You gotta let go once in a while
So you’ve finally decided to try Dungeons & Dragons. It’s something that you’ve always been curious about, and your friend from work mentioned that he had an opening in his weekly game. It seems like it could be fun, so on Thursday night you show up at some guy named Keith’s house. Your friend welcomes you and introduces everyone. They all seem pretty nice, but one person sits at the head of the table and acts aloof, paternal even. It’s weird, but not overtly rude, and eventually everyone else settles in to play. The distant one cuts through the casual chatter in a clear, theatrical voice.
“Hello, adventurers. Welcome to the world of Dungeons & Dragons. I will be your dungeon master. Basically, I’m the god of this world. Whenever you want your character to do something, tell me. I’ll tell you if it happens, and whether or not you need to roll dice or check your character sheet. I will portray everyone you meet, every orc or dark wizard you confront. If you ever want to know more about the setting or the rules, you are welcome to ask me.”
The dungeon master, as he calls himself, settles into his chair behind a tall folding screen, thumbing through notes you cannot see and smiling mysteriously around the table from time to time. No one else seems phased by the Dungeon Master’s schtick, and eventually you look past it and have a great first game of D&D.
You might think I’m being hyperbolic or needlessly unkind about this hypothetical dungeon master, but I’m speaking from experience—I was that person a few years ago.
I’ve been playing D&D since I was a teenager, and most of that time was spent in the dungeon master’s chair. This happened for a few reasons. First, I was usually the only person in my friend group motivated enough about D&D to take the lead in scheduling a game. Aligning the schedules of five other dorks with my own and reminding them—every week—not to miss this week’s game has always been the most challenging part of any campaign-based roleplaying game, and I was willing to manage that. Second, I was really fucking greedy. Sitting behind the DM’s screen gave me a stage to roleplay dozens of characters instead of the singular role assigned to my players. I could be involved in every single scene, either describing the environment or playing secondary characters. I wanted the limelight, and running Dungeons & Dragons gave it to me.
It’s hard to voluntarily do something every week without it becoming important to you, and my D&D games became something I dedicated a lot of time and study to. I loved my spotlight, and I loved my friends. I wanted them to have a good time, and I wanted to be the one to make that happen for them. I obsessively sought out advice, read dozens of “Be a Better DM” articles. I loaded up on RPG discussion podcasts and scrutinized them for clues about how to facilitate the perfect game. I obsessed over every crumb of feedback my players gave me like it was scripture. Finally, after months of needling my friends for constructive feedback about my performance as dungeon master, I got the most important piece of RPG feedback I’ve ever received.
I had just finished a triumphant, climactic set-piece battle between my players and the antagonist. Everything went perfectly. The combat was interesting, the pacing was dramatic, and everyone was satisfied with the conclusion. Later that night, I got a text from one of my players. “Hey,” it read, “I just wanted to check to see if you were ok. You seemed tired and stressed tonight, and a few of us were worried about you.”
My effort in creating a cool experience for my friends was appreciated to a point, but they wanted me to have fun, too. I had stopped seeing Dungeons & Dragons as a fun game to play with my friends, and instead treated it as an elaborate gift I gave to them every week. It took a few tries, but I eventually changed my angle. Instead of striving to be a better DM for my players, I decided to try being a more relaxed and compassionate friend to the group of people I was hanging out with every week.
Of course “be a good friend and a chill person” is a great place to start, the best DM advice I’ve ever received still came from outside the orbit of D&D, in the rules of other roleplaying games. I’ve made it clear that I love Apocalypse World, but D. Vincent and Meguey Baker’s directions for the MC—the closest thing Apocalypse World has to a DM—is excellent advice for people running D&D, too. It’s so good, in fact, that I’d recommend buying the game even if you don’t plan on playing it. But in particular, three pieces of advice in Apocalypse World stand out as eminently transferable to D&D.
First, play to find out what happens. D&D’s combat is pretty granular, and sessions do take some preparation on the DM’s part beforehand, but just because you’ve prepared for something doesn’t mean it has to happen. If your players discover something they’d rather do than your elaborate quest-in-waiting—and they usually do—throw your notes out the window and wing it with them. Except don’t throw them out. Repurpose them and shamelessly steal from yourself. That cool werewolf encounter you planned? A couple of edits, and they’re the assassins the king sent after your party’s impromptu bank heist.
Second, sometimes, disclaim decision-making. When you run D&D, it’s tempting to see yourself as the sole provider of conflict and stakes, as well as the final arbiter of those conflicts. That’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself, and it won’t make your game better. If some dramatic shit is about to go down and you’re not sure how to handle it, find a way to leave it up to the other players. Ask them questions, invite them to build this world with you. Remember, they’re your collaborators, not your passengers. Treat everyone at the table as an equal contributor to your story, and not only will you have more fun, you will tell a better story.
Finally, be a fan of the player characters. D&D’s history is steeped in adversarial “DM vs. players” games. While the rules have long since eschewed that for a more cooperative style of play, the “DMs should be evil” attitude still has holdovers in lots of D&D games. If you play a game like that and you like it, good for you—the rest of us hate it. Challenge your player characters, make their lives messy and complicated. But never fuck them over. Be nice to your friends, god dammit. Don’t prepare too much, play fast and loose with the rules, and remember to have fun playing your pretend dice game.