wherein I continue to fail at being a dungeon master

In 2005 or so, I started running a science fiction role-playing game, and it ran for a little under five years. I had a lot of fun, and I think the game had some merit, but I got frustrated with a lot of its failures and wrote a post mortem in which I put most of the blame on myself for a lot of problems that I brought down on my own. Below, I reproduce most of my report to the players:

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Two thousand nine, year of the ox! Then begins our D&D game. I am excited about it. It is much better planned than Deliverance was, not only in general, but also because I have attempted to prepare a game that will address the specific problems with Deliverance.

Let’s try and make sure I know what all those problems are, though, shall we?

Read the whole thing before starting to reply, if you’re going to reply. “Campaign changes” is my phrase below for, “addressed by changes in the narrative structure of the game.”

PACING: too much downtime in too many places

  • too much “real” time in the game when you are powerless
  • too much time spent in port going, “anything else you want to do here?”
  • too much pre-game smalltalk (especially given the during-game smalltalk)
  • large quantities of downtime eliminate any sense of the clock or calendar moving in game; how long since Game 1, in game? who knows? nobody? ugh.
  • dead time also contributes to a lack of a sense of distance

solutions: firmer hand with declarations of bullshit; campaign changes; players must be more proactive in declaring what random stuff they want to do with no “anything else?”

PACING: character advancement nearly non-existent

  • nearly nobody ever spends XP
  • no character has much of a personal plot beyond backstory
  • the party itself has not advanced much in its position or renown

Partly, this is due to pacing issues. It takes so long to get through one story that advancement would be doomed to be slow. It’s also the case that when the story slows down, the first thing to get dropped are per-character plotlines.

There has also been a failure to acquire what I’ll call, here, “henchmen.” Opportunities have arisen and been mostly passed by, and other opportunities, persued, failed because of changes made to cope with pacing issues.

solutions: D&D has better built-in advancement mechanics; campaign changes; revaluation of XP (see below)

GAME PER SE: XP has no value

  • XP is given little importance
  • no reason is given as to why (or that) XP has been rewarded

I really wanted to run a game in which XP rewards were special and valued, but I did not commit to that up front, so not only do people not know how much XP they have, or want any to spend, people don’t even realize when or why they receive XP. This is a major problem, because XP both drives character advancement and serves as a carrot to reward good play. This is a massive problem.

solution: I will return to my original plan and make XP rewards more public, important, and meaningful. Also, D&D nearly makes this mandatory.

SETTING: nobody can remember a damn thing

  • “You have an incoming call from Major Plot Actor.” // “Who?”
  • “Wait, what’s the place where we performed Massive Task?”

This has two root causes, I think: too much information, and too lazy players. I think that I have an easier time keeping track of everything in my head than you guys, partly because I have written it down. This leads to a lot of “wait, who is X again?” and then I get annoyed because X is so important and has shown up so often.

Sometimes I think the problem is that I have provided so many names and places, and sometimes I think it’s because nobody is making an effort to keep track of the story apart from me. Maybe that’s unfair, but it really seems that way to me. I’ve dropped a lot of minor characters and plotlines and other things both because of (again) pacing issues and to reduce the number of things to know, but this campaign just has a lot of balls in the air. When Odes Tem or Angu Treech become “who was that guy?” I feel like either I have utterly failed to tell a memorable story of like nobody was paying attention.


  • The D&D game will be radically simplified, and I will only provide as many details as are vitally important – unless you look for more.
  • The players will keep notes. I don’t care how this works. Maybe one person will take them down and type them up. Maybe there will be a notebook that rotates between players for note taking. This isn’t negotiable, though. I’m happy to answer questions about obscure points, but when the question is “Who was that Evil Emperor character again?” the players should be able to have this answer on hand. Failing this, I would rather just run a campaign from published modules.

SETTING: the desperate need for a map

This is stupid, but significant. I have a map. I use it all the time. I just never, ever, ever remember to bring it to the table. I need to do that. I need to build a map up front of vague details available to all player characters, provide it to each player, leave a few extra copies at the gaming venue, and then let the player notetaker add information as we go along.

