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The Secret Lives of Dungeon Masters, Part 1
Confessions of a Full-Time Wizard
by Shelly Mazzanoble

Let me begin by saying, this was New DM’s idea.

“Why don’t you try DM’ing a game sometime,” he suggested.

“No, that’s okay,” I said. “You’re doing a great job.”

“Umm… not in place of me,” he smiled. “I meant for fun.”

For fun? Ha! Dungeon Mastering is fun? Come on, New DM. I didn’t fall off the longship yesterday.

I like to think New DM suggested this believing I might actually have what it takes to run a successful game, but I suspected it was more like penance for all the hell I put him through. Of course he’d be in my “for fun” game, contradicting me, inventing spells, trying to pass as 3rd level when I know he’s only 2nd (I read ahead in the PH, okay? Tabitha has some cool spells coming her way.) He’ll master that same heartbreaking look as his Boston Terrier, Tulla, when I tell him his character takes damage. That same look I try to give him when my character gets in the way of some arrows.

“Tabitha takes 5 points of acid damage.”

“She does?”

“Yes, she does.”

“Really? She does?”

“Yes, really.”

“She had her shield of acid protection up. Is it still five points?”

“Oh. Right. Make that 10 points.”

I’d also like to believe we’re all created equal, but I can’t. I think certain people are better suited for certain things. Some people are lousy athletes but exceptional spectators. Some have a good eye for art but couldn’t draw a blank if their life depended on it. Some people can master a dungeon, but simply aren’t cut out to Dungeon Master. Sadly, I think I’m the latter in all of these examples.

I also know I’m not alone. I’ve heard from countless people the reason they won’t take a turn at Dungeon Mastering is because of the belief it’s just too hard. You have to know every rule. It takes weeks, even years to prepare for a campaign! You have to invest a lot in the tools a DM needs to run a really good game. A lot of games don’t ever get off the ground because no one wants to be the Dungeon Master. It’s more like D&D Show & Tell or D&D therapy where they just sit around a table and talk about what you would do if someone were running a game.

I, too, was under the impression that Dungeon Masters are players who have graduated through some elaborate, decades long, physical and mental rules-heavy competition like a jujitsu master climbing the ranks to black belt. Misconception? Maybe. But there must be some truth to the difficulties of DMing to inspire R&D to make some changes. 4th Edition is supposed to make Dungeon Mastering easier. Digital tools, restructured rules, more of what the players want, so you—the DM—look even better. (The virtual dungeon does look cool, even if it will call us all out on who really is packing a light source.)

I would be remiss to get this close to the launch and not try out all of 4th Edition's features, and like it or not, that includes being a DM. I admit I was curious. I had one Dungeon Mastering experience that turned into a fiasco where I tried running my five unsuspecting, D&D-phobic, somewhat belligerent, and mostly tipsy girlfriends through the basic game. It… didn’t quite go as planned, as they couldn’t seem to get past the notion that they had to roll a die to find a door (it was a secret door!). This time I would play with people who already play D&D, which should make things easier, right? And let the record show I have absolutely no motive for wanting to kill any of my friends.

But why am I so hesitant? I like telling stories. Just ask me about The Great Zeldini or that time in Florida when my brother drank too much and flipped off his mattress into the closet. Oh yes! That was a good one! But that still doesn’t qualify me to run a game. I only own two sets of dice and a handful of minis. I know DMs don’t just show up to games with a handful of dice and a dog-eared book opened to the page we left off on and start reading. Teddy, our old DM, literally had suitcases of props for his games. He’d wheel them around the office like a London Underground busker preparing for a performance. New DM has several plastic chests of drawers filled with minis at his desk. Each drawer is labeled “Humans,” “Dwarves,” “Bad Guys,” etc. There’s a lot of pre-game groundwork, which is evident from the way New DM ditched me midsentence in the hallway the other day.

