Saturday, February 2, 2013

Lessons from My First Time DMing

            One of my constant complaints is that I never get to play a game; I’m always the DM or Storyteller.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love to run games and create NPCs and the city and the adventures.  Everything about being a Storyteller is exciting to me.  However, being the Storyteller is a lot of work if you do it right.  In order to run a good game, you have to do a lot of preparation:  create NPCs, develop a plot, decide on settings and themes, etc.  While each aspect of preparation is rewarding, I do get bogged down with all of that work. 
West End Games Star Wars Revised Edition
            I get a bit jealous of the players who only have to create one character and one back story.  Also, because I am currently doing an internship (which is basically a full time job), I feel a bit pressed for time and my preparation hasn’t been as thorough as I’d want.  I’m a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to running a game or anything else for that matter.
            All of this stems from the fact that I have almost always been the GM or Storyteller in my groups.  From the first time I started role playing, I was the GM.  The story goes something like this.  I’d never role played before college, but during my sophomore year, I met a lot of people who were really into D&D and CWoD.  I played one or two games of D&D and maybe a session of Vampire:  The Dark Ages.  After that I purchased a copy of West End Games Star Wars Revised Edition from my local comic shop. 
            I knew nothing about GMing, so I read the book and dove into running it.  I did an average job, I guess.  Most of my players had fun, but I had a lot to learn.  I railroaded them a bit and had a couple of dilemmas that only NPCs could solve.  What I remember most about that game, was the guy who wanted to be a Jedi.  He was dead set on getting a lightsaber as quickly as possible. He gathered the pieces over a couple of sessions, but when he put them together he rolled poorly.  I’m not sure if I warned him or not, but I recall that I told him, “You realize you probably rolled poorly.  It might be a bad idea to turn it on.”  He turned it on anyway, and it exploded in his face, killing him.  He wasn’t happy, and left the room angry. 
The Attack on Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back
            I’d set the campaign on Hoth, during the months prior to the events of The Empire Strikes Back.  When the Imperials attacked, I let the players use a rocket launcher to slow down the AT-ATs, but during the evacuation, I put the players on a transport that I’d decided was a specific transport from a Star Wars novel that I had recently read.  This transport was disabled and saved by a pair of bounty hunters, Zuckuss and 4LOM.  The players tried repeatedly to fix the transport and I just put up road block after road block.  They became frustrated, and eventually the bounty hunters arrived to save them.  I’d taken the agency away from the players, they felt not only useless but inconsequential in the campaign. 
            I like to think that I’ve learned from that experience.  That game took place in 1997 or 1998, and I still remember those two events clearly. I’ve repeated those mistakes too, especially when I ran a game set in the Star Wars Universe because I thought of that setting as something immutable.  However, when I ran a Star Wars Saga Edition campaign several years ago, I finally let go of my desire to keep the setting unchanged by players’ actions.  They eventually murdered the Emperor and Darth Vader alongside and NPC that had originally been the campaigns primary antagonist.  The players loved being able to change the outcome of the movies or explore alternative histories of the setting. 
Gehenna Source Book
            The Classic World of Darkness offers similar potential for Storytellers to get caught by the setting’s metaplot.  That metaplot can constrict player choices in the same way my adherence to the Star Wars canon constricted my players.  Events in the World of Darkness are important for the overall growth of the game during the original run, but they are not sacred texts.  The setting only offers a jumping off point for the players as they enter the world.  Beyond that, the players should be the key movers and shakers in the world.  They are the stars of the movie or the heroes of the novel.  The story revolves around them.  If the Storyteller or GM gets too caught up in the metaplot when introducing the Assamite Schism, for example, the players could get bored or frustrated that they don’t have any way to contribute to the story. 
Let the details of the setting change to fit what the players want.  Nothing is carved into stone.  And if someone wants to build a cool gadget or weapon in your game, don’t blow them up if they screw up one roll. 


  1. An enlightening tale.

    I think Star Wars is a difficult setting in which to play. What GM can resist pitting characters against classic villains or including cameos by heroic rebels? Allowing the PCs a chance to change Star Wars history is serious business.

    But you're right, the PCs should be the focal point of a campaign. Doesn't matter what the RPG is.

    1. It took me many, many campaigns to learn that lesson. These days I don't hold the "canon" as sacred when I run games. But I don't make it easy for players who decide to go collect the scalps of the movie heroes.