If there was nothing else to recommend about organized play, do it just to experience gaming with different GMs. If you’re lucky you’ll get an awesome one like Andy who DM’d my PHB3 Game Day game, and if you’re unlucky you’ll get some GMs like I experienced two weekends ago at PAX East. I have to say our regular DM (Sarah Darkmagic) has spoiled us to the point that at first I was incapable of comprehending a bad DM. Eventually I realized that I was dealing with a bad DM and for the sake of my precious time and the fun of D&D, I tried a few things to deal with it. Below I’m going to present the bad behaviors of the first DM I encountered in the Dark Sun game I played in. I want to state that the DM was not a bad guy, he was a pretty decent fellow. Also I have to give props to him for volunteering his time to run a game for strangers. Secondly, I don’t know this personm so I don’t know what else was going on in his life, the amount of sleep he got the night before, sugar levels, etc. Also he did not exhibit the bad behaviors all the time, and I am sure they were due to oversight, inexperience, or adherence to an incompatible gaming philosophy from mine. That said, the following may be experienced by any player from time to time:
- Unpreparedness. It may be hard to blame the DM for this one (for all I know he was handed the adventure 3 minutes before we started), but it’s hard to get into a game when the first 20 minutes are spent waiting for the DM to read the module. Granted this was better than if he just made stuff up because we wanted to experience this specific adventure. But, it’s too bad that we missed out on a few cool features of Athas because he probably missed it in the cursory glance. Also I felt like there should have been “Loading…” screens between encounters while we waited for him to buffer the adventure into his brain. This scenario is something I wouldn’t expect in a home game, unless the GM comes with a fresh module to run.For this situation I think I did the right thing by showing the DM patience. There’s not much a player can do with a specific adventure without know how it is supposed to go. In a non-organized play situation any player can take charge and start some action. This will create something for the GM to respond to, and if she is sharp, bring the other players in as well. While the ensuing action may not be right for the module, it’s always good to get things going and the GM can bring the story back on track later. If it’s later on in a session, any player can call a break for 5-10 minutes to give the GM time to read over the scenario while the rest of the players plan their moves or get some snacks. She’ll probably appreciate the extra time. In my game bag, I always keep a few small games and movies as well; sometimes the group just needs an extra week to prepare and that’s okay as long as you all still have fun.
- Unfamiliarity with the rules. I have been playing D&D for over 20 years and I can’t come close to understanding the rules. At least once a week I get a rule wrong (and there aren’t that many in 4e). Because of the of constant debating of rules I am quite confident about about certain ones that come up often with our group and we have successfully resolved. Things like line of sight, grappling, charging, dazed, and stunned. I have a lot of sympathy to the GM who has to adjudicate rules, and I don’t mind even if they rule wrong as long as I get a fair hearing. What I don’t like is a GM who gets the rule wrong and won’t even consider it. It’s one thing to hear arguments and rule quickly so the game can continue, but another to just say “No” without listening or glancing at the PHB open to the appropriate section.When this happened I let it go rather than fight. This situation wouldn’t come up in my regular group, but if I had a DM that would game with again, I would accept the ruling at the time and bring it up after the game in a calm conversation with the evidence to back up my interpretation. If the DM still refused to listen, I’d politely demand their reasoning, and if unsatisfactory (“because I said so”, “I don’t want to go back on a ruling”, etc) and I’d look for a new game. I understand not everyone has the luxury to find a new game, so I’m curious how people might deal with an unlistening DM and keep gaming with him or her?
- Lack of Enthusiasm. Everyone’s got his own degree of comfort acting around the table, especially with strangers (but who are D&D’ers to judge each other?), but no matter how mechanical and dice-rolly the group might be, if one player wants to role play, the DM should encourage it. Not only was this DM not encouraging but he himself wasn’t that into it. Image in your most monotone voice: “The crowd goes wild, roaring with excitement. Gazal shouts ‘Release the creature, and die for the glory of King Kalak!’” Yeah it was like that.If I were giving advice to DMs, I’d tell them to fake the enthusiasm for the benefit of the group. In this session I didn’t want to call out the DM for not playing it up, so I faked my own enthusiasm. I have to admit that I was pretty tired and without the encouragement of the DM I wasn’t able to sustain it, but at least I tried. I also tired to encourage the other players with their role playing, by responding their actions in character and supporting their characters’ decisions. Not everyone can bring it every week, and so when you have the energy, players should step up and take on the mantle of their characters.
- Adversarial role. I don’t know if it’s age or experience, but I definitely felt the DM had a little adversarial relationship with us. It wasn’t anything explicit like overpowered monsters, just more a glee when someone took damage or frustration when we were doing well. The latest hotness in DMing is the “Philosophy of Yes” where the DM encourages the players to be creative. For example during the skill challenges when suggesting using a skill he said “explain to me how you use it” and instead of working with it or accepting it and using a high DC, he said “no, you can’t do that.” Also despite what it said in the module, he did not let us some skills multiple times (see next item).There wasn’t much I was able to do to counter this without getting confrontational, so I just kept guessing until I found an avenue that worked for the DM. As for the combats, he wasn’t out get us so much as “make us earn it” and so were able to slog through to eventual victory. I don’t have any good advice for players here other than talking to the DM outside of the game and discussing how to make the games smoother, and chipping in to buy him a copy of the DMG 2. I’m interested to hear your advice on this matter.
- Letting the story drag. Primarily around the skill challenges, it felt like were playing 20 questions, and he was content to sit there for 10-20 minutes while we racked our brains and character sheets instead of suggesting what options were available. A great DM will use even bad suggestions by latching on to them as clues to your thought processes and turning them around to guide you.What we can do as players is try our best to work within the GM’s framework to drive the story on. When that doesn’t work, using increasingly direct questions to illicit the next steps. Start with general investigation “What else can you tell me about the NPC? Is there anything useful in reach? Do you think Nature might be applicable here?” then move on to, “we’re all out of the obvious options, what else might our characters consider?” all the way up to “it seems we’re stuck, what have we as players missed that our characters might know about this situation to help us move forward?” And if that doesn’t work, call a break and have a heart-to-heart.
I don’t want to end this with a list of all the things that GM did wrong. There were a things he did that impressed me:
- Preparedness. Although he didn’t read the adventure, our DM did come equipped with appropriate minis, pencils, books, at least a cursory familiarity with Dark Sun, and DMing experience. The combats themselves moved as quickly as the dice allowed and they were certainly interesting and fun.
- Let us try things. Even though he made it difficult and rejected a whole bunch of ideas, he was at least receptive to letting us suggest what we wanted to try. Also he did give some freedom in the chase scene and helped us figure out how to catch up with the bad guys.
- Friendliness. The guy was good-natured and overall worked well bringing a group of strangers together. I certainly appreciate his time and willingness to DM.
I think I’ll leave it there and talk about some of the other DMs I encountered another time. Anyone have some interesting stories about convention DMs (good or bad)?