Saturday, August 20, 2011

Organizing the Tools and Techniques of the DM

DMing is more art than science, and the DM is the one role that can make or break the quality of the game.  A bad player can hurt a session, but there are techniques for managing bad players; the campaign doesn't stand a chance with a poor DM.

It's interesting seeing the "Build a Better DM" challenge get rolling, to see how many comments have focused exclusively on writing.  I could argue writing is the least important skill the DM needs to have; at best it covers a quarter of the skill set.

The DM is a storyteller, a performer, a writer, and an information architect.  You can have shortcomings in one area and still be a good DM, but a great DM needs to operate on 4 cylinders.  As I see folks respond to the Hill Canton's challenge, I mentally slide their techniques into one of these buckets.  To facilitate the dialogue, here is what I mean by them:

The most fundamental DM job is telling a story.  I don't mean guiding players through a plotted novel; I mean the constant task of description and Socratic back-and-forth of asking and answering questions, by and for the players, reveals the DM's world, and this flow of information is storytelling.

I mentioned yesterday the technique of not front-loading your descriptions too much.  Sparse initial descriptions are a lead-in to the DM's Socratic method; they build tension, require the players to ask questions to elicit more details, and quickly engages players in the environment,  As opposed to putting them to sleep with a wall of text (or speech).  You're not a f___ing writer.

(Seeing what I'm doing there?  Because you are a f___ing writer, you're just not a f___ing writer when you're actually at the table, presenting the game world.  Ha ha - just cracking me up at 3am).

The DM is portraying characters using the spoken word; it's impossible not to compare the act of portraying NPCs to theater on some level.  Whether it's memorizing a villain's key lines or delivering an outline, using a funny voice or accent, incarnating the physicality of a character at the table, or a similar technique, the DM is a performer.  Basic techniques of performance can help the DM.

I mentioned "NPC backstories are irrelevant" - focus on NPC behavior that would be relevant in a single-serving scene.  Uncle Dark rightly pointed out that a backstory might be necessary to get to the point that you know how that characters would behave "on stage", and that's a fair point; just remember that your psych profile you write that would make Stephen King proud isn't useful for portraying that character unless you can make it immediately demonstrable at the table.

I also put in a technique yesterday about 'never fudging the dice', and specifically called out the technique of using random results, no matter how gonzo, and working them into the story - as a technique.  I've done some improv theater, and my wife continues to perform and direct it; if you're not familar with the discipline, most improv involves getting an audience suggestion, and then the acting troupe quickly assembles scenes around the theme of the suggestion, sans script.  Random tables are the DM's "audience suggestion".  What's interesting about the use of random tables is that it crosses disciplines; if you use random tables ahead of the session, perhaps it challenges you as a writer, as a kind of brainstorming technique; using them during the session they are assuredly tools of performance and storytelling.

The DM is a writer, and ultimately needs to develop all the characters and situations that populate the game world; techniques of the writer apply.  My sense is this area will see the most development on the blogs - techniques like heightening the tension, Chekhov's gun, filing off the serial numbers, and foreshadowing; if not I'll get some blurbs out (eventually).

Information Architect
It seems to me it gets overlooked that the DM also needs to be an information architect.  It's great to generate ideas about the game world and write a dissertation length essay on a given adventure, but can it be ran effectively at the table?  Many published modules are an unwieldy mess because of boxed text or wordy descriptions that bury key information about a given story element, and they fail the test of usability at the table.

I gave advice yesterday about using a game calendar to track the passage of time, weather, and campaign events; it's a technique for structuring information for use and accessibility.

When we talk about site-based adventures, hex crawls, sandboxes, keyed maps, writing key elements right on the map, using sparse descriptions and improvising the rest, eliminating boxed text, using highlights or crib notes, random tables, NPC index cards, and so on, it's all about structuring the information needed to perform the game world; it falls into this DMing discipline of information architecture.

At the bottom of yesterday's post, I put a few placeholders on techniques to discuss, that I'll come back to in the next day or so.  In the meantime, if you come across techniques that other DM's are posting as part of the Hill Canton's challenge, consider which of these four disciplines are influenced by that technique; it's a valuable exercise.


  1. The test of information architecture in a module is whether the module can generate non-trivial play.

    Railroading is trivial. A module that can respond in an interesting way to a diverse range of player behaviors has good architecture.

  2. I can get behind that statement. It's why site-based sandboxes and hex crawls immediately come to mind when folks say 'non rail road', but it's not foregone that other narrative structures couldn't also support free form play; they're just harder to write.