Learning to Roll with the Punches

A Little Background

When I was nineteen years old, I decided that I had a story to tell. At the time I had only played Dungeons and Dragons a few times and was really captivated by the storytelling possibilities of the system.

I would play with a group of friends from high school. And at the time, D&D was just something my friends and I would do here and there to pass the time, but after graduation, it changed into something to bring us all together so that we didn’t lose touch during our college years.

Like many new graduates, I watched my friends splinter to many different parts of our state, most of them were many hours away. It became impossible to play during the school year due to distance and coursework. To make up the lost time, during the summer we made a point to run an annual summer vacation campaign.

The first summer campaign was ran by my good friend Joe. Joe told a story of intrigue and adventure. We became part of an inquisition; we organized a S.W.A.T. mission on a corrupt lord’s house and even killed a devil without it ever being able to attack. It was a fun campaign with a story that I don’t remember much of but remember the battles vividly.

That summer, Joe taught the group two valuable lessons. First, players NEVER do what you intend for them to do and the DM needs to prepare for that fact. The second lesson was that a DM should not be competing against the players. This does not mean the DM should go soft on the players; the DM is there to provide a challenge for the players. However, the goal of the DM should be to facilitate the storytelling process with the help of the players, not to beat the players.These lessons were both taught in the same session early in the campaign and one that almost ended summer D&D before it even really took hold. For everyone’s sake, we will simply say that it was a bad night and Joe didn’t get to “beat” us and it was the proverbial straw for him. Joe left, the session was in ruins, and we all went home upset. We managed to reconcile our different views on the game and we moved on with the campaign, all the wiser.

The start of something new!

So why tell that stupid, long story? Well, those two lessons were the primer for me to become a Dungeon Master. Despite the mistakes he made as a new DM, Joe is, in fact, a fantastic storyteller, and creates very interesting and challenging encounters. If those two lessons were the primer, then what catalyzed my need to DM?

It was the following winter that I discovered a very nerdy movie on Netflix called The Gamers: Dorkness Rising by Zombie Orpheus Entertainment. This film inspired me to write my own campaign and like the main character Lodge, I too wanted to write a module so other people could enjoy the story as well.

I wrote for the rest of that winter and all through spring. Pages and pages of content about spoiled princes, classic Tolkien race rivalries, and a Dracolich as the “cherry on top”. I informed the group that for the coming summer, I would take on the DM mantle and to be prepared to be blown away. And to make a long story short, the campaign was rushed, I learned a term called “railroading”, and I also learned that a Total Party Kill (TPK) is NOT the way to try and end your first campaign, even if the heroes die a heroic death. But, even with these flaws, I found a new love for the game and for being a Dungeon Master. The TPK did not go over well, but I learned that from my mistakes in my campaign that I could build and write a better campaign. I also learned that it takes a special type of person to be a DM. Not because of any particular skill but because of the mindset necessary. For my group, I quickly realized that this was now my role as others had experienced being a DM and had various reasons for wanting to remain players.

My take away from my first DM experience

These newly learned lessons made me realize that a campaign is a living story, something not only told by the DM but is instead told by the table. It is just the DM’s job to facilitate this story telling, to give it purpose, and to gently guide it.

I went on to write many campaigns making many mistakes along the way and still continue to write and make mistakes. This is how I practice my DM craft. Sometimes I will railroad a story too much (a pretty common mistake of mine) or make a mistake by not dropping the right hints to get the characters on the trail of some assassin. These mistakes are critical to my later successes as a DM. I learn from the mistakes and by listening to my group away from the table or by watching their reactions at the table. These cues help me refine my story and my actions. Because of this, I have tried many different Dungeon Master styles as well as story styles  and I find much joy in experimenting with new techniques. When I wear my “Dungeon Master’s hat”, I become a scientist, trying new things and noting what works and what doesn’t. Through this method and using my experience as a player, I think I have learned one of the most important lessons around being a DM, “learn to roll with the punches.”

If you are a budding DM or someone that is just interested in starting to DM, then that is the phrase I would hope for you to remember. If you can play by this idea, your continued DM experience will improve. I would suggest to not get discouraged if your first experience is not amazing, this just means that if you learn from it and you are passionate about being a DM, then the following experience will be a large improvement. Also, watch DM’s like Chris Perkins or Matt Mercer. These guys are the real deal when it comes to Dungeon Mastering. Study their craft, they are not by any means perfect DM’s and have their own individual style, but they do have one thing in common that makes them fantastic, they roll with the punches.

-- The DM