In the years after I wrote Through Dungeons Deep: A Fantasy Gamers’ Handbook, one thing that’s surprised me is how well the old-school role-playing games have held up, and how few important changes have been made in the newer editions. One thing that surprises me is that tabletop role-playing games are still done almost entirely by hand, with little in the way of apps to assist with the mechanics, dice, and table lookups. It’s still 1980 that way. But that’s okay. 1980 is a great vintage for role-playing games.
In the New Yorker article, it mentions that some people are using role-playing games therapeutically, especially with kids, building a variety of skills more or less incidentally to the fascinating play. I’ve actually done a little of this, hosting several sessions at Corvallis’ Social Communications Clinic, with a group of middle-school kids. It was exactly as much fun as a barrel of monkeys!
Though dating from the early Eighties, Through Dungeons Deep is back in print, through the miracle of, “it’s my company and I can publish what I want.” But it still gets excellent reviews. So check out Dungeons & Dragons, Through Dungeons Deep, or both!
How can you make your role-playing campaign run more smoothly and be more fun for everyone? Here are ten quick dungeon mastering tips for any campaign:
Supply paper, pencils, and dice.
Counting on the players to provide even their most basic requirements doesn’t work, so don’t try. Always have more sharpened pencils available than players. Bring lots of paper. Have more dice than you can possibly use.
2. Enforce a “No touching” rule.
Some players can’t keep their hands off the other players. This is disgusting and must be stopped before the other players abandon your campaign just to get away from the offenders. Declare a “no touching” rule and enforce it. Come down hard on even minor infractions, or when the game gets exciting, the offenders won’t be able to control themselves and will be pawing and pummeling the other players like six-armed monkeys on acid. (“No touching” also includes “No pretending to touch, no brandishing, no looming over the other players.” They need to stay out of each other’s personal space.)
3. Enforce a “Hands off other people’s stuff” rule.
Players are not allowed to touch other people’s possessions without permission, or read their notes, or use their laptops, or anything like that. In particular, anyone who knocks around someone else’s lovingly painted miniatures should be taken out and shot.
4. Side conversations are okay, but should be done away from the gaming table.
Suppose there are five players but you’re DMing a situation that involves only two of them. What do the other players do? Well, frankly, if they aren’t fascinated by the action involving the other two players, you’re better off without them. If they can go off somewhere (not too far) and amuse themselves until it’s their turn to role-play again, that’s great. Better than having bored and fidgety players annoying everyone else. If the other players go off and have a conversation, or watch TV, or play video games, fine. It relieves you of the burden of entertaining all of the players, all of the time.
5. Keep notes in a spiral notebook.
Or use some other method to keep your notes from scattered to the four winds. Loose sheets are horrible. Three-ring binders take up more than twice as much precious table space as a spiral notebook. Laptop computers are okay. Smartphones and tablets usually don’t allow a fast enough typing speed.
6. If you use a laptop for notes, set your editor to autosave very frequently.
You won’t like it if your computer crashes and you lose an hour’s worth of notes. I’d set autosave to five minutes if I were you.
7. Have a break every hour.
It helps. A lot. A 5-10 minute break adds a lot of pep back into the players and yourself.
8. Watch out for super-sized drinks.
A single giant soda can destroy multiple laptops and a lot of expensive gaming books if spilled, and you can count on it happening eventually. Use a separate table for DM materials or ban large drinks from the gaming area. This can save you a lot of grief.
9. End the session before you’re exhausted.
When a gaming session runs late, I gradually take fewer and fewer notes, and the next day I can neither find any notes nor remember anything from the last hour or so of play. I guess I’m running on autopilot. Apparently my unconscious mind is okay at dungeon mastering but not at keeping me informed. This isn’t good for me and it’s not good for the players. Wrap things up before your performance (or theirs) falls off too much. Do something else if it’s not time to go home yet. There’s no law that says the whole session has to be devoted to D&D.
10. When in doubt, ask the players.
Have you forgotten what happened in a long-ago session? Ask the players. Probably no one will remember the events exactly, but as soon as one player remembers something, anything, another will remember another detail, and in a few minutes, the whole sequence of events will be recovered. Works like magic.