Dungeons & Dragons, the name says a lot about it. To enthusiasts, it brings the recounting of epic tales of adventure. Whether you have played, game mastered, or are getting ready for your first game, the possibilities are endless for what will unfold. If you fall into either of these three categories, you have probably either listened to or watched shows like Critical Role, The Glass Cannon Podcast, or one of the many others. These magical tales unfold as the game masters paint fantastic journeys filled with vibrant characters played by some of our favorite players stepping into their alternate skins. Then many try to emulate those moments in their games, and that is when frustration can kick in.
It is all too easy to picture the perfect game. As a player, it could mean the role of a lifetime. The layers of complexity and background story you are about to unleash with your fellow compatriots is going to blow everyone away. Or you might be the Game Master (GM) whose world is unlike anything that has been seen by mere mortals. Sit down and buckle up, we are going for the adventure of countless lifetimes. Your children’s children will recant the odyssey you are to embark on. Then reality hits like Venger being on the other side of the rollercoaster ride for your first session. What happened?
It is easy to get caught up in the glamour and glitter of the sets of some of these shows. Some dress up as their characters. There may be 3D playing pieces and figures complete with special effects. Queue the sound effects and dim the lighting. Let the magic start and be entertained. It is what we expect when we watch or listen, and how we can picture ourselves in those roles.
All of this is awesome and makes us smitten. We see things and want to experience it too. If only we could get that same high on all our quests. But sadly, it probably won’t happen. What we experienced was actors who have been doing this for years. They have miles of credits to their names. Sometimes they have behind the scenes helpers working audio, video, lights, etc. Sponsors donating products to bring it to that next level of the “wow factor.” Don’t forget the editing that goes into all of this. But it still doesn’t change the fact that we love them, and that they do an amazing job.
Back to reality. We’ve entered a realm in which things might not play out like we imagined. Ask any experienced gamer if things ever went smoothly or as planned all the time. You can create the most amazing game as a GM and find out the players do a 180 on you. Or, as a player, you are ready for your big debut and find out not everyone is as gung-ho as you. It happens. Most sessions don’t play out like the ones we see, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
There is a very badly kept secret to what playing together is all about, “Hanging out with new and old friends to have a good time.” That’s it, that is what these games are all about. As a GM, the best thing you can do is be there for your players. The expectation of knowing all the rules is silly. Sometimes you just must wing it and let the good times roll. Learn as you go, so you can make better calls next time. Rely on everyone at the table to help you out. In return, help them out by being part of an adventure that they want too.
What kind of adventure do the players want? Ask them You may find they want a Monty Python quest, maybe a battle royal, maybe something Shakespearean, or maybe a combo of all that. It is easy to get lost in what the GM wants, but it is really about what the group (including the GM) wants. Learn to give and take. Mix it up. It is important that everyone gets the chance to feel like the star of this story. But, they don’t need to feel like it in every scene.
When you watch an action movie, it isn’t filled with action every second. The beginning has some story building and world setting. There can be moments of comedy or even tears. Most even have some sort of plot they are trying to uncover or event they are trying to stop. The end of the movie has a toned-down celebration. Best of all, there is action scattered in between all these moments.
For players, it isn’t easy getting a table of others who all want to act and do the same thing. I’ve sat at countless tables where we had highly in-character players sitting next to battle lords. Most of the time, players fall somewhere in between these two extremes. Inevitably, no matter who your group is composed of, life happens. Someone gets sick, cars break down, etc., and they can’t make it to the session, the one that the GM needed them for. Insert plot twist…
Just about any game system has a metric ton of books, and if you factor in previous editions, things go exponentially. That old stuff can be great resource material for your adventures, too. Players always want more “shinies” and more monsters. Something new, something blue, perhaps? Maybe period pieces or even style concepts from images they have seen somewhere in the internet abyss. It can truly be endless. All is not lost since the GM can slowly add resources to the game. GMs can also take resources away if it is too powerful. Just make sure to talk about this possibility with everyone first, before adding and taking things away. It is all about balance.
Fear is a powerful opponent to everyone. It creates doubt and can lead to a lack of starting or progressing forward. Realise everyone has been in your shoes or lack thereof. Spells can be daunting. Remembering every special ability of monsters or classes can be overwhelming. It is okay to just pause and ask a question or look up how something works. Maybe no one else at your table knows. If it is taking too long to find the answer, the GM can make a quick decision until the rule is found. Remember, just because it is a rule doesn’t mean you have to use it; this is your game as the GM, and you might want to change it. Or as a player, you might ask a GM to change it to better suit your table’s playing style.
Breathe and relax when it comes to your games. It is about having fun with your friends. You probably didn’t know how to ride a bike on your first try, and you’re probably not going to learn this game on your first try either. It doesn’t mean you should be ill-prepared and throw caution to the wind. Don’t rely on everyone else carrying you through the game. You are part of this group, and the least you can do is familiarise yourself with the rules. Glance over the rules of how to make a character if you’re a player. Read over the rules of how turns work in combat if you’re a GM. This isn’t a test, and it is an open book at any time you need help.
Back to this being your game (whether GM or player). Ask how others envision the game. Do they want to stay 100% in character, play all crunchy numbers, or somewhere in between? What is the expectation of the sessions (i.e.: solving mysteries, battle royal, political pawns, traps galore, etc.?) It is okay to have a combination of these things. Once you get all these ideas together, understand you are playing something that is a work in progress. Everyone is learning (doesn’t matter if you’ve just started playing or have been running games for 50 years) and no one knows everything.
What we view or listen to in these professional games are very talented people at their best. Bloopers can be cut out. Rules can be read off frame. Out-of-character moments can be re-recorded (unless they are live). Mountains of ideas can be made by a group of people and tossed around to see what sounds like the best storyline to go with. There are lots of athletes in this world, but few make it to be pros or even to the Olympics. The same applies to players and GMs alike. You might have natural talent or take time to work that talent muscle to make it bigger. Regardless, your friends will always be your friends (unless you mercilessly TPK them) and you will always be able to make new adventures together.
You don’t need to be like every other game you’ve seen or heard. It is fine to take pieces from them and incorporate it into your game. Make your game unique by making it about all the people at the table and making memories. You don’t need added pressure and high expectations to have fun. The recipe is simple: add people and rules, and stir gently with imagination to the desired consistency. Everything else is just the sprinkles to your cake. Be kind to yourself, and you will enjoy the moment.
Article written by LJ Heydorn (Twitter: @LJHeydorn)
Some art copyright of Wizards of the Coast and used under the fan creation policy.