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Tips and Criticisms to become a better DM (I apologize I know this is long)

   
Tips and Criticisms to become a better DM (I apologize I know this is long)

Hi there everybody so I come to you today to get some friendly advice and opinions on how to become a better DM for my players. I have been DMing for around 4 years now and DM for 2 groups on the first group (changing from size 6 to 8 to 6 to 10 then to 4 and then to 5 *4 consistent players that have been with since the beginning) almost consistently every Friday night for about 3 years now and the second group on and off for 4 years 5 players who are always consistent (on and off because I am in college and these guys are from my hometown which I am at less than about an 1/4 of the year).

So I kind of feel it is neccessary to say what kind of campaigns I have done in the past so I'll start with what I gave group 1 and then what I gave group 2 and how long each of these campaigns lasted. To group 1 we had a basic campaign- lasted 3 months and they never left the city ended before they tried to solve the major plot points; a fantasy adventure campaign semi-military in nature- lasted 1 year and it took 2 months almost always to get to the next city ended before it came to a real end; an oriental campaign- lasted 6 months ended with epic death scenes where they were killed off in ways they just couldn't find unsatisfying as an end to the great lives and adventures their characters had built; a pirate/adventurer/airship campaign- lasted 1 year fell apart because of out of game drama and failure to move forward in the plot after a 8 months had passed. Currently we are running a celtic/nordic campaign that has been going for around 6 months now.

With group 2 we have been through a normal campaign (my first one)- 2 months ended abruptly; a psionic campagin- 2 weeks ended abrputly; an oriental campaign- 3 months and ended halfway through the plot; an underwater campaign- 2 months ended before they got to the major plot point; a evil one-shot campaign- 1 week was very productive; and finally another one-shot done in regular campaign setting- very successful very productive lasted 1 week.

BTW if you want more details on a specific campaign I did feel free to ask and I will fill you in on the details of how I set up the world.

So now I bring to you my questions, my concerns and above all else my need for your unbiased opinions on what I could do to improve the way I DM.

First question is how do you cut down on travel time without diminishing the value of what it is to travel in a world where they maybe 6 hours or more travel distance between cities? This for me has been one of my biggest challenges as a DM as when I have them traveling I often have no idea how to scale the time it takes for them to get there in game time into actual time I should invest to it via session time; in more than one occasion a lot of time was wasted traveling to the destination where the plot was rather than actually doing plot related activities. I don't want to just go oh and you guys travel for two days and then arrive at town B but yet I don't want to detail how they spend everyday traveling (especially for the adventure where the next plot related event could be a weeks travel away. I want to get just that right level so the characters can get the feel that travel is not just instantaneous and that days have meaning but yet be able to go through things quick enough that unless something important is supposed to happen on the way or they don't pick up some random side quest I have made it should get done in one night.

Second how detailed is too detailed. In the past I have been told by my players that among all the things I do best in a campaign is creating the actual word, I can spend hours and hours and hours on end creating characters, figuring out how the world works, making maps of cities (or entire continents), the politics, the social classes, the racial interactions, and even fabricated historical events, but sometimes I feel like I do too much; this became especially apparent when one of my players who was playing a bard asked if he could get a copy of all the things I thought a bard should know about important current and past events 10pages into typing it up I realized that even though he meant well he would not remember any of what I had typed if he even bothered to read it. So my question is where is a good place to draw a line and at what point do you think a DM should stop thinking "what if they ask about this" when concerning the world?

The third question is about trusting and respecting players without babying them and drawing the line between what is and isn't acceptable player conduct. I'll preface what I'm about to say with this, in the past I have done some things as a DM that have made me sick and tolerated behavior from players I wouldn't from my best friend. I believe as a DM there are a few golden rules you should have to keep players happy 1) Respect and listen to what they have to say they know what they like better then what you think they like (this includes asking players how they felt about the current session when it's over and asking what they thought about a campaign as a whole once it is finished) 2)Keep things chill most of the time, present them with a challenge when it seems necessary and don't ever put them in a no hope situation (ex. throwing CR7 monster at a level 2 party) and if you know something is going to be to a far degree more challenging tell them that your cranking things up a notch to spice things up 3) Make sure every character gets some time to show face and throw in their opinion in game 4) Don't railroad them unless absolutely necessary 5) Don't tolerate or be a rules lawyer I've found nothing ruins a session more than spending 1hour debating on how a rules should work rather than just freaking going with how you think it works because you are the DM.

