Clearly you want the snacks nearby (boy do I!), so figure out a way to keep them around without infringing upon the game.
If you're like me, and if you read this blog I suspect that in some way you must be, then you're not running the game right out of the box. You've got a pile of notes, house-rules, stuff you downloaded, stuff you're borrowing from another game entirely all potentially relevant on any given night. If your playing space is outside of your home, like mine, than you either need to lug all of this shit around or condense it somehow.
Even if lugging is an option, resist it. Condense it. Put it on a computer. I find that using a computer at the table detracts from the game and prevents me from doing a lot of #1 above, so I at least get it all into the same binder. Also there's lots of ways to make a pdf for free nowadays, so if you can get everything you need into one doc and hit the print button, you don't need any hardware. When I resume running a game again in the near future I'll be experimenting with the use of an e-reader at the table. I'm hoping that cuts down on the stacks of things I need to play given that they seem to handle .pdfs better now.