Setting Expectations for Dungeons & Dragons
The Most Important Thing a DM Can Do At the Beginning of Any Game
A few weeks ago, I attended Origins Game Fair with three of my closest friends. (Full disclosure: All of us are fairly experienced DMs. Thus, we have a lot of opinions on Dungeons & Dragons. I consider myself a writer — first and foremost — and view any DMing as an extension of my desire to scratch that storytelling itch. But that’s a blog post for another time.) During our week at Origins, I played six sessions of D&D. The first night, Amy Lynn Dzura ran an adventure for us, which she had written. It was our best game experience of the week, by a long mile. Amy was great. The other DMs were all experienced and talented, and they each brought a different approach. But the experience wasn’t quite the same. Why?
Setting the Expectation
Amy did something the other DMs did not do. She started by saying (paraphrasing here), “I’m really looking forward to running this game. This is going to be fun.”
It’s amazing how this simple statement can improve the D&D experience. Let the players know that you’re happy to run this game and that you think it’s going to be great. I’m sure some of the other DMs were thinking this, but they never verbalized those expectations. Tell your players that you’re looking forward to the game. This statement requires little effort on your part, and it makes the biggest impact.
From some of the other DMs, I got explanations about how tired they were; I got reports about other events they were looking forward to; and worst of all, enthusiasm at the possibility of wrapping up the game early. What does it communicate to a player when you essentially tell them, “I can’t wait for this to be over?”
If you play a lot of D&D, maybe you’ve gotten jaded or bored? Another dungeon. Another dragon. Another group of players I will soon forget. In other words, I’m just here for the free badge and hotel room. While you might have run the same adventure over and over again, presumably, it’s new for the people at your table — and they are hoping for something amazing.
We need to reclaim that sense of wonder around a shared storytelling experience.
In many ways, Dungeons & Dragons is a flawed game. Rules upon rules that are constantly changing, encounters that are impossible to balance effectively, a logistical nightmare with seven people crowded around a tiny table in a noisy convention center . . . it’s a mess. However, D&D does ONE THING very well. It creates a shared imaginary moment — a perilous cathartic adventure that we must survive together. And when everyone is on board for the ride, it is one hell of an experience. But the game will inevitably fall flat if the DM looks like they don’t want to be there.
Practice this statement: “I’m really looking forward to running this game. This is going to be fun.” It’s your way of removing distractions, being in the moment, and creating a space where the people in front of you matter.
The DM is Not the Sole Arbiter of Fun
All this being said, it’s important to note that the DM is not the Professional Entertainer who operates merely for the amusement of the players. “Entertain me, Dungeon Master! Make this experience special, dammit!” I’ve sat next to players who made certain games sing. Engaged players can make the game fun, even with a lazy unmotivated DM. In fact, I’ve seen active players who are able to shake DMs out of their routine.
It’s important for everyone to take ownership of the experience. But the DM is going to set the tone. For DMs who have run this game year after year, we need to rediscover that enthusiasm, which first brought us to the table. Players may never know you’re having an “off day,” especially when you don’t tell them you’re having an off day.
The game works, despite itself, because relationships are so vital to the experience. As a DM, you are letting people know that for the next few hours they will be heard and valued. That’s powerful. Even if you aren’t a celebrity all-star DM, even if you aren’t great at voice acting, even if you don’t know all the rules, even if you aren’t a masterful tactician, even if you don’t own thousands of dollars worth of terrain and miniatures, you can make a huge impact just by being present with your players.