There are of course more rules but sometimes I feel I don't know how to draw the line between babying and dictatorship. Ex. I once had a dungeon so hard that my friends called it the Demon's soul dungeon and have forever feared that I might make a dungeon like that again they also have a profound fear of any ancient door they see from an incident that can only be refered to as the "Silver Door" incident; I also once let my players completely destroy a campaign by letting them pick whatever race and class they wanted as well as having let my players in the past bully the crap out of me into allowing certain feats, spells, races, and rules. I need to know how do you know when you're being too nice or too mean to your players?

Four I need to know what you do about power gaming. In the past I have had massive problems with a power gamer who would find every possible way to make my life miserable (he single handedly forced me to go on every online forum I could find and note down any build meant for power gaming and ban any combination of really specific class, race, weapon, spell, or feat that could be used to do so); I asked him to stop multiple time but the story of his power gaming didn't end until the night he got the entire party accept himself TPKed by an entire town because he killed the town leader leaves the group to die then comes back to get the extra exp from killing the remaining people because he was strong enough all along to kill them without even suffering a single blow. My question is what do you do to stop power gaming and how do you handle it when a player does thing to inhibit the game playing experience for yourself and other players?

Five what do you do about people who refuse role play because they only want to roll play. I should say I don't think of dnd as a number game where you meet up with a bunch on numbers on a piece of paper, roll a dice add those numbers to the previous numbers and compare them to numbers your dm wants you to beat. On the contrary I love role playing, getting in character, and coming up with unique character personalities, and I love even more when my players get into their roles and cease to act like things are a linear video game where you kill things and get exp and loot but rather you are this person in this world doing these things while everything else is happening around you, where you have choice to how you act and a personality that defines you in this world. With the players in group 2 and the 4 consistent players in group 1 these guys are some of the best role players ever, halfling paladin who thought he was human bc he was adopted to a human family that lived in area where halflings were not a common sight, self-loathing halforc rogue/wizard who learned through the practice of archery and magic found that he had worth, barbarian elf that had developed a drinking problem because she wasn't excepted by her people for her brutish nature, and just many more awesome things. Then there are the players who don't role play but roll play...these people quite frankly sicken me. I've done my best in coaching and rewarding good role playing but sometimes it just doesn't seem like it's enough so I ask what do you do to get your players to role play rather than roll play?

I put some lines between your paragraphs. People are less likely to read a wall of text, especially when it's this long.

That's lengthy. Are you looking for tips on play-by-post or tabletop DMing? The tips can change slightly depending on the format of the game and the environment in which the players are playing, but let's see here ...

Quote:
Originally Posted by Aphiel1 View Post
First question is how do you cut down on travel time without diminishing the value of what it is to travel in a world where they maybe 6 hours or more travel distance between cities? This for me has been one of my biggest challenges as a DM as when I have them traveling I often have no idea how to scale the time it takes for them to get there in game time into actual time I should invest to it via session time; in more than one occasion a lot of time was wasted traveling to the destination where the plot was rather than actually doing plot related activities. I don't want to just go oh and you guys travel for two days and then arrive at town B but yet I don't want to detail how they spend everyday traveling (especially for the adventure where the next plot related event could be a weeks travel away. I want to get just that right level so the characters can get the feel that travel is not just instantaneous and that days have meaning but yet be able to go through things quick enough that unless something important is supposed to happen on the way or they don't pick up some random side quest I have made it should get done in one night.
The biggest thing I can recommend here is to remember that DMing is very much like narrating a story. As a DM, you have to lead players along and connect them to plot points when necessary. If you read a story, does the author give you every single detail in a six-hour tour? Most likely not, not unless that author doesn't care about keeping the readers interested. Pick some interesting points that are worth raising about the travelling, some landmarks that might spring forth some historical significance to a character who has Knowledge (history) as a skill.

Speaking of skills, have them encounter trials and tribulations through the travel. In stead of always having the group overcome a random monster encounter, have them use their skills and overcome a drastic change in climate, terrain, etc. Make the players collaborate through the use of their skills.

