Typically this column is for Dungeon Masters. But this month I’m going to change it up a little bit. This month I’m talking directly to players. If you’re a DM, feel free to read on, you could find it interesting, but make sure to let your player know about it. Maybe subtly, it’s a little self serving.
OK, players, when is the last time you said thank you to your Dungeon Master? I know, some of you are on top of this. You say "thank you" at the end of every game. You pitch in for the pizza or bring great snacks. Most DMs don’t ask for this or even expect it, and the players who step up are awesome. I definitely benefit from the generosity of my players in each campaign that I run. But I also know there are some of you who need to step it up a little.
This month I’m here to help. I know, times are rough and you may not have a lot of money to spread around, so I will keep things simple and relatively cheap. This is for all you last-minute gift givers! And especially those of you who didn’t even think of doing this before reading this column.
Under a Jackson
There are plenty of great gifts that you can get your DMs that are under $20. The first thing you should do before you plop down your money is talk to your DM’s friends and family. You don’t want to plop down something the DM already has under the tree. Don’t have time to grill a bunch of folks you barely know? OK, I got you covered.
Dungeon Tiles and D&D Miniatures are perfect small gifts for any DM. If you are really cash strapped, you can find packs of Lords of Madness minis online for about $15 apiece, not counting shipping. If you have a local game shop, skip the online retailers and give the gift of patronage to your local retailer. If everyone in your gaming group bought a box of minis, or a mix of minis and Dungeon Tiles, you’ll have one happy DM, trust me.
How about stuff not produced by Wizards of the Coast? There's plenty of interesting stuff out there. One of my favorites is the Critical Hit LED D20 Die over at Think Geek. It flashes red when you roll a critical hit. That’s geektastic! I’m sure many regular readers of this column already know about Think Geek, but for those of you who don’t, check it out. My wife plies me with gifts from this place every year, and I’m always delighted.
I’m also a big fan of the Game Mastery Plot Twist Cards from Paizo. While some of the rules applications are designed specifically for D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder, the narrative structure of these cards work for almost any RPG. One of my DUNGEONS & DRAGONS 4th Edition games uses these suckers with fantastic effect. The cards create a basic narrative bidding mechanic. A player uses cards to get out of a jam, the DM riffs off of it, and that push/pull creates a narrative that does what the player wants without screwing up the story.
Want something a little more customizable? Gift cards! If your DM has an iPhone or iPad, think about an iTunes gift card. Let them choose from gaming apps or new music for their gaming soundtrack. Gift cards from Amazon, any online game retailer, purveyor of PDF downloads, or—better yet—your local game store will always be greatly appreciated.
I’ll admit it; I’ve been spoiled. My players have stepped up over the holidays. But many of those gifts did not add to my sagging game shelves. Artist friends have given me drawings of the adventuring party; crafty ones have fashioned dice bags. One of my favorites is a leather dice bag with a line of spikes made to beat unruly players into submission (Thanks, Jay!).
Speaking of unruly players, one group made me “Shut the @#$% Up” coupons to use on someone who gets particularly rowdy. Though they rarely work, it was one of those rare gifts where the sentiment was more than enough. Some of the best gifts are there just to make a DM laugh.
Of course, some of the greatest gifts are edible. Cookies, cakes, interesting and savory appetizers are often well received. Just make sure you know your DM’s food allergies before you start concocting. Oh, and make sure you are good at concocting. Burnt sweets aren't much fun, regardless of the thought.
Still broke? Not very good at making things? One of the best gifts you can make is the effort to communicate your appreciation. It’s a small thing, but an important one. In the fervor of the game, the stream of rules arguments, backsies debates, and outbursts of nerd rage can create a soul-crushing haze. Take time to let your DM know that you’re having a good time and enjoying the game, and you want to make sure he or she is too. Be a friend. That’s worth more than the vaults of the over-king’s treasury.
It’s Time to Party!
