The Mythical DM - Running Dungeons and Dragons
Since the earliest days of the hobby D&D has faced a stark reality: there are far, far more players than DMs. I have no reason to believe that this has changed much, for better or for worse few people are willing to take up the mantle of DM and run games.
I think this is unfortunate, creating and running a living campaign is one of the most rewarding experiences, I run three concurrent campaigns at the moment (two 1e AD&D and one Stars Without Number) and I look forward to each session with great anticipation. The interaction between a group playing a TTRPG is almost a unique thing, different than video games or board games or sports, there’s nothing quite like it. Running games is exhilarating, energizing and SUPER FUN.
So I want to do my part to encourage people to run their own games, to embrace the role of referee and help to create that magic that happens at the table.
I think it’s important to be realistic about what it means to be the DM. I have seen a lot of advice about DMing online, and frankly a considerable amount of it is misleading at best, harmful at worst. I’m going to tackle the biggest examples of this here.
You Can Run Sessions with “Zero Prep”
I’ve seen this or variations on this so often it’s almost comical.
Now, just for context, I run two after school games on a weekly basis, I sit down with 7 kids, ages 9-11, and we play D&D for 2 hours once a week for each group. I also run a biweekly Stars Without Number game for 8 players.
I also run a fully sandbox game, my players do what they want and go where they want, I don’t direct it, nor do I have every contingency planned ahead of time. I improvise almost every reaction to player choices in the game. If I had to do a ton of prep work for these games I wouldn’t be doing anything else. So clearly it is possible to do this without TONS of prep ahead of time.
But that’s not the same thing as saying that you don’t do prep at all, or you do “zero” prep.
EVERYONE does prep. But rather than admit that, people try to convince you that you can run games entirely on the fly. I appreciate the sentiment, but that’s not the way it works for most people, for a number of reasons.
1. The Rules of the Game.
If you run a game then you have to know the rules, not perfectly mind you, I ran AD&D back in high school and I’d conservatively estimate I knew about half the rules, and of the rules I knew I probably had about half of those right. But every DM who has ever run a game of D&D or any other TTRPG spent time learning the rules. That’s prep time, and it’s not trivial. When I fired up our current Stars Without Number game I spent about 30 hours or so reading the rules to get comfortable enough to run the game, and I didn’t really hit my stride until about the 6th session or so. The first five sessions were fun, don’t get me wrong, but I spent a good amount of time looking up rules and checking things to ensure I was doing it at least somewhat like it was supposed to be done.
If you run a game you need a setting of some sort. You are of course more than welcome to do that entirely on the fly, e.g. decide on the spot whether or not your game world has elves, or democracies, or how many towns there are, or whatever. You don’t need a completed setting to run a game, but you need SOMETHING. Most DM’s don’t leave all of that to decide at the table, they come up with some of it ahead of time. That’s prep. If you buy a premade setting you will spend some time familiarizing yourself with it, if you create your own then you put in the hours making it. In either case, you have prep to do.
I have mad improv skills, I can run a game and pivot on a dime, taking the seeds the players plant and spinning them into plotlines and events. However, I’ve been DMing for 30+ years and I know my system (1e AD&D) like the back of my hand. I also teach, I regularly lecture to groups of 250 students or more, so I have zero anxiety or nervousness about public speaking or having everyone look to me for a decision. The reason I can improv sessions so well is that I have done this for a long time. Just like a musician can play a song without having the music in front of them, I can improvise on the spot without rules or plans in front of me. If you are new to the game this isn’t as easy to do. Most of the time you will need some prep so you have materials to riff off of.
Here’s one example. In a recent game the players made a decision that put them at the gates of a city I had not prepared in any way. I had no maps, no encounters planned, absolutely nothing. I could have ended the session right there, but instead we pushed ahead. There was an opportunity for some role play at the city gates which kept us busy for a bit, then one of the PCs was pick-pocketed when they entered the city. A chase ensued and they cornered the thief, he tried to talk his way out of it and by then we were done for the session.
