Greg at Synapse RPG makes the claim that “we dont really have a good grasp of what goes on at other people’s tables and our community is not too great at sharing techniques or playstyles.” I don’t know if this is true or not, but it occurred to me that it would be fun anyway to try and describe the style by which I DM. So here goes…

Campaign style

Most of my campaigns are a kind of “story-based” campaign, in which I have a rough idea of a general goal I want the PCs to reach, a definite idea of a starting point and a few hooks in the middle to get them to the end; the rest I fill in as I go, and it can change a lot (including the final goal) depending on what happens in the campaign. The goal might be, for example, finding out who caused the apocalypse; but by the end of the campaign it may have morphed into a trip into hell to sacrifice a baby in order to stop a sinister Papist plot.

Often my campaign ideas will start as little more than an idea for a world, and a few vague visions of big scenes I want to enact, or a couple of key NPCs who appeal, and the rest I fill out as I go. But I always have something in mind when I start, and I usually look for a way to include the fun things I want to do no matter what direction the story takes. I also usually pursue a kind of three stage approach to the campaign development, which goes along the lines of: initial unconnected adventures to flesh out the world and get the players interested, during which I usually drop a few useful plot hooks and tricks for later; then an intensive stage of story development in the middle during which the PCs learn a bunch of stuff, identify key allies and enemies, and cause a shitload of trouble; then a kind of final confrontation and/or denouement, in which everything comes to a head. The middle part can be pretty free-flowing with a lot of different ways of getting to the end; and the end may not be fixed at this stage. For example, in the beginning of the middle stage of the most recent Compromise and Conceit campaign, I gave the players a choice of 3 or 4 sides to take: Colonials, Britain, Native Americans, or purely independent. Exactly what they did after that and where the campaign ended up would depend entirely on their choice and how they pursued it, though regardless of the side they took there were certain key facts about the world which I wanted them to discover.

Adventure development and presentation

At the beginning of the campaign I sometimes use published modules, but mostly I design everything from scratch. My style of campaigning means that adventures tend to be outdoor/city adventures, often involving small bases, houses, taverns or warehouses, and very rarely involving significant dungeoneering. I like dungeons and I appreciate their classical feeling, but I find they involve a lot of preparation, a lot of artistic skills I don’t have, and a lot of feeling of same-sameness that I like to avoid. For my players, dungeons are a treat and usually exceptionally dangerous.

I often design my adventures, like my campaigns, as a series of interconnected scenes or fragments of vision, often quite self-contained even though they’re part of the whole. Often an adventure springs purely from a vision of a single moment – for example, an adventure set on Lundy Isle in Devon arose from a vision of my PCs fighting a battle in rock pools, against superior forces, using the pools for cover. I designed the whole island for an anti-smuggler adventure, included this scene as key (the dragon skull they were seeking was hidden at this beach) and we ended up having 4 memorable scenes, only one of them planned. My adventure plans usually contain:

  • an outline of what needs to be achieved, what optional activities are obvious, and any pie-in-the-sky stuff I think might be possible
  • Description of key antagonists and places
  • Long-term consequences for the campaign and the PCs of different decisions
  • Spare monsters in case of likely side adventures or digressions
  • Key maps

I rely on my ability to improvise the details to run through anything that arises from left field.

I don’t write descriptions, but if there are key images I need in descriptions I put pointers to them in my text. I also put reminders about key things the PCs have to learn. Sometimes I forget these and have to tell the players afterwards about something they discovered that I didn’t tell them. A pointer to a description might be something like “Make sure the PCs are impressed by the scope of the castle and its impregnability, and arrange for them to arrive at moonlight so its mana-rock glistens for them” (I have never actually done this description, but you see the point).

Interactions and play style

Usually, we play in the evening after work, we order home-delivered pizza or curry, we have a 30 minute to 1 hour get-together first to debrief from our days and rant about life, and we start sober and end up (often very) drunk. Lots of gamers seem not to drink when they play – my groups usually haven’t been like that. On occasion in the past, some of my group have been stoners, and both of these behaviours have led me to develop a strong style for dealing with what some people euphemistically call “deliberation” but which I call faffing. I like my players to plan, and I enjoy that they are always trying to triple-guess me because I’m “a bastard,” but I don’t like deliberation to take up the whole night, so at some point I come (drunkenly) wading in with my combat boots on, forcing people to decide a plan.

Usually deliberation gets out of hand because a) one player (and only one) won’t let go of their own idea, or b) the players have missed an important point which will crystalise their planning, or c) all the plans are equally good. In this case when it’s gone on long enough, I either a) overrule the whinger, or b) point out to the players what should be perfectly obvious, or c) step in and give them a strict time limit on their planning before I decide their plan for them. I do this because we only usually play for 3-4 hours once a week, and I like us to spend that time playing, not planning, so I think it’s the job of the DM to keep that play happening. If any players really object to the intervention I do, of course, leave them to it.

