Last month's column ended with a letter from Donavan, who was frustrated by his players' constant focus on mundane aspects of the game. It's a typical frustration of many Dungeon Masters, as one realizes that -- as my friend Chris Lindsay loves to point out -- PC not only stands for player character, but it can also stand for plot corruptor.
I'm sure some part of Donavan wanted an answer in the form of: "Your players are crazy!" And who knows, they may be, but I suspect the real problem lies in the difference between what many DMs want from their game, and what the players want from the game.
There is this myth that being a DM is an institution of almost deific proportions. Some may like to think that a DM is the controller of the world -- the lone artist struggling to bring to existence an interwoven tapestry of character, story, and myth that will dazzle players with its mere existence.
Well, that's just hogwash.
It's true enough that as a DM you're going to create stories, adventures, encounters, and NPCs that you think are fun and compelling, but the greatest trick to being a fantastic DM is to cater your creations directly to your audience: that group of friends that sit around the table with you every week.
Weighty tomes of rules aside, at its heart Dungeons & Dragons is a game of interactive storytelling. By that I don't just mean that you come up with the story and your players look upon that narrative in amazement -- that form of DMing can soon become both frustrating and fruitless, especially if you've got your heart set on how the story should play out from session to session. What I'm talking about is more nuanced. It's the kind of interactive storytelling where you're painting the scenery with the brushes of word and props, laying out the hooks, placing the antagonist, coming up with the back story and communicating it all to your primaries (the players). Through it all, you're doing a bit of manipulation to keep the story interesting and dynamic. You're actively creating conflicts -- rabble-rousing at opportune times for dramatic effect -- and you should be riffing off what your players find cool about your game. Just realize that their ideas may be cooler than the plot you came up with in the wee hours of the night before. Some of you will find what I am going to say next shocking, so sit down... take a deep breath: Your game is more akin to a reality television show than a novel or play.
Don't worry -- this doesn't mean you have to delve into the tawdry, or replay scenes over and over again, or use other cheap gimmicks to build anticipation. It does require a realization that the characters are the stars of your show, and a deep connection exists between player and character (the deepest since they are, after all, the same person), which is another hallmark of most reality TV shows. It also means that you can guide the action of "your" game, but you can't control it and you shouldn't want to.
Most DMs have a tendency to think of themselves as writers. Instead, try thinking of yourself as a program director. With that hat on, keep careful note of not only what your players say they want out of the game, but also how they react to different aspects of the story. If social encounters bore most of the players, keep them short, sweet, and to a minimum; on the other hand, if long, drawn-out combats don't hold their attention, then only unleash them when it means the most. And for goodness sakes, don't ever, ever, ever, make your players jump through hoops to do things just because it's the "way it works in your world." That's not sufficient reason at all. The world is a stage for the play, not the reason for the play to exist.
In short, the best way you can save against plot corruption is to not have a plot that can be corrupted, only molded and shaped by the actions and desires of your players. Stay on your toes, know your audience, and bend your story to the will of the players and the characters. Find hooks that make your stories and adventures active because they interact with the characters rather than happen to the characters.
Now, on to the mailbag and our current batch of problems!
Problem 1: Dispel Spotlight Hog
I have a train wreck staring me in the face.
One of the players is impossible to deal with. He is convinced that he's a fantastic roleplayer, which is somewhat true. He never lets his meta-gaming get in the way of his role, and he always stays in character. The problem is, he always plays characters who are not only evil, but highly antisocial, and he always tries to steal the spotlight. Worse, if I confront him, he'll insist he's not doing anything wrong, and if the issue is pressed, he begins acting in a passive-aggressive, game-stalling fashion. I don't want to tell him he can't play (although I have planned for that eventuality), and I know it has to be mine (and my co-DM's) responsibility. What can we do?
--Troubled with Player
Roleplaying is no excuse for being a jerk. While I'm a strong proponent of the school of thought that suggests you should cater a game to the desires of the players, and that you should listen to them and riff on what they are excited about to create drama and action, having a player that hogs the spotlight is a sure way to kill fun -- not only fun for you, but fun for his fellow players. If his behavior is really as destructive as you describe, talking to him about it is a fantastic first step.
