Greetings everyone! This is our first #AsktheMage column. Every Monday, which we’re calling Mage Mondays, I’ll be putting up a poll on our Twitter handle, asking the community and you what sort of topics you wish to cover. We may even do discussions with the community, so keep an eye out for those. The topics will mostly be focused on running D&D sessions for both the DM and player’s perspectives, topics that arise as concerns on either end and additional topics suggested by the community.
The frequency of the posts will be primarily determined by the topics, along with other items that I may have planned ahead on the content schedule. I’ll try and post under this column header as often as I can. After each poll, the next week, there should be a blog post (like this one) covering the voted topic.
So let’s dive in the subject that won our first #AsktheMage poll.
Improvisation tips and tricks for Dungeon Masters
While I’ve stated many times on various blog posts that the ability to Dungeon Master is available to everyone. The learning curve to Dungeon Master is not as high compared to times during older editions. The 5th Edition ruleset gives the DM significant autonomy and control on the interpretation, manipulation, implementation, and execution of the rules and the stories they wish to share with their fellow players.
The exercise to craft a narrative cooperatively with other players while still having some semblance of guidance. Often times, new DMs, especially those playing with published adventures and modules experience a moment where the players go beyond the beaten path. In a homebrew game, the likelihood of going off the story or even going on a tangent is practically expected.
There are some pros and cons of using published adventures. For example, published adventures establish a narrative for the DM to guide their players through. They also reduce overall prep time, but a published adventure is also limited when it comes to tangents which often times leave DMs under this impression that the adventure needs to be followed as written.
First of all, I want to address that published adventures, like the rules, are guidelines. Yes, there are plenty of details, descriptions, and mechanics are thrown into a published adventure, but ultimately the nuances within this narrative rely upon the DM’s interpretation and execution. Much like a film director, they take a script and its own storyboard and try to emulate what is written and prescribed. There are plenty of examples of scenes in movies where they were not intended or even scripted but later used and remembered fondly. The published adventures are not set in stone, they are simply an entry point to the story which honestly even that part can be amended.
Secondly, preparation is the key to success. Prep time for a Dungeon Master is a personal ritual to be ready for an upcoming game session. Just like taking a test, a DM takes notes and rereads notes from previous meetings, has crafted encounters and scenarios, and written some details about NPCs and locales. It’s very personal to each DM/GM. But ultimately, preparation provides the largest opportunities for a DM to improvise scenes, situations, and even NPCs. The reason being, you do not get lost with your main story arcs, allowing you to fill in the gaps between the major narrative points. It also helps expand and integrate aspects of these side stories and even backstories along with your main plot if you so desire. Take the time to establish the current, co-current, and future plot points for your campaign, if it helps, break down your plots into columns. Organizing your current plots based on urgency and then keeping track of dominant or non-dominant plots helps draw out possible connections or reminders.
Third, communicating expectations between the players and DM. The Player’s Handbook loosely illustrates how a typical D&D session. I tried to simplify it further and arrived at this general outlook of D&D.
“A Dungeon Master illustrates the scenery and situation, the player can ask questions for additional details where available, the players can decide on whatever actions they deem fit based on the information given and their character, the DM resolves the action and narrates the outcomes.”
The most important aspect to remember about Dungeons & Dragons, or any roleplaying game as a whole, it is a shared cooperative experience with everyone at the table. The only difference is that one of the players has to act as the referee and lead storyteller. In most cases, a DM initiates a situation and characters improvise to the best of their character’s abilities, which then the DM responds in kind. It needs to be made clear at the beginning of the game, not just a session but the game itself, that the character’s choices are only limited by the imagination of the player and the how the Dungeon Master responds to it. Not every action is going to be accounted for, but a DM should try to keep the fundamental of “Yes, and” available to some degree. We’ll discuss more the limitations and what other incarnations of responses a DM can possess in their arsenal below. For now, a DM should be open to ideas given by the players, but remember that not all ideas are fluid or coherent. Just because a player tries to do something insane and physically ridiculous, a proper response is to have a very high Difficulty Check for the relevant roll. A line I enjoy often using: “You can certainly try.”
