Today I bring you Part II on the basics of being a Dungeon Master, and how we can teach these essential skills to new DMs. The third and final part will be out next Tuesday:
How do you teach someone to DM who has a completely different style from you? I am an off-the-cuff DM; make everything up off the top of my head & take a few notes to maintain continuity. The person who wants me to teach them (my 2nd eldest daughter) wants to plan most everything before starting.
I’m not sure if I’m more annoyed or saddened by the fact that I’ve never taught another person how to DM. The initial emotion is definitely something like melancholy, until I realize the reason for this is that I’ve never had a single Player even offer to DM. You lazy bastards. Like our reader, I too will probably have to wait until I have children, assuming they’re awesome enough to want to play Dungeons & Dragons. Until then, I’ll have to satisfy myself with giving everyone else advice on how to do something I’ve never done.
Let’s take a look again at the 3 most important aspects of being a good Dungeon Master as decided upon by me:
2) Character Development
3) Player Input
Earlier this week we talked about the importance of Planning and simplicity for new DMs. In Part II we will examine Character Development and everything it can do to propel a story forward and add richness and excitement to our campaigns.
Character Development could have fallen under Planning, but for me it’s such an important part of designing a good campaign that it deserves its own discussion. When I say Character Development, I don’t just mean NPCs, I mean Players as well. Planning interesting personalities and backgrounds for our major NPCs is important, and makes them more interesting, memorable and believable people, but what’s even more important is Developing our Player’s Characters.
Players will do this naturally, but a PC can only grow as much as the adventure and campaign allows. As a DM, you should know your PCs backstories as if they were your own. Backstories shouldn’t just be a bunch of fluff, most especially when a Player has worked hard to develop a very detailed one. Backstories should be interwoven into the plot to allow the Players to really feel like they are a part of the story and have a real investment in it.
For new DMs this means reviewing backstories before gameplay begins. I don’t generally recommend playing during the same session Characters are created for this reason. Wait a week, get to know your PCs and find some interesting ways to weave their backstories into the campaign. Again, start out simply. Just drop a few subtle hints. Is one of the characters an exiled noble? Perhaps they stumble across their dead father’s coat-of-arms inscribed on a wall deep within some long-forgotten crypt. Or maybe a ranger finds evidence of his life-long enemy’s involvement in whatever terrible things are happening in your opening adventure.
The great thing about techniques like this, is that they spark your players’ interest and make them realize that they are important to the campaign. But at the same time, as the DM, you don’t even have to have a plan for it work. Dropping the hint is enough, and it gives you time to really development things slowly as you learn more about the motivations and desires of your PCs.
As for NPCs, it goes without saying that the more we know about our NPCs the better, but one thing that can ruin a good roleplaying moment is when the characters decide to interact with a poorly developed NPC. You know, that old guy you mentioned that’s sitting in the corner of the bar because you thought a full bar was better than an empty bar (setting the scene and what not). But you didn’t actually expect the players to choose him to interact with. So what then? We can’t have in-depth backstories for every person in our Universe. That’s absurd and one Hell of a waste of time.
What we can do is make a cheat-sheet. At the very least, have a fairly sizable list of names on hand at all times to pull from. Even just adding a believable name to an NPC can make a difference. It can really disrupt the moment when one of your PCs asks what a bar patrons name is and you reply, “Er… Larry?”
Another thing you might include on this cheat-sheet is personalities. Now, I don’t mean write down detailed histories and backstories, rather, use a shorthand. For example, I like to use personalities from books, TV and movies to help me out, so my list might look like this:
This way every time you have an unexpected interaction with an NPC you can randomly pick a name and a personality to help you embody the character in a more meaningful way without disrupting gameplay. A word of caution though: Don’t use this shortcut for really important NPCs, as the more time Players spend around an NPC that you’ve modeled after Darth Vader, the more that NPC is going to feel like Darth Vader, and the less interesting they will become.
Remeber: we are roleplaying. Character development is perhaps the most important aspect of the game. Without the individuals, personalities and histories, you’re just playing Warhammer.
Please submit more questions!
You can also see me in action in One Die Short.