Never Stop Trying New Things

Over the course of my Dungeon Mastering experience, I have, and continue to, try new and different DM’ing styles. I have found certain mechanics to be a massive failure, like doing “around the table initiative order.” But, I have also found mechanics like the interlude to be effective and important. Trying new things and not being afraid to fail is a big part of being a Dungeon Master, as you should always be trying new styles and new ideas in order to build a massive collection of Dungeon Master’s tools.

The Anti-Example First

Before I go any further, I want to take a moment to shine a little light on my counter example to finding a “good DM’s tool.” It is important to note that this failed tool is not a failure for all situations and does have a place. Not too long ago, I was sitting in my chair and trying to come up with a way to speed up parts of combat. Things like tracking initiative and setting up monsters, all slowed the game down. So I had the bright idea to simplify how we determine initiative or the turn order.

I decided to take the highest initiative roll at the table, including the monsters, and then rotate around the table by seated position at the table. The direction of rotation was dictated by the second highest roll and if the highest roll was directly across the table from the second highest roll then we would default to clockwise rotation.

This idea worked out fantastically in situations where time was short. I didn’t need to write each character’s name down and their number, and then order. Life was good for a DM. On the other side of the screen though, life was not so good for my players. This mechanic effectively leveled initiative to the point that my players didn’t see the point of having a dexterous character. In most cases, my most dexterous characters at the table would end up going last in the turn order only because they would have an off role and end up last in the turn order. Seat position mattered more than the character’s speed. My group gave this a good try for probably about 6 months and finally, it came to an end. I do not regret my experiment, the concept interesting and technically a success in the fact that the attempt was aimed to speed up and simplify tracking initiative, but it came at a price for my fast characters at the table and thus the failure. I have since moved on from this idea and it has spurred me to start tracking initiative using player initiative cards that I hang on my DM’s screen.

Adding an Interlude to Adventures

This idea I completely ripped off from T.V. shows. Let’s use Stargate SG-1 as an example. Every episode in a season is not geared toward the main overarching plot. Instead, it can play on sub-plot lines to drop hooks for the next season, or it doesn't have to be anything other than an interesting adventure tied to the surrounding world. I found this does two things very well. It gives dramatic relief, so your characters don’t feel rushed along, and it gives flavor to the world. Some of the best DM’s are able to create these on the fly in order to keep with whatever goals the Dungeon Master may have for that session.

I have been a DM for many years, and have failed many campaigns. Each time I fail though, I learn from it and sharpen my skills for the next one. These interludes were something I figured out more recently (about 2ish years ago) and that has strengthened my campaigns greatly. Most of the time I use the interlude to dabble in the character’s backgrounds. They create a strong player investment this way. I like to make these interludes full session long and use them to tell the story of the surrounding world. This allows me to hit two big goals of mine as a DM

  • Make the surrounding world feel alive and not just a backdrop

  • Make the players feel that their characters have some part in the world and that they have something to lose/gain outside of the adventure

I find that when I don’t establish the world and make it feel as if it is alive and populated, then the campaign will go stale fast. The world around the players will fade to gray as they work towards some ends. This is ok of a very short adventure, but over a year-long campaign, players start to wonder why they are even playing. The second bullet point helps support the issue of the players asking “But why am I even on this adventure.” Creating a situation for them to find more information on their parents killer or some other background, can help you tie that character closer to the story. Maybe the killer is somehow linked with the events that have been going on?

Finding interesting tricks over the years have been fantastic and help take my Dungeon Mastering to the next level. Feel free to comment and let me know what DM tricks you have learned, I would love to read about it and love discussing topics like this. That is where I am going to leave it for this week. As always, thank you so much for stopping in and reading. Check back in next week 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 at 5 pm Eastern Time. We play, laugh, and have a good time playing a game we all love. Thank you for reading.

― The DM