“Yikes!” he said after looking at his watch.“ I've got to prepare for the game!” And he was out of there, beating a dusty path over the carpet, Scooby-Doo style.

Prepare? For two hours? Maybe I could offer to wheel one of his cartfuls of minis to the conference room.

And then there’s what happens during the game. Like poor Teddy trying to tell us a story about how we managed to safely stowaway on a ship without Captain Biem or his men finding us.

“Captain BM?” someone would question and that was it. We were reduced to eight-year-old boys. “I hope we’re not on the poop deck!”

And there Teddy would be, staring us down from the helm, like a high school librarian glaring at a table full of senior jocks at study hall.

Come on, Teddy! That was funny, wasn’t it? No? Teddy?

“It’s your two hours,” he’d say. “We can play or we can make fun of the NPCs.”

Unlike the senior jocks, we would choose to get back to the task at hand if for no other reason than out of respect for Teddy. And because we were scared of him.

All those dungeon tiles New DM schleps around like a St. Bernard get laid out before us with the precision and craftsmanship of a stonemason in ancient Italy. Before he can admire his handy work and salivate over the monster crouching in the newly designed corners, we decide we don’t actually want to be in this room after all.

“We’re going to turn around and go back to that other room,” we say.

“You mean the room I didn’t build because you said you wanted to come into this room?” New DM asks.

And thus the process begins again. New DM and his dungeon tiles chase us around the conference room like a nanny hunts her wayward charges. If I were running the game, sweating over the maps and measurements, I’d make my players stay put and at least appreciate the scenery. And if they insisted on leaving, I’d drop a chandelier on their heads. I did some research, Jane Goodall-style, around the office, minding the habits and behaviors of all the DMs I know. There has to be a common trait that I can knock off. Here are notes from my research:

Some have theater backgrounds. (Not surprising.)

Some were teachers. (Again, not surprising.)

Some have played D&D since the 70’s. (That’s not a big shock either, I guess.)

Some have good handwriting. (Or really just Chris Perkins, but it’s good enough to mention.)

Some have brown hair.

Some always park on the left side of the parking lot.

A lot have dogs.

Some are vegetarian.

This is not helping at all.

I need something tangible, so New DM emails me a PDF of the 4th Edition Dungeon Masters Guide. It’s not intimidating in its attachment form, but when I open and start printing the sucker I’m tempted to call in sick until November. It’s a lot of pages. A lot of pages (224, to be exact). And I’m starting to get weird looks from the Market Research department, which has a PowerPoint presentation to give in about seven minutes. It’s bad enough to be hogging the printer and even worse when every page you’re printing has the words CONFIDENTIAL and DO NOT DISTRIBUTE stamped in big, black letters.

As the pages spring forth from Letter Tray #2, I catch glimpses of charts and sidebars and pluses and minuses and acronyms. Holy cow, it’s a lot of pages! And it’s not just Market Research giving me weird looks. There’s a line forming behind me.

“Sorry,” I say. “Kind of a big file. Shouldn’t you all be at lunch?”

Printing complete and all is forgiven, but now I’m left with a stack of papers thicker than a Manhattan phone book. R&D wouldn’t write this many words if they weren’t all important, right? I’m weak. I think I’m feverish. In fact, I’m sure I have mono. But at least I’ll have plenty of time to read this thing.

By the following Monday I read 90% of the DMG. Maybe, 85%. 70%. Whatever. It’s an interesting education into what goes on behind the screen, but then I noticed two little words on the cover of the DMG that could potentially put my mind at ease—James Wyatt.

In ninth grade when I had a paper due on Lord of the Flies I did not have the good fortune to sit down with Mr. William Golding and ask him to please elaborate on the significance of what the breaking of Piggy’s specs represented to the decline of the boy’s mock civilization. (And why, why, why kill off the chubby, charming kid? I loved Piggy!)Fortunately for me, one thing all good DMs have in common is their ability to consume mass amounts of coffee. On a schedule.

