I am not a professional. I don’t have a stake in the games industry. I don’t work in the industry. I am just this guy who has run games for fun for about 40 years. If you don’t like my advice, you can have your money back and run the game your way - but don’t complain to me about it.
They’re called games. They are expressly designed for having fun. RPGs in particular, are not even about winning or losing. They exist so that people can get together and imagine themselves in some fantastic or fictional world and be someone that embarks on adventures as a larger than life hero.
It sounds silly, but people actually end up overlooking this basic core principle. Why are we gaming? To have fun. People intend to have fun, but they get distracted. Rules, unanticipated situations, winning/losing, accumulating loot, levels or other rewards - all these things can conspire to get in the way. Then there are the more subtle issues, like not actually running the type of game the player’s enjoy, or even running a game for people you don’t really like!
So - what to do about this?
- Find out what people actually want from the game (and keep this in mind).
- Let people know what kind of game you intend to run.
- Let the rules be a conduit for delivering fun, not a straitjacket.
- Don’t run games for people you don’t like. This may sound harsh, but no-one benefits when a player causes friction, or when there is friction surrounding a particular player.
Share the Spotlight
TTRPGs are games of mutual story telling. Players want to contribute, to shape the story. They want their moments of glory, and to feel that they are making a difference. This is known as “player agency”.
It is no fun to have your character actions dictated by forces outside of their control. It is not fun to be a bystander watching a story unfold without the ability to make meaningful contributions to the plot. If the players wanted that, they would read a book - one by an author they trusted to deliver the experience they were looking for.
It is also no fun if one player is getting the lion’s share of the limelight. It might be that some players are shy or introverted, while some are natural character actors. However, that should not stop you from letting everyone have their moment in the sun.
So - how do you deal with this?
- Remember that it is all about the player characters.
- Give every character a chance to shine. Try to allow each character a moment at least once in a session. It is OK to centre on a particular character for a part of or even a whole session, but over a module or a campaign, each character should be able to have their time in the spotlight.
- Ask characters to describe their intentions in plain language - not game terms. This helps everyone to stay “in the story”, and allows new players or those unfamiliar with the rules to follow what is going on.
- Take the time to have a one-one conversation with players about their characters - explore what motivates them - background, traits, bonds and flaws can help here.
- Remember to reward players for being “in character”. D&D offers the “inspiration point” mechanism for just such role-play. Be consistent - and if you forget, be allowing of players asking for their rewards.
Keep Things Moving
It’s not you, it’s me.
As a DM you have a lot of responsibilites, and it is hard to keep things moving. Ask any DJ and they will tell you “dead air” is the death of a broadcaster. There are some things you can do to avoid a lull in procedings.
- Be prepared. Read the module, or at least the plot summary before play.
- Have your encounters prepared, and learn the various abilities of the creatures/NPCs. Have an idea of how they will use them.
- Use tools, like an initiative tracker, NPC cards.
- Have a list of suitable NPC names. Jot down each one when first used. This is one I often fail to do. I end up asking my players “what did I call the blacksmith in town last week?”
Actually it is you.
Also problematic is when the guests take over the microphone and trample all over your show (and sometimes your other guests get sidelined).
It is a personal bugbear of mine when a dice-diva hogs the spolight turn after turn, taking up most of the table time with their slow deliberations and repeated questions that illustrate a lack of basic preparedness and a lack of empathy for the rest of the group. It is no fun to wait while that one player takes their turn. You know the one. They are always suprised by the fact that it is their turn now. They don’t know what they are going to do. They don’t know how any of their spells work (they are usually spellcasters). They haven’t been tracking their spell slots. They don’t even seem to know the rules regarding spellcasting. And then they insist on exploring the options of each spell on their character sheet.
So - as a DM it is our responsibility to keep things moving. How do we do this without crushing that gamer’s participation completely, but yet allowing the other players (and ourselves) some blessed relief?
- Ask the player if they can plan their action before their turn, next time.
- Announce the next character up as you announce the current character - “It is now Azrak’s turn, and Cyrol will be up next”.
- Be patient if they clearly had to change their plan due to changing circumstances.
- Delegate another player to help that person learn the rules around spellcasting.
- Suggest that the player might find a front-line fighter would be a better choice for them to explore the subtleties of the game.
