Save My Game 05/27/2005

DMing Style

This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!

Plan Ahead or Wing It?

The topic for this installment of Save My Game is how preparation can help even when a DM is running an adventure off the cuff. DMs who enjoy winging it may run into unexpected problems, or even become a bit stale in their presentation style after a while. But too much preparation often proves to be a waste of time and effort when the PCs decide to go elsewhere. What's a DM to do?

Problem: How Much Planning Is Enough?

I like to ad-lib when I DM, and I often run adventures off the cuff, so to speak. Of late, however, my group doesn't seem to be on the same page with me, so the ad-libbing is no longer fun. But when I plan out my adventures, the stories seem cliché and boring -- at least to me. How do I avoid the clichés, do enough planning to ensure a memorable campaign, and still balance it all with my style of DMing? -- Adapted from a post made by Kalanth on the D&D boards on the Wizards of the Coast website

On the surface, this problem sounds like it might be nothing more than a poor fit between DM and players. Thus, the most obvious first step is to talk it out and ask your players if certain plotlines seem trite to them, or if some adventures seem poorly founded. Such a discussion should give you an idea whether they prefer more or less planning on your part.

In a greater sense, however, this question has a lot to do with how preparation and presentation style interact in DMing. So let's address those concepts in more detail.

Solution 1: Be Yourself

Advising another DM about presentation style is difficult because what feels right to one DM often doesn't to another. Perhaps the best advice is to remain open to trying out new techniques, ideas, and plotlines. You'll find that some of them fit you very well, and others don't. In the long run, however, your style has to be genuine, not a cheap imitation of someone else's.

To that end, it's important to acknowledge your likes and dislikes to your players. Don't pretend to be the super-DM who does everything well and enjoys everything equally. Admit your preferences for style and content, and talk about the kinds of adventures you really love and hate. Describe the aspects of the game that you just can't (or won't) use, as well as your middle ground -- ideas you are willing to try even though they are not your favorites, in the interest of ensuring that the players enjoy the game as well.

Solution 2: It's All about Preparation

Ask any musician or actor how he improvises during a performance, and he'll tell you that improvisation is a product of practice and repetition. A performer thinks through the possibilities of how he could play a particular tune or portray a certain character, then tries out one option after another. In that way, he can see what works for him and which style seems to fit the material best. Through experimentation, he builds a repertoire of options that he can keep handy -- just like a carpenter collects his most important tools in a toolbox. Then, when it's time for a show, the performer can pull out any tool or combination of tools and use them in any way he wishes. The audience can't see the toolbox -- they just see what the performer does with it. If he has only one tool in the box -- no matter how good it is -- his performances will get stale pretty quickly.

In the same way, if you like to wing it as a DM, you have to develop plenty of tools to work with, so that you have an array of options from which to choose in any situation. So try out different roles, mannerisms, plotlines, situations, and characters in your mind. Try scripting a few encounters too -- perhaps a helpful NPC providing information, or a villain making a taunting speech, or a dramatic magical effect that occurs when the party destroys an evil artifact.

In short, if you want your game session to be cool and memorable, think about it ahead of time instead of relying on your ability to come up with a great presentation on the spur of the moment. That sort of ad-libbing isn't improvisation, it's desperation -- and in moments such as these, you're prone to grab for a cliché because that's all you can think of under pressure. Improvising isn't about wishing or being naturally gifted; it's about putting in the effort to get ready so that you can make your presentation look effortless.

Solution 3: Don't Try to Detail Everything

Trying to describe every last chamber in your dungeon generally leads to lots of wasted effort, because unless the party's goal is to clear out every room, a lot of areas are going to remain unexplored. So do your homework. Stock your dungeons and lay out the main action, but temper your preparations with what you know about your players, their style, and their goals.

Next, think about the characters' reasons for being there. Are they scavenging for treasure, cleaning out a monster lair, or just looking for the fastest way through the dungeon? Different goals demand different approaches from you. Don't bother writing up long speeches for NPCs if the characters won't be around long enough to talk, or if they tend to kill first and ask questions never! Likewise, if they're racing the clock to get through a certain area, any hidden treasure you place may as well be on the moon, because they won't have time to look for it.

When creating adventure hooks, you may not have time to flesh out all the corresponding adventure locales with the level of completeness you would like. Just make sure you've prepared some "talking points" about each hook, such as how to get there, rumors and lore, or connections to other adventure hooks or campaign events. You should also have some notes about each area -- especially the first few important people, places, or events. Once the characters actually decide to visit the location, you can flesh out the remaining details. This way, you can seem like you're ready for the PCs to do almost anything, and your players will think they have considerable freedom of choice.

Solution 4: Don't Try to Do It All Yourself

Look, you're not the first person to sit in the DM's chair, and every tool in your toolbox need not be one that you personally have created. So don't figure that you have to make up every detail of your world by yourself. I love to cook and have tried many different recipes for brownies, but I have never found one that tastes as good as the boxed brownie mix I buy at the store. So I buy the brownie mix and then personalize some batches with a little of this or that if I want to. The same goes for premade adventures, spells, NPCs, and other campaign features. The best DM in the world is not better than the combined efforts of many DMs, so go ahead and take advantage of the assistance that's out there. Beg, borrow, and steal ideas where you can, and convert material from other editions of D&D -- or even from other game systems. You may find some concepts you never would have dreamed up on your own, and such new ideas can help keep your game fresh, vital, and fun.


How much should a DM prepare in advance, and how much can she wing it? The answer is to some degree a matter of personal style, but a bit of preparation helps the ad-libbing process. Begin by giving your players an idea of your personal style -- your likes and dislikes, as well as the kinds of adventures you enjoy running and the kinds you won't run.

Give yourself plenty of tools to work with in ad-libbing your adventures. Try out as many different NPC personalities and mannerisms as you can, as well as plotlines and encounter areas. Then you can pull out whatever prepared tools you need on the spot and give a memorable presentation.

When you create adventure hooks, don't fully detail the corresponding adventure sites. Just prepare some general information about them that the PCs can discover through research, plus the first few encounters they might have there. Then, when the players have committed to adventuring at that site, you can prepare the rest.

Finally, take advantage of the wealth of ideas and advice that other DMs have to offer. Freely adapt material from other game worlds and systems, and try out concepts that have worked well for other DMs. In this way, you can greatly expand your repertoire and keep your games from getting stale.

About the Author

Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.

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