The Actor’s Guide to Dungeon Mastering: “Yes, and…”
Lots of people have contacted me to say how much they enjoy the DM work I’ve performed during season two of Sci-Fi Writers Playing Old School D&D. Some have asked for tips or advice…
My approach to serving as Dungeon Master comes from a (distant) background in acting. Fun fact: I was a theater major in college, but I switched to journalism and public relations for reasons of the heart. I loved acting and theater…still do! And think that some of the principles lend themselves perfectly to D&D. So what follows is the Actor’s Guide to Dungeon Mastering!
Dungeon Master Lesson One: “Yes, and…”
Are you familiar with Second City or the Groundlings? If the names don’t ring a bell, the alumni will.
Martin Short, Tina Fey, John Candy, Will Ferrell, Jimmy Fallon, Chris Farley, Stephen Colbert, Catherine O’hara, Bill Murray, Steve Carrell…
All of these performers worked with one of the two improv troupes, honing their craft. Now I’m not here to teach improvisational theater, there’ s a reason I’m an author and not an acting coach. But one of the first concepts you’ll learn is that of “Yes, and…” It’s a rule of thumb that teaches you to accept what someone has says and expand on that line of thinking.
That same concept is essential to creating an enjoyable dynamic when serving as Dungeon Master. A lot of DMs have a tendency to run their campaign like authors writing a story. The player characters are there only to advance a narrative within their own mind. And so a lot of time is spent bending players to the DM’s will, even if it goes completely against the character’s motivations. No fun for anyone.
Pro Tip: Writers who make their characters act out of character to meet a narrative goal are bad writers.
I play once a month with a group of authors. In our last session, the narrative called for a simple meeting in an old inn. Meet the NPC and reveal the necessary plot point so the party can move on to the monster-filled playground and have some real fun.
Only, the meeting didn’t happen.
The characters decided a better plan of action would be to rob the inn’s wealthy ( and powerful) owner of all they could stuff into their covetous little pockets. I wasn’t quite prepared for this. I prepared monsters for later the next section. I prepared an NPC who would show up and spin a story and get the party moving. I prepared for the story to keep story going. The party had other ideas.
As DM, I had the ability to force the players into the meeting room in order to get the show on the road. Doors with impossible locks, conveniently posted guards, the arrival of the party’s contact sooner than expected.
So we went with it, and by the end of the session one of our wizards was bleeding on the floor and attempting to light the inn on fire, two more players had jumped through second story glass windows into a river below, and the rest were seeking to parlay with the man they had so recently robbed blind. It’s the most memorable session we’ve had so far, and I can’t wait for the episode to air.
The narrative will always come around. Don’t force it. Play with a “Yes, and…” mentality and you’ll create the sort of experiences your party will bring up as inside jokes for years to come. And that’s the whole reason we play, right? Go have fun!
Sci-Fi Writers Playing Old School D&D.
A group of authors gather together and play vintage Dungeons and Dragons modules, plus collaborate on a homebrew campaign. Listen every week for hilarious high adventure!