My First Time on the Other Side of the Screen

I messed up rules, I forgot what I said, and didn’t add any of the flavor descriptions I had planned. But, people had fun so that’s OK. After three years of playing Dungeons & Dragons, I survived my first session as a Dungeon Master.

Once a year my employer gathers all our distributed workforce for a week of in-person work. My coworker Payton organized some groups to play in the downtime we have some evenings. He wrote the scenario, provided pre-gen characters, dice, pencils, everything! Payton also asked people if they wanted to play, DM, or “play but could DM if needed.” I chose option 3.

The game was a one-shot scenario based on Stranger Things called “Unusual Things” for a group of level 2 characters. His description:

Nothing much happens in the mountaintop town of Hawkurns, where the populace mines magical crystals and their kids to get into all kinds of mischief. Recently, however, people have been disappearing, and no one knows why. Rumors of unusual things are everywhere. Can you help solve the mystery before something worse assails this small town?

My players solved the puzzles, found the big bad guy and defeated him! Some of the townsfolk even survived!

Aside from Payton’s organizing, two things helped me a lot for my first time on the other side of the DM screen.

/r/DMAcademy has a lot of good discussions and tips. It also presents a wide array of experiences so I felt like I could handle the weird things my players did. The players still threw me for a loop, but the important thing was that I was fooled into thinking I could handle it.

The other big help was my friend Chris Salzman’s podcast Roll for Topic, where he and Andy Rau roll a d20 to decide what to talk about with their guest GM. (Skip episode 20 if you’ve never listened before, it’s an off-format episode.) Chris runs the 5th Edition game at my coworking space as well as a Blades in the Dark game I’m in with Andy on Roll20. I also recommend listening to your own DM’s podcast if they have one, just to find out how much you messed up their plans.

Chris’ sign-off for the podcast is “Remember, if your players are having fun you’re a great GM” which is the best advice I got.

(The photo at the top is from a different game I was in with maps and miniatures. I forgot to take any pictures of our game, and my hand-drawn maps with beer caps for enemies was much less photogenic)

Once upon a time there was a dungeon master who really loved the world-building aspect of the job. He would create intricate lore for all the NPCs. Every object had a complete history that the DM could rattle off from memory. The players would wince every time they entered a room, as the DM started rattling off what they saw.

"The stones on the north wall of the room are darker than the rest, implying that they were not gathered locally (since there is no nearby volcanic activity) but instead brought from the mountains. However they are cut in a style of the king's stonemason, so you suspect that they were brought here as part of the mason's expedition recorded 40 years ago, in which…"

The players all made low intelligence, low wisdom fighters in retaliation. Every perception check failed. When one player made a natural 20 on a history check, the rest abandoned her to refresh their snacks and maybe play a couple rounds of Street Fighter.

The DM, seeing his beautiful world being ignored, became cruel. His NPC villains were awful, but the DM would torture both PC and NPC alike. No one was safe. A PC is having a wedding? Kill everyone. A player finds an escape from the prison? Actually that was the villain's plan all along.

The players, fed up, leave the game. The DM still has stories to tell though, so he starts writing them down. Or at least that's how I like to think Game of Thrones got started…

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