Other than that, force them to roleplay through an NPC encounter or take advantage of the roleplayers in the group to help drive this. Maybe during the travels, a character steps up and demands that he needs to know more about the people he's working with before he can commit to strategizing with them. It's a perfect opportunity to have characters go on diatribes about their past, the skills they bring, and how they see themselves fitting in the group.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Aphiel1 View Post
Second how detailed is too detailed. In the past I have been told by my players that among all the things I do best in a campaign is creating the actual word, I can spend hours and hours and hours on end creating characters, figuring out how the world works, making maps of cities (or entire continents), the politics, the social classes, the racial interactions, and even fabricated historical events, but sometimes I feel like I do too much; this became especially apparent when one of my players who was playing a bard asked if he could get a copy of all the things I thought a bard should know about important current and past events 10pages into typing it up I realized that even though he meant well he would not remember any of what I had typed if he even bothered to read it. So my question is where is a good place to draw a line and at what point do you think a DM should stop thinking "what if they ask about this" when concerning the world?
This is a tougher question to answer. Being extremely detailed is good, but I think the line is something that can only be drawn when you get a feeling of your players and their expectations. Having a player ask for every detail about a location is just a risky request that could turn the player into a glutton for punishment. Keep things general and leave the specifics to when they ask for specifics or when they make good Knowledge rolls that allow for them to receive specifics. It's not like bards have eidetic memories. I like to think they're generalists who rely on keeping journals to capture the finer points. That, or they have to think about a subject for a while before their memory fully recalls the finer details of a subject.

Also, if a player wants to know every gory detail about a place, make them work for it! That's what Diplomacy and Gather Information are all about. Even characters who spend years in a certain location don't know everything there is about that location.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Aphiel1 View Post
The third question is about trusting and respecting players without babying them and drawing the line between what is and isn't acceptable player conduct. I'll preface what I'm about to say with this, in the past I have done some things as a DM that have made me sick and tolerated behavior from players I wouldn't from my best friend. I believe as a DM there are a few golden rules you should have to keep players happy 1) Respect and listen to what they have to say they know what they like better then what you think they like (this includes asking players how they felt about the current session when it's over and asking what they thought about a campaign as a whole once it is finished) 2)Keep things chill most of the time, present them with a challenge when it seems necessary and don't ever put them in a no hope situation (ex. throwing CR7 monster at a level 2 party) and if you know something is going to be to a far degree more challenging tell them that your cranking things up a notch to spice things up 3) Make sure every character gets some time to show face and throw in their opinion in game 4) Don't railroad them unless absolutely necessary 5) Don't tolerate or be a rules lawyer I've found nothing ruins a session more than spending 1hour debating on how a rules should work rather than just freaking going with how you think it works because you are the DM.

There are of course more rules but sometimes I feel I don't know how to draw the line between babying and dictatorship. Ex. I once had a dungeon so hard that my friends called it the Demon's soul dungeon and have forever feared that I might make a dungeon like that again they also have a profound fear of any ancient door they see from an incident that can only be refered to as the "Silver Door" incident; I also once let my players completely destroy a campaign by letting them pick whatever race and class they wanted as well as having let my players in the past bully the crap out of me into allowing certain feats, spells, races, and rules. I need to know how do you know when you're being too nice or too mean to your players?
Simply put, let the players know what you expect and ask them what they expect from you. This can be a private conversation with each player or an open forum conversation, I suppose, but it probably depends on the relationships you have with them outside the game or in previous games and what kind of relationships the players have with one another. Once this is established and agreed upon, set the ground rules.

As the campaign progresses, you might want to revisit these ground rules. People change.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Aphiel1 View Post
Four I need to know what you do about power gaming. In the past I have had massive problems with a power gamer who would find every possible way to make my life miserable (he single handedly forced me to go on every online forum I could find and note down any build meant for power gaming and ban any combination of really specific class, race, weapon, spell, or feat that could be used to do so); I asked him to stop multiple time but the story of his power gaming didn't end until the night he got the entire party accept himself TPKed by an entire town because he killed the town leader leaves the group to die then comes back to get the extra exp from killing the remaining people because he was strong enough all along to kill them without even suffering a single blow. My question is what do you do to stop power gaming and how do you handle it when a player does thing to inhibit the game playing experience for yourself and other players?
You're the DM, just put a stop to it. The obvious solution is to politely ask the player to stop and, if it doesn't stop, politely ask them to leave the game.

