In my last post, I gave a spiel on how I got started in tabletop gaming and then running my own D&D campaigns. I’ve experienced a lot of groups, both as a player in a campaign and running a few of my own. At the time of writing this post, I’ve been a pretty consistent Dungeon Master (DM) of a single campaign for about three years, racking up almost 130 sessions.
While my experience hasn’t always been sunshine and rainbows, at the least I’ve had lots of opportunities to evaluate what motivates me to DM and keep going at it. I’ll boil down the bulk of my insights into three points: starting a game on my terms, playing with the right group, and control.
It Starts With Me
Each time I ran a game, I felt sure about it. I would think to myself: “I’m DMingbecause I want to!” There was a story I believed I could tell, and I had some world that players could hop into and (hopefully) enjoy.
That sentiment was always important to me. I knew myself well enough to stop, finding a way to close out a campaign, when I lost the feeling that I wanted to run a game.* At the point that I no longer desired the DM chair, I couldn’t be the facilitator that my players deserved.
*A lot of details and semantics can go into running the game as well as many factors that play into the desire to DM (furthermore, why one would lose the desire to). I’ll probably cover that with other posts, but not this one. We’re not opening that can of purple worms here.
For me, becoming a group’s dungeon master—whether it’s for one session or one hundred sessions—is a commitment. One individual, among many, takes the onus of facilitating the game, as is the typical understanding of the DM position. It’s vital that someone wants to do that—willingly!
Many people start running their games at the behest of friends and other prospective players (forever DM syndrome, anyone?). I don’t want to come off as writing that off. Many great games begin with a group deciding to run and designating someone as the DM. Yet, there is a great difference between wanting to DM a game versus getting shoehorned into DMing.
What I want to emphasize is the mindset. That initial psyche up that makes you want to run a game. This campaign you’re mulling over? You want to do this! Certainty in that sentiment is invaluable.
For new DMs, getting your mentality down is the first step to overcoming anxieties and doubts to just get started. In general, the mindset is crucial to continue running a campaign and avoid burnouts.
Once I established the mindset of “I want to do this,” working on and prepping my campaign became smooth like butter. I developed a very positive outlook on my DMing. That enthusiasm translates to passion and energy for the campaign, which in turn creates a positive gaming and social environment. All those aspects bolstered my experience as a DM and the experience that I could facilitate to the other players.
The “Right” Group
When I first started DMing, I had a rule of thumb. If I was cool with playing as Player Character (PC) for an extended period within a group, then I would be comfortable running a game for them. However, being comfortable playing with a group doesn’t always translate the dynamic to when you run the game for them. Who DMs, among other factors, can change any given group’s existing dynamic.
Over the years I’ve DMed for different tables and, sometimes, different iterations of the same group. My first few campaigns I played in person, though most of my experience has been long distance. For example, my three-year campaign is exclusively long-distance and has effectively had at least three different groups in it.
I’ve had mixed successes, though I generally had more positive experiences than not. I learned throughout my years as a DM that I needed to have a group that felt “right.”Even if it was only “right” for “right now.”
My Meaning of “Right”
Every DM will have a version of their “right” group. That’s not to discredit different playstyles or types of games, but simply an acknowledgment that DMs have the right to be picky with who they run for as much as other players pick the type of games they participate in. Of course, be respectful of the process, but always know that preferences are important.
When someone’s still a new Dungeon Master, they may have difficulty determining what exactly they can handle from players. Behaviors in and out of the game are hard to gauge before seeing it all in action. Though, there are universal expectations no matter who’s running (mutual respect, everyone having fun, accountability, etc.).
What a DM wants in a group changes depending on the type of game they want to run. I’d like players to engage a story if my campaign had a long-form narrative, though I’d expect that less so should my games contain only dungeon crawls.
Preference in Hindsight
For example, with my double-campaign attempt in high school, I realized that I enjoyed DMing for one group more than the other.
One group had players that definitely knew the game better than I did (I was still new to 3.5e then), and I appreciated their experience for the fact that they could help myself and other new players with the rules. However, I often felt like I had no clue what they were doing with their spells or actions—a lot of it went over my head, so I let it pass and moved on. Combat wasn’t really an issue, and they approached the campaign a lot more seriously. At times, it felt a bit tight since I couldn’t be sure if what I was doing was fun, challenging, or enjoyable enough for them.
The other group had mainly new players, and most people either had a meme character or something similar. They played for humor, which led to a lot of inside jokes in the group. There was a lot of chatting, and while we still played the game, it felt more laidback. I also handwaved a lot of rules because looking them up while people bantered with each other sometimes ruined the flow of our session. I really felt in the loop DMing for them.
