Behind the Screen
Behind the Screen - The Foundation of a Good Game
By Jason Nelson

Quick Hints for DMs

To run a game effectively, remember these key points:

1. Know your players: Ask what they like to play, what characters they want to bring to the table, how they like to play, what goals they have in mind for their characters, and so on! Players play differently and want different things, and you can integrate each player's strengths, wants, and playing style into the game, but you have to know what the strengths, wants, and styles are first!

2. The DM is a player, too: The DM has some say over how the game goes since he or she is creating it. At the same time, though, the DM needs to remember that the other players have their own roles in creating the game.

3. The game is supposed to be fun: If the game isn't fun, figure out why it isn't. Then fix it. (See point 4 below.)

4. Talk to your players: Before the campaign begins, talk to your players (as in point 1). During the game, check back with your players and see if the game is going the way they expect. If not, address those points as a group. If it's running well, then congratulate yourself and try to maintain that group goodness! Also, if you sense things aren't quite right, or if conflict arises, immediately start talking to your players to figure out what's going on and how to fix it.

5. Step away from the screen (optional): Sometimes it's good to take a break from running the game and see the other side of the screen. You might pick up some good ideas for handling situations for your own game that way!

6. Watch how your players interact with the game and with each other: Sometimes people don't bring up problems. Watch for tension or discomfort and try to discuss it so that a solution for it can be found. Also, know when to call for breaks, when to call for focus, and when to end the session, and then do so.

Advice to the Dungeon Master (DM) is a matter of stylistic taste, and what may be great advice for one Dungeon Master may not give much help to another. This advice can come in different forms: logistical, procedural, content-oriented, and interpersonal. Logistical concerns include how to set up the physical environment in which the players will play. Procedural advice covers things like how to orchestrate game play, how to give evocative descriptions, and how to manage combat. Content-oriented recommendations incorporate things like how to structure the in-game aspects of the world and its inhabitants, and it deals with the opportunities or paths that player characters (PCs) can take. Finally, interpersonal advice includes how to deal with players as people on an individual and group basis. I will address the latter issue, the interpersonal dynamics of gaming and how you can use them to become a better Dungeon Master, in part one of the Behind the Screen series of articles.

The mantra that allows you, the DM, to address the other issues around your game and make it enjoyable for everyone involved is deceptively simple and easily overlooked: Know your players. Know what they play and why. Know what they enjoy and where they excel. Know the kinds of goals and preferences they have for their character(s) and this campaign. Know their motivations in playing an RPG in the first place. You don't have to draw up a dossier on all current and prospective players, though some gaming groups ask a new player about his or her gaming habits so that they can know what to expect. Simply put, you should know where your players are coming from and what they are looking for so that you know what to emphasize when setting up the campaign.

Additionally, don't forget that the Dungeon Master is a player, too! Roleplaying games (RPGs) are a cooperative activity, and the DM is one of the people involved in that cooperation. Though DMs roleplay the adversaries of the PCs, running a game is not an adversarial activity. The Dungeon Master's goal is not to "win" any more than the players' goal is to "win" -- the goal of both is to create a mutually enjoyable experience.

With all the fuss over roleplaying, don't forget the "G" in RPG, either: game. A game is something people play for fun; if the game is no fun, then what's the point? For most people, a game where one person holds all the cards is no fun. There must be some give-and-take, or a sense of a negotiated settlement that includes the input of anyone who cares to give input. Does that mean every idea is accepted as a matter of course? No way. It does mean, however, that all input receives a fair hearing, that players can air their grievances (if any), and that DMs can consider ideas for changes.

The DM is one of the players in this game. His or her enjoyment or input is not automatically any more or less important than any other player's. As part of the negotiated settlement (however tacit and informal it may be) between the DM and the other players, the DM receives a degree of formal in-game powers and a default level of discretion from the players in exchange for being the person in charge of creating and managing the game world and game mechanics. The DM decides what the world is like, where the PCs begin their careers, what knowledge they have of the world around them, and what opportunities the players can seek out. The DM must make clear to the players any options open to them. Players carry expectations and must learn of any deviations from them if they are to make informed decisions. Do rangers in the DM's campaign have archery-related feats instead of dual-weapon feats? Are half-ogres an allowable PC race? Is there a "Common" tongue? Is the campaign set in a pseudo-European medieval setting or something more exotic? Is it mostly dungeoneering? Or is it wilderness-oriented or city-based? The players grant to the DM the discretion to make these kinds of decisions, but if the decisions depart too radically from the players' expectations, some friction may develop.

Questions to Ask Your Players Before You Begin

Here are some questions to ask your players before you begin playing. Keep in mind that you should feel free to add in your answers to these questions as you go. It's not fun for anyone if you end up running something you hate! Also, you can skip whatever questions are a given. For example, if you all wanted to talk about a Star Wars campaign, you've already figured out the genre and actual setting, but not necessarily the setting's era! Finally, you don't have to read off all of these questions like a checklist, and you can add in your own specific questions. This list of questions is here to invite conversation and comments about the campaign you want to start. If a conversation is going a bit off of the path you thought it would, but is still relevant, let it go that way until it is no longer relevant to you, then gently but firmly steer it back on track with another question.

