At last we’ve come to the end of this series of articles – a little later than planned, yes, but y’all know I’m lousy at meeting (self-imposed) deadlines. So far we’ve talked about what D&D is, the basic elements of a ‘D&D story’, how different games can fine-tune some of those building blocks, and how to bring those ideas together into a narrative. Now for the hardest bit – running a game of D&D (or whatever)!
So let’s start with a home truth – it’s not that hard. Running a game – being the one who facilitates play and presents ideas – is easy. I started doing it when I was 12 years old, and trust me, I was not capable of anything too complicated when I was a kid. (And perhaps not even now.) The hardest part is deciding to do it – after that, it’s just another kind of play.
That said, I’ve got some advice on how to do it well; things that should help everyone in the game – including you – have a good time. Let’s start with the second-most important thing.
The Triangle of Power
Ugh, that’s a dumb name, but I haven’t come up with a better one because I only recently had this realisation – that there are three qualities/principles/watchwords to follow in order to foster a great gaming environment. And they apply to both GMs and players!
- Generosity: The game is there for everyone, not just the GM or a specific player. Look for opportunities to help others have a good time, knowing that they will do the same for you. Be generous with your time, your attention and your support.
- Patience: Don’t rush people or put pressure on them to play right now. Everyone needs to process information, to make decisions, to enjoy themselves. And this applies to you as well – take the time you need, ask questions and work things out.
- Enthusiasm: Everyone in the game should want to be there, with these players, with these rules, with this premise. If someone isn’t that into it, ask what they need to make the game work; if you’re not that into it, don’t force yourself to play/run!
These three, uh… attributes?… are vital to every session, group and game; hell, they’re pretty vital for almost any kind of shared activity. Everything else I have to say is basically a specific iteration of these ideas; hold to them during play, during life, and it’ll be swell.
Hold your ideas lightly
In the last article I said that D&D stories are created in play in collaboration with your players. Part of that process is incorporating their ideas – and sometimes, that means your ideas need to be put aside.
The most obvious and drastic place this can happen is in the plot – you prepared an adventure about exploring the Dread Crypt of Murder Ghosts, but the players want to put on a musical about their exploits instead. Honestly, this is pretty rare (although more D&D games should have musical episodes); engaged players almost always want to play with the toys the GM brings to the table. It’s much more likely that they’ll want to introduce story elements like being the son of the King, or decide that a throwaway NPC is vital to the plot – and, of course, they’ll make choices about how to play with the story elements you’ve provided, skipping over sections of plots or dungeon rooms to get to what they think is important.
When this happens, don’t try to push them back towards your ideas; not only does that reduce their agency, it makes the game less varied and rich because it only reflects your ideas. Learn to let go of your ideas and embrace theirs, working with players to make those a fun and engaging part of the game. In the last post I also talked about brainstorming ideas – beats – to use as the building blocks of your story. Taking that approach to plotting makes it easier in the moment to replace one of your beats with a player idea – and you can always reuse or re-purpose that idea in a later session with a bit of tweaking.
Provide direction for their ideas
All of that said – not all player ideas are created equal. Not only are some more interesting than others, some just won’t fit, like when you have a player who wants to play a Warhammer 40K armoured space marine in your 12th century low-fantasy game. Sometimes those are a signal that a player isn’t genuinely enthusiastic about the game and wants to disrupt things for ‘fun’. More often (hopefully) it’s a disconnect of vision, a misunderstanding of what the game is all about.
The easiest way to direct players’ ideas in directions that (eventually) align with yours is just to talk with them – an obvious solution, but one some GMs avoid because it smacks of ‘metagaming’ or ‘breaking character’ or some such nonsense. Don’t worry about such guff – openly and honestly say to players, ‘I don’t think that idea fits in the game right now, so can we fine-tune it until it does?’ or the like. A game is a conversation, not a contest – compromise until everyone wins.
Want to go further? Develop and implement specific areas of the game that need player input, but shape that in a way that get results. Say you want characters to stay in a tavern for a while, but want the players to develop it. Don’t just say ‘hey, what’s this tavern like?’; that’s too broad and doesn’t give hooks for ideas. Instead, decide on some types of features you want it to have – a signature drink, some contraband stored in the basement, a secret kept by the owner – and then ask players to pick/develop those specific points. Directing their creativity like this makes for a fun mini-game, puts useful boundaries around their ideas and increases player engagement. Try it.
Rules are tools
Watch a few D&D streams, or listen to a few podcasts, and you may come away thinking either that GMs must know the rules back to front and apply them perfectly, or that rules don’t matter and should just be ignored in favour of talking and having fun.
Me, I think the truth is in the middle. Rules have value in games, because they’re a language that everyone can communicate in – but there’s no need for a GM to have rules mastery, or to haul out the rulebook whenever something happens, in order to run a fun game.
As a GM, your job is not to ‘follow the rules’; it’s to facilitate everyone in the group having fun and creating a story together. Sometimes rules will help with that, sometimes they won’t – so use them when they enhance the experience, and skip over or downplay them when they don’t. You’re not obliged to break out the combat system for every bar brawl, or the complex negotiation system for haggling over a hat – unless you think that would make it fun.
Treat the rules as a way to reflect the story, not direct it, and don’t sweat the details. And when in doubt, follow the Air Bud principle: say ‘there’s nothing in the rules that says you can’t do X’ rather than ‘there’s nothing that says you can do X’.
If nothing else, you’ll find out if the druid’s animal companion can dunk.
I said the three principles are the second-most important thing, so here is the first – listen. Pay attention to both what your players are saying and what they’re not saying. Don’t assume that they’re all in agreement, that they all have the same understanding of the story/rules/group dynamic, that they all want the same things – or that they’re all having fun. Talk to them; ask them questions and then act upon the answers.
Every time a game of mine has failed – either with a bang or a whimper – it’s because I haven’t paid attention to my players, haven’t acknowledged that something wasn’t working. And every time a game has succeeded, it’s because I’ve paid attention, asked questions, and modified things to increase their enjoyment and remove/reduce things that were getting in the way.
Listen. It makes all the difference in the world.
And we’re done
I could go on about this even more than I already have, but it’s best I get off the stage before I wear out my welcome even further.
If you’ve enjoyed this series of posts, or found them useful, I’m incredibly glad. Leave some comments! Tell me about your games! Ask me for advice if you’re desperate!
If you know someone who might enjoy this series – someone interested in creating shared stories, but struggling to get started – then please send them this way! To make it a bit easier, I’ve created a do a D&D category on the blog – just share the link and they’ll find all posts in the series.
And if all this D&D talk has left you cold – well, it’s over now, I promise. Now I’ll get back to the serious business of posting a rant about semicolon misuse every 6-8 weeks or whatever.
See you then.