The “trick” here is that you only have to keep the players busy until the end of the session, anything else you need can be done between sessions. Once I realized that I became much less concerned about improving a session, if the party made a decision that required me to come up with something big on the fly, I can usually just keep them busy for a half hour or so until we break then have something ready the next week. So it’s not “no prep”, its “prep between sessions”.
You can improvise everything if you want, but if you do so the campaign will start to feel detached and unconnected. What makes a campaign world real and immersive is the sense that what you do has impacts on the game world. So what this means is that I take notes during sessions so I can have consequences return to the PCs in later sessions. For example, in an early session of one of my current campaigns the PCs shot an enemy warlock in they eye, blinding him but not killing him.
Fast forward to 7 sessions later, that warlock caught up with them and exacted his revenge in a super-fun session. The “prep” for that was running the earlier session where the warlock was wounded.
Also, if you do improvise a lot then you have to keep track of what you do in some way, otherwise you will forget things and the campaign seems disjointed. I take notes about my improvised decisions so I can be consistent and ensure that there is some continuity to my game. That’s prep too.
Here’s a dirty little secret: many of the biggest “I do no prep” DM’s rely on tables and charts to roll up stuff in the moment so they don’t have to pull everything out of their ass. I do it myself, it’s a fantastic way to produce content without having to carry around tons of material, however, making those tables is prep, getting familiar with those tables is prep too.
There are any number of examples of gaming materials that are designed to help you DM with less prep work. I have no issue with those, and they can be an extremely valuable addition to a DM’s toolkit.
However, obtaining and getting to know those materials, learning their methods, THAT’S PREP TOO! You don’t just buy a book on easy DMing and instantly become competent at using that material, you have to read and understand it.
I tell this to my students all the time, EVERY method to reduce your time doing something or “hack” a process takes time to learn, so that is prep you have to do. In short, there is no such thing as a “free lunch”.
I think the sensible way to talk about this isn’t to tell people that you run games with “no prep”, or “zero prep”, but instead to say that you don’t have to do a ton of prep, and that you shouldn’t be afraid to tell your players, “I don’t have anything ready for that, so let’s break and next session I will be prepared”.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with admitting that you want to stop and start when you feel better prepared to run the session. DM’s aren’t machines, and they have the right to pause the game and come back to it when they feel confident and ready.
As is often the case, the designers of older editions understood all of this. Gygax for example told you explicitly that you don’t need to design a whole campaign setting. Start with a town near a spooky old crypt. Then work out from there. You don’t need to have it ALL sorted out, just a kernel to build on, and a group that is patient enough to wait if you need them too.
And don’t be afraid of “getting it wrong”, unlike many other games and activities, you can mess up the rules of D&D incredibly badly and still have a ton of fun! Ask anyone who played D&D back when they were kids (we started when we were 14) and they will tell you that they got almost everything wrong and had a GREAT TIME playing anyway. You don’t need to get it right, so you don’t need to prep everything.
But that doesn’t mean you don’t need to prep anything either.
Anyone can DM
This is another harmful argument I see all the time. I want to be very clear about this, on one level I agree that anyone can DM a game. You don’t have to be perfect, you don’t have to “get it right” all the time, and even when you don’t follow the rules as written you aren’t “playing it wrong”.
Having said that, DMing is a job that fits certain personality types and skill sets better than others. If you are particularly introverted, if you don’t like public speaking, if you don’t like improvisation, then you will find DMing to be an onerous and unpleasant task, and you likely won’t be very good at it.
That doesn’t mean you can’t improve. When I started I was super nervous, forgot a ton of stuff (not just rules, but important events from the adventures I was running), I got anxious and upset at developments in the game, I argued with the players a lot, and felt guilty when things went wrong for the party. In short, I was a hot mess. But I wanted to run the game, I enjoyed creating adventures and exploring the game world, and I stuck with it. Eventually I got good at it, but that took a lot of time.
