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DM Self Evaluation

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For about two years now I've been DMing a D&D 4E campaign in MapTools. In the interest of trying to improve as a DM I like to take a moment from time to time and take a look at how things have been going; what parts I've done well and which parts I need to improve. Normally I'd base a lot of this on table talk from the players, its pretty easy to figure out what portions they liked based on their commentary. Since we're playing online this source of information isn't as available, despite using ventrilo to talk there's less table talk when the players aren't face to face. Aside from sending them some sort of survey I'm not sure how I can get their opinions. I suppose the fact that the players are eager to come to the game every week says they aren't bored with it. There's no point in dwelling on details that I don't have, lets see what I can do with what I do have.

One of the main improvements I wanted for this campaign was to cut down on the amount of preparation I needed to do for each session. In the past it felt like I'd need to put in about an hour of prep work for each half hour of game time. Now I have twin boys that just turned 1 a week ago. If I have two hours total for prep time its a good week.

In general my approach to running a game is to let the players go where they feel is important. Along the way I'll drop in encounters and events. What I consider an event is typically some role play encounter where they’ll bump into an NPC or come across some puzzle, typically these events are there to give them some clue or plot hook to progress the story. In this way I can not only give them something to role play against, but it allows me to nudge them in the right directions.

This freeform style is where all that prep time would be spent. Since I tried my best not to railroad the players I was always guessing where they might choose to go. As a result I'd spend an exorbitant amount of time putting together contingency plans for every likely location they might explore. This became the obvious place to cut down the preparation, since everything I spent time on that wasn't explored was oobvious waste. What I've been trying now is to be more improvisational with the game, rather than trying to be prepared for everything.

On the positive side my prep work has gone down to perhaps 15 minutes for each half hour of game time, only 25% of what I needed before. Since the bulk of my planning is just writing down just the broad strokes (Major NPC goals and motivations, some regional detils like the government type and how the people react to adventurers, stuff like that), that material doesn't change much so I can put it together well in advance of when its needed. The bulk of my prep work goes to putting together a couple events or encounters that the party might come across. The trick I use there is to use the encounters no matter what; I'll pick out one set of abilities, then put together a few maps for the combat and different names and descriptions of the enemies so that they'd fit regardless of where the players are exploring. This ends up giving the players a lot more freedom to explore, since I don't have any need at all to coerce them into taking certain paths. Aside from that encounter work just about all of my prep work is all description and fluff I tend to get it done while walking my dog.

Unfortunately theres a down side to this method as well. Despite not specifically planning out areas; some of them will get more thought that others,even if I don't bother writing anything down. This makes the sessions a little inconsistent. In those areas everything is well described and nicely detailed with more talkative NPC's. Everywhere else descriptions are less vibrant and I'll toss in something that contradicts another portion of the story. I don't believe this is bad enough to break the immersion or flow of the story. As far as I know its not very obvious to the players, but that doesn't mean I don't notice it. The other major concern I have is that I have very little control on the game's pacing. Since I let teh players wander wherever they will, I can't always end the session at a good point, like a nice cliffhanger.

Thats all for individual sessions, the other area that gives DM's a bunch of work is adventure and campaign writing. Despite my intentions to improve my writing ability I haven't yet been able to do so. I think there are two main factors that make this difficult for me. First I've gutting my prep time, which cuts down my writign time since I don't have as much time dedicated to the game. The other problem is that I give the players a lot of control. Since they choose what quests and plot hooks to follow up on, I have a hard time figuring out how to squeeze in the details and events that comprise the larger story arcs of the campaign.

When I put together a campiagn I'll figure out what the villains are up too, then I’ll flip through the collection of modules I have for ideas on what sort of adventures the players will need to work through to thwart the evil doers. Then during the sessions I'll toss out various plot hooks until the one of them catches the player's attention. The idea is that once the players have set off to follow up on a plot hook I'll put them through one of the modules I picked.

The good part of this style is that the story is very malleable and easily adapts to the players perception of events and the actions that they take. If the players latch on to different ideas than I had in mind, I can quickly shift the story to suit them. That gives them a good amount of control over the story, and likely keeps them engaged with the narrative since their characters are important in whats going on.

The downside is that when I toss in a new plot hook or quest, I need it to lead to something. Which in turn means that I'm continually flipping through modules looking for something appropriate to use. In addition after about halfway through modules I tend to lose focus, and start cutting out sections to get the players to the finish quicker. The end result is that I churn through content extremely quickly. Since I don't use every module I pick out, or all of the modules that I do select, there's nothing stopping me from reusing them. I just have this mental hurlde that I can't use the same stuff twice in one campaign. Furthermore if my skills at writing interesting adventures were better, I wouldn't need to fool around with modules at all.

Something else that I've noticed is that all of my plots revolve around a single villain working almost in isolation. Thus far I've never had a plot where multiple factions are operating at the same time with overlapping goals. As a side effect none of my plots have ever really involved the politics of the nations they've been in. This keeps the stories fairly simple and straightforward, but I think they also end up being less interesting.

One last point that I've come to notice about myself, I seem to have certain biases that the players are able to draw information from. I have some deep set irrational antipathey toward elves. If the players come across one in the campaign, there's a safe bet they'll be working for Team Evil. Conversely I really like dwarves, so if you meet one of them you can be sure that he'll deal with you fairly and honestly. Its a minor thing since the majority of the NPC's I use are humans, so its not like they can get big spoilers from it. Definitely something I should try to mask a little better.

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  1. templeorder's Avatar
    Well... the thing to think of beyond all your criticisms is "Is the group having fun?" So, if both from a player and GM perspective, you are having fun, then acknowledge all your hard work FIRST. Yes, there's always ways to make it better. In fact, sometimes i make it worse for some of the group, for just one session so one player can get his particular type of roleplaying in... If you know some of your behavior patterns, you can obviously change them on purpose in order to throw a curve ball.

    I guess its always good to be self reflective, but if everyone is having fun there's no need to go too far afield. Tweak a few things to give your players a surprise and a challenge for yourself... but not at the price that it makes your job as GM harder or much more time consuming (unless thats really what you want).

    The only criticism i have of most GM's is the reliance on "modules" - i write all my own materials these days and that makes it a lot more difficult. However, its more rewarding. Maps i struggle with and sometimes use modules for that... but thats it. There's too much that goes a long with a module - i prefer to completely wing it and make it up on the fly with a few notes or have it all worked out ahead of time... using modules as filler, i find forced me into directions i did not want to go.
  2. Q-man's Avatar
    I agree with you 100%, if everyone is having fun then there's no need to make changes. That's the case we're all enjoying the game.

    As I mentioned some of the changes were required, the twin boys took away all my prep time so I needed to learn to improvise more. The writing isn't really needed, but I think it'll really improve the game. I don't have the ability to write what I feel are interesting modules and adventures, at least not something I'm excited to read.

    Fortunately by picking up on what the players are interested in I can keep them engaged. I still would like to improve that ability.
  3. templeorder's Avatar
    I have the luxury of the extra time... learning to improvise is definitely the way to focus. Thats just something you have to hone as you go... plus the level of detail and "flavor" expected by groups vary so widely thats its hard to give any advice in that regards other than keep a notebook with a few ideas written down you can drawn on as you go - just rudimentary notes or concepts you can adapt as needed.