1. What genre of campaign do you want to play?

2. What setting in that genre do you want to play? (This could also resolve which rules you want to play with, but see question 7.)

3. What time period or era do you wish to play in?

4. What type of campaign do you want to play? (Examples: wilderness, city-based, political/intrigue, hack-and-slash, dungeon-based, mixture, and so on)

5. What types of characters does each player want to play? (You can talk generally at first, but be sure to emphasize that a player should bring a character he or she feels comfortable playing and not feel forced to play that cleric simply because the group has no healer.)

6. What are the goals of your characters?

7. What home rules or optional rules do you want to allow or forbid? (Also, bring up any other unusual campaign-based things here, such as you don't have elves in your campaign.)

8. Do you like lots of battles and combat, or do you prefer to solve puzzles, or do you like to learn about the people and the world around you? (Some people love combat. Some people love to roleplay with NPCs for hours. Some players love a healthy balance (and will tell you what "healthy" means to them). This question helps draw out the different types of players in your group.

9. Why do you roleplay? (This question can come up earlier, but you can also use it to resolve some lingering questions you have about your players and their roleplaying styles.)

When expectations or preferences for campaign direction are at odds between the player(s) and the DM, the DM and the players should discuss their thoughts, feelings, and ideas about the course of the campaign. Ideally, this should take place before the campaign begins so that expectations align and conflicts get resolved before the campaign begins. Realistically, though, these sorts of differences often don't develop until the campaign has started rolling along. For example, the DM may become frustrated if the players consistently ignore adventure hooks tossed in their direction or if the PCs keep running off into the woods instead of sacking that nice, juicy dungeon that he or she lovingly built. The players may get discouraged if they expected a combat-light campaign with a lot of NPC interaction and problem-solving (and built their characters to handle those situations), but they end up deep in a dungeon because they have choices that include only dungeons. Whatever the precise circumstances may be, the players (including the DM) may find themselves in a game different from what they expected.

So what do you do about it? The answer is as deceptively simple as the problem: Talk to your players! In discussing the game with them, you can help crystallize and clarify everyone's feelings about the game. You may also gain further knowledge of the players' wishes and playing styles. If there is a rule interpretation you don't like and wish to change, discuss it with your players. They may agree, or they may think it's just fine the way it is. They may also want to avoid monkeying around with the official rules. You might say, "I'm bored with stale old Euro-fantasy! I want to try running something set in ancient India, but with evil PCs!" Your players might say, "Sounds great! You could download the Mahasarpa campaign for ideas," or they might say, "Um, no . . . don't think so. I like Euro-fantasy." It may turn out that what you want as a DM and what the players want as players will not be compatible. If that's the case, the best thing to do is see whether someone else would like to run the game for a while, or you could even run simultaneous or alternating campaigns. For example, maybe one DM can run an AD&D Dark Sun campaign every other week, while another runs a D&D Forgotten Realms campaign. You might even step away from the screen for a while and let someone else start a campaign.

On the subject of DMs playing, another good way to gain insight into the way players see things is to make sure you sit on both sides of the screen, so to speak. Even if you run games most of the time, it is good for you to be on the playing end of things periodically so that you don't forget what it's like to not know everything ahead of time. You may even pick up ideas from your current DM that you can incorporate into your own game. Playing your own PC, with all the investment of time, energy, and (at least sometimes) emotion that goes into it, also helps bring home the fact that there are different ways to enjoy the game. This is a point that must be emphasized when it comes to knowing your players (and yourself as a subset of "players"): Different players enjoy different aspects of the game.

The DM must also possess (or develop) some facility at reading people and situations. Sometimes players simply do not feel comfortable voicing their concerns openly, and the DM should notice and attend to those concerns. A DM should notice when a gaming situation is getting out of hand and take an executive time-out to rein things in. If the players are getting too far off the rails with side conversations and incessant jokes, and if they are not really attending appropriately to the game, the DM should call for order and focus (or even stop the game for a short break to allow people some time to finish whatever they're talking about and come back to the game ready to play). If the players are getting tired, the DM should know to wrap up the current situation and end the gaming session. For that matter, the DM needs to be aware when he or she cannot run the game. If that means you need to take some extra time to prepare for an encounter or you're feeling logy around 10:30 and want to call it a night even when the rest of the players want to game on, the players need to respect that decision and even appreciate it. It will avoid short tempers and muzzy-headed decisions later on that can have negative consequences within the campaign and between players who come out on the wrong end of them.

Paying conscious attention to the interpersonal aspects of the game, both before you begin the campaign and throughout the time you play together, can ease a host of problems before they have a chance to happen. Even when problems do arise, you at least have a chance to address them before they fester and grow to the point of crippling or even killing your campaign. Before you can talk about the finer points of running the game itself, you have to remember the simple fact that this is a group of people -- of friends in most cases -- getting together to engage in a shared hobby. They have their own thoughts and feelings about the game and the participants, and taking full account of those thoughts and feelings sets a foundation upon which all other aspects of a good game can be built.

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