DMs have a plethora of information at their fingertips concerning how to build adventures, encounters, and campaigns. When I began DMing for my friends I did nothing but read the DMG 1 and 2, the monster manuals, and D&D blogs. I’m a firm believer in stealing from other sources for your own benefit. This was a great attitude considering the amount of experience and information within those books as well as the many blogs that I was able to use for my own game.
However, for all the tips, tricks, and design strategies out there, nothing told me what to run a campaign about. Or even how to come up with ideas for it once I discovered a theme. Literature, on the other hand, is full of story arcs, character development, conflicts, and antagonists. I finally convinced myself after pulling the plug on my first campaign that I needed to take a break from reading D&D books and start reading novels. DM burnout is all too common for someone who pushes themselves to design the next great thing for their campaign and doesn’t take time to recharge their creative batteries.
After taking a more improvisational approach with my DMing style and learning to do less prep work per session I discovered some basic rules that worked for me.
Back to Basics
The newer editions of D&D requires miniatures, maps, and tiles. These items are here to simplify combat and the overall game, but DMing still requires an ability to communicate, act, and provide description. I think of myself as a fairly outgoing person, who crack jokes, and talks a LOT. At the game table though, I’ve felt tongue tied and flustered when I’ve used up my entire vocabulary for describing magic, weapons, blood, architecture, anatomy, and the list goes on. One trick I discovered was reading books from a variety of time periods. Authors of today use modern language, and modern words to describe modern thoughts. Authors only a few decades back have entirely different vocabularies, dialogue styles, and methods of description. If you go back further in time you will start to find a very different type of English. One example I have noted was Robert E. Howard. The creator of Conan the barbarian and Solomon Kane. Howard wrote short stories and books in the 1920’s and 1930’s, not even a century from today, and yet he used strange words or even innapropriate words to describe vivid actions scenes. Since reading a few Solomon Kane short stories I’ve started using the word ‘volcanic’ to describe feats of strength or speed. It seems like a silly and small thing to use in DMing, and yet it gets my point across well and my players have perked up and paid more attention when I use it.
Simplicity is Key
Our everyday speech is littered with colloquialisms, unnecessary phrases, and pacing. As a DM, I realized that simple language espoused by Hemingway and George Wells is the most direct. Human thought is complicated enough and we don’t need to complicate it further with unnecessary or flowery speech. A major mistake I made in my first 4e campaign was to make the game harder by speaking in riddles, or vaguely describing things. The players would sometimes carve through my carefully planned adventures and so I started trying to confuse them. This brought everything to a harsh stop and the adventure would lag for the rest of the session. I learned that DMs need to be precise with their speech and that creating a challenge for the party is done through effective encounter design.
Story writing is not Adventure writing
Writing out every adventure in minute detail was my downfall as a DM. I built a world with lots of lore and history for a year and then dove straight into highly detailed adventure design. I did this day in and day out for my first campaign and then finally burnt out. I stopped DMing for a few months, played in a friends campaign, and did some major reading on improvised DMing. I was nervous when I started my first session in my new campaign. I had seven players in the first game (which I thought was quite dumb of me), a map of a town and nearby regions, and a handful of random encounter tables I designed. I also had a few pre-written plot hooks but no fleshed out adventures but not much else. That beginning session with too large of a party and what felt like a completely unprepared adventure, turned into one of my best DMing moments.
It seemed to me that having the bare bones for a story allowed me to modify the adventure as it progressed. I could take into account new ideas, or extraordinary successes performed by the players. A rigid storyline, like the ones I used to create, had no room for deviation and left me frantically trying finish the session without the party realizing I screwed up. I discovered that when players asked me questions or made a joke about what’s lurking behind the corner, they were telling me what they wanted. Usually I would get an exclamation of ‘I knew it!’ from a player when something they mentioned showed up in the game. This is when I discovered that reading books are great for expanding vocabulary, creating characters, and looking for story arc inspiration, but not for creating highly detailed maps on how to design and run campaigns.
I thought I’d share a few authors and books that I found particularly helpful in becoming a better DM and writing this article.
– Why I Write by George Orwell; This essay was an interesting mix of political thought and writing advice. Pretty sure it’s published by Penguin and is well worth the read
– Stardust by Neil Gaiman; I have yet to sink my teeth into Gaimans major works but this ‘Youth Adult’ novel is unique. It’s quite a bit different than the movie based on his work and contains more than a few surprising descriptions of sex and violence.
– The Once and Future King by T.H. White; I haven’t even finished this book and I’d suggest reading it. Besides being one of the top Arthurian novels, White also has a very dated vocabulary and this makes it a perfect novel to pick up some new phrases and words.
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