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Three WotC Designers Discuss the Art of Dungeon Mastering

One of the best things I love about attending GenCon is the chance to go to seminars.  I know, it’s a gaming convention, and I do demo new games, and occasionally play in old favorites, but I really get a kick out of going to listen to what game designers, authors, and industry folks have to say.  Not only does it give you a bit of perspective on the industry and our gaming community at large, but also exposes you to new ideas and ways of thinking about role-playing games, board games, and card games that you might never consider on your own.

But when I saw a seminar entitled the “Art of Dungeon Mastering” in the GenCon catalogue this year, I wasn’t sure that was a panel I really needed to sit in on.  I mean, I know I’m a darned good DM, I’ve been dungeon mastering for over three decades, and did I really need a seminar to tell me about doing something I’ve been perfecting for myself all these years?

But then I realized that I was succumbing to a bit of “fuzzy-logic”.  Let’s face it, no one knows everything there is to know about gaming – that’s just self-delusional if you think you do – and this seminar might have some real insights into DMing that I haven’t tried before.  So I signed up and headed over to sit in and hear what the panel had to say…

The Seminar
art of dm panel 1
The seminar was paneled by three well-known names in the industry from Wizards of the Coast: James Wyatt – Creative Editor at WotC, who also wrote most of the 4E Dungeon Masters Guide; Jeremy Crawford – Lead Rules Editor, who edited and wrote the Rules Compendium; and Rodney Thompson – Tabletop Game Manager, and author of the 4E Dark Sun setting, Essentials Heroes books and Monster Vault.  James was handling moderator duties, and the facilitator for the panel, and opened by reading off the description of the seminar from the GenCon event catalogue:

Being a great Dungeon Master requires a variety of skills, such as rules arbiter, character actor, and expert storyteller. The art of the Dungeon Master is in combining all of these talents. Join a panel of D&D designers to discuss various tips and tricks to bring the best adventure to your players, as well as ways to make them equal participants in the story. A Q&A session will follow the discussion.

What followed the introductions of these three very different DMs was a free-form discussion of Dungeon Mastering styles, a lot of talk about world-building, and some advice for handling some sticky DM situations like character death, inter-party conflict, and meta-game knowledge.

It should be noted that all three of these designers were a bit in awe of Chris Perkins’ DM talents, and on more than one occasion joked that the rumor was that Chris was an android specifically programmed to be the “perfect” Dungeon Master.  Jeremy even noted that Chris was the only person he knew that wrote in a completely different “font” when at a white board, and might be proof of his strange DM programming.

On DMing Styles

One of the first things discussed in the seminar was DMing styles, and all three of the panel members confessed to having wildly different priorities and methods when it came to running a D&D game.

Jeremy (JC) focuses on story-oriented adventures, with lots of narrative.  He creates all his own material for his world, his campaign, and his adventures, and likes them to be “action-packed”, with trash-talking NPCs and villains, and many pivotal battles in the overall campaign. art of dm panel 2 Jeremy has a campaign world that he has been developing over 20 years, and uses it exclusively to create his adventure arcs.

Rodney (RT) considers himself a “developer DM”, and is a proponent of using other writers’ published material to create his setting and his adventures.  He adapts the published works to his groups members’ style, and allows the player-characters to “change the plot focus”, adapting to their interests with new content and material.  His campaign setting is a “quilt” of his own ideas, content from 3rd Party published works, and even some material pulled from the character backgrounds written by his players.

James (JW) also has his own campaign setting, Aquela, which he has discussed in a few Dungeoncraft articles.  He claims that he used to be meticulous in his work on the campaign, spending hours and hours writing copious notes on every facet, but now has a different approach.  James uses Aquela, but maintains a “fast and loose” approach to DMing, with lots of ad lib gaming, doing a minimal amount of work to run a session.

On World-Building

Each of the three developers had differing advice on building a world setting for a DM to use in their campaigns, but did agree on a few points as well.  Here is a list of some of their advice on the topic of world-building:

Rodney

  • Don’t spend a lot of time working on a world-setting as many campaigns “blow up on launch”, and the world ends up unused.
  • Start with a “skeletal framework” for the campaign and setting, and add in elements as needed.
  • Make only what you need yourself to form the framework, and borrow material from other sources to adapt to it.
  • Allow players to input ideas about the world through their characters.
  • Character backgrounds can be an important tool to get dynamic feedback about the way the world and campaign should develop.

