January 31, 2011

a typical night of dungeons & dragons

This blog is partially about gaming and dungeoneering, so I feel justified in having a post dedicated to the best game of all time, Dungeons & Dragons. In a few of my posts around here, I’ve mentioned the game, compared it to writing, and tried ever so inconspicuously to get you to start playing.

I've been on both sides of table now, and I can tell you that I probably enjoy being the Dungeon Master (DM) just as much as I love playing. They are two different beasts. As a player, the challenge is in the combat and skill encounters. You're trying to overcome the obstacles that the DM throws at you, all the while getting rich and famous. As the DM, the challenge is in entertaining and challenging the players. It's a dynamic experience. If the DM pits the players against monsters that are too high level or too low level, the players won't have as much fun. If the DM doesn't reward them sufficiently or rewards them unequally, the players can become frustrated with their efforts. If there appears to be no bigger picture, the players may wonder why they are playing in the first place.

You can see how DMing is easily comparable to writing.

An author has the constant struggle of entertaining their audience, providing a challenging but satisfying experience with the characters, and all before the reader even picks up the story. With DMing, at least the experience is dynamic - you can change aspects of the story and encounters as they unfold to fit the needs and wants of the players. Being a DM is challenging in itself, moreso than playing as a character.

So how does one prepare for a night of D&D?

As a character, it's pretty simple. Grab your character sheet and sit at the table. Done.

For the Dungeon Master, however, it isn't so simple.

Last week, I drew a pretty sweet map. I won't lie. I'm proud of it. This is the map of the world in which my group of characters will traverse until they reach paragon tier (level 11).

I certainly didn't have to draw a map, but I wanted to. I wanted to build a rich experience for the players, and the best way for me to organize and deliver was to draw a map. I probably didn't need to draw the map on aged parchment with quill and ink, but I did. If it can immerse the players that much more into the world I've created, then it's a job well done.

Tonight, they'll begin their journey from the fortress of Brandhildr to the old ruins of Rustir. Depending on which route they take, they'll probably make it halfway there. It won't be easy either. Between Brandhildr and Rustir lie snowy, yeti-infested mountains, perilous cliffs, a lake likely to hold some sort of water monster, a dark, possibly dragon-inhabited forest, and should they make it past all that, there is a force to be reckoned with in Rustir itself.

Not only do I have to organize the creatures that they may face on the way; I have to consider weather conditions and terrain. I have to consider the possibility that they may do something I couldn't anticipate. It's an exhausting challenge, but entirely worth it afterward when the players tell me how much they loved the session, when they laugh and make jokes about the dead paladin, fighting a few dragons, and skinning some yetis.

It's a lot like writing a book, only compacted into tiny episodes. With D&D, you lose a lot of the sensory detail, flowery descriptions, and inner monologues or narrative interjections that you get will writing. It's all action. This action leads to that action, and so on so forth.

But in addition to the action I create for the characters, I have to make the sessions meaningful. The players need to feel that they have an impact on the world in which their characters travel. Just with real life, the characters need to feel like they are working toward the greater good (or evil); they need to feel like they have a purpose, that it's not all random.

It's a challenge. That's for sure. Balancing an engaging story with exciting and satisfying battles can be exhausting, but isn't that what I signed up for? DMing isn't a walk in the park.

It's a learning experience, just like writing. Sometimes, it's more challenging. Either way, I love it.


  1. Using a dead paladin as a sled down a snowy mountain for the win. Also, skinning yetis. Sweet.

    Can't wait for tonight's adventure!

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