Is your DM a bard, and should they be?
We’ve all been to one of those movies that throughout the entire film is action packed, full of explosions, blazing guns, car chases, fist fights, and maybe even a risqué scene or two featuring a hot blond with an amazing…personality. However, if many of you are like me, then sometimes even the most exciting thrill ride can seem bland without decent helping of plot. The name of the game is RPGs. Luckily most of us in the RPG community are not without at least a measure of imagination and ideas for a memorable game. In fact, RPGs are probably the best training grounds for those who want to become master storytellers. Of course, this can sometimes come with a bit of a problem for some DMs.
Flash back to those moments when you were struck with a sudden inspiration that cascaded into a campaign idea or story plot for your players to enjoy. You were caught up in a world that was coming to life before your eyes; clarity about your new world was dawning brighter and brighter with every passing idea. Maybe it only took the better part of an hour, or maybe it was the most memorable all-nighter of your life. Either way when you finished you beamed with pride at your accomplishment. The next step was to take it to the gaming table to put it to the test. You sit down eagerly awaiting the game to start with your custom traps, weapons, scenarios, and even a few NPCs who you deemed fit to give true depth and personality. Then almost as climactically as your world began, it un-climactically ends. One-way or another, somewhere in the game, the players found ways to unravel your finely woven tapestry. Maybe they stabbed one of your most thought out NPCs before he even opened his mouth, maybe they trashed your custom traps with a sudden unexpected spell or tactic, or worse still, they killed the BBEG long before his evil reign was meant to end. Here is where the problem comes in. Storytellers can often get a little caught up in the lives of their characters, in their stories plot, or with a sequence of events that are supposed to take place.
Often DMs are tempted to make a bad decision in such cases and try to force their players into going along with the story the way they intended them to go. Any gamer who has ever been to nearly any forum on any dedicated RPG website can attest to the countless threads with a distraught new DM talking about how his players have broken his shiny new game. Moreover, what advice are these new DM’s given? Any response from “You are the DM you can make them do whatever you want them to do.”, to the more reasonable sounding but still wholly wrong post giving them tips on how to, within the rules, keep the characters from doing things outside the realm of DM choice. Most everyone can pick out the obvious flaw with the first statement but what about the second situation. Some might look at it and say “Well if the rules support it then why not?”, but to the trained mind the second option is just as bad as the first, if not more insidious. Rules or no rules forcing the players down a specific path are what a great many players disgustedly refer to as railroading and it is one of the worst mistakes a DM can make. What it all comes down to is that the DM is effectively taking away the choice of his players by forcing them down one given path. As the DM you must realize that one rule of all RPGs is that no plot wholly survives contact with the PC’s.
Luckily, this is the part where we get past the problem portion to the solution portion of the article. The solution for this problem is not as hard as it may at first sound, but neither should you take the problem lightly. The solution is following a set of guidelines, almost like a mantra, that a DM should repeat whenever they create anything for the gaming table. The first step and perhaps the most important step is that, as a DM you cannot become too attached to anything you create. If you make a NPC and feel sick at the thought of it untimely kicking the bucket then scrap it. By following this rule, you will find that the next rules are much easier to follow. Secondly, make your plot or scenarios as flexible as possible. This also helps you to avoid surprises when at the gaming table. Last but not least, remember that you are not competing with the players. You are the storyteller, and as many authors would tell you, sometimes even their characters do not act as they expect them to. If you follow these three simple rules, you will not only find yourself happier when running the games, but your players will be happier to play them.
Now I am not saying that you cannot be passionate about your DMing, or that you should not love what you create. All DMs should be passionate, to one extent or another, about what they do. Else, why do it at all? What I am saying is that you should look at your NPCs like trading cards, you can make them to put on a pedestal/behind a display case, or you are going to play with them. The best thing about NPCs is that you can use them repeatedly, and you can improve upon their designs after each use. It is also great to realize that should they be total flops (i.e. not perform their intended function) then you can get rid of the NPC and you are not stuck with a broken part for your next gaming session. However, at the end of the day when the gaming is done remember it is after all just a game. The greatest game in the world perhaps, but it is still just a game.
Peace and good gaming,
Jay or The Inevitable