Jeremy

  • Build a world gradually, reusing the same world over and over again in campaign after campaign.
  • Start small, in one geographical area, like an island, with the rest of the world as just vague ideas until they are needed.
  • Let the world grow organically as the characters desire to explore it.
  • Upgrade and evolve your world with each campaign.
  • Using the same campaign over years and years makes it instantly familiar to the DM and easier to use.
  • Create a mechanic for revising and refreshing the campaign setting – a periodic apocalyptic event works well.

James

  • One can start with stock fantasy material and “loot” material from novels and other sources.
  • Don’t spend more time writing about your setting than playing it.
  • Don’t make up too weird names of people, places, and things – you will end up wanting to change them later as the campaign matures.
  • Utilize themes in the campaign, like those found in the DMG.

On the Importance of Player Feedback & Interaction

Rodney

  • Give the players a “free hand” to create their backgrounds.  Character backgrounds for the basis for a campaign, and can add to a setting.
  • Have the players themselves decide why their characters should be adventuring together, and make it part of their backgrounds.
  • Using character generated material reinforces the collaborative effort between DM and player.
  • The social dynamic is a two-way street at the table – watch players reactions to focus on what they are interested in.

Jeremy

  • Let players “surprise” you with ideas, and incorporate their revelations into your setting, whenever possible.
  • Use the first session of a new campaign to talk about backstories of characters, and let the players collaborate together.
  • If players become fixated on a minor character, don’t hesitate to develop it for use in the world and future events.
  • Get players to reveal at least one major motivation for their characters, and use it in campaign plots.

James

  • Listen to the players’ tabletalk, and try to incorporate it into  the campaign plot.
  • Astounding prophecies can often be created from random tabletalk.
  • Don’t let setting backgrounds drive characters, but wait and see where the players want to take their characters .

On Record-keeping and Tracking Campaign Information

Rodney
art of dm panel 3

  • Use websites to communicate with players between sessions – Obsideon Portal is a good one. (RT mentioned his campaign was called “Age of Worms”)
  • Use a wiki to track important campaign information and history.
  • Organize NPCs with an address book, keeping names and keywords like “villain”, “ally”, “dead” to remind you of their status.

Jeremy

  • Use whatever media works best – he uses a combination of paper and computer docs for maps and notes.
  • Use a website to give out player information, so it can be read up between sessions.
  • Use oral traditions, like in ancient Ireland, for providing characters information at the gaming table… while in character.

James

  • Started with a binder and many notebooks with notes and maps.
  • Uses Google Docs to keep information and share it with players, and uses a wiki for campaign tracking.

On Ending a Campaign

Rodney

  • Campaigns often end by player and DM consensus, because they want to try new things.

[Editor’s Note: RT claimed he has no idea how to end a campaign well, and admitted many of his just ended badly.]

Jeremy

  • Plan the end of the campaign, and make it part of the narrative – the end becomes a “guiding star” so you know where the campaign is headed.
  • A good ending can be very satisfying to everyone is it is planned in advance.

James

  • Use campaign themes to “aim the campaign” toward an end point.
  • Let the campaign end when it needs to – sometimes the players just decide it’s over.

On Handling the Players

Rodney

  • Balance players’ interests – combat, role-play, or exploration – whenever possible.
  • Splitting the party can sometimes facilitate differing interests – but don’t try more than two groups!
  • Let characters carry the story along to help “watcher” players engage themselves in the campaign.
  • Allow players to engage in character vs. character rivalry – “simmering tension” can be good for the storyline.
  • Offering the players’ characters an “illusion of choice” can prevent player dissatisfaction.

Jeremy

  • Know your players – they can range from “theatre of the mind” to “hardcore optimizers” – decide which best will please both players and yourself in a campaign.
  • Try to balance character likes and dislikes – don’t have only combat if you have role-players that like to talk to NPCs.
  • “Cherry pick” your players at the start of a campaign to ensure they have similar role-playing tendencies.
  • Remove a player from a campaign that does not fit in with the rest – it’s hard to do, but sometimes has to be done for everyone’s enjoyment.
  • Watch body language and vocal inflection for clues as to how the players feel about campaign events.
  • When betraying the characters, be careful not to let the players feel they are powerless – even an “illusion of choice” can make players feel good about a betrayal in the plotline.

