Balancing Mechanics and Story: A Sensitive Endeavour

As a Dungeon Master, your job is to first and foremost ensure that all of your players are having fun. Unfortunately, as any experienced Dungeon Master can attest to, this is almost always easier said than done. One of the first things I tell people who have never played Dungeons & Dragons, if you want to learn what your friends are really like, play a campaign with them. You will learn how effective your group of pals are at communicating, which one of them make excellent problem solvers, and who would rather brute-force their way through most challenges. Not all of your friends are going to be Sherlock Holmes and others may take too long analysing a given situation when time is against them. You will discover which one of them gets frustrated easily and who has near infinite patience with others. You will also learn who would rather indulge in the more fantastical elements of roleplay, atmosphere, and storytelling and who would rather sword and sorcery their way through a horde of Giant Rats. Having now Dungeon Mastered Fifth Edition for almost two years, I have developed a list of guidelines that help me get a better understanding of what it is my players wish to achieve and how I can go about providing that experience in the most congenial way possible.

Communication: This is the most important tool at your disposal. Unless you are a mind reader, how are you supposed to know what it is that your players wish to achieve out of the campaign? Take the time to individually talk with them outside the game. Ask what encounters they enjoyed the most. What was their most memorable experience? What Non-Player Characters they liked riffing with? What gave them shivers? What made them jump for joy? Was it getting that shiny new axe? Was it slaying the big bad dragon? Foiling the plans of an oligarchical shadow cabal government? Getting into brawls at the local inn? The only way to know is if you talk with your players.

It’s Not About You: The moment you decided you would run the game for your friends, is the moment you decided to leave your ego at the door. You might have just watched an episode of Acquisitions Incorporated or Critical Role and thought, “boy that Waterdeep intrigue adventure sure looked fun, I’ll try out something similar in my next session”. If so, I got news for you buddy, if none of your players like intrigue, mystery, or solving problems without the use of force, it is not going to be fun for them or you. Yes, you are a curator of taste, bringing the best roleplaying and fantasy elements from across the world to your table. However, that must be catered to the interests of your players.

Keep it Quick: In my experience, one of the worst killers of fun is when the group is stuck doing a quest they obviously do not want to do, solving a problem, fighting battle after battle, or over-analysing how best to initiate one. Whatever the case, you must keep the adventure moving, otherwise players will get bored and the dreaded phones will start to come out. I am not suggesting that you throw development after development just for the sake of action, bur rather, like a great DJ, you must read the energy of your audience and have enough sense to know when there is too long a lull or too much action, then act accordingly. Like this, if you have a group of players with diverse interests, you can satisfy the delights of each over the course of an adventure.

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Catering to the relative strengths, weaknesses, interests, and dislikes of your players is no easy task, and Lathander knows where the more players there are, the more complex the challenge becomes. I have tried numerous ways to juggle these elements so as to provide the most enjoyable experience to my players. As such, I have developed these guidelines to help me in the process. By no means is the list exhaustive or final. I am constantly learning from other great Dungeon Masters and developing and changing my approach to running games. What I consider an essential rule to follow today, might not be the same in six months from now. Circumstances in life will change the perspective and interests of your players over time. Inevitably, that will affect the way in which you must run the game. A good Dungeon Master is attentive and listens to his players. A great Dungeon Master acts on those observations. You are not just trying to create a heroic story filled with the most epic battles and memorable characters, above all else you are playing with your friends to have fun.


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