I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been DMing for a very long time, as my hobbies go. I believe that D&D may be my longest running hobby, and its been a staple of my nerd life for nearly 2/3 of my life. I can remember building and running dungeons for my reluctant family, who humored my 12 year old self as I ran them through unoriginal dungeon after dungeon. I remember, too, picking up the new editions of the books, pouring through them looking for insight into how they work, what new rules and abilities, as well as monsters, were contained within. Vicious and stalwart monsters always drew my eye as I tried to find a way to challenge and thwart my players.
Then, later on, I took a different approach. As I grew older, I started to figure out that what D&D was was a shared storytelling experience. I didn’t look at it in those terms but I knew exactly how I felt when I didn’t think I was part of the game, that my decisions didn’t matter and that it was simply the DM showing me a story. Instead, I wanted to create an immerse, co-operative venture between players and the DM that fleshed out the bare bones of a story that I wanted to present.
This varied from the normal DMing I had done in that I had to take a back seat. I was not in control, as it were. In my formative years I had grown used to the DM as conductor of the train. There was a single path for my players to go down, and I was driving the story there. There were stops along the way where the players could get off the train, but only if I allowed them. The Players were passengers, seeing the world fly by and experiencing it from a distance. I was able to show my players adventure, and it was fun, but it wasn’t interactive in any way.
A very clear example is that of the slay the monster adventure. The PC’s are hired by the local people to slay a ravaging monster that has been attacking the town. It lives in the cave on the mountain. Kill it, bring us proof, and we will pay you. There is plenty of room for adventure and story here – the interaction of the players and the townsfolk, as well as with each other. The Trip up to the mountain can involve attacks from monsters in the woods along the path. The monster could have thrall servants that have to be killed before it does. But its all a single path, one I present to them that seems to have no other avenues of adventure. This is the most basic of the forms of DMing, and it can be superbly enjoyable if the party interacts well together and everyone is prepared to be character actors in a medieval fantasy play.
When I had grown a little bit, both as a DM and a person, I’d discoverd that what I wanted to do, though, was something a bit different. It wasn’t enough for me or the players to be along for the ride of the story, I wanted to engage the players on a level that let them, and me to a small extent, drive the adventure. I wanted them to be outside. I wanted them to be able to wander off course and to choose which path to take. I had points along the way that I would need them to hit, and no matter where they wen’t I’d have the events occur in one way or another to move the story along. There was always the overarching goal of a story to be told, and to see how the players interact with that story was the ultimate goal.
This lead to numerous glorious stories and fantastic adventures. The world that I built and that the players I have had shaped, is still the world I DM in today. It is vast, with deep layers of player created memories and stories that one generation of player tells to the next. I’m currently on my fourth generation of players, though the party includes one first gen, three second gen, one third gen, and one fourth gen. Each one has layered story on story on story to create this foundation of shared and interweaving generational stories. I now have a world that the players are invested in as well.
This new take on DMing, if we were to take the above monster scenario, would be more of a scatter plot. I’d know that I wanted to tell the story of a town being attacked by a monster. I’d know where it lived, and why it was attacking. I’d know that they mayor of the town was desperate to be rid of the monster because it was eating into his winter stores by attacking farmers who were now terrified of farming. When the players get to town, the monster would have been their recently, and the mayor would be starting to look for someone to take care of the monster. They could choose, then, to go to the mayor and offer their assistance, and take that path, or they could go to the site of the attack and go that way. They could then get assistance from the townsfolk, if they desired, or just track it to its cave. There, they could learn about why its attacking the town and try to either placate it, or kill it, if they felt that was the right course of action.
Here, though, it didn’t matter what town it was, or who the mayor was, I would have the monster I wanted attack a town they were in, and wherever it happened to be, I would have these events transpire so that I could see the events of the story pan out. This version let me see how the players would view and handle events, and how the world reacts around it. I had my players experience world-shaking events, and they didn’t have to be in the right place a the right time in order for the story to start. I really enjoy this type of strange connect the dots type of story telling. I know what points are important, vital pieces, and I’ve got them connected already, but I let the players fill in and find the rest of the dots. With no defined shape or center, simply prominent features, the picture comes out how the players design it.
This latest adventure, though, has turned on its side a little, though. One of the players mentioned a while back how they wanted to play an old school type of game. One in which each adventure isn’t tied to the next in some sort of overarching story, but instead you have a home base, and each adventure is its own little game. I mentally agreed that that time in gaming was a blast, and that it would be fun to give that type of adventure to the players. That meant that I needed to find a completely new way of telling stories though. Without an overarching goal, how would I find a way to build the world that the players are in and have them explore?
It turns out, the answer is a simple one, and one that I find, after years of DMing, to be amazingly refreshing. What I am doing now is simply reacting to the players, almost completely. I give them small and quick adventure to do, and I let them create all of the action. I have a quick two to three paragraph write up on the as-is state of the area as they arrive, and what and how the area got that way, and then I let the players work within it.
Now, instead of plotting action points, I am documenting the consequences of their actions. What happens when they let the bandits flee? How does the brothel owner react to getting extremely overpaid? What is the response of the local thieves guild to probing? What is most refreshing about this way of DMing is that I want to run home after every session and write out what the consequences of this weeks adventure is. Who did the players pull down, and who did they raise up! Each and every week is a new and open day not only for my players, but for me as a DM. Each adventure is also helping me flesh out this new area of my world. Each NPC they talk to and each monster they kill or bandit camp they route gives flavor and character to this area that has been neglected for years in my mind.
As an additional wrinkle, I normally have some ideas of what few magic items I want to give out in an adventure in order to tell the stories of the characters and their conflict. This time, though, I have no real desire to tread that same worn path. Instead, I have rolled up, randomly, all the treasure that the characters are going to get throughout the game, all the way, assuming they get there, to level 20. This, too, is forcing me out of my comfort zone, as I tend to introduce only moderate and small treasures and magic items. My worlds and my adventures are low magic, gritty and dirty. Its the way I like it and the way I think. With this list of treasures, though, I have to make some difficult decisions. Items I would never have thought to use are in that pile and I feel compelled to give them to the players. I feel it is their right. Some of these items are downright absurd!
Both of these small but impactful changes have affected my DMing in ways that I would never have expected. I am challenged in ways that I’ve not been in a very long time, and its invigorating. I’d love to hear how other people DM, and how they create a story that is not only off the rails, but memorable as well! I could write hundreds of pages on how I DM, what I think is the best, and how to get the most out of your players, but that’d probably need to be its own topic, at very best. I just wanted to share my joy and thrill at finding ways to DM differently.