Let’s Ask: A D&D Dungeon Master

Two nerds walk into a Starbucks with a couple mutual friends, and soon discovered a mutual interest in D&D. Meggyn, ever-recruiting managing editor of the UNDERenlightened, roped Steve into sitting down with her to share some experiences and answer some questions about organizing and running a D&D game as a Dungeon Master.

Meggyn: How did you get into D&D?

Steve: I’m not really sure what drew my eye to it, but in 6th grade I was in a hobby shop and saw the player’s handbook for version 3.0. I researched some stuff online, and read some stories of fun adventures and became a lot more interested. After that, I talked to a couple of friends about trying the game out, so we went out and bought the stuff we needed to get a start. Because none of us had any clue what we were doing, one of the group members bought a D&D starter kit, which came with a few prefabricated adventures, which were just enough to get a practical handle on the mechanics of the game. From there, we continued to play and create our own adventures.

Meggyn: That’s awesome that you all learned the mechanics of the game together. When I first started, I joined a new campaign with mostly all experienced players; to this day I’m still a total newbie, so I still rely a lot on my friends for advice on leveling my character and how to figure out adventures. Have you always played with friends, or have you ever started a campaign with complete strangers?

Steve: I’ve never played an in-person campaign with complete strangers, but I have joined groups of people online that I didn’t know, as well as online groups of friends I met in an MMO. When I joined the former group, the one full of total strangers, I met them through a “looking for group” forum on the RPTools website. There are a ton of places online to find groups over the internet.

Meggyn: Dungeons & Dragons has been around for decades, so there are a few different versions of the rulebooks.

Steve: Yep. For those who don’t know, each revision is a major overhaul of the rules, where they are essentially rewritten (not dissimilar to new versions of video games, when the entire engine is recreated). From there, minor updates come in the form of supplemental or expansion books, which can include anything from new classes to new game mechanics (kind of like expansion packs).

Meggyn: When I played my first D&D campaign, we used a more recent version that included the well-known table grid, for moving miniatures around.  However, my current campaign has reverted all the way back to the first edition: it works well for us because we can simply play through ongoing storytelling (perfect for a group of mostly English majors), and we rely on our Dungeon Master’s common sense rather than burdening our play with overly technical details, like counting out the exact amount of squares we can move.  What’s your favorite version for organizing as the Dungeon Master?

Steve: There are some cool features to every version that I have played, really. But my favorite version of Dungeons & Dragons is a variant of the version 3.5 rule set called Pathfinder, because the power adjustment of specific classes is better as they level and the mechanics remain almost unaltered. This gives a stronger incentive for players to specialize in just one class and makes it easier as a DM to keep track of the characters abilities, which is very important for planning adventures. This coupled with my familiarity with the version 3.5/Pathfinder mechanics, and the huge number of supplemental materials available to draw upon, allow for much smoother game play and planning.

Meggyn: So it sounds like you started from the very beginning as the Dungeon Master for your in-person games with your friends.  How do you prepare for a session, and what are some pitfalls you consciously avoid?

Steve: Well, back when my first group started, we actually traded off hosting the prefabricated adventures since running prefabricated campaigns takes a lot less preparation. I DMed for the first time without a prefabricated campaign back in high school: I was terrible, and it has been a process of getting better this whole time. A great deal of time spent preparing is time spent trying to avoid some of the mistakes I made on my first pass as the DM. One common thing I avoid is creating an adventure where the players are bound to just one path, but also to where I don’t need to create the limitless possibilities of a completely open world. That is probably the hardest part of being a DM. Another thing is how to ensure the encounters are challenging but possible for the players, which requires a lot of thought into each character’s abilities. The rest of the prep time as a DM is used to draw maps, organize my system of keeping track of turns, and further familiarize myself with what monsters I am presenting in the encounters.

Meggyn: Sometimes the complication of a crazy open world can simply be impossible to avoid, though.  In my current campaign, one of our players decided from the get-go that he wanted to buy a chicken.  Since then, he has goaded our ranger into training it (as much as you can train a chicken), and is constantly coming up with absolutely insane, totally creative, and utterly hilarious ways to harass our long-suffering DM—like his current search for chicken-sized armor.  Any similarly great stories from your past campaigns?

Steve: The problem is that most D&D anecdotes draw on previous stories or adventures, and are most fun from experiencing them, kind of like an inside joke. To me at least, the most fun from the game comes from the people incorporating their own personalities into the events of the game.

Meggyn: It really is an awesome pastime.  So, for the readers whom we’ve inspired, what are some good resources for getting started with D&D?

Steve: A great tool to use for running a D&D game, online or otherwise, is Maptool, a completely free product of RPTools that is great for creating encounter maps and running games. Another great resource for version 3.5 is the d20srd, which is a free online searchable rules resource. If you navigate around, you can find some cool tools and setups that other people have used in their gaming, like the group who projected their game mat onto a table using map tools. Of course, you can always search your app store and see if there are some nifty tools there.

Steven Cary is an aspiring IT professional who enjoys backpacking, archery, cars, and science fiction/fantasy.

Meggyn Watkins is the Managing Editor of the UNDERenlightened. Fiction reader, local art prowler, concert-goer, BBC watcher, world traveler, and San Jose Sharks lover! @meggawat

Photo by Meggyn Watkins

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