I’m going to begin today’s article with an anecdote because I don’t want to appear conceited or full of myself when I explain my problem. One of the players from my Friday game (a personal friend) paid me a compliment many weeks ago as we were walking into the game store. He said, “Papa Farmane, I don’t think of you as our dungeon master. I think of you as the dungeon master.”
It may have been the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.
But it does leave me with a dilemma. I have a lot of game ideas and a lot of friends who want to play in my games. Before a few weeks ago I was actively running 2 different games and playing in a third. That third game is going on an odd hiatus which means that I’m stepping up to fill that role. In other words, I am now running 3 separate games.
Planning and running a tabletop game is more fun than I can actively explain to you but it’s also exhausting. Imagine planning a five course meal three times a week but halfway through the first course your diners decide they want to skip two courses and go straight to dessert and that they don’t want to eat the fish you prepared and would prefer steak. Steak you don’t have in the freezer.
I might be hungry while writing this. Preparing a tabletop roleplaying game takes time and effort. Usually I’m willing to commit about 3-4 hours of preparation time for a 4-5 hour session and assume I can improvise plenty of extra content to keep my group entertained. Running 3 games would mean a commitment of at least 15 hours a week of preparation time for games that would consume at least 20 hours of time. Some people don’t spend that much time on their for realsies job (though if you have suggestions on how I can make money off this please don’t hesitate to comment).
My newest game will be run exclusively by improvisation. I refuse to prepare for it ahead of time and will make everything up as I go. For our first session it was a resounding success.
I had three players who were brand new players to DnD 5 but who had some experience with tabletop gaming. We made characters for two hours and played the game for 5. Here’s what I learned about improvising.
- Be an active participant in character creation: Dungeons and Dragons 5 has plenty of built in mechanics to improve player interaction and have them help to craft the world. Mandatory backgrounds that affect skills, equipment, and talents really help players sink into their character. But working with each player as they create their character means that I understand exactly what they want to get out of my game. Here are the characters we are working with so far.
- A half-orc ranger on a constant quest to find his wife. He despises elves and slavery.
- A human warlock on a quest for absolute power. He’s weak but suave and prefers the finer things in life. He’s a bit of a liar, too.
- A dwarf barbarian who was a soldier turned gladiator who now wants to help end all slavery in the world.
- Plan campaign conflict on player interests: Two of my three players have issues with slavery. Should I include that in my campaign as a major conflict that exists in the world or should I ignore what my players are interested in? As a dungeon master I should always take into consideration my players’ interests. If I spend a lot of time dealing with religious conflicts or the politics of elven fae courts then my players are going to disconnect. If my very first scene is of a slave auction where they are in attendance then I can get them to engage right away.
- Understand how buildings work: You don’t have to have a degree in architecture to know how a cathedral should be laid out. A mansion or a manor house should have lots of unnecessary rooms showing off wealth and status. Dungeons are allowed to have long winding corridors that can stall players while you think of upcoming dangers. Study temples, courthouses, government buildings, mansions, and even bar layouts to have some blueprints on hand in your head. My players stalked one of the slave owners to his cattle ranch outside the city. Thank goodness I knew what a large plantation house should look like.
- Give conflict a memorable quirk: Rely on monster manuals and handbooks to help populate your improvised world with quick NPCs and beasties but make sure conflicts have some substance to them. A battle in a dwarven forge should have an oppressive heat about it that makes palms slippery and spellcasting difficult. An overwhelmed villain should want to flee and try and live more than anything. That could mean he jumps out a window and off a balcony but that means your fight becomes a chase. Chases are fun.
- Give treasure, not money: I’ve already spoken on this blog about treasure. I like treasure. When you’re trying to give yourself every second to plan or think ahead give your players things to argue over. Give them treasures that they can only guess at the value of or perhaps appraise with a bit of natural wisdom. This means they have to go sell these treasures before they can buy supplies or weapons. A silver ring with bloodstones might sell for 100 gold coins. Or maybe 500. Do you know the value of a jeweler’s craftsmanship? Is it an elven ring or a dwarven ring? That matters to some players and some merchants.
- Take breaks: As a dungeon master, don’t feel bad about needing to step away to use the bathroom. Thirsty? Take 5 and get some lemonade. Hungry? Go on a food run and give yourself 20 minutes to quickly map out a dungeon. If your game session will likely go for 5 or more hours then breaks are necessary for the dungeon master. Running a prepared game is exhausting. Having to develop the game as you play can easily be overwhelming. Are your players about to visit temple ruins in the middle of a jungle? A food run can give you time to figure out a boss monster, a few traps, a few quirks, and some treasure.
Improvising a game is an experience I heartily recommend a dungeon master engage in. Hopefully some of these tips can help in any game, however.