Also, because I’m “a bastard,” I have been known on the odd occasion or fifty to throw in misleading or outright untruthful suggestions, or to confuse things deliberately. If the players, for example, all turn to me with a knowing suggestion that I would have loaded the warehouse with traps, I do my best to ensure that I confirm their fears. I occasionally lie about what the enemy is capable of or might be doing. Sometimes I do the opposite, to try and make them think barging in will be sufficient. This sort of misinformation ensures that they don’t get too cozy with their player knowledge of rules and monsters, and I find it helps to keep the feeling of the game “real” (as in, aware of the risks being taken) even once the PCs become deadly.

Because I see it as the DM’s responsibility to keep the group happy, I also step in to make sure people get equal say, that really suicidal ideas get killed off, or that an idea someone is really unhappy with (e.g. “let’s raid the village and take some women slaves”) get vetoed.

Also, when I’m DMing, I’m happy for my decisions to be disputed but if the same player is doing so over and over I will refuse further disputes, or just adjudicate secretly. Or give in and vindictively at a +2 to my rolls later, or somesuch.

Managing combat

My systems are usually death-spiral, simulationist (?) combat systems, which require description on my part, and I try to do this as much as possible[2]. I encourage players to describe their own actions, I try to describe monster’s actions as vividly as possible, and I also like to get players to describe their spells. I have a standing rule that summoned monsters take a form suited to the environment of the battle, and I or the player describe them. I try to keep combat fast-paced, particularly if it’s important for the adventure, so I sometimes do 5-4-3-2-1 countdowns to encourage rapid player decisions, and this occasionally does mean players miss a go. I fudge dice if it suits the mood/flow/intent of the battle, or if I want to spice up an encounter, or because I designed a monster too tough or too weak (I design most of my monsters myself). I allow rules about spells and effects to be broken occasionally if it suits the flow of the game, and I try as much as possible at all times to maintain a bubble of action in which the players feel they’re there – I use PC names as much as possible, I reiterate descriptive points, and I keep a fast narrative to maintain a sense of action. I also tell people if what they’re about to do is going to be really ineffective under the rules, or suicidal, unless I think they know it and are doing it anyway for some reason[1]; but sometimes I lie or dissemble to encourage a sense of fear, for example if everyone thinks that the wizard is resisting a powerful spell because he has a counter-spell, but actually it’s just from good rolls, I’ll give the impression that the players are right so that they desist from the powerful spell and waste time on breaking his non-existent defences. Also, even with monsters the players know well, I try to keep an air of mystery about them so the players don’t know for sure whether an action succeeded or failed on its own merits, or because this incarnation of this monster is special. Conversely, if their enemy has powerful save-or-die magic, I try to engineer it so they have a chance to stop the enemy using that magic first, or some kind of ability to take defensive steps. For example, ambushing a party of much-loved characters with a powerful wizard stocked up with save-or-die spells is just mean. It might be realistic in some sense, but what about the phrase “powerful wizard stocked up with save-or-die spells” invokes any sense of realism?

A few other points

I usually do dramatic scenes in the voices and manner of the NPCs, though I don’t expect players to do the same (some do, some don’t). I can get angry with players when they refuse to engage with the system and scheme of the world we’re in, since we’re there to role-play; though I don’t object at all to players going role-play light and waiting for the next battle/puzzle. I sometimes veto character development plans if I think they will unbalance one player or make them a super hero; I sometimes design monsters specifically to attack a PC (or party) weakness. At all times I try to maintain an atmosphere of immersive fun, and imminent danger.  And finally, I think I do expect my players to understand that the fun for me is not in adjudicating the rules, but feeling like I’ve created a rich and intense world that they are enjoying playing in. So I expect them to get in and have a go and take my efforts seriously, and in exchange I try to look out for dissatisfaction or boredom on their part, and change things accordingly.
At the very least, this is fun for me – for my players, too, I hope, and I hope it’s at least vaguely interesting to anyone reading it…

fn1 : punishing people for not bothering to learn the rules or not knowing them all properly is, in my opinion, really juvenile

fn2: I think I actually found in later years of Rolemaster, where all this stuff has been taken care of in critical tables, that the combat got same-same, because everyone had heard the major criticals and their effects before, and I prefer to leave the descriptions to me and/or the player. So now I envisage an improvement to RM (which I don’t play anymore) as being a critical table which lists the rules-mechanical effects but leaves the description to the DM.