But I suppose this is closely tied to question #3, so you might want to work with the players on coming up with criteria on what exactly is considered powergaming. From this, you can come up with ground rules. Flawless character optimization is an example of powergaming to me. From a real-life perspective, people aren't flawless. They learn from mistakes, so having characters who progress to become perfect, well-rounded gish demigods by 10th level just doesn't make any sense, so I like to nip this ridonculous behavior in the bud right away. For example, I don't let players start with classes that fall outside the core books right away. Their characters need to start off as traditional classes, and it's only at, say, 5th level that I allow players to inquire about supplementary books for feats and classes and spells, etc. that are outside the core rules. There are exceptions to this ground rule, of course, especially when there might be something that can only be acquired at an early level, but we cross that bridge on a case-by-case basis.

In addtion, I want to know what classes the players are interested in advancing to a level prior to the advancement. This not only helps with storytelling, plotting appropriate NPCs and general roleplay, but it forces me to think about their characters and try to foresee any potential concerns with the ideas presented. For instance, I don't usually allow players to dip their character into a class for only 1 level, not unless they have a really good reason to do so. Typically, a 1-level dip looks too suspicious and most likely means the player is doing some creative accounting to optimize their character.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Aphiel1 View Post
Five what do you do about people who refuse role play because they only want to roll pls y. I should say I don't think of dnd as a number game where you meet up with a bunch on numbers on a piece of paper, roll a dice add those numbers to the previous numbers and compare them to numbers your dm wants you to beat. On the contrary I love role playing, getting in character, and coming up with unique character personalities, and I love even more when my players get into their roles and cease to act like things are a linear video game where you kill things and get exp and loot but rather you are this person in this world doing these things while everything else is happening around you, where you have choice to how you act and a personality that defines you in this world. With the players in group 2 and the 4 consistent players in group 1 these guys are some of the best role players ever, halfling paladin who thought he was human bc he was adopted to a human family that lived in area where halflings were not a common sight, self-loathing halforc rogue/wizard who learned through the practice of archery and magic found that he had worth, barbarian elf that had developed a drinking problem because she wasn't excepted by her people for her brutish nature, and just many more awesome things. Then there are the players who don't role play but roll play...these people quite frankly sicken me. I've done my best in coaching and rewarding good role playing but sometimes it just doesn't seem like it's enough so I ask what do you do to get your players to role play rather than roll play?
I flat out ask players if they like roleplaying before they start a game. On here, it's kind of like HR recruiting. You have players submit applications for your game and you look at their "cover letters" and "resumes". Doing some digging on players helps too. Look at how they play in other games, see if they have consistent post rates, and try to determine if they actually appreciate storywriting when they convey their characters.

I hope this sort of answers your questions.

Also and I know this may sound strange I have never really gotten to be a PC in a campaign before, most of my friends dread and fear the idea of being a DM and I could easily say the number of times I've been a PC in any campaign could be counted on one hand as could the number of weeks I've spent being a player. Would you say that this is a problem that can effect how will you will be a DM since you don't really have the empathy to know what it's like to be a player?

I mostly agree with everything pisceanpaul said, but have a few things to add to his points. I've numbered them rather than quoting because I'm a little lazy.

1. You can go too far with making traveling interesting. Sometimes, it really is better to just skip it. If there's nothing plot related to do during the travel, you don't have to wedge something in there to make it interesting every single time. Change it up and skip it sometimes, put something in other times. Malaise comes from everything always being the same.

2. Worry about things that relate to the plot to the detail level. Have a broad strokes idea about everything else. you do not need to know everything there is to know about Kingdom X. You only need to know what it's generally like, if it has any unusual quirks, if there's anyone of importance there, and what you're expecting to happen there. From that information, you should be able to improv anything else you need on short notice and fill in later for things that you can't.

Your players do not expect you to have dissertations on every single person, place, or thing to be found in the entire world. When the player asks what a bard should/would know about place X, he's asking what's special about it that could directly impact the PCs/quest. He doesn't care if SoAndSo is the mayor, unless he needs to interact with the mayor. Keep your infodumps restricted to things that actually matter.

3. You have some good ground rules already. The line where you cross into tyrant or rube is tough to find and just takes practice. When everybody is having fun, you're doing it right. If people are annoyed, or you feel like you can't find a way to actually challenge them, you need to adjust.