Think about it; every week or so your DM throws you a party. They make the plans, ready the venue (or pack for the venue), create the adventure, and then run it until it’s done.
Doesn’t your DM deserve at least one party this year? I don’t mean you need to get ribbon, cake, and all those birthday-party trimmings. If your DM has a favorite board game, play that. If your DM wants to try a new RPG, one of the usual players can run it. If your DM wants to go paintball, suit up. It's not that DMing isn’t fun—it is, but it's time-consuming fun. Too often, DMs watch other interesting games and pastimes fly right on by. Just taking some time to make sure that doesn’t happen will be greatly and warmly appreciated.
There are plenty of other possibilities; you know your DM better than I do. Good hunting and good luck.
Now, on to the mailbag. We are switching back over to DM advice, and we have some tricky ones this time.
Help, I’m Surrounded!
I’ve been playing D&D off and on for most of my adult life, but it usually is in short stints. I started with 2nd Edition AD&D, played a little 3.0, and now I’m running 4e. My problem is that I have a hard time saying no. Every time I run a game, it eventually balloons to nine or more players and then I burn out and quit for a while. It’s taken me this long to realize it. How do I stop it?
─They’re Closing In, via email
That is tricky. I've been there, suffered through it for a while, and done the same thing you’ve done in the past. Usually I have a valid reason for it, but I’m still grateful for the respite. One of the guys I work with has this problem, too, and his solution is to split the group. I don’t know whether that’s the best solution for you. If you’re hoping to reduce your stress, I can’t imagine that running two smaller games rather than one big game will help in the long run.
Your best bet for splitting the game may be to look at the players you have and see who else wants to be a DM. You could run one game for half the group while that person runs a game for other half—and you, as both a player and an at-the-table mentor. When you get busy or overwhelmed, you can leave the play group and just keep the manageable game you’re DMing. That strategic retreat could be enough to keep you from getting burned out on gaming all together and no one's game gets shut down.
That One Player
I have a great group. We have very few rules arguments. Everyone has a good time. They like my campaign’s story. It’s awesome. For one player it is too awesome. He calls me or texts me all the time with questions about my campaign, ideas for his character, plot ideas I might want to consider. He goes on and on about the background of his character. His enthusiasm is overwhelming. How do I get him to simmer down without shutting down?
─Successful Sufferer, via email.
Shutting down an enthusiastic player risks triggering an angry backlash. You want to avoid that.
One thing to consider is whether you have a DM in the making. This player is already into building a detailed story. Ask the player if they’ve ever thought of running a game. Offer to play in it if you can, or at least to help him get it off the ground. If he is not getting enough D&D, DMing is a good way to remedy that.
But he may not be interested in DMing. He may just be really into his character. Get him to write a story and post it in a blog. Let this player be the group's wiki guru and the campaign's scribe and historian. That should keep him busy doing something he probably will enjoy. Players like this usually love taking charge of chronicling the groups' exploits and the campaign's progress. It’s great escapism, it's productive and useful for the group, and it's excellent training for when he or she finally does want to step behind the DM's screen.
It's possible, though, that this player is just chatty. If that's the case, then let him down easy. Explain that you need time away from the campaign for your social obligations, for family and work, and to focus on developing the campaign without distractions. He wouldn’t want the campaign to suffer, would he? You can set aside some time when it's OK to text and chat, but keep it to something you can manage and tolerate. Don't squash his enthusiasm, but make sure he understands that you have other things going on in your life. In these cases, the best solution is almost always plain old communication of what you want and need.
About the Author
Stephen Radney-MacFarland caught the D&D bug at an impressionable age. Once the content manager for the RPGA and a developer for the 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules, he is now a freelance game designer doing work for Wizards of the Coast and Paizo Publishing, and he is part of a fledgling group of game commentators and game designers called NeoGrognard. During the daylight hours, he teaches game production classes at the International Academy of Design and Technology of Seattle.