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Apr 9, 2017

Back in the Dungeon Master Saddle Again!

Fellow author and all around cool dude, Robert Bevan, recently posted a blog entry on exactly why those wondering what kind of Dungeon Master he is would have to keep on wondering.

Interestingly enough, his post on the subject pretty much coincided with my return to the other side of the gaming screen after over two decades of life as a mere player.

Why the long absence of allowing my ego to run wild as god of my own world, surrounded by minions put there for no other reason than my torturous amusement? Simple. With maybe one or two exceptions, the last group I DM'd kinda sucked giant hairy capybara scrotum. Sorry if any of them are reading this, but it's the truth. You guys made me wish for a TPK to the point where when the lone competent player left you to be executed while he watched, I was secretly cheering him on.

Now, I'd be lying if I said a few crappy players sent me running screaming from the game master seat. The truth of the matter is running a game takes a lot of time and even more commitment. I'm the type who's more than happy to let someone else shoulder that burden, even if it's just to use those free hours staring slack-jawed at the TV.  Then, following college, life stepped in, and those hours became even more precious. But now, at long last, I'm back.

The mighty game master at work
So what's changed? Simple. I'm older, potentially wiser, but most importantly I'm a full-time author now, working for myself, and setting my own hours. This allows me a bit of flexibility, especially since, at the very least, this frees up roughly five hours a week that I would have otherwise spent in my car commuting.  Secondly, I'm only running a game every other week.  Tough as it is to run a campaign, I find those ten extra hours are enough to prep for it ... mostly.

All that said, I thought I'd give my observations on my grand return to game mastering after all this time and what's changed between the days of yesteryear and now.

1) THE PLAYERS AND I
This is perhaps the biggest change from my college days. I'm no longer playing with a group of twenty year old assholes. No. Now I'm playing with a bunch of forty year old assholes. However, twenty years of experience is sometimes enough for a person to develop the ability to switch off asshole mode if needed. We can have tons of laughs around the table, but everyone there knows it's a commitment, shows up, and contributes ... and if they're doing dumbass things, it's purposeful, usually with some end point in mind ... even if it's just to piss me off. Gotta have goals, I say.

Perhaps the most striking difference between now and then is free time, or lack thereof. Back in college, players showed up maybe because they had nothing better to do. Fast forward twenty years and people have lives, families, places they need to be. If there is one advantage to running a game with adults, it's that you know they want to be there (or really want to get away from their families).

2) MY CAREER
I write fantasy books for a living. That means I make my money coming up with fun scenarios of life and death for heroes, monsters, and misfits. I'm capable of both plotting and pantsing, meaning I can work off an outline, but sometimes I just make shit up as I go. That latter is key for dungeon mastering, because the players are more cats than lemmings. Good luck trying to herd them toward that nice friendly tavern when they're hellbent on exploring the Cavern of Fiery Suffering.

My job as a writer is to also create atmosphere, something that is absolutely essential to a night around the game table. Trust me on this. I've played with people who thought a bad Monty Python accent equaled atmosphere. My goal is to not be them.

Is writing a book vs. running a game vastly different? Of course. Thinking on the fly doesn't always give you the luxury of knowing where you're taking something. There's also the fact that I'm a shit note-taker, meaning that random name I just made up for that drunk at the bar is probably forgotten when you ask me what it was ten minutes later. But sometimes that random thing that gets made up in a panic when the character asks "So, what's your favorite food, nameless NPC?" can pay itself back tenfold in a plot point that otherwise didn't exist five minutes prior.

There's also the opposite to take into account ... paying attention and mining what my gamers do, for potential story ideas down the road. Sure, this could be considered shameless dickery on my part, but playing a game like Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder is a social experience. And, much as I love to shunt myself away from the world most days, social experiences are fodder for story ideas.

