Important Things I Learned from DMing for an Audience
So with the bulk of our first year behind us for Roll with Advantage, Season One is completely wrapped and in the can so to speak. I have been reflecting on our past year and have found a few interesting things I have learned along the way. I found that Dungeon Mastering for a podcast was pretty different from just DM’ing for your friends. I found that a lot of the aspects that I try to grow in, to make the podcast more interesting for our audience, are things that I really should have been doing from the start of my DM’ing “career”. Well, I figure I might as well enumerate a few of the things that I think are important to know for Dungeon Mastering for a Podcast or even for an audience for that matter. These tips are things that I have found not only help make Roll with Advantage more interesting, but they have helped make my home game more interesting as well.
#1 - A “Session Zero” is extremely important
I am of the mind that a “Session Zero” is probably one of the most important things you can do as a group, no matter what. This is something I never really put much stock into in the past, but now that I have a long-running game that demands content and character growth, I wish we would have done one. I almost feel as if I robbed my players of something critical because I did not facilitate a face-to-face “Session Zero”.
A quick aside for our friends that don’t know, a “Session Zero” is most commonly a session that is held before the first real gameplay session. It is devoted to introducing all the players to one another, talking about what the theme of the campaign, and what the tone of the campaign will be. It is also about drawing comfort boundaries for players and the DM.
Now what I suggest (especially for DM’s that aspire to podcast or just have a really long campaign) is to do all the character building at the session zero. That includes stat scores, choosing of classes and revealing backgrounds and what not. This can allow players to get really creative by bouncing ideas off of one another in person about how the party met, and a and get ideas on how to give depth to their characters, maybe even intertwining character backstories. You want good solid character flaws as well as team cohesion. This is important, not just among the players, but among the Characters as well. This is by far my most valuable take away.
#2 - Learn the art of painting word pictures
This, I believe, is one of my weakest areas personally, though I understand the concepts well, it is my execution that fails me. Basically, what you, as a DM, are trying to do is make sure you are vividly telling your players (and your audience) enough about the scene, so that people can clearly imagine what is going on. There is a balance because you can tell too much at once or not tell enough. What I found is most important for podcasts or DM’ing for an audience is making sure that you present enough detail of where the scene is set and described. Describe your character’s surroundings. You want to maybe talk about the noises your characters can hear or the smells and what people or creatures look like but keep it succinct. These ideas allow a foundation of audible worldbuilding to happen and from there, your players have a space to explore, interact with and play in. I would highly suggest practicing this away from the table. Some exercises I like to do is imagine an upcoming session and start playing through how an encounter might work out. Try to paint the picture vividly in your mind, the clearer it is to you then the better you will be able to describe it. Then describe the scene to your steering wheel, tell it what you are imagining in detail, being mindful of your descriptions and making sure you are getting your points across.
#3 - Player autonomy is rough to learn, but it is so worth it
In my opinion, the role of Dungeon Master attracts a certain type of person. Usually, it tends to attract creative storytellers that want to world build and like directing the story. The issue is this type of person can also have a hard time letting go of the steering wheel enough to let the players affect where everything goes. Session prep notes are a great way to tell if you are a railroading DM or an open world type of DM. Do you plan a play-by-play, like encounters and dungeons and NPC? Or are your notes sparse? Some groups love open worlds and some find the freedom to be paralyzing so you will need to feel your group out when you are developing your style. What I am learning with Roll with Advantage is that your story needs some structure. Some rough idea, but there is no point in planning the entire session out in full detail if the players have a valid option to say “Nah”. I am learning that the rough details ground me as a control freak, but the ambiguity allows enough freedom for creative thinking and my players to take opportunities they might see. I highly suggest learning both techniques and then striving to find a happy medium for you and your party.
From a podcasting and presentation perspective, remember that there is a story to tell and you as the DM must find that story. If your players stray from the plot that is fine but make sure that you are thinking about how to bring that side venture back and make the story that developed in it count to the overall progress. Make it feel like the side quest was important and was not a waste of your listener’s time. Remember the audience is taking time to pay attention, so make sure that you do them justice and make that story as interesting and worth the time.
#4 - DO NOT be afraid to change your playstyle up
This almost goes hand-in-hand with my previous topic. You have/will develop your own playstyle. Maybe you love battle so Role Play takes a backseat or maybe your game is purely political intrigue. Remember, variety is the spice of life. Make sure to throw in different play styles here and there. As well, don’t forget to research play styles; I personally think the best way to do that is to listen to a bunch of RPG podcasts. You can analyze the DM’s style and how they interact with their players. Break their entire style down and understand what makes their game so fun and why their players and audience want to keep coming back for more. Then try to use those techniques, try them on for size and see what fits for you and your table and what just can’t stay.
#5 - Ditch the Mat
For podcasts, I think it is a cardinal sin to hear the words “I go over here”. For a listener, knowing someone is pointing to something on a mat, that rapidly breaks the illusion. Do your audience a favor on this one and ditch the battle mat. Instead use theater of the mind or a hybrid of Theater of the Mind and Roll20. It will free you and your table, trust me. Some will fight it, and it is definitely not for everyone, but you never realize how much time is spent trying to line up spells and calculate movements. In my opinion, the mat is a crutch. Instead, try to enforce a “tell me what you want to do” policy. Basically, the players tell you, the DM, what they want to do and then you adjudicate.
“They want to cast a fireball and try not to hit anyone in the party?”
“Okay, well then they can only hit 3 out of the 5 goblins.”
SlyFlourish has an amazing article about ditching the mat and some ground rules for making theater of the find approachable for different types of people. I would highly suggest checking out the article and giving his tips a try.
#6 - Listen to your Players and Your Community
Here is a big one, are you ready? Do your best not to lose touch with your players and/or your fan base. It is your job as a DM to find balance in this, so make sure your players are having as much fun as they can, you want them to come back each session. Listen at the session zero and find out what people like about the game. Find out what types of players they are, and set realistic expectations for yourself and your players. Watch your players during the sessions and read their body language. Watch your download numbers each episode to see what episodes did really well and which sunk. This is your feedback as a DM. It is the only way you will get better and hone your craft. Make sure to listen.
#7 - Figure Out the Tone of the Campaign Right Away
Last but not least by any means, figure out the tone of your campaign very early on, ideally in session zero. This was not firmly established right away in Roll with Advantage, and I feel that now it is more work for me the DM to enforce and solidify the tone. Establish it early on. Let your players help set the tone. Enforce the tone. Do not undercut the tone of your campaign. If you want a serious game, do not making light of serious situations in the game. Conversely, if you are going for light-hearted, then do not get ultra gory with the kills. Your players will follow your lead, your own worst enemy for undercutting the tone of your game is you, the DM.
Well, that is where I am going to leave it for this time. As always, thank you so much for stopping in and reading. Feel free to comment, I love to read constructive feedback and love discussing topics like these. Check back in next month to see what else I have on my mind or decide to analyze. Remember to follow The DM’s Table on Facebook or on Twitter @dmstable for updates and to let me know what is on your mind, or what you might want to read about. Also, go check out Roll with Advantage! It is a Dungeons and Dragons podcast that releases every Monday by 5 pm Eastern Time. We play, laugh, and have a good time playing a game we all love. Thank you for reading and if you enjoy these articles feel free to donate to the website, support Roll with Advantage on Patreon, or buy one of our Crit-Horn t-shirts to help keep the website up and running!
― The DM