Both group’s approaches to the game are valid since the groups themselves were fine with how players acted in- and out-of-character. Just for me, at the time, I was more aligned with the second group. I could crack jokes, make funny voices, or brew up more ridiculous scenarios that they just went along with. That’s not to say I didn’t like DMing for the more experienced players, I just wasn’t as comfortable.
My Group “Right Now”
Jumping to the present, I’ve become more mindful of what I want to see in a group. Along with universal expectations of table decorum, I prefer if people were familiar enough with each other to comfortably interact both in- and out-of-character. I absolutely love it when players really get in character. I love the fact that, in my game, it has become a norm that someone has to say, “Oh, I meant that out-of-character,” because most sessions are spent speaking as their PCs.
When I run a narrative-driven game in a setting I’ve dedicated some serious worldbuilding to, I would like to see players interact with it. I don’t mean reading or keeping up with lore dumps (which I admittedly do and try to curb). However, they should care enough about the details of the world that pertain to the campaign. I value the fact that I can connect the PCs to the world, and the world to the story of our campaign. That’s one of the ways that I think they’ll stay interested in what I’m running.
On the flip side, if I’m running a game that plays more into humor, then I want a group that can join in the fun of that. I’d like to see them riff with each other, make their characters commit to ridiculous notions. I’d want the group to be fine with sessions spiraling into something different than expected, and to avoid frustration even when things get derailed.
Plus, now that I’m more seasoned with the game system, I don’t mind running for veterans or newbies. I mainly want players who are ready to engage in our game.
A lot of what I’m saying can and should be hashed out before ever starting a campaign (session 0, anyone?). In the context of D&D, as well as other games that designate a player as a facilitator, you really can’t have a game going without the players—just as much as you can’t get a game going without the DM.
However, for me (and you) as a DM, knowing what to expect from a group and what you want to see from a group can be two different things. Personally, it’s important, though—super important!—that I know what I can tolerate and what I can handle while running my game. Of course, players should also know what to expect from their DM. Expectations and discussing group dynamics for all aspects of the game is a massive, significant topic.
Having a group that jives just feels fantastic. Being comfortable with the group bolsters my mentality because I can trust they’ll stick with me. In turn, I believe they also put their trust in me. This mutual expectation and trust encourage me to put in a great effort in preparing and running my campaign. For them, for myself, and for our group as a whole. I want to build up my game, to create momentum that excites my players, and to let the players have at it with their PCs—hopefully to the satisfaction of everyone at the table.
Not So “Right”
In some instances, I lost that feeling that the group worked. It felt like a wreck. I thought probably did something wrong, and I could only mull over why it went downhill. How could I have avoided conflict or a contentious call? How could I have handled something better? Doubts and losing confidence in the group and in myself as a DM could spiral into more of those less-than-stellar moments.
Sometimes, a group doesn’t work out. That’s fine. I try not to take it personally anymore, and I just look forward to the next good experience with another group. As with any possible moments of conflict, error, or just wrong, acknowledging fault is the first step. However, moving past it and acting on what I learned is growth.
The upside of having a group you trust is that it gives all the players involved a support system. I felt great relief to have people motivating me to bounce back from a bad session or some other issue I couldn’t handle properly.
Just as important, a group’s ability to play off one another and the DM. A group should reliably engage with the game, whether that be attending sessions, participating in-character, and more. The players decide whether a game even starts and for how long it can keep going.
Session 0’s are a great time to establish boundaries, brief players on the type of game you intend to run, and hash out any details that will be vitally pertinent to everyone at the table. Bottom line: everybody should know what they’re getting into and be comfortable with it.
Overall, confidence in the player group shores up insecurities and provides great motivation. The players I run for are all there to have fun, same as me. Support from the group will benefit anyone, whether they’re old or new Dungeon Masters. For me, the mentality boost has been, and continues to be, vital to running my game for the long-term.
Having Control Doesn’t Mean Controlling
There are games that don’t need a Dungeon Master. Even when there is one, it’s important for everyone to remember that they are also a player. However, the DM has a specific role. Unless otherwise arranged, the DM “runs” the sessions, arbitrating what happens in the game, and—when necessary—mediating conflicts that happen at the table. Whenever someone does take the DMing role, there’s always going to be some concept of “control.”
