Co-DMing: Heed Your Dungeon Mentor

2007 September 18
by Vanir

As Dante recently posted, he and I just finished up Co-DM’ing a 5-week mini-campaign for our group. Though I have played D&D for 20 years, I am admittedly not a particularly experienced DM. And as any experienced DM will tell you, you can take and dispense all the advice in the world — but it’s a whole different thing when you’ve got 6 players staring you in the face waiting for you to tell them what’s next.

A Disastrous Maiden Voyage

A few years ago, I ran a very short-lived campaign that was chock full of story and good roleplaying opportunities. Unfortunately, it was also my first try ever at being DM, and I crashed and burned. I had no idea what I was doing, and my wardrobe contained absolutely no pink shirts. Mostly I stressed out over the mechanics of combat, playing arbiter for rules lawyers, and trying to keep the plot on track. I was convinced after about two sessions that that DM’ing was just Not For Me and we ended the campaign on a really strange note that involved the Stupid Ranger’s character getting polymorphed into a gorilla and doing terrible things to the main villain. Terrible. I shudder to think of it even today.

A New Hope

However, Dante and our friend Eric recently co-DM’ed a campaign in which Eric wrote most of the story and Dante ran the adventure. This appealed to me because I really enjoy writing stories, and this way I didn’t have to worry about choking in the heat of the action. So he’d run the day to day operations and I’d sit behind the scenes and roleplay most of the major NPC’s. Easy, right?

And so, with Dante at the helm of this creaking juggernaut I’d created, we set sail for adventure. And the very first night, I learned a couple very important things about writing the backend in a Co-DMing situation:

  • Even if you’re not at the wheel, you still have to steer the boat.

    And to think I thought I could just sit back, relax, and watch events unfold!

    The party immediately started doing things neither Dante nor I were even remotely expecting. And the things they were doing that we were expecting were the ones we were hoping they wouldn’t do. Within 15 minutes of play, the players had all smelled various rats and were on high alert for trouble, and it was clearly evident that the big surprise scenario I wanted to end the night with wasn’t going to happen. Which brings me to my next point:

  • Don’t Railroad. It’s Not Worth It.

    If the party wants to do something completely off the map, let them. If you’re not prepared for what they want to do, tell them you need to quit and you can pick it up the next gaming session when you are more prepared.

    Why? Because if you make it such that the same result happens no matter what they do, you start to dig yourself into a trench of bullshit that even you don’t buy. Your story starts to make less and less sense as the game goes on, everything seems more and more forced, and the players feel significantly less like they are in control of the events going on around them and more like they are puppets in some elaborate yet very poorly-thought-out children’s program on Public Access Television.

    Unfortunately, this was the route I went (and made Dante go down, despite his protests). And sure enough, the very next session brought complaints from the players that things felt weird and forced.

  • If You Split The Party, Make Sure The Two Of You Can Communicate

    We had a wonderful ninja-type character played by our friend Katherine who had a very wonderful ninja-type thought of hiding in the shadows and waiting ’til dark while the party was off doing something else. And I say “something else” because I took her upstairs to play out what she was doing leaving Dante and the others to do their thing. I sincerely wish I’d thought to bring my laptop with me so that we might have communicated with each other. One primary problem was that, upon our return downstairs, they thought they’d been waiting around for all of 15 minutes before their ninja came back — when in fact, she’d not only waited until dark but had infiltrated the evil Chancellor’s castle. And been captured and interrogated. And set free hours later. Though Dante said nothing, his eyes spoke to me in words consisting of four letters.

    There were other times, like when the party got captured by Elves, and I took everybody individually upstairs to be interrogated. This whole time, I had envisioned a big stone building with no windows, and that is what I started describing when the players asked me. And it was about then that it came to my attention that Dante had been describing the area like a well-guarded grove of trees. Outside. I received several more four letter eye-words.

  • Especially If You Are A Newb, Listen To Your Dungeon Mentor

    There were a couple of times the first two sessions when I couldn’t figure out why Dante was getting frustrated with me. And now, in retrospect, it correlated almost exactly to points where I had decided This Is The Way It Must Go No Matter What. And he would always tell me something like “I dunno man, I’m not sure they’ll go for that.” And at the time, I was thinking “he just thinks the story should go a different way but this is MY VISION!

    Take it from me, your vision probably needs checked.

    In retrospect, it is glaringly obvious to me that this is where he noticed I was about to railroad people and tried very nicely to get me to relent. But as it always goes, you must let the train wreck happen before someone learns anything. And this is the way it went.

Fortunately, the campaign didn’t completely self-destruct. It took me one more session before I saw the error of my ways and began to atone for my sins. The next session, the party hungered for some battle, so we gave them some in the form of some NPC assassins. That session ended quickly because people weren’t feeling well.

We had planned to end the campaign with the next session, as we were nearing our finale. And when I arrived at his house, Dante spoke some terrifying words to me:

“Hey, how about you run the last one since it’s your baby?”

…. But that is a story for another time.

4 Responses leave one →
  1. ChattyDM permalink
    September 19, 2007

    I really like ‘lessons learned’ posts by DMs. Not that I need to know what went wrong, DMs way to hard on themselves, but to get to see how the DM saw it then and after.

    Even after 24 years doing it I still flub it up. But I agree with you on one things, let the players put the rails on the ground, not the DM.

    While we may all be more or less failed novelists, we can create a great setting and give the players the liberty they crave (just not complete liberty, your fun and thiers need to meet…)

  2. Yax permalink
    September 20, 2007

    Fun story. Letting go of your vision has to be one of the hardest things to do as a DM. But it is always worth it.

  3. kanati permalink
    September 20, 2007


    [shakes the magic dorito]

    This this still isn’t working dammit.

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