Travelling fewer vast distances to exotic places with many cities will help too.

GAMEPLAY: too few challenges (not enough combat or die rolling)

This contributes to the devaluation of XP, character advancement, and skills. In the average game, for various reasons (including dead time) there are not enough die rolls. There is not enough chance to fail, meaning there is not enough chance to triumph. There are not enough conflicts in which the success or failure is clear: yes, you killed the guy; no, you didn’t bypass the security system.

solutions: more combat, more clear-cut challenges, tie re-valued XP to these challenges; campaign changes

SETTING: players do not know what their characters would know

Unlike many fantasy settings, the nature of things in the current game’s setting are not a known quantity. Difficult-to-answer questions include, “what lies within the realm of common technology?” and “what is the average person’s day like?” and “what do people believe is the truth about some well-known entity?”. This leads to the Defragulation Problem, where something that should be obvious to the PCs is not obvious to the player’s.

I have tried to address this with the current game as we go along, but it is a very difficult problem, especially in a sci-fi setting. In a fantasy setting, the basics make this easier: obvious physical possibilities are possible (yes, you can throw a rock) and magic makes absolutely anything else possible. The parameters of magic’s abilities are known only to magic users, if that. With no magic users in the party, it is totally reasonable that nobody knew that Meepo the Magician could shoot dragons from his nose. Even with magic users, things are pretty clear: anything is possible, and harder things require someone more powerful than simpler things.

I am going to make sure that setting specific information (deities, commerce, etc) are explained to each player sufficiently, but for the most part:

solutions: fantasy setting instead of sci-fi setting solves this

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The D&D game that followed was on hiatus for 2010, for various reasons, but we’re going to start back up again, so I’ve been working on my notes and planning again, and I’ve begun to realize that in almost every way, I have failed to follow through on my plans to right my mistakes.

After about ten sessions of the new game, I can’t name a single recurring NPC of note. There has been one reused location, to call it a reused setting is stretching the truth. In almost all ways, the game’s improvements have been due to the switch to fantasy rather than science fiction. Meanwhile, I think I have made worse mistakes with character and setting than I made previously. Part of this has been related to pacing. I expected the half of the heroic tier to take about half as long as it did, and I did nothing to compensate for the fact that it really stretched out.

The rest, though, is just foolishness on my part. I took my eyes off of my design priorities, and I ended up letting the party do a lot of noodling around that didn’t really establish any plot or setting advancement that the players could understand. The really silly thing is that when I was running the sci-fi game, for much of the time I was running two groups. One was a group of itinerant mercenaries, and the other was a special operations group working in one city. The special ops group was a clear demonstration of the power of familiarity. They established safehouses, got to know neighborhoods, and got more and more of a sense of place. Meanwhile, the mercenaries never spent much time in any one place, and the game felt like a bunch of disconnected and unreal locations.

As I work on planning the rest of my D&D game’s heroic tier (using Scrivener, which is a fantastic tool for the job), I’ve been making one index card per likely session, and on each one I’ve tried to make reference to a location that can be reused, NPCs who can remain relevant, and other hooks that will help make the game world seem like an organic whole. It’s not good enough that I, the DM, know how things fit together. The players need to get a sense for it, too.

More than that, they need to get the sense, more and more, that they aren’t just moving in the game world, but that they are directing it. At first, of course, they’re going to be smacked around by fate and kobolds, but as they climb in level, you can’t just replace kobolds with demons and have the heroes spend all their time getting kicked around. They have to be heroic, and that means that people need to stand in awe of them. For that to happen, there have to be people, and they can’t just be shopkeepers who seem impressed. I’m trying to make sure that the PCs will have ample opportunity to feel awesome. Smackdowns need only occur once in a while, and will be much more fun when they do.

I think I’m going to end up having to do quite a lot of revision to my current plans to make things work, but I think it is going to be extremely rewarding – if the darn game ever starts up again.

Written on February 23, 2011
🏷 dnd
⚔️ rpg