Is stalking a good trait in a DM? Because if it is, I have nothing to worry about. I ambushed James one morning at 11:24 AM while he was waiting in line for his double tall white chocolate mocha.

“James! Wow! Weird running into you here!”

“We… uh… work here.”

Right, right. He’s observant and he’s got a reputation for being one of the nicest guys in the building so no surprise he graciously accepts my plea for a one-on-one Cliffs Notes version of the new DMG. He does leave me with one piece of advice to hold me over.

“Just have fun and your players will too.”

Of course! There’s my hang up! It’s the same reason I say I’m never writing another play or having another Christmas party or planning someone’s birthday dinner. What if no one has fun?

Teddy once told me he can think of little else that pleases him more than hearing us talk about the game days later. He loved the premature wrinkles on our foreheads brought out from plotting our escape from imminent demise, and our yelps and whimpers when he dropped a throng of zombies in our path. New DM loves making up stories. He also likes beating down his PCs because he laughs hysterically every time Adam’s halfling drops unconscious on the playmat (and Tabitha has to save him yet again.) Come to think of it, we all laugh a little hysterically. Why was the halfling alone with the deathjump spider in the first place?

While maybe my first roll as a DM was mostly a failure, there were a few things that did work in my favor, like the amount of food I stuffed in my friends' gullets before I induced them into playing. People are much more amendable to playing nice with a full belly. I should turn this second DM experiment into a dinner party and yes, perhaps, have a few cocktails, but not too much. There’s a fine line.

I labor over who will be my practice group the way a socialite might agonize over a benefit dinner. First things first, my practice group needs to consist of people who already know how to play D&D. Mistake #1: When forcing—I mean, introducing—my girlfriends to D&D, I was trying to take on the role of DM and teacher. (Mistake #1.5 was giving them too much to drink before we played. Tipsy toddler moms with bastard swords is not as fun as it sounds.) Second, the practice group should be experienced but not hardcore. And definitely not include rules lawyers. Sound effects are welcome but antagonizing is not. I could not stand the thought of someone in my game for the sole purpose of raising my hackles. While I’ve never seen a DM being provoked by a player, I know it happens. Especially when you’re in a one-off game, without characters you’re invested in, and you really, really, really want someone to include you in their article.

Social dynamics don’t just matter on the playground. They count on the playmat too. My practice group should get along not just with me but with each other as well. I don’t need any personal vendettas acted out in my game. Not on my dessert plates you don’t! So my practice group needs to fit, but not so tight they’ll end up staging a coup. They should hold me in place and support me, but they also need to be forgiving, because it’s very likely things won’t go as planned. If (when) we hit a snag they shouldn’t run. Apparently, I should give up on people and find a nice group of pantyhose to play with.

It occurs to me that none of this will matter if no one can come. Seeing as though my game will take place after hours, this eliminates those with kids, school, or a social life. My D&D group naturally comes to mind. I know them. I like them. I’ve even saved a couple of their lives (in game) before. I know they are invested in their characters (with the exception of maybe Adam.) If I scored a TPK (by accident, of course) I could always end the encounter by saying, “and then the sounds of Chris de Burgh’s Lady in Red waft through the air. You roll over onto your sword, let out a yelp, and realize you just had the strangest dream." Most importantly, with the exception of one, maybe two people, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t want to see me crash and burn for their own enjoyment. Just as I’m starting to look forward to this, Scott walks over to my desk.

“Hey Dungeon Mistress,” he says. “I heard you’re going to DM sometime. Did you know one of the new rules in 4th Edition says that if your DM isn’t doing a good job you can steal their shoes?”

Clearly my prep work is nowhere near done.

Help me Mr. James Wyatt. You’re my only hope.

To be continued…

About the Author

Shelly Mazzanoble practices Dungeon Mastering wherever she goes. She has learned pigeons make good NPCs and women with full bladders will not roll for initiative to determine who goes first.