Explain to him that while he is a great roleplayer and all, you're concerned that his character choices may actually be hurting the play experience of you, your co-DM, and the other players. Try to do this in a nonconfrontational manner, and expect some defensiveness on his part. If he is not responsive, talk to the other participants in the game and get their take on it. Maybe one of the other players can chat with the problem player. Sometimes people blow things off if they come from one source, only to take it seriously when it comes from a second. Maybe he doesn't realize that his actions are making the game less fun for others. Then again, maybe he doesn't care.
We play D&D to have fun, and we should be cognizant that other people play the game for that reason as well. If your idea of having fun is to be the center of attention and hog the spotlight all the time, then maybe D&D really isn't the game you want to play. It sure as heck won't be the game that others want to play with you.
If all else fails, putting the problem in this black-or-white approach may be the thing that has to happen. It could be the realization your player needs, or it could serve as the explanation as to why he'll not be playing in your game any longer.
Problem 2: Greyhawk No Longer!
What campaign would you consider best to start a new group in? I play D&D with 25-year Greyhawk veterans, and we all want to do something different. What would you suggest?
--Dragonmaster (formerly of Greyhawk)
As much as I love Greyhawk (and Forgotten Realms, and Eberron, and well, a lot of worlds that aren't produced by Wizards of the Coast), I don't think there is any game world that really stands out as the best one to start out with. If you are shopping around for a new world, I propose you do just that: shop around. Take a few weeks and have each person who is interested run a game in a world that interests them. Keep sampling until a world feels like home.
Alternatively, you may want to try running a "worldless" game. Take any low-level published adventure you would like to play, or even a cool adventure you came up with, and start running it. Keep character options pretty open, and then start building a world around the play of the group. In this way, you and your players can build a homebrewed world from scratch one play experience at a time. This method is great fun and can be some of the most rewarding interactive storytelling you may ever do!
Problem 3: A Minute of Nonstop Action in an Hour!
I DM for a group of seven players, and the game always slows down whenever we get into combat. Each round takes about 5 minutes, since we're always getting stuck on initiative and the like. Could you please give me some tips on how to speed things along?
--Joey of the Five-Minute Rounds
Ah, Joey, table management is your friend, especially if you want to cut in half the amount of time it takes to get through a round! If initiative is giving you troubles, there are two really good solutions.
The first involves using cards to track initiative. Have each PC and monster at hand with handy index cards, and keep the game moving by calling out when each PC gets to go. If a character readies an action, turn the card sideways to remind you that she has an action in the queue. If she delays, hand the player the card, and let her hand it back when she is ready to go. I use these suckers all the time, and not only do they allow me to have relevant stats at hand at all times, the delay "hot potato" game is a great way to get even your most tentative players to get back in the action quicker than if their place in the initiative was out of sight and mind.
The cards' one chief drawback is that the order is not immediately visible to anyone but you. Some tactical or forgetful players find this a tad annoying. The second solution that addresses these concerns is to hang a dry-erase board up near your game area. List the initiative in plain sight, making revisions on the board when need be. Also, dropping the dry erase board won't screw up your initiative count -- I've done that a couple times with my index cards.
Once you've settled on a method for tracking the initiative order in a fast and effective way, the next step is guiding your players into good table habits to help speed up the game. Rolling all the dice -- attack, damage, and miss chance -- together is a great way to speed things up, as is getting them to decide upon their move -- or a group of possible moves -- before their turn comes up. At the very least, they should have the rules they need ready and at hand before their turns begin. Get them to cut down their look-up-the-rules time before their action -- there is plenty of time to do that during other turns. Lastly, once you got these good habits down, I find a measured amount of good-natured ribbing at slow play can help speed things up also. It can also build excitement and anticipation.
The tricks of table management deserves a column all by itself . . . how does next month sound? Feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org to ask for advice, but also share some of your favorite table management techniques for D&D. I'll share some of the best ones I get in next month's column!