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Behind Every Good DM, Part 1
The Dungeon Master Experience
Chris Perkins

This regular column is for Dungeon Masters who like to build worlds and campaigns as much as I do. Here I share my experiences as a DM through the lens of Iomandra, my Dungeons & Dragons campaign world. Even though the campaign uses the 4th Edition rules, the topics covered here often transcend editions. Hopefully this series of articles will give you inspiration, ideas, and awesome new ways to menace your players in your home campaigns.

If you’re interested in learning more about the world of Iomandra, check out the wiki.

WEDNESDAY NIGHT. Mat Smith's character, Garrot, is trapped in the Far Realm. His only means of escape is to fire himself from a giant catapult, which sounds dumb until you realize he's trapped in a part of the Far Realm that has molded itself around his own memories and beliefs—and Garrot's not particularly bright. Unfortunately, the catapult is guarded by a wizard wearing a pointy hat and surrounded by a force field that cannot be breached, only circumvented by digging under it with an apparatus of Kwalish. Fortunately, Garrot is not by himself—the Far Realm has conjured minion versions of all his adventuring companions, past and present. Will they help Garrot escape, or won't they? That's for the other players to decide, once they realize they're playing alternate, glass-jawed versions of their characters. Wackiness ensues, but the adventure has serious undertones, for Garrot's fate (and his future in the campaign) rests squarely in their hands. In the hands of less capable players, I shudder to think what could happen.

W eek after week, I try to demonstrate by way of example that the role of the Dungeon Master really isn't that demanding—not if you can think on your feet and have a few good players on your side. A couple weeks ago, I was listening to the commentary tracks for Season 3 of Leverage when John Rogers, one of the show's executive producers (and co-author of the 4th Edition Manual of the Planes), joked that directing isn't rocket science, and I realized that DMing isn't either. There's an art to it, however; and like artists, no two DMs are alike. What serves me well as a DM doesn't necessarily serve you well as a DM. We paint our campaign canvases with different colors using different brushes, as it were. Doesn't mean your campaign is inherently better than mine, or vice versa. However, I think it's safe to say that neither of our campaigns would be much fun if our players sucked rocks.

If you ask film and TV show directors what they prize above all else, nine times out of ten they'll say "a great cast." If you have great actors, you can turn humdrum material into something enjoyable and excellent material into something spectacular. Similarly, if a DM has great players, his or her job becomes a LOT easier.

I have two regular groups of players — sixteen players total. Some of them are hardcore roleplayers, a few are hardcore min-maxers, and all of them heed the unspoken social contract that says, in a nutshell, "Thou shalt not be a jerk." Because it's the week of Thanksgiving and I'm heading out on vacation, I decided to ask my players to carry the bulk of this article. Frankly, I think they know more about my strengths and weaknesses as a Dungeon Master than I do, for they've been watching me DM for several years now. Not surprisingly, they have insightful things to say about the art of DMing.

Recently I asked my players to respond via email to the following question:

Based on your experience as a player in my campaign, what's one helpful bit of advice or lesson you'd like to share with the DMs of the world who are reading this article?

Here's what some of the players from my Wednesday night game wrote:

Chris Champagne
Characters: Kael (deva cleric), Kosh (tiefling warlock)

Often, a DM may have an idea of a chain of events they predict a party to go through. Perhaps even in a certain order. However, players get their own ideas. The word I use for what Chris seems to do is "back threading." If there is some super crucial resource, some super critical NPC the party needs to interact with, even if the party kills that NPC, Chris will haunt them with the ghost if necessary. The crucial bits come through no matter what, and the campaign evolves and moves forward. And one other tidbit: Chris never forgets that each player (and thus each character) wants to feel like a star at times, the center of the action, the intrigue and attention. He never forgets to shine the spotlight on them (whether the player is ready or not). In a Perkins campaign, everyone gets to be a star.

Andrew Finch
Characters: Abraxas (dragonborn warlord), Alagon (revenant ranger), Ravok (goliath battlemind)

The most important lesson that I learned about being a DM was "don't say No." I realized after seeing Chris apply this principle that it is similar to the rules of improvisation theater. Roleplaying and improv have a lot in common. As the DM, you should simply accept what your players want to do and then put your own twist on it. Just because you say "Yes" does not mean that you give the players what they want; in fact, it is fact better if you say yes but then give them something they don't expect.

I remember the time when the party had killed a mind flayer. A crystal shard grew out of its head and started to fly away. My character recognized that it was a memory crystal and that it was most likely taking the mind flayer's memories back to the illithid collective mind. He told the party to smash it, and as they did that, I asked if my character could use Read Thoughts to get anything out of the memories as the crystal was shattered. Chris said, "Sure . . . make a saving throw." It was brilliant. It gave me what I had asked for and at the same time filled me with anticipation of what was to come next. As my character took in all the memories of the slain mind flayer, he had to spend the rest of the campaign struggling to keep that mind flayer's personality under control. It gave the party a bunch of information about what was going on in the campaign but also gave my character a very interesting subplot.

