I’m sitting cross-legged on the floor of my friend’s living room. It’s my traditional spot: I’ve got a little table in front of me, just big enough for my laptop, my physical notebook, my pen, my phone and my dice.
Okay. Actually, there’s not enough room for all that, but somehow I make it work.
The whole group is here. We’ve been role playing together for years now. We’re solid together. We know each other’s strengths and foibles. We know how to play off of each other, how to create characters that will both mesh and clash in fun, interesting ways. I should be looking forward to an awesome few hours of gaming.
But I’m not. I’m fucking terrified. Why? Because tonight, I’m running this show.
I put myself through this particular hell every few months. Partly to appease the gaming gawds, partly to remind myself how different dungeon mastering is from writing a novel.
When I write, I have some control over my characters. Yes, sometimes they rebel. Yes, sometimes they surprise me. Yes, sometimes they even take the plot into their own hands, and the novel I end up writing only vaguely resembles my outline.
Case in point: I didn’t intend to write any of Crevlock Tower from Shoch’s point of view. But he wanted a voice. Especially since—um, you know. In the story, Jonac cut out his tongue. So it’s almost too easy for Aric, with the best of intentions, to define Shoch for us. But however much Shoch loves Aric, he won’t stand for that. That’s why he insisted on speaking for himself on the page.
But when that happens—when I sense a rebellion coming—I can stop typing and go for a walk. I can call a writing buddy and brainstorm some new ideas for the novel. I can figure out when to accommodate my characters, and when to nudge them back on track.
Unfortunately, everything in a game happens in real time. And the player characters do things I don’t expect ALL THE FRIGGIN’ TIME! And, yes, that’s theoretically a good thing. My gaming group is filled with smart, talented and generally awesome people. They come up with brilliant plans. Insane plans too. Plans that never occurred to me—so plans I didn’t, er, plan for.
And I can’t stop the game and go for a walk. I can’t phone a friend for advice. Nope, I’m supposed to roll with whatever is going on, right then and there.
Worse, these player characters—you know, the ones who just came up with the brilliant plan that’s going to upend my game? They’re the heroes of this story. They’re the ones who matter. The DM’s characters—those beloved creations of mine—need to be secondary. WTF? But those are my darlings! I don’t mind killing them. I don’t even mind the player characters killing them. But how can I treat them as secondary?
(Okay. I try not to mind. Sigh.)
Dungeon mastering and novel writing are not mutually exclusive skills. One member of our group proves that. His novellas are fun and gripping. And the games he runs? Superb. He puts our player characters front and center. His own characters are lively and memorable, but they never take over. No, we’re always free to roam, improve and sometimes demolish the detailed worlds he creates. And he rolls with all of it.
I want to learn those skills. I don’t aspire to be the greatest DM who ever lived. I’m not looking to run an enthralling, year-long campaign. But I would like to run a solid, exciting one-shot that leaves all the players with a smile.
Come on, gaming gawds. Is that so much to ask?