You don’t have to be a novelist to be a fun game-master. This point is worth remembering if you’re tempted to DM, but aren’t sure you have the time or creativity for the job.
And the point is particularly worth emphasizing right now. Thanks to the new edition of D&D, a lot of former gamers are returning to the hobby, and many others are trying it for the first time. Yet a lot of this potential growth stalls at a critical chokepoint: Every gaming group needs a DM, but anxieties about DMing often lead gamers to tread water while waiting for someone else to do it.
The anxiety is understandable: Most of us have known (or been) storyteller DMs who have long, plot-oriented campaigns—the kind that seem like they’re designed to be novelized or adapted to film. In some cases, the table may have looked like a miniature film set with intricately designed environments. I’ve had DMs hand me physical scrolls with calligraphy on them. But all of that stuff requires prep-work, and prep-work requires some sense of where the story is going — a script, so to speak.
Let’s call those kinds of games sagas.
A well-run saga is certainly cool. They can take a lot of work, though, particularly if you are a good enough game-master to allow players to make their own decisions within the story. If your saga has to assume the PCs might go either East or West, might side with the king or try to kill him, might take the treasure or leave it there, well, it may take a lot of time to set up that game, even if you have developed some good on-the-fly strategies.
The common assumption that DMing equals saga-writing deters many tabletop gamers from taking the role. They figure it’s a job for would-be novelists with lots of prep-time on their hands.
The good news is that a fun gaming session doesn’t have to be a saga.
Anyone can run a game, even without much prep. Below, I describe some low-prep, high-fun, reusable approaches to a gaming night, all of which I’ve seen veteran saga players gobble up with glee or enjoy as a vacation from the usual–if they notice a difference at all.
Because this discussion is long enough that we’ve broken it up into a series, here is a quick table of contents, each with links to the different sections so you can move through them more easily.
The Scenario in a Nutshell: The heroes find themselves in a labyrinth that’s well-stocked with nasty creatures, brimming with lethal traps, and designed with no coherent plan or purpose.
If you’re an old-school gamer, someone who started playing with young school chums back when D&D rulebooks were burned more readily than firewood, you probably remember the kinds of crazy graph-paper dungeons a 6th-grade dungeon master comes up with: the kind with a gigantic dragon in a 20 x 20 room and no possible ecology to support it–or method for leaving the room.
And then you grew out of that stage, raising your sights to more sophisticated styles of play.
But ask yourself: If someone tomorrow offered to run an old-school, logic-free dungeon crawl with that same level of insanity, just for the nostalgia, would you sign up?
Having made this offer and having run this sort of game, I can assure you that if your answer was Hell yes, you aren’t alone.
The first time I ever suggested such a thing, I was frankly surprised by the enthusiasm and anticipation it generated, even before we started rolling dice. I told them straight up that it would be a random dungeon, that I would blow off logic for the duration of the crawl, and that it was just for old-school kicks. My group became visibly excited and almost immediately wanted to play. Like, right that second. I was, frankly, a little insulted because I’d mentioned it over pizza during a break in my ongoing saga. The fact that my intellectual friends (several with advanced degrees) were so ready to set aside characters they’d built up over a year, to hit “pause” on the mysteries, rivalries, and dilemmas facing the party at the time, took me aback. Why would these guys want to go on a random, thoughtless dungeon slog?
The answer, once it occurred to me, was kind of an epiphany: A saga is fun, but it’s not just the DM who has to work hard — the players have to keep up with all of that stuff! It’s cognitively demanding.
When you offer that same group a chance to game without taking notes, without having to remember what the hell that witness said two sessions ago;
when you give them a chance to play in the moment without worrying about anything but what’s around the next corner;
when they don’t have to try to figure out the ecology of the dungeon because it’s not important;
they get to relax and just have fun.
If you doubt it, throw the idea out there with a group of current or former gamers sometime, and see how they react. It’s possible you’ll have a weird group, but I haven’t yet stumbled across a “no” answer. Will your group want to do this every weekend? Maybe; maybe not. But it can be a heck of a vacation.
This is also good news for the newbie DM or someone with a new group. It tells you just how far you can lower that bar: pretty freaking far.
That said, there are some tricks to nailing this style.
Making It Work: First, you need to tell the players upfront what kind of game they’ll be playing. Don’t try to hide it. Celebrate it. If your friends know what they’re getting into, they’ll lower their standards right with you and create characters that fit that kind of game experience.
Second, encourage and permit a flexible, sandbox-style of play, in which you let the group try things they wouldn’t be able to do in a computer RPG. If they get frustrated because you say “no” to too many creative ideas, they’ll start to wonder why they aren’t just playing a computer RPG instead.
Third, accept joking and socializing even more than you might for a saga. Play along with it.
Finally, have fun interpreting the die rolls. Lampshade the hell out of them. If the dice give you a huge dragon in a tiny room, go with it, but tell the party that the dragon has been clawing draconic runes into the walls of the room, cursing the maker of this infernal dungeon for not realizing he needed an exit.
Now for the technical details. You’ll certainly need either the free 5th edition monster stats or the Monster Manual. You’ll also need some kind of random dungeon generator. Thankfully, you can find dungeon generators virtually everywhere. Wizards has one here that helps you stock it with critters (albeit from an earlier edition). Here’s another with critters (again, not 5th edition), and another with nicer floor tiling but no critters. This one at Myth-Weavers has d20 critters, numbered encounter areas, and a nice interface. Here’s another with maps that look hand-drawn. If you want to be truly old-school on this nostalgia trip, there’s a good set of tables in the current DMG. And if you don’t have that book, but you have old ones, you can find pretty similar random dungeon tables in the 1st-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. If your random dungeon builder doesn’t create encounters (or if you don’t like the ones it creates), you’ll also need some sort of random encounter table.
Variations on the Theme: You don’t have to roll up a new party or abandon all sense if you stick your Nostalgia Campaign in the right setting. For instance, if the dungeon is located in Limbo, or in the Abyss, or in some other Chaos-aligned plane, then maybe the dungeon really does randomize. If that’s the case, the dragon-in-the-bottle scenario may mean the dragon awakened after a nap to find that his room had moved to somewhere where the entrances are suddenly much smaller. It also means you should randomize even when the party backtracks: the room they left might not be there anymore.
One of the benefits of this interpretation is that you have a ready explanation for why a beholder might be in one room and a dragon in the next one without any apparent interaction between the two. It also helps to explain why the bad guy in room B didn’t hear the party’s combat in room A — the rooms weren’t adjacent at the time. A Nostalgia Crawl of this sort can be tucked into an ongoing, normally logical campaign, giving the party that same mental vacation while permitting a return to your ongoing plot, once they can find a way out of that hellish labyrinth.