The Limitations of “Yes, and” logic. There are definitely some limitations with a “Yes, and” approach to D&D, for one, while the game utilizes many characteristics and fundamentals of improv techniques and philosophies, the game is not an improv show. Indeed, a case can be made for D&D livestreams, where such methods are definitely useful. While a “Yes, and” logic fulfills improv’s basic tenants of spontaneity, sometimes not everything is feasible. Like a barbarian wanted to find cake in a dungeon, let’s be real, there’s probably no cake. But even if there were a cake, sure the moment would be hilarious, but would that be practical? It really depends on the sort of game you’re running. More humor driven games can afford more gags and appreciate such high levels of spontaneous moments, but games that focus on a narrative does not want such gags. A few light moments are always appreciated, do not presume that every D&D game has to be some serious epic of epics. The exercise allows these light and possibly memorable moments to exist, to explore aspects of a setting or even characters that would be less likely to be seen anywhere else. Sometimes, this practice can be strenuous, especially for new DMs who have little to no experience with such levels of spontaneity. I am a big proponent of the “Yes, but” methodology. The difference is the way how the DM approaches the spontaneous act and having the ability to make it manageable. Using the cake in a dungeon example, “yes you find the cake, but it’s in possession of an ogre.” Sometimes, the “Yes, and” method makes a DM feel like they have no agency within the game they’re running, while a “Yes, but” sort of fits into this middle ground. Yes, we acknowledged the player’s contribution but turned it into something for ourselves. This method allows the DM to regain some agency back while retaining the integrity of the player’s actions. In a new DM Deep Dive with Mike Shea and guest Bill Cavalier, they discuss some improv tricks and tips, along with DM prep. Cavalier brought up a “No, but” method, especially when resolving failures. We often discuss successes but rarely do we give the same attention to failures. “No, you didn’t pass your Arcana check, but you recalled something from this…” You do not lose momentum in narrating the outcome, you still acknowledge the player’s action while creating avenues for additional choices and resolutions. I use practically the same technique, though initially, I admit, I didn’t always notice. Even when my players fail horrifically on a check, I basically give them a little nugget to take out of the attempt. The addendum does not have to be mechanically inducing or relevant, but offering some sort of consolation for their efforts encourages the critical thinking process, I believe. You as a DM, have more options on how to interact with your players and their choices. You don’t always have to go along with it, but you can turn it around to your own benefit to fit your needs without shutting down the creative flow. Use these methods interchangeably, do not rely on simply one of them. Use them all, be inconsistent with which one to use. The most important tidbit to take away from all of this as a DM: It’s your game, you can allow what you want and don’t want.
Improvisation for Players
While it’s important that Dungeon Master’s cultivate excellent improvisation skills, there are some traits that worthwhile for even players to adopt. In an improv setting, it’s generally a dialogue between two individuals (whether it be the improviser and the audience for example). In most cases of D&D, it’s a dialogue with the Dungeon Master and the player. Once the DM has established their role and expectations, players should also state their own expectations in regards to anything like playstyle or story direction. Communication is the hallmark of a cohesive game, neglecting it can be disastrous and often lead to inflated egos or superficial expectations.
A player should trust in their DM and vice versa. While a player is not obligated to nibble on every plot hook or story point, there is a sense of “playing along” that accompanies when following the DM’s lead. It’s always important to discuss with your DM about your personal expectations of where you want to drive the story for your character. Your DM is not a mind reader, sometimes they may feel like they do, but it’s better to converse about your character, their story arcs, the overall campaign, their input about what may happen next, what they hope to learn or explore.
Ask questions. Asking questions helps you as a player develop more details for your character’s surroundings and the environment. Sometimes your DM has more details to share, or sometimes they come up with something on the fly, the point is for you to use the information given to create a context for your actions. Oh, you’re in a ballroom? Does it have a chandelier? How high is it? Can I try and jump up to it and use it to fling myself at the enemy?
There are Exceptions
This open dialogue is an intricate interplay between the DM and the players, but there are often times when players or a DM are rather stringent or stubborn. Not every player fits into every group, not all playstyles mingle well together, and some people are just toxic. As unfortunate as it is to hear something like this, that’s the truth. No matter how much someone like myself or another veteran DM tells you otherwise, there are just some people that do not mesh well with everyone in a group. I want to advise that these type of situations are when all efforts to cooperate with the player or even the DM fail when negotiations are gone and fall on deaf ears. I’m talking about the extremes of lack of communication and disregard. Hopefully, you are playing D&D with close friends who know each fairly well and hopefully have a fantastic Dungeon Master to handle all of your temperaments.
Just remember one important rule: Have Fun!
I hope this gives some incredible insight into improving as a DM and even as a player. There are some of the tips that I try to reinforce whenever I start a game or whenever someone asks about DMing for their first time. This topic was a fun one to write about, and I hope to do more in the future. Have any questions or comments? Please post them down below. If you have a suggestion for a possible future topic, please also comment down below.
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