James

  • Address player vs. player issues away from the gaming table.  Resolve those issues as a mediator if necessary.
  • Never worry about betraying the players – plot twists and betrayal are part of being a good DM.

On Dealing with Character Death

Rodney

  • Don’t cheapen death by making raise dead too easy.
  • If you hate raise dead [RT does vehemently], make death into an adventure for other player characters to restore the deceased.
  • Let the player of a dead character play an NPC or a temporary character on the quest to bring them back.
  • Sometimes a solo adventure for a player to “raise” themselves can be fun.

Jeremy

[JC also hates raise dead.]

  • Decide on a death mechanic that must be part of an adventure to find to bring back the character.
  • Raise dead mechanic can be a unique person, place, or thing with its own story.
  • Make sure player wants to raise their character – sometimes a player will accept a “good” death and just bring in a new character.
  • If a character does not get raised, be sure to tie-in the new character’s background to the storyline – making the new character a family member of the dead character can work well.  Try and maintain the “continuity of knowledge”, but be ready to “bend” the storyline a bit to facilitate the new character.

James

  • Make raise dead and resurrection easy to come by.  Death should not be a big deal.

On Curbing Player Use of Meta-Game Knowledge

Rodney

  • Get new players who don’t know anything about D&D [Editor’s Note: RT was joking… I think…]
  • Stay in character, and avoid meta-talk as a DM, and discourage players from discussing meta-knowledge OOC.

Jeremy

  • Distract players in combat by introducing a plot thread to keep them from using too much meta-knowledge.
  • Introduce a story element to the combat by having villains “trash-talk” heroes to change the players focus away from meta-gaming.
  • Use visions or other narrative elements to change the focus of the battle – players will be more concerned about visions than meta-gaming.
  • Change the “flavor text” description of a monster’s power to make it seem different.

[Editor’s Note: JC confided that Greg Bilsland is a power meta-gamer, and he has to work constantly to distract Greg from analyzing combats.]

James

  • Make players question their meta-knowledge by changing one or two powers of a monster to make the monster different.
  • Add visual effects to a power to make it seem different and unconventional.

Final Thoughts

If I learned anything from this seminar myself, it was just how unique each Dungeon Masters’ style can be, and still run an effective and enjoyable D&D game for their friends.  Here were three very different DMs, with three completely different ideas about what was important to running a D&D campaign, yet all three of them have a real passion for their games and for what it meant to be a Dungeon Master.

And regardless of your skills as a DM, whether veteran gamer or just starting out as a gamemaster, there are numerous ways you can offer your players a great time at the gaming table.  But the most important thing you can do is to find out how other DMs play, by observing them at cons or your local gaming store.  There are also plenty of DM blogs (my own included) which offer ideas about different ways to play the game.  And from what you see and read, you can then choose those Dungeon Mastering elements with which you are most comfortable, and integrate them into your own unique style.

There is no right or wrong way to DM, however, there are methods that work well for certain DMs, but not all.  The best advice I can offer is to use those methods which work best for you, and never be afraid to at least try new ideas every now and then.  Because every experience we have behind the screen, whether good or bad, whether success or failure, only helps to perfect our craft and makes us better Dungeon Masters.

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!


About The Author

Editor-in-Chief
Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.

Comments

4 Responses to “Three WotC Designers Discuss the Art of Dungeon Mastering

  1. Shiftykobold says:

    Great article. I’ve never been able to go to a gaming convention so videos or articles like these give me awesome insight into the developers of my favorite RPG. Thanks for the post.

  2. kalic Strongheart says:

    This article was very enlightening. I have started a website to keep track of important events and NPC’s. This alone has made me look back and come up with side quests and other adventure hooks. Thanks for writing this article.

  3. @kalic & shiftykobold – I’m glad you all found the blog useful! Once I attended the seminar, I realized that the discussion was just too good not to share with the community, as the panel offered some tremendously good DM advice and some great personal insight into playing D&D. As a side note, I caught up with Jeremy Crawford later at the con, and asked him why he hasn’t ever published his world, which I must admit sounded very enticing after hearing about it at the seminar from not only him, but his co-panelists as well. Sadly, he claimed that he likes his world, and considers it “his baby” so to speak, and isn’t ready to share it with the community. But I will say that the seminar has definitely inspired me all the more to work on my own campaign setting even harder!

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