Over a year ago I worked on this series that I called the “Learn From My Mistakes Series”. It was a decently popular series that I wrote on /r/DndBehindTheScreen. However, as I look back at it now, there are a lot of things that could have been improved upon in that series. So for the next couple of weeks, I will be working on revamping my original articles. If you are interested to see the original articles and the discussion around them, you can find them here.
When I first began to DM one of the things I was most excited for was the ability to tell stories to an audience. I was so excited to be able to show my players a world and story that I had created myself. The best part about it was that my players would actually be able to play through this adventure I had created. They would be able to be heroes as they got to play through an intricate series of events that would lead to an awesome ending. They would get to experience the story first hand, and we would all have a blast as they played through my pre-planned adventure.
However things did not go as planned. When my players first got there they did not want to be hand held throughout everything I had planned. They wanted to go on their own adventure, one that was their choice’s and actions, with actual consequences that were their own fault. I would try to force them back into my adventure and they would rebel. Nobody wanted to be part of something that they had no degree of control over. Eventually when they did start following my adventure everything felt so shallow and awful. None of the players were engaged with the story, and my epic plan I had spent hours on crumbled before me. What went wrong? What did I do that ruined the enjoyment of my players, even though it was planned to be such an awesome thing? The problem is that I planned it to be an awesome thing, and I didn’t give my players a chance to make it their own awesome adventure. They were following my story, not their’s, and that is what killed the fun and my story.
It’s Not Your Story
The difference between a good Dungeon Master and a great Dungeon Master is the amount of freedom he/she give’s his/her players. A good Dungeon Master will have a story ready for their players planned out beforehand. They’ll go kill some monsters and have a jolly good time. A great Dungeon Master will let the players create the story. They get to choose how and when they kill the monster and even if they want to kill the monster. It is no longer what I had planned, it is now what they have planned.
A concept many DM’s fail to grasp is that their game, is not their story. It always has and always will be the players story. They are the protagonists, audience, and entertainers in this story. They are in charge of creating the sequence of events, and how they play out. It is not the DM’s job to plan out how they go about the world. It is not your story it is theirs. However you are still an integral part to this production. Without you the whole game can’t function, and what you do matters. Your importance is still there, but you are not the main event. But we are everything else, and that is just as important. Any big Broadway play could have all of the best actors in the world but would still be a complete failure without the supporting cast, the stage hands, the director, and all the other little jobs that go into making a production a success. Our job is not to create the story, it is instead to enhance it.
Learning how to enhance the story at hand can be a difficult task. Learning how to do it in the heat of the moment is a skill that takes many years of practice. But there are ways where we can prepare ourselves and our game to be ready to enhance our players story. Changing the way you play so that you can enhance your players stories, rather than step on their toes is not an easy task. But the quickest and most effective way’s to change how a session is played, is to change how it is prepared for. Many DM’s, especially new ones have a tendency to plan for their players actions. They plan out a series of events that the PC’s must do, and their games will fall apart as soon as the PC’s no longer adhere to this prefabricated story. In order to enhance your players games, you must instead focus on creating a living and breathing world that can react to your players.
Prepare World Not Plot
Here is a quick example that demonstrates the difference between planning world and plot.
The immediate difference to note is the lack of the checklist. No longer are your players tied to one storyline, and they can instead choose to pursue their own story. It is no longer your story, it is now their story. You have instead created a living and breathing world, complete with factions and developed characters. (Just ask /u/FamousHippopotamus about factions and how great they are, he’ll probably talk your ear off). This is great because you are no longer planning for your players actions, you are now able to plan for the factions reactions, and this is key to giving your players freedom.
With the above 2 examples we have 2 completely different gamestyles emerging. In game 1 the players go and fight the dragon and all is well. It’s safe, boring, and formulaic. In this game they succeed at the task, but nothing really happens because of it. Sure they save a country, but they were going to do that anyways, there was no risk there. The players were not allowed to have a major impact on the world, and thus any meaning the story had was lost once they realized that what they did will make no difference.
However in game 2 things are different. We know what is going to happen to the world, but not what the players are going to do to stop it. They could choose to evacuate everyone from the city and avoid Daefuengor entirely. They could go find other allies in different cities to bring an army to fight against the dragon. They could try to distract Daefuengor and lead him to a different place. They could ignore the city entirely, and leave it to it’s fate. If they choose that action then the whole trade economy might now collapse, and the players will have to face real consequences for their decisions.
By doing this you are enhancing your players story rather than creating your own. You know what will happen at any given time because you have spent your prep time planning out the personalities of your various factions. You are enhancing your players stories by creating a world that they can believe in. By planning in this way you are free to work around whatever crazy shenanigans your players choose to go through, and instead of pushing against them you will be working with them on creating a story of their choosing.
Dungeon World (another Fantasy RPG with a lot of great advice for the GM) has a saying in it called “Be a fan of the players.” What this means is that you are there to witness the events of your players, not to push them in any particular direction. Dungeon World further expands upon this idea by saying “Think of the players’ characters as protagonists in a story you might see on TV. Cheer for their victories and lament their defeats. You’re not here to push them in any particular direction, merely to participate in fiction that features them and their action.” By planning the world you are setting the groundwork for this piece of fiction to happen, and instead of creating it, you get to enjoy it.
When you first begin to DM it is very easy to fall into the trap of preparing for your players actions. It is very easy to say that X will happen when they do Y. But in order to become a better DM one must learn how to plan for things that are in their control, and instead prepare to react to their players. You must learn that you are not the one telling the story, it is instead your players. You are in charge of enhancing their story, not fabricating your own with your players as the audience. Planning the world allows you to enhance your players stories and make for a better game for everyone involved, by making you a more reactive DM. Be a fan of your players, and let them create new and exciting stories in your world. Your job is not to create a story. It is to create a world that they can then create one in.
Thank you for taking the time to read through this! I hope that this was able to help you in your preparation, and perhaps show you some new ways to get ready for your next session. This is the last post in the revamped Learn From My Mistakes Series, and we are now ready to move on to our regualarly scheduled Only on Tuesday’s Posts! Next week I will be discussing the Importance of Music in your games, and why you should begin your next session with a playlist. As for now have a great week, and an amazing Tuesday!