Sturgeon’s law states that “90% of everything is shit,” and there is nowhere that statement is truer than the world of gaming webcomics. In fact, it might be an understatement, as almost without exception, they are devoid of any humour or evidence of artistic talent. There is nothing intelligent or funny in them, just tedious video game references and senseless, unfunny violence. And when they attempt intelligent commentary, it manages to be even worse.
Yet, because I hate myself for reasons that only god and Woody Allen might have insight into, I still check in on a couple from time to time. So imagine my surprise when I looked at the other day’s Ctrl+Alt+Del, a webcomic known for being an even shittier knockoff of Penny Arcade turned into a shitty soap opera by way of a miscarriage strip and found it to be not only kind of funny, but also a very poignant illustration of some things not to do when DMing.
So, the premise is that the players are sitting down for a session of D&D. The first thing you will notice is that it is set in a tavern, quite possibly the most cliched beginning to any D&D campaign ever, and the first place where a campaign goes wrong. Personally, one of my rules of DMing is to never start your players out in a tavern, unless it is on fire.
Why don’t I like the tavern scene? Well, first off, we play D&D to have fun being heroes in our fantastic imaginary worlds. Imaginary worlds which don’t exist, and which generally can not exist. We want to be dragon-slaying badasses adventuring in awesome magical dungeons, not boring office workers in the grocery store on a quest for a box of twinkies. That’s why there isn’t a class called “Office Drone” in 4e (although I hear it’s proposed for Next, along with bringing back the “Use Rope” skill). Here’s the thing: this isn’t high school, and I’m not seventeen anymore. I can go to the bar in real life. I don’t want to spend game time roleplaying something I can do in real life without so much as a fake ID.
A session should always open with a bang. Start off with some action. Starting in a tavern is the opposite of that. It’s sitting around, waiting for the DM to hang a hook in front of you. It’s so boring that no wonder impatient players do silly things like stab the bartender or burn down the bar.
The tavern scene isn’t fun for the DM either. Rather than getting on with the story, the DM finds himself going through the motions of playing innkeepers and townsfolk, desperately trying to hook his players onto his predetermined plot so he can drag them along the little railroad he had planned out for them and getting frustrated with them if they don’t bite. Without any tension or action, tavern scenes wind up being boring, drawn out abominations that both the players and the DM want to get over with as soon as they can.
And the comic closes with a frustrated DM, left high and dry without material now that the players have not only killed the NPC that was supposed to give them the quest, but also ruined the big reveal he had planned. Presumably, the seventh panel lying on Tim Buckley’s cutting room floor had the players busting out a deck of Munchkin as they pass around the Mountain Dew.
So, what’s the solution?
First, we need to dump the notion that crafting adventure hooks and railroads is the way to DM. New DMs are taught this by pre-printed modules and organized play, and this style is reinforced by conventional wisdom and a lot of commentary on the craft. Even celebrated DM’s like Chris Perkins advocate that DMs should create railroads and attempt to conceal them from their players, then try to subtly keep them on track.
But, creating a plan that is dependent on the actions of the players is a recipe for trouble. Invariably, players will do something that you haven’t planned for. It’s going to cause frustration for the DM as he tries to cajole his “uncooperative” players back onto the little trail of bread crumbs he set out for them.
By ditching the predetermined plots, we don’t need to worry about the players going off the railroad when they murder an innkeeper or two.
The other thing we need to re-evaluate is whether things need to be acted out. Things like dangling an adventure hook in front of the players or figuring out how they know each other can be done in narration and Q&A. Shared storytelling also comes handy here; it’s a lot easier to paint the background to the adventure when the players are helping you. For example, if you let the players pick out what the McGuffin is, you are guaranteed to have a McGuffin that interests them.
Now, some this is going to require taking down that Berlin Wall that is the DM screen and relinquishing some narrative control to your players, but some walls need to be taken down anyways.
Ditch the hooks, ditch the railroads, and let the magic of shared storytelling take you to wherever your players desire. And never start out in a tavern unless it’s flaming!