Full-time DM, Part-time Prep


Once A Fool
Lesson 29: Make mistakes.

This lesson will assert some things that I feel are universally true, but are especially relevant to the low-prep style of play, due to its high reliance on improvisation. The following should all be filtered through that lens:

Nobody starts out as a great DM, nor even as a good one. If you want to hone your craft and become a good DM, yourself, you must accept a fundamental truth - you must first spend some time as a bad one.

Stories of nightmare-DMs abound, recounting tales of poor communication, tyranny, ignorance, incompetence, and, of course, the dreaded permissive DM who allows badwrongfun to occur. Some people are so deathly afraid of these things, they seek out (or design) games with rules of sufficient rigid complexity that the mere possibility of making these mistakes (if they even are mistakes) is eliminated. There are many good reasons why folk find that style of game enjoyable (although it generally runs counter to the principals of a streamlined sandbox). As a vehicle for ensuring good DMing, however, they are problematic.

In the first place, the ideal of a system that doesn't allow for DM error is impossible to achieve, because no set of role-playing rules can be so comprehensive as to encompass every conceivable situation that will come up in play. And those that try inevitably create layers of complexity, in which numerous unforeseen loopholes thrive.

It is within these gaps that the intent is defeated. Establishing an expectation that the rules will dictate decision-making places undue strain on the players (especially the one running the game) in situations where the rules fail to do so adequately.

Impracticality is only part of the problem, though. The greater problem is that a game that expects the worst behavior out of its players does so at the expense of supporting the best of what players can achieve. This is not to say that such games do not allow for excellence to emerge in play - only that such excellence transcends their expectations.

Trust and experience are the two missing ingredients.

I'll talk about experience, first. Becoming a good DM is a trial-and-error process - and no matter how good you are, you can always be better. All the theorycraft in the world can only help to point you in the right direction (no matter what direction that might be). To truly understand what makes a game worth playing, you've got to know what it feels like to juggle the different variables involved and find the balance that equals fun for everybody.

That requires a constant awareness of what the players are enjoying and at what points - and why - you start to lose them, so you can adjust on the fly. In the process of developing that awareness, you're going to make mistakes - sometimes big ones. Learn from those mistakes and move on.

That's where trust comes in. All of this will be easier in the long run if the system you are using trusts you to become better by making mistakes, particularly because you also must learn to trust yourself to be able to do the same.

No matter the system, though, you will need to establish and maintain the trust of your players; they need to be able to trust that you are constantly striving to be fair and to foster a fun experience for everyone.

If you've got that, you've got everything you need. If you make the trust of your players a priority and consciously work toward maintaining it, you will be a good DM. And every mistake will serve to make you better.

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I agree 100%

my favourite, my pcs climb a tower on a sky castle that is quite high, defeat the spawns by de-thatching the tower with fireball, then look at the vampire casket and say

so which way is the castle going?

i casually say the direction of the castle

ok they say. Our plan unlock the catches on the casket, cast feather fall and Push it out. As that way we will have moved and the casket will fall and will open and the vampire will be killed by daylight.

Ok, I said sounds cool

Iron Sky

Procedurally Generated
These are excellent, @Rune! I agree with 90% of what you've said so far and am adding a few to my "How to Awesome GM" document.

A few other things I thought of that may be worth adding:

Carve Inspiration in Stone
- if you get an cool idea for an item, encounter, bit of history, NPC, whatever, don't trust that you'll remember it later when you "have time to work on it." Write on scratch paper, shoot yourself an email, text yourself, jot it in your phone, whatever. I have a notepad in my phone where I just quickly tap down the basic gist of something like "Black Carriage - steals babies" or "McJones' sister is actually the murderer!".

It might be in the grocery store, walking to your car, waking up in the middle of the night, taking a quick break at work, asking someone to give you a second to write down the amazing idea whatever they just said sparked, whatever - just store it before it's gone. It doesn't need to be a ton, just enough that later that night (or whenever you get time to prep) you don't sit there thinking "what the hell was that really cool idea I had at the restaurant?"


Let Your Babies Die -The villain may be your favorite NPC ever, the huge army of necro-rabbits she's going to breed and the Rod of World Breaking she's going to assemble is going to be rad. Then the PC's get a lucky crit the first time they see her walking a necrobunny or cut the rope bridge she's traversing or drop a boulder on the carriage she just got into.

You can make a hundred more NPCs that will eventually be just as cool - finding some crafty, McGuffiny way to have them survive the unsurvivable might just yank the victory from your player's fingers or even destroy their immersion and the campaign(I've had this happen) and you may be ruining your players' sense of accomplishment and ruining a great story ("Remember the time you cut down that redwood that so it would fall on the Giant King right after he'd sworn to come back and destroy everything we loved?")

Who knows, maybe with that NPC gone, a couple others idling in the back of your head will have room to burst out onto the stage, maybe the villain was just a pawn for someone even worse who now has the PCs on their hitlist...


Other Stuff Happens Too - every session, try to slip in somewhere a hint of something happening elsewhere in the world to make it feel like a real place rather than a "world in stasis" like in a computer game where the rest of the world is static until the players show up.

Maybe orcish refugees are come pouring through the country after someone called the Dark Hammer put the Orclands to the torch, maybe rumors fly of a Harpy Queen taking over the Kingdom of Togo or an burning airship streaks across the distant horizon. While much of it might be unrelated to what the PCs are doing right now, it might ripple down and effect them, especially if they eventually end up traveling to Togo or the Orclands.

Other events may be prophetic, foreshadowing something they'll face later, building up threats or, even better for prep, maybe you'll be able to "backwrite" later, tying what they are tasked with now to an event they witnessed or heard about eight sessions ago.

For example, what if the burning airship streaked through the sky, then a month later your group is hired to retrieve the Sacred Astrolabe of Astrolabia and they find out it the AstroPrince is desperate, knowing the airship carrying it was ambushed by Dragon Knights a month ago but with no idea where it went down. Maybe you had zero idea what the airship was about back then, but when the players piece it together, they'll think you're amazing for planning that far ahead and you'll see them nod as the world dial clicks one notch further towards "Full Immersion".
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Rotten DM
Lesson 10: Don't use weird names.

That last lesson leads into this one. Don't use weird names. Just, don't. Seriously, how are you going to remember Xian'thrak'halitosis when you need to without looking it up? That's just wasted time. Bob's no good either, because it tends to break player immersion, but at least you can remember it.

Try simpler (even, occasionally, real) names and, especially, titles. Not lame titles. Evocative ones. What's the difference? Well, that's just something you'll have to figure out for yourself.
AMEN Praise hel, Demi more Gone, As Most day su and the great E.G.G. I don't care if you are THL Ramme Shoe Shoe of DoSun in the SCA and have 40 hrs in Asia languages. If I can't spell and pronounce it. It becomes Rune what does your fighter do?
This should also apply to modules, tie in books, and maps. In the AL ravenloft puppet module, the mansion became the Farquadd mansion because I kept butchering the name. In fact the only reason I can pronounce Burgomaster is from those Christmas specials I been watching since I was 6.
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Once A Fool
Those are great tips, [MENTION=60965]Iron Sky[/MENTION]! Especially the first one. Is there somewhere we can check out that document you've compiled, or is it just for your own personal use?

Iron Sky

Procedurally Generated
Those are great tips, @Iron Sky! Especially the first one. Is there somewhere we can check out that document you've compiled, or is it just for your own personal use?

I've actually started compiling it from my ramshackle notes to a somewhat readable document. I have an old blog kicking around somewhere, I'll work on posting them in a general-populace-readable format and drop a link in the near future.
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