Galinga, god of fumbles, frowns upon your dice
3) THE TECHNOLOGY
I'll be the first to admit, I was never into collecting D&D minis. I'm that leech at the table who borrows your box of figurines to find one for my character. Conversely, at least I'm not going to sit there and whine because my elven archer has blond hair and all the figures are brunettes. That's only a small part of old school game prep, though. The rest is in building your world ... i.e. drawing dungeons. Hours upon upon hours of tracing fucking rooms on graph paper, only for the characters to walk right the fuck past the entrance when they blow their perception roll.  Truth be told, if we were still playing this way, I would almost certainly not be dungeon mastering right now. I have a little free time, but fuck that noise.

Fortunately, my group has been moving away from that and toward the virtual tabletop that services like Roll20.net offer. Don't get me wrong, it's still a time commitment, but it's amazing how much a little technology can help with game prep.  As for minis, a virtual game world like this also allows the players to upload their own avatars, so that Craig's fucking elf can have his fucking blond hair and he can finally shut the fuck up.

There's also the added advantage of distance not being an issue. One of my players Skypes in from a thousand miles away. While he's at the mercy of my kids not picking that moment to stream forty different movies at once, it's definitely cool to have him back at the table, despite the distance. 

4) PRESSURE AND RESPONSIBILITY
Yeah, I'm stealing this one straight from Bevan's post. The truth of the matter is yes, there's a lot of pressure to be entertaining for 5 or 6 hours around a game table where you're proctoring the action. There's also the responsibility of being ready for game day. Screw it up and you've screwed up the game.

That said, it's a freaking game and the guys playing it are adults. If they're not enjoying things, they'll tell me. If I'm not ready in time for that week, I'll tell them and we'll cancel until the next week. And if the game truly sucks, I'll nod, take my lumps, and end the campaign. We'll survive.

I have a full time job, a house, bills and taxes to pay, 3 kids - 2 of whom are special needs - etc etc. Those are responsibilities. Spending a few hours debating between having the group torn apart by a dragon or a pack of gnolls is a relative cakewalk comparatively.

Speaking of which, there's the added stress release associated with said bloodbaths. Having a bad week? Oops, sorry. Rolled a double zero on the random monster table. A passing green dragon is hungry and you fuckers look like appetizers. Truly a victimless crime if ever there was one.

So let me get this straight. you're arguing with God?
5) THE RULES
This is the part where I probably struggle most. There's no debating that RPGs are more complex now than they were back in the 90's.  We've gone through multiple editions of D&D, a shit-ton of new source books, and even more rules errata.  Gone are the days when you had a Player's Handbook, a Dungeon Master's Guide, and 1 Monster Manual.  I'll be the first to admit, I was never a rules whore. I always enjoyed the role playing aspects of running Gorm, the barely literate Orc cannibal, rather than memorizing the finer nuances of the perpetual Feeblemind spell affecting him.

If there's one area where I think I might get the crap kicked out of me around the table it's this, especially since I play with a couple of power gamers (including one who's a lawyer). This is potentially daunting, but I look at it as just another challenge to overcome.  There's also something to be said about knowing what battles to fight.  Am I going to stop game play for an hour every time one of the PCs wants to argue that the price for an ale at the pub is 1 copper piece instead of 2? No, not really.

There's also fairness take into account, as well as comeuppance. When a rule is agreed upon, that rule forevermore goes both ways ... however that might play itself out. Payback, as they say, is a bitch with six arms, multiple Vorpal swords, and that Stunning Strike decision you argued me to a standstill over six weeks back. 

That all said, so far it's been fun. Two game sessions in and I've made some mistakes, but I believe the story I'm trying to unfold is coming along nicely, which is what I'm focusing on.  At the very least, the players all haven't quit on me ... yet.



Your life might not be truly complete until you've had a chance to be eviscerated by an orc party in one of my games, but until then you can fill that hole in your life with the complete Tome of Bill Series. Available now!

Bill The Vampire Night Stalker Scary Dead Things The Mourning Woods
Holier Than Thou Sunset Strip Goddamned Freaky Monsters Half A Prayer
The Wicked Dead Shining Fury The Last Coven