Be a Dungeon Master, not a Dungeon Novelist!

2007 August 21
by Dante

Novels are great. They’re good for stacking up to make your desk look impressive, a nice escape from the work-a-day world, and they even make you look cool on airplanes (so I’ve heard). They’re great places for linear stories to unfold, only a few writers have been so good to have their work transcend that paper cover and become truly “alive”.

You can use elements of novels in your campaigns, however take special care not to inundate your players with too much information. If you have to work hard to sound like you’re not reading, you’re probably reading too much. I’ve found that around half of my group will tune out if forced to listen to (or read) more than a short paragraph’s worth of description. Mostly, they want to become immersed in the story, not have the story told to them.

Don’t get me wrong: I am a strong proponent of having a vibrant and colorful world. I believe that you have to let your players explore and experience the world, and your job as DM is to sprinkle colorful descriptions around not force them to have all eyes on you as you read your five page description of eleven generations of the Elf Lords that have predated that guy you just walked by on the street.

I can’t exactly remember where this premise came from, but I really love it: Your players do not care as much about your plot and your NPCs as you do. I will amend that statement with some advice: have details, but don’t feel obligated to use all of them. Drop them in as the characters make spot checks, or interact with NPCs, or do their research at the wizard’s school.

It can almost feel like a video game cut scene when this is done incorrectly. As your characters walk into a town, you stop the group and read to them an intricately detailed description that you’ve been working on for six weeks. There’s a reason that video game makers usually include a way to skip those establishing shots. It’s because after a very short time the players get the gist of it and want to move on.

If it really fulfills you to have an ornate and colorful world and share it, do everyone a favor and write a novel. Take elements from that world and storyline and weave it into your campaigns sparingly.

Good writers create long stories that every reader can immerse themselves in and identify with. Good D.J.’s play music that the crowd wants to hear. Good Dungeon Masters create campaigns with just enough flavor to act as a vehicle for the player’s enjoyment.

Be a Dungeon Master, not a Dungeon Novelist.

4 Responses leave one →
  1. SirGeekelot permalink
    August 22, 2007

    I would add … “Be a Dungeon Master, Not a Dungeon Cliff Note”

    It’s easy to fall into the reverse of this by not sharing enough information.

    When crucial information is left out for purposes of not overwhelming your players then it can be just as bad.

  2. Vanir permalink
    August 22, 2007

    “if you stretch the string too tightly, it will snap, if it is too slack it will not play”

    little buddha FTW

  3. Dante permalink
    August 22, 2007

    I agree that too little is also a problem; there is a balance there to be struck. Swinging too far either way is, in fact, a dangerous game.

    I’ve found with the majority of the groups that I’ve been involved in over the years that less is more tends to work pretty well. It seems that most things that involve a measure of imagination and creativity tend to lend themselves better to being open for interpretation.

    As far as battles, puzzles, and character motivations go, you have to be clear with the details.

    I’ve found that over time, listening to your players as they interact and hearing what it is they want to experience can help you shape your environment in ways that both serve the storyline and satisfy their needs.

  4. Phil permalink
    August 24, 2007

    Man I use to be such a hog for details that I spent one year holding to the fact that my players were playing in a Sci Fi game while they were convinced it was a Fantasy game (t was a Shadowrun-like game where Dragons stole human genetic material, left earth and colonized a planet and created fantasy races to play with)

    It blew up in my face when I presented the players with signs of an alien invasion. They were so against the idea that they ignored all signs and actually set off in another direction (something they had never done and never did since).

    I’ve learned since then… 🙂

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