4. I don't do what pisceanpaul does. My most important thing is to reserve the right to require someone to change their build at any time when it's causing problems. I don't have to do it very often, but when I do tell a player they need to change something because it's breaking my game, if they don't like it, they can walk. Anyone who can't accept that the GM is the final arbiter of the game can go, as far as I'm concerned.

It sounds like you have a particular person who's causing a problem, though, by being demanding at the same time as powergaming. If you want that person to continue to play for whatever reason (I shall not judge about that), and you aren't comfortable saying no or asking him to rebuild, target his mechanics. If his build does X thing really, really well, avoid situations where X is most useful. If you can't do that, put in situations where his weaknesses really shine as glaring points, and/or add something where X actually causes problems. There's no such thing as a perfect legal build. Use that to your advantage. WARNING: Doing this a little is fine. Doing this a lot is passive-aggressive behavior, which is kind of dickish. it's okay for a character to be good at what he does, he just shouldn't dominate the game.

Incidentally, if it doesn't seem like he has weaknesses, he's either cheating somehow or using rules that are meant to be kept in check by DM intervention. Take a good, long pore over the sheet and make sure you understand how it all is supposed to work.

5. If someone doesn't want to roleplay, there may not be anything you can do to change that. Not everyone is up for the RP train, especially in person. The bottom line is that if everyone is having fun, it doesn't matter how much people are RPing. One person who's quiet and doesn't annoy anyone while the RP is going on, but participates in the combats and says he's having fun, isn't a problem. If they're disruptive and ruining everyone else's fun, that's another story - that kind of person doesn't need to be there.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Aphiel1 View Post
Also and I know this may sound strange I have never really gotten to be a PC in a campaign before, most of my friends dread and fear the idea of being a DM and I could easily say the number of times I've been a PC in any campaign could be counted on one hand as could the number of weeks I've spent being a player. Would you say that this is a problem that can effect how will you will be a DM since you don't really have the empathy to know what it's like to be a player?
Perhaps, but then the inverse can apply too. A lot of players might not have a full appreciation of what's involved in DMing either. One DM strategy that might work is to have an NPC that is part of the PC group, that way you as a DM could sort of play this character along with the players' PCs. Be careful with this approach though because some players might think your NPC is actually a wolf in sheep's clothing, so you might have to tell them flat out that your NPC is part of the campaign for the long haul or you could just prove the NPC's loyalty by having him bolster the group. I find Bards are perfect for this role, and they're also great for bringing forth information that the PCs might need.

There's also the potential for the NPC to become the stereotypical DMPC. However, I find that support type characters--as pisceanpaul says, Bards are perfect for this--have less danger of heading down that road.

I don't think that including such an NPC because you haven't had enough of a chance to play is the best reason though. Because you can't really play and DM at the same time, the experience of running an NPC in the party is far removed from playing a PC under another DM.

You may have better luck convincing some of your players to DM one-shots, perhaps the Halloween game (if your group does one). That could help you get experience playing, as well as letting them see what it's like to be in the hot seat. I find that those who've tried their hand at DMing, even once, are often better players for it.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Morph3us View Post
There's also the potential for the NPC to become the stereotypical DMPC. However, I find that support type characters--as pisceanpaul says, Bards are perfect for this--have less danger of heading down that road.

I don't think that including such an NPC because you haven't had enough of a chance to play is the best reason though. Because you can't really play and DM at the same time, the experience of running an NPC in the party is far removed from playing a PC under another DM.

You may have better luck convincing some of your players to DM one-shots, perhaps the Halloween game (if your group does one). That could help you get experience playing, as well as letting them see what it's like to be in the hot seat. I find that those who've tried their hand at DMing, even once, are often better players for it.
In the first campaign I was ever in, our party was a bit small and the DM made a Player Character. I have to say, this is one of my best experiences with DnD because the Dm was able to tell large parts of the story through this character in a way where it felt like we were discovering the world he created together. Of course he was the only one who know the story, but his character was a great tool for covering holes in the party that we couldn't. Even though we all knew who the DM was, when he played a PC, it changed the tone a lot.

That said, playing a character while DMing is REALLY hard. I find that I have a lot of trouble doing it because of the way I tell a story. The DM I just talked about was very good at it because he naturally tells a large part of the story through NPCs and conversational means. This method is really dependent on what style you use when you DM. If you think it is doable, try it, but if it doesn't work, know when to try something else.




 

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