Rodney Thompson
Characters: Vargas (eladrin avenger), Nevin (halfling rogue)

Be careful when you blow up the ship. What I mean by that is that the most controversial moment in the campaign, at least from the players' experience so far, was when Xanthum (played by Curt Gould) blew up the party's ship. That was the moment that I think that we felt the most powerless and blindsided and the moment that brought us closest to rebelling as a group. It was very much a rust monster moment—the moment when something we'd invested a bunch of money into was taken away.

Now, in the end things worked out (and for the better, storywise), but that only happened because of a couple factors: first because we've played together a while and trust that the DM's not being arbitrary for no reason, and second because most of us are seasoned players that enjoy exploring our characters' weaknesses as well as strengths. We're players who don't mind losing an eye, getting sucked into the Nine Hells, and so forth, because we know it's a chance to distinguish our characters. Losing the ship was a big blow, but for Chris Youngs it was an open door to becoming evil. For me, seeing the direction that Deimos was headed, it was a chance to explore what happens when Vargas is torn between loyalty to a childhood friend and being a good-aligned character traveling with an increasingly evil party. For Curt, it was a chance to explore betrayal (even mind-controlled betrayal) and the ramifications of being the guy nobody trusts anymore. Yeah, that may be ascribing a lot of complex motivation to us as players, but I think it's a fair analysis.

Trevor Kidd
Character: Rhasgar (dragonborn paladin)

As a DM, Chris does quite a few noteworthy things, but the one that sticks with me the most is how much character he gives each NPC. Sometimes it seems like they're fleshed out like a main character in a story, but other times, he manages to create a memorable character with just a few words and actions.

An example that sticks with me from shortly after joining the campaign is Captain Prak, a member of the Dragovar empire's martial caste. Apparently he had blackmailed the party before my character, Rhasgar, had joined a few sessions earlier. We ran into him again (the first time for me) after colliding with members of a thieves' guild called the Horned Alliance. The party was later tasked with assaulting the Horned Alliance's stronghold to sweep away the last remnants of the gang. Upon our arrival, we found Captain Prak leading the forces that had "contained" the remaining members of the guild. Prak started insulting and talking down to the party, not believing such a worthless group of casteless non-dragonborn could have been sent by the magistrate to deal with the problem. It was just a few condescending lines of dialog, some sneers, and some sideways insults, and Rhasgar had as much animosity for him as any true villain they had faced already. After successfully completing the mission, we were all satisfied to see Captain Prak's dumbfounded look. When the magistrate asked us what we wanted as a reward, Chris Youngs and I both said simultaneously, "Fire Prak!" Our request was granted instantly, and our victory was complete.

It doesn't take much to flesh out a supporting character, and not all bad guys are villains. Sometimes they're just jerks, and taking them down a peg can be just as satisfying as saving a town.

Greg Bilsland
Characters: Amnon (tiefling rogue), Brell (genasi ranger), Ashe (deva invoker)

Don't fight purple dragons that can dominate you while on 100-foot cliff ledges? Don't attack young copper dragons at level 1 when you're alone? When you're below 0 hit points and stable, by the gods, stay down and don't get back up! All of these examples point a truth about Chris's game, and perhaps D&D games in general: The most memorable moments are often the deadliest and most harrowing. Don't pull punches just because you think you'll upset players. Sure, characters might die, but deadly and near-death experiences are quintessential parts of the game. Looking back on those experiences as a player, I don't feel the same grumpiness I might have felt at the time. In fact, now they're joked, and that's worth a lot more than if my character had simply beaten those encounters easily, got the XP, and moved on.

Lessons Learned

Want to know if you're doing a good job as a DM? Ask your players what they've learned about DMing by watching you work behind the screen. If they say "Nothing," you know you're in trouble!

Behind every good DM are good players. I've seen good DMs run games for bad players, at least until the paralysis sets in or until they're reduced to shambling wrecks. Bad players are DM kryptonite. That said, I recommend that every DM endure at least one horrendous player experience to remind him or her of the value of great players, of which I probably have more than my fair share.

Next week, in Part 2 of this article, you'll hear from some of the players in my Monday group.

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Previous Poll Results

When it comes to DMing adventures, what's your preference?
I prefer to run event-based adventures, driven by story and plot. 993 65.9%
I prefer to run location-based adventures, such as dungeon crawls. 209 13.9%
I have no preference. 304 20.2%
Total 1506 100.0%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #41

 Hey DMs: Imagine you have an open spot at your gaming table. What sort of player would you most want to fill that empty chair?  
A novice player who's completely new to roleplaying games.
A player who's new to D&D but familiar with RPGs in general.
An experienced D&D player who really knows the rules and enjoys min-maxing.
An experienced D&D player who's more about the roleplaying than the rules.
An experienced, easy-going player who also likes to DM occasionally.
An experienced DM who enjoys being a player as well.
Anyone will do, as long as they're not a total jerk.
The family dog.
Wil Wheaton.

Christopher Perkins
Christopher Perkins joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the editor of Dungeon magazine. Today, he’s the senior producer for the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game and leads the team of designers, developers, and editors who produce D&D RPG products. On Monday and Wednesday nights, he runs a D&D campaign for two different groups of players set in his homegrown world of Iomandra.
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