Welcome to what I hope will be a rather large-ish category in my blog! I’ve DMed off and on since the late 80s now, and while I’ve always (and probably always will) play a bit more than I get behind the ol’ Dungeonmasters’ Screen, I do enjoy DMing when I get the chance.
Thing is, I think that most – perhaps even the majority of DMs – have got their thinking set up a little bit wrong. If you’re a player, I am sure you know this type: the DM who spends literally dozens of hours handcrafting their gameworld, making each little town shine, spending time even coming up with the individual pubs in each town, their menus, what the local patrons think of them, etc. Closely related is the DM who comes up with an ultra-cool plotline with more twists and turns and dives and ramps than any six roller coasters, complete with all kinds of subplots and other cool stuff. Or perhaps your DM comes up with intricate puzzles or rooms laid out in such a way that you can only hope to defeat the monsters that inhabit it by solving the riddle of the room itself. Or… well, I’ve already discussed these types at length in an earlier blog entry so I won’t bore you any further here.
Each of those DM types have their good points and drawbacks and chances are, if you’ve played under enough dungeon masters, you’ve not only seen all the types but have had a good time with each. I don’t think that the natural style of a DM is what’s at fault here. Instead, I think that it’s the preparation itself, no matter what the preparation is about, that makes so many DMs less than what they could be.
My initial idea was to call this blog within a blog The Lazy DM, which sounded semi-familiar to me in the way that a good title often does. However, further research revealed that it sounded semi-familiar because there’s already another blog by that name and a couple of cybersquatters sitting on what could become a couple more. That being said, I think “indolent” actually fits this better. Here’s the definition of the word, according to Merriam-Webster.com:
1 a : causing little or no pain b : slow to develop or heal <indolent tumors> <indolent ulcers>
2 a : averse to activity, effort, or movement : habitually lazy b : conducive to or encouraging laziness <indolent heat> c : exhibiting indolence <an indolent sigh>
Disclosure time: I have a degree in English and the love of language that comes with it. The important bit that I want to emphasize is definition 2a. Indolence isn’t *exactly* laziness, it’s being averse to do anything. That’s pretty much what I am going after: DMing without doing anything. Of course, you can’t get away with *no* preparation; even if you’re really good at improvisation, the lack of prep will show. But doing significantly *less* prep than what is commonly considered proper, that’s what I’m going after. Also, definition 1A, while it’s not the one we’re specifically going after, still sits in there in a symbolic sense: indolent DMing ought to be painless, not just for the DM but for the players.
Here are the reasons why I think overprep can become a problem:
It tends to lock a DM into a particular way of thinking about a plot point or a problem or… whatever it is the DM took so much time on. Look. It’s only natural to think this way. You take 12 hours devising this aWesome maze with traps around every other corner and a great monster in the middle, and what do your players do to it? They burn it to the ground and walk in to take the (melted) gold. A lot of DMs would say “no, you can’t do that”, which is perhaps the last phrase a DM ought ever utter. Even if you do allow it, a little piece of you dies inside and part of you can’t help but blame it on those insolent (note: not the same as indolent), creative, diabolical players. The same applies to adventures with big old hooks the party cheerfully ignores, rich ducal histories the parties don’t care a whit about, and so on.
It discourages improvisation. Closely related to the point above, I suspect many DMs overprepare precisely *because* of this reason. Improvisation can be a very scary thing, especially if you’ve never done it before. It can feel like you’re talking out of your rear end for hours at a time, and that’s because you *are* talking out of your rear end for hours at a time. The thing is, improvisation is a skill that you can really only get better at through practice. And you may as well start practicing it from your first DM session because there *will* come a time where you’ll need to use those skills you built up.
It also discourages the group dynamic. I know that it’s a lot of fun to come up with a world of your own, populated with a bunch of people you’ve created, and so on. In addition to the DMing I’ve also written a novel that, frankly, will probably not get published any time soon because it’s a bit on the silly side. William Howard Taft is a villain and he throws explosive soaps at people. Right. Too silly. The point is that I took quite a bit of time to do that because I *do* understand the awesome feeling that goes with creation. Dungeons and Dragons or any other RPG for that matter is not a novel. At its essence its a collaborative story told, yes, by the DM but also by the other players. Even if the players contribute a normal amount, if you spend a massive amount of time in preparation, their contribution will by definition be less than that of a DM who is indolent.
(In fact, I have ways of making players contribute *more* than their classical fair share; I’ll talk about that in an upcoming blogisode.)
It promotes an inequitable relationship at the gaming table. The DM, because he is sort of the storyteller (other game systems call him just that), is going to put in more work on a particular gaming session than any of his players. That’s just the way the system works. As mentioned, much of the prep-work is fun in and of itself so it’s not really thought of as a chore. The problem is, especially in groups where the DM is the guy who is most willing to spend the time and/or money to make the gaming group run, that that relationship between the DM and the player gets rather one-sided. This can create a lot of bad feelings: from the DM’s side, it’s easy to think that the players don’t appreciate all the work you put in to making things work, and from the players’ standpoint it can get very frustrating when the DM seems to be doing more than his (already significant) duties as referee, controller of NPCs, adversary in combat, etc. I’ve even seen attempts by dungeon masters to get paid for what they do!
In the series to come, I will discuss tips, tricks, and strategies I’ve learned about/seen/handled over the years. I don’t pretend to be an expert, just a proponent of a particular style of play. I hope to be able to pass on a bit of my learning and learn a lot in return.