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I am Dungeon Master

April 6, 2011

Okay, now go back and read that title again, but this time do it in the diabolic style of Ozzy Osbourne in the Black Sabbath classic: “Iron Man”.

Hopefully, that odd little exercise has dispelled from your mind any image involving a certain trite 1980’s animated series featuring an annoying bald, midget in a magenta dressing gown.

I hate that guy because… I am a Dungeon Master and I am proud!

Old school, pen and paper role playing games have always received a bad press. Say the words Dungeons and Dragons and the majority of the population conjure an image of a kitchen table surrounded by inept, teenage boys, rolling funny shaped dice whilst diligently counting off how many squares a lead miniature ogre gets to move. Empty pizza boxes litter the scene and inexplicable questions like: “whose got initiative?” and “what’s your armour class?” fill the air.

We may have been labelled geeks, dweebs and virgins at school, but generations of paper and dice gamers grew up to realise the priceless gift these role playing games (RPG’s) bestowed upon them. These gaming sessions were priceless episodes of fantastic social interaction blanketed in a warm sense of belonging. My gamer buddies and I have been playing Dungeons and Dragons for 26 years. I cannot think of any other pastime which unites six hairy blokes for life and doesn’t involve the mindless thumping of a ball, the consumption of too much alcohol and/or infidelity. There’s much about RPG’s to celebrate.

Not least if you happen to be a writer.

This article is the first of three I’m going to write outlining how writers can learn about their craft by rolling a twenty-sided dice and entering a shared imaginative construction with their closest friends.

Call it Dungeon Master (DM), Game Master (GM), Referee (R) or Chief Geek (CG) the person responsible for a gaming session’s success is a Story Teller by any other name. Simply put, the DM’s words give life and texture to a fictitious world.

A comparison to writing which needs no further flogging.

A DM must understand their world globally, economically and historically, to which you reply: “Well, that’s just world building and I can access any number of articles or writers workshops about that without the embarrassment of having to use the words “hit” and “points” together in a public arena.” This is true, but world building is a solitary, often labour intensive pursuit. It’s clinical and methodical and not representative of the complexities and inexplicable events that define real life. You may know the words engraved above the stove in your protagonist’s mother’s kitchen, or be able to quote verbatim the entree menu in the Guildford cafe where your love interest suddenly realises the secret of the universe; but the moment you populate your world with characters as whimsical and feckless as real people even the most beautifully rendered world building is revealed to be as holey as Swiss cheese.

Thousands of perfectly scripted RPG scenes have been trampled rough shod by player characters who brazenly charged A Great Old One when the DM needed them to meekly hide. Immaculately detailed plots have been butchered and thrown off into ridiculous tangents by a player character who decided to betray his fellows (perhaps, in pursuit of a comedy magic artifact that permanently seals any designated sphincter within a ten mile radius). An inexperienced DM might be tempted to roll their notes and maps up and smoke ‘em when a climatic finale fizzles out, just because the player characters were witless enough to miss that vital clue written in thirty foot tall, letters of burning blood. But, the DM who knows how to “wing-it” possesses the most coveted weapon a Story Teller could ever conceal up their writerly sleeve, namely:

The ability to lie convincingly… and then pretend they planned on that precise, exact thing happening all along.

With their stats scribbled on pieces of paper the players guide their characters around their DM’s creation. On the plus side, through the players exploration the DM gets to see how the world fits, test it for flaws and feel suitably smug when they marvel at the cool bits. But on the down side… players just want to have fun! This equation will plunge even the most scrupulously planned adventure down unexpected paths. Personally, I’ve fine-tuned adventures to the smallest detail only to have them reduced to smoking ruins by the unpredictable actions of selfish, rash, philistine players. In my youth, I took this wanton destruction of grand continuity as an artistic insult, but over the years learnt to appreciate how exciting, seat of your pants narrative, trumps any precious feelings of ownership and control.

The real Art of storytelling is not a slavish attention to detail, but in being able to “wing-it” so convincingly a new, organic narrative is born. It takes sheer audacious flair to paper over the cracks to keep this new narrative consistent with the perceived ‘integrity’ of your world.

You see, be it gathered around a kitchen table or in isolation at your writer’s desk, characters will always take unexpected detours. These detours may be scary but they can also be thrilling. If you learn to love and trust in this fact, so too will your players and readers.

That said I still hate this midget:

  1. April 7, 2011 7:27 am

    I respect you for defending something you’re passionate about and being true to yourself. Very nice post!

  2. April 8, 2011 1:21 am

    Very deftly done, Jason, all the more so because it appears you’ve been inside my head and I didn’t feel a thing! I can relate to almost every word, every experience of your post. BTW, I wish I’d thought to write a post on this subject, I have turned a fetching shade of (good natured) green having read this, and it’s nothing to do with super hero RPGing! 🙂

    As a fellow GM and pen and paper RPGs for more years than I care to mention, I agree whole heartedly with everything you’ve said here about the benefits of RPGs for writers. I’m also totally with you about players trampling rough shod over our finely wrought creations. Harnmaster is my RPG of choice for the simple reasons of fantastic game mechanics and a breadth of world detail which still takes my breath away.

    I have though, played D&D on and off for many years, and the story that sticks in my
    mind even now is that of a gaming friend of mine who spent three months designing and mapping an adventure set on a rocky tower in the middle of some RPG sea somewhere, I forget where exactly. What I do not forget is said DM’s brother, a bit of a maths whizz, calculating the area effect of a rock-to-mud spell, casting it 3 feet thick on an angle, and watching his brother’s face when 3 months’ work slid deftly into the sea. Ah, happy days!

    I will read with interest your next article on this subject. 🙂

  3. April 8, 2011 2:13 am

    @ Sam: Spooky congruent lives R Us. I don’t think I shall ever return to the UK less we meet and cancel each other out in a paradoxical space/time singularity.

    My ‘favourite’ wrecked moment was 2 years in the making. I built up a kidnapping of a NPC (who happened to be Red Dragon … the alignment issue is another story entirely). Anyhow, the long and the short of it was The Big Bad = “Lord of Ruin” killed her and mummified her so he could resurrect her as an Undead Dragon with a Mummy Template. Cool, so the climatic scene brewed plenty of passion and high drama … until the battle scene. I go to unleash the Dragon’s breath weapon on the party only for one of the players to point out (immediately!) Red Dragon’s breath weapon is fire and Mummy’s take max fire damage … no saves.

    And in less than 30 seconds two years of planning literally turned into a puff of smoke.

    No one took the Lord of Ruin seriously again after that!

  4. April 8, 2011 9:10 am

    Most of my best writing comes from setting the characters up on a few bulletpoints and letting them go freely. Whatever you believe – that they’re sparks of synapses, or astral things on another plane, or raw improv given ink form – the characterization is always more lively that way.

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