- If you still find them hemming and hawing about whether to do A or B, then matter of factly have them “hold down their initiative” until they are ready to jump in with their chosen action.
Sometimes the whole group can get bogged down. Perhaps they can’t solve a riddle, or maybe they can’t decide which option to take. Either way, attention could be wandering, and the game is stalled.
- Don’t hang success or failure on a single plot point. Use a “preponderance of evidence” approach to guide the players. Have several clues/hints act as guides to choice, and have different paths lead to the same conclusion.
- Use skill checks to “solve the puzzle”. you could actually use one of the features of the much maligned 4th edition - skill challenges. More on this later.
- Introduce what I call a “break down the door” action. Sometimes a monster literally breaks down the door and rushes them. Other times, perhaps they hear a distant screem for help. Or they smell smoke. Basically an event that forces some kind of response that gets the game moving again. Preferably one that will also move the plot forward.
How can I make them Follow the Plot?
You can’t. It is their story. All you can do is create a framework that allows them to collaborate in creating a story that you have significant influence over. That said, you can have a plot. The plot of an evil villain is a staple without which the game might collapse. However, you can’t govern whether the players will follow up a particular clue or story line.
That said, there are some things you can do which are beneficial.
- Don’t be too subtle. A well executed cliche is more fun than a tortuous plot that no-one “gets”.
- Be flexible. If the players find a “minor plotline” more intersting than your grand strategy - shift the ground. Follow the players, and even move the larger story into the player’s chosen path.
- Don’t tell them, show them. This is actually hard but it makes all the difference. Instead of having some NPC narrate the plot, have the plot reveal itself through events.
- Know your players. They will have a hard time resisting when you dangle
the right carrot.
“just as you drop the huge bugbear, out of the corner of your eye, you see one of the “downed” goblins get to it’s feet and scurry off into the darkness…”
- Sometimes a spell of bad (or amazing) luck can derail your plans. The PCs attack and kill an NPC who was supposed to last the whole campaign. Or worse - they are being slaughtered by an encounter you thought they could beat handily. D&D actually has rules that allow for “soft success” when a slight failure is indicated. Like rolling 1 or 2 short can be success with consequences. If they kill your villain - perhaps that villain was only an emmissary of the real master-mind? The choices are endless.
I can’t do all this - there is too much to manage
Don’t worry. No-one is perfect at all of this, or even most of it. The only essential takeaway is the core principle - have fun.
If you are new to DMing, try to focus on the elements of the game that were fun for you as a player, and keep in mind what your player’s enjoy. Remember, they are your friends, and they actively want the game to succeed.
- Don’t worry about “getting it right”. There is no “right way” to have fun.
- Keep it simple. Your game doesn’t have to have the best plot/boss monster/latest campaign world. You can focus on basic well known, even cliched elements. It is still fun to thwart evil villains, rescue distressed gentlemen, and recover lost treasures even if the plot (and the villains) resembles a Scooby-Doo episode (in fact that might be more fun than LOTR).
- Delegate. You can enlist the players in helping you run a great game. You can delegate to them. I have had players manage the initiative tracking, and even play some NPCs when their player is not actively involved in a scene. Players can look up rules for you (while you move the game forward). Players can check distances, determine line of sight - whatever you are willing to delegate.
- When in doubt, resolve things in favour of the players if that moves
the story (and the action) forwards. This doesn’t mean overrule the players
actions, or twist the die rolls. Simply use a favourable interpretation of
the rules. The players will almost always help you with this.
On the other hand, don’t remove player choice by doing this.
I once played a Paladin who joined a celestial being in a battle inside a gate to one of the planes of Hell. I knew it was near certain death for my mid-level hero facing ever stronger demons. However, my patron was there by my side, and I could see no greater glory than to be the one who held the line until the gate could be sealed - behind me. However, the DM used a “maguffin” to get me out alive. Which remains one of my greatest gaming disappointments! Yet he was so sincere, I couldn’t explain to him what I would have preferred.
On the other hand, it is no fun being a new person at the table and not knowing what to do or what one’s options are, and being afraid to ask questions. This is where running the game in plain language comes in. No-one should have to know the rules. They should be able to describe their character’s intentions in plain language, and have you tell them what happens (or what dice to roll to discover how it works out).