The “Control” Spectrum
I took a while to understand what kind of DM I was and how I ran the game. Admittedly, I’ve had to change parts of how I DM in order to keep my table and sessions a good experience for my groups. I’ve come to realize that the way I run my games won’t be right for every group or every player. Even now, I generally view my DMing as higher on the “control” spectrum.
The “control” spectrum is my attempt to explain the sort of all-encompassing scale for how DMs essentially run their game. I can add different sub-categories to it: table etiquette, lore creation, character input, rules enforcement, narrative pacing, etc. “Control” aspects appear in almost every facet of the DMing role‘s tasks.
The Basic Stuff
The DM should be able to get everyone to listen, to engage while they’re running for them. That’s a matter of courtesy for all players at the table, though it still counts as “control.” For example, asking to postpone non-game-related chatter while narrating a dramatic scene for the players.
Now, there’s a lot of negative connotation to a controlling DM. No one likes being told what to do against their wishes, and controlling too much of a game makes the experience unpleasant for everyone. Rarely will an entire group so stringently adhere to every rule all the time, so it’s just as important to understand that a DM can’t expect to dictate all aspects of their game.
Example: Railroad vs. Sandbox
Let’s look at a common example: how stringently a DM forces a party’s actions. One end of that spectrum is a practice often known as “railroading.” The most extreme and notorious practice of railroading involves the DM blatantly directing a group’s actions or how to proceed with a given narrative. “You want to look into the townspeople’s offhand problem? No, you can’t really do that, but you can go over here to Questville instead!”
However, published modules technically follow a railroad-esque model. In most of these adventures, anyone reading them can follow the story from beginning to end. Yet, they don’t typically receive vitriol for the fact that it’s meant to be a guidance. While modules can provide locations, quest hooks, and scripted narratives, there is an understanding DMs can adhere to the guidelines as they see fit. There lies the choice for players, and more often than not, players will want to feel like they have the choice.
The other end of the guiding spectrum is the “sandbox” approach. Essentially, a sandbox serves as an open-world with any number of stories, characters, tasks, and locations for players to explore. The DM leaves it to the group to play around in the sandbox and determine what they want to do.
I personally don’t hear as much negativity regarding “sandboxes” barring a few concerns. One, if a DM isn’t particularly used to improvisation, then preparing for the unknown can require a lot of work, which may be a disadvantage should the DM have limited time. Second, choice paralysis. It’s possible that a party might just feel overwhelmed or uncertain when there’s too much to pursue and no prioritizing guideline to pursue a plot hook or adventure. Players may spend just as much time figuring out what to do as actually playing out what happens.
In both cases, there is an aspect of control. I think a healthy position for most groups will lie somewhere between the two extremes. Sometimes players will want flexibility and openness in what they want to accomplish (the sandbox). Other times, they simply want to get to the next big battle and thus don’t mind being ferried to that position (the railroad). That boils down to 1) understanding your players, and 2) understanding what you as a DM are comfortable in facilitating for your group.
A Controlled World
Like I previously mentioned, my DMing style falls more on the more controlling part of the spectrum. I’ve created a world to serve as my campaign’s setting, so I want the story, the locations, and the NPCs I have to fit within that guideline. However, not everything is written out, and there’s enough blank space on my maps to add more to.
Therefore, I’ve given the players room to create within the world’s framework. Together, we’ve collaborated to add to the world and the story with their original characters. We created different personal conflicts that I could then sprinkle throughout a campaign, letting me pull out backstory beats and past acquaintances as they traveled to interesting locations.
Rules-wise, I follow what’s written more often than not. However, I refrain from outright shutting down a course of action if I can’t remember a rule. In that case, I’ll at least do some temporary ruling on the spot, amending it later should I receive clarification.
Between sessions, I ask—sometimes even nag—about availability. After all, the first part of running the game is having players there. I typically arrange a session around people’s schedules and try to run with a majority of the group. Regarding my prep, I also ask about what players intend to do so that I can prep notes. Sometimes things don’t go according to their intentions, but the idea that I’ve at least prepped helps me with improvise.
There’s more that I can get into with how I like to “control” aspects of my game. Dungeon/Game Masters take on the role that facilitates the game, often taking extra time and effort to do so. The DM should make calls or establish expectations that will improve how they run the game for the table. Just as importantly, the DM should avoid enforcing anything at the table that makes the players uncomfortable or utterly impedes their enjoyment.
It’s honestly a give and take that comes down to everyone at the table understanding and respecting the relationship between the DM and the other players. Ultimately, the DM should feel confident that they’re running their game. The extent of their control will come down to any specific group’s playstyle, and—most importantly—what everyone at the table finds fun.