The moment the DM starts smiling, be afraid.
A barbarian walks into a bar, looks around, and wonders where his traveling companions are. A little later his traveling companions arrive, only to find the bar in ruins and the barbarian calmly enjoying an ale by the fireplace. No, it’s not another failed Dungeons & Dragons movie, it’s an actual campaign and how it usually tends to go. Why were the others not in the bar to roll initiative with barbarian and gain experience? Well, that’s pretty simple, since when playing this game, as the DM you need to realize that your characters are going to use this thing called free will and explore every nook and cranny of the world you either create or are trying to flesh out according to the gamebook. There are a lot of things to remember when it comes to your players, and you’re going to learn a lot just by doing it, and you might get a few grey hairs in the process. Ready???
Getting started with your quest
There are a lot of ways to get started. You can be in a town, a city, or out in the wilds. Your characters are going to want as much as they can take with them, meaning a wagonload of crap that they might never remember but will certainly let you know about since at least one of them will be labeled as the mule during this quest and will have a sheet of everything they possess. My advice is this, tell them NO. Much like children you have to limit what your players can do, so that Clinton, the mage, won’t be able to say “I have a reserve spellbook and dozens of vials in my pack.” Take a look at the weight and then take a look at his strength, and it’s likely you’ll be able to justify your decision. Or maybe Justin, the ranger, wants to be a walking arsenal with swords, daggers, extra bows, hand crossbows belted to his waist, and a couple of shields strapped to his back. Oh yeah, they get crazy, but here are a few ways you can handle them.
- You appear in town with limited coin and even more limited memory of how you arrived there. In your pocket you find just enough to purchase something to eat and drink, or a serviceable shield to go with your armor.
- As you attempt to leap into battle the weight of steel and wood adorning your body weighs you down and your ‘leap’ becomes a stumble that turns into rolling mess of weapons and, oh dear, you rolled a 1 on your reflex save. Let me roll here (d4). You’re impaled by two of your daggers and one of the poisoned bolts you carry for your crossbows as you lay writhing in pain, your blood boiling, all while your companions fight for their lives.
- After rolling a 1 and incinerating your spellbook and burning every strand of hair from your face and head, you pull out your reserve spellbook. That gives the creature an automatic attack of opportunity. A natural 20 means your fingertips barely brush your spellbook before you’re nearly cut in half by the dragon’s jaws as it snaps you up, shaking you from side to side until you pass out.
The goal isn’t to kill your characters for their choices obviously, but to let them know that if they’re going to be demanding, the DM is well within their rights to make the quest a little more demanding. A good DM won’t do this out of anger or even irritation but will make it clear with their actions and random encounters that the players are in THEIR world, not vice versa.
Keeping your players on track
Let’s face it, your characters are going to want to wander off and make nuisances of themselves while trying to find magic items and artifacts, and even battles that will gain them experience. Jonas the paladin might be looking for something to smite in his righteous way and run across the wrong room at the wrong time. But again, that’s where your control as DM comes into play. Keeping them on track might sound a little vindictive, kind of like the rewards that you dole out, but between keeping them moving in the right direction and keeping the party balanced, your job is going to be a tough one. Here are a few more scenarios you might want to think about:
- Tara the monk ties her chime of opening to her belt, allowing it to dangle so she can kick it when she wants to open something. Tara: “I kick it to make music!” After your tenth kick, the chime fades to dust, the magic expended. Or perhaps Mike, the barbarian, decides to say “I pee in my bowl of elemental command.” After a seriously long eye roll, the DM says: You summon an excremental made of urine that drowns you and the party in an endless stream of urine that fills the room.
- Todd the bard wanders into an empty chamber while the rest of the party travels down an adjacent hallway. The bard fails his move silent and perception checks by rolling a natural 1, and doesn’t hear the several wights that were waiting in the shadows as they creep up on him.
- Tim the thief stashes a crate full of treasure in a room where the others won’t find it and tries to sneak off with it during the next fight. The chest contains the phylactery of the lich king, the final boss of the adventure, and while the rest of the party is trying to fight off the lich king’s high-powered minions, Tim gets to fight the lich king on his own as the boss materializes from his gem.
It’s not always a kind process, but keeping them on track is something that needs to be done sometimes given that your players will want to do what THEY want and challenge your quest at every turn. Sometimes this can actually be kind of interesting since it can take the game in an interesting direction. But more often than not you’ll need to do something that will get them back on track.
Knowing when to stop is the mark of a good DM
This is something that every DM needs to learn since otherwise, you can play for hours on end if your story is strong enough and your players are dedicated enough to keep going. There are D&D groups that will play for a straight weekend, only taking breaks when needed to eat and do their business, and of course, get at least some sleep. But for your mental health as well as your physical health, and yes, your psychological health, you need to stop every now and then recharge so that the story doesn’t suffer for your need to continue. It’s a little tough to know when to stop, but conclude a battle, wrap up a quest, do whatever you have to do, but find a good stopping point, and then rest. There are a few things that can happen if you don’t, such as:
- Your story might start to sound like this: Your, um, your wizard, casts fireball? You rolled a 13 and the monster has a resistance of 24, oh hell, you singe the beast badly enough that he backs off. That’s not a good way to go, since it will cause your players to lose interest and will degrade the story.
- Your players, if they’re not into fair play, might actually do their best to take advantage of you. If you see three or more natural 20s being rolled, per character, and you see monsters dropping from instant kills that haven’t happened before, then something is up and you need to stop since you’re not noticing nearly enough.
- There’s no need to tell the whole story in one go. Between setting up the map, going over the story to get it right, and then performing skill checks throughout certain parts of the story, you’re already doing quite a bit. A single room can take an hour or more to clear if you’re running a good campaign. It’s important to leave the players wanting more as well, since this will keep them coming back.
This is a fun game, but it’s not worth your health. Set aside a good chunk of time to play, make sure your players can make it, and then enjoy until that designated time is up. Definitely finish a battle if one is in play, and find a good stopping point, but don’t go to the point of fatigue. Keep it fun.
Always remember, YOU are the DM
You’re the god of this game, the vengeful deity that can be merciful and even benevolent. You can give and you can take away, but it’s best to be balanced since this will keep the game fun. But woe to anyone that wants to cheat, since then the gloves come off, metaphorically speaking, and you run riot on your squad if you want. Seriously, take a look in the Monster Manual just in case and make sure you find a monster just for that special doomsday situation. You’ll thank yourself later, hopefully not, but you will.
WTR? (Why’s That Radass?)
Let’s be honest, D&D is awesome in more than typical nerdy way that comes with character sheets and dice rolls that have to be explained to the uninitiated. It’s a time to create worlds and situations with your friends and imagine adventures that can take pretty much any direction so long as everyone’s having a good time. Think of it as a live-action story with real-life consequences for your imaginary character. It makes sense if you don’t think too hard about it.