I think we do budding DM’s a disservice when we suggest that anyone can run a game, sure, anyone CAN run a game, but some people will be better at it than others, and more importantly, some will ENJOY it more than others. Just like some players like martial classes more than spell casters, and some players like social role play more than “hack and slash”, some people will take to DMing in a way that creates joy for them and the others at the table.
Rather than asserting that anyone can run a game, why not be clear about what running a game entails so people can decide if they are interested in trying to run games. In my group we did what I suspect many groups did, one person ran the game for a while, then others would take a shot at it and see if they enjoyed it or not. If you don’t enjoy it then chances are the players won’t either, so it’s just fine to say “that’s not for me”.
The DM is “Just Another Player”
I get why this is an important idea to discuss. The DM is not “more important” than any other person at the table. And the DM’s enjoyment is no less important than anyone else’s. If the players are having a grand old time but the DM is not, then that’s a problem. In those senses, the DM is like the players, she has a right to enjoy herself while playing, and is no more or less important than anyone else there.
However, there are important differences between a DM and the players in a TTRPG like D&D. The first and most obvious one is that the players can show up for the game without doing anything ahead of time. My players do ZERO prep for my sessions, so much so that I often have to recap what happened in the previous session, to the point where I will even have to remind particular individual players of WHAT THEY DID in the previous sessions.
The DM has to respond to the actions of every PC at the table, they have to keep track of the ENTIRE GAME WORLD for the players, she has to create material for the game on the spot (Player - “What is the name of the innkeeper”, “is there a stable to put my horse”), and make rulings about things that aren’t explicitly covered in the rules (“can I jump over that chasm if I drop my backpack”...), players don’t have to do ANY of that.
Even if you decide to share some of these responsibilities with your players, so say when the player asks if there is a stable for their horse you say, “You decide if there is”, it is still upon the DM to make that decision.
Put baldly, the players run their characters, the DM does EVERYTHING ELSE IN THE GAME WORLD. You can share some of that, but at the end of the day it is primarily on the DM to determine the vast majority of what happens in the game world. The players may direct what parts of the game world are interacted with, but the DM does everything else.
I know that there are other games where this is not the case, more collaborative games where everyone contributes to the process, and I know that you can play D&D in a more collaborative fashion. I have a few players in each of my regular games that take on some of the world building tasks because they are interested.
I also make it a point to hand off certain tasks to my players in game so they can learn how to run their own games. So for example I will sometimes have the players do the rolls for the monsters/NPCs so they can see what it is like on my side of the screen, and they can get a sense on how to run an encounter, and a sense of how the rules work.
So it isn’t ALL on the DM, but a lot of it certainly is.
I think the most obvious retort to the “DM is just another player” argument is the fact that from the beginning of the hobby right up until today people are far more willing to play than to DM games. That isn’t “gatekeeping”, it’s just the reality. For all the talk of everyone being the same and the DM not being “special”, the fact is that DMs responsibility is different than everyone else’s, and I think most people understand this, that’s why there are always more players than DMs.
I want to be clear that I don’t want to discourage people from trying to be a DM. I maintain that running games is one of the most amazing experiences, it rewards you every time you do it. I run about 10 sessions a month right now for three different gaming groups, it’s a lot to remember and a lot to organize, but I love every minute of it.
I would encourage everyone to take a stab at running a game, you really don’t know what it’s like unless you try it, and if you ‘screw it up’ it doesn’t matter, no one is dying on the operating table, and a ‘screwed up’ game can still be super fun.
So by all means, jump in there and give it a try, you may find that you have a new favorite thing.
I also want to be clear that being the DM doesn’t make you any better than anyone else in the game. Everyone contributes to enjoyment at the table, and everyone deserves to have a good time playing.
But be aware that there is prep work to do, certain people will enjoy it more than others, and at the end of the day you will have a bigger burden on your shoulders than the rest of the people at the table. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, it means you should do it with your eyes open, aware of the challenges and ready to dive in head first.