Last month, we started to examine what it takes to run a D&D game session and got as far as the three basic skills that cover the lion's share of the DM's responsibilities-providing effective descriptions, resolving actions, and deciding how and when to reveal information. This month, let's conclude the examination with looks at two new and equally important topics-characterization and time keeping.
Your Game's Voice
The DM spends the bulk of any session describing the action. As DM, you must describe locations, events, actions, and characters. Properly describing this last category is particularly challenging. Before you even begin, you face an important decision that's likely to set the tenor of your entire campaign. To describe a character completely, you must describe not only that character's physical appearance but also what the character says and does. Sometimes, you must even describe how the character feels. Most DMs convey this information in one of two ways, which are best illustrated by example.
DM: You see a town guardsman on the road up ahead. He's asking you to come over, and he seems friendly.
PC: All right. I approach the guardsman. What does he want?
DM: He asks if you've seen any suspicious individuals out on the road this evening. Apparently, a merchant caravan was waylaid a couple of hours ago, and he's looking for the perpetrator. Something about the way he's asking, though, suggests that he's not telling you everything he knows about the incident.
DM: "You see a town guardsman on the road up ahead." (in a booming voice, as the guard) "Hello, my good fellow! Might I have a word with you?"
PC: (hesitant) "Hello, my friend. Is something wrong?"
DM: (as guardsman)"Oh, no! No, sir. I was just hoping to ask you and your friends here if you might have seen anyone...well, suspicious out on the road this afternoon."
PC: "Suspicious? In what way."
DM: "Hmm...I suppose you might say, well...let's just say suspicious."
These two opposing play styles neatly define and divide Dungeon Masters in the same way that "right handed" and "left handed" define and divide major league pitchers. When all else is equal, neither style is "correct" or superior to the other, but most players respond better to one style or the other. Similarly, it's usually difficult for a DM inclined toward the first style to run a game using the second, or vice versa. Since the style you choose-or, perhaps, the style that chooses you-has a profound impact upon the sort of games you'll run, it's important to understand all of the advantages and drawbacks of each method.
The first method is usually known as third person, a term you might remember from English class. In this case, the DM and players narrate the action in a neutral voice and refer to the various characters they play in the third person-just like Bob Dole used to refer to himself in his campaign speeches. In other words, if you're temporarily taking on the role of an orc and you want to insult one of the player heroes and threaten him with death, you might say, "The lead orc walks up to you and threatens you with death." Games run in a third-person style tend to place more focus on plot and less on characterization. In other words, after you've played in such a game for a while, you're more likely to remember the epic sagas that unfolded rather than the colorful characters that have emerged.
One of the real advantages of a third-person game is that such a style makes it considerably easier for shy players to participate fully in the action. Some players find it difficult to get a little silly, and the third person allows them to maintain a certain comfortable distance. Third-person games also tend to move faster than their counterparts because lengthy, intricate conversations are often summarized into a series of quick conversations. This is one of the characteristics of a third-person game that tends to result in an emphasis on plot, since a faster pace tends to mean that more things can happen during each session.
One of the myths about third-person gaming is that such a style makes it impossible for the players to create interesting characters. In fact, the third person sometimes allows you to easily convey certain subtleties that are difficult to get across in any other way. For instance, you might accept an invitation to lead a war party into enemy territory by saying, "I'll accept the king's offer. As I leave his chamber, though, the look in my eye clearly indicates that I do not relish the prospect of more bloodshed." Getting this point across using another technique might be much harder. In fact, this example nicely illustrates that the most interesting sort of characterization that emerges from third-person games tends to illustrate the deeper psychology of the characters involved in place of their simple mannerisms. It's often a bit harder to firmly create a character in the imagination of the players using such a method, but it's certainly possible.
The second method illustrated in the earlier examples is usually known as first person. In a first-person game, the DM and the players temporarily become the characters they are playing. At a minimum, this means that the players speak their dialogue exactly as their characters would say the lines. In other words, instead of "I walk up to the guard and ask him what's causing that commotion on the other side of town," you might say, "Friend guard! What exactly is causing all the unrest on the far side of the bridge?" In most first-person games, though, the players go one step further and speak in funny voices or use other mannerisms to better convey their characters. A fighter might speak in bold, confident tones, while a wise old wizard might scratch his chin a lot and quietly reflect before speaking. In other words, the players almost go so far as to act out their roles as though the game is a very special sort of stage play.
The chief advantage of the first person style is that it allows the players to easily convey their characters' basic mannerisms and attitudes. Players who are skilled in this style can very quickly create an impression of their characters in the imagination of the remaining participants, making it very easy for everyone to distinguish one character from another. Since the players who like this sort of thing tend to ham it up a bit, though, first-person games almost always progress more slowly than their third-person counterparts. In fact, it's quite easy for an accomplished group of first-person gamers to spend an entire session re-enacting a suitably social encounter, like a grand banquet or a ball. Of course, such delays aren't necessarily a bad thing at all. Even though it's entirely possible that no dice will ever hit the table and little "plot" will be resolved, these experiences can be a lot of fun, and they tend to help the players add depth and interest to their characters. The fact that such sessions don't require a lot of preparation on the part of the already beleaguered DM doesn't hurt either!
One of the big drawbacks to the first-person approach is the amount of stress it places upon the DM. After all, it's fairly easy for each player to invent a character voice or an interesting mannerism for his or her character, but the Dungeon Master often takes on the roles of several different characters each session! To keep things running properly, the DM must be a wellspring of funny voices and unique characterizations. Some DMs relish this challenge and enjoy the opportunity to grab the spotlight. Others quickly fall into a rut and use the same voices over and over again. Fortunately, most DMs who are drawn to the first person style are natural hams and it tends to take a while before repetition starts to become a real problem.
Again, the most important thing to understand at this point is that neither style is superior to the other. Don't try to force yourself to adopt a style that seems uncomfortable. Employ whatever style comes most naturally and try to take maximum advantage of its strengths while playing down its weaknesses. If you are inclined toward third person, this means preparing more plot for each session (due to the faster pace) and giving some thought to the deeper psychology of your NPCs. If you are inclined toward first person, it means designing encounters with plenty of opportunities for conversation and working out fresh voices and mannerisms for your NPCs.
One of your most important duties as Dungeon Master is keeping an accurate account of time as it elapses in the fictional game world. In other words, you should always know how long it takes the characters in the game world to resolve the actions they are currently undertaking. Sometimes the game rules will help you calculate these durations. The rules tell you, for instance, how long it takes a given character to walk from one end of the dungeon to another, or how long it takes a wizard to prepare her spells. Often, though, you must judge the timing of an action with only your common sense and real-world references to guide you. Suppose, for example, that the players decide to hire some laborers to dig a gold mine. How long will it take to sink the mine and start extracting ore? A month? A year? How long should it take to hunt for game or assemble a makeshift shelter out of tree branches?
Keeping an accurate account of the passage of time is important for a number of reasons. Inaccurate timing makes it difficult to gauge your responses to the players' actions and unfold whatever plots you have devised. Suppose you've decided that the players' stronghold has attracted the attention of a local burglar who plans to sneak in on the night of the next new moon. On the evening in question, the players happen to be returning from a dungeon when they decide to stop on their way home to ask a local sage to identify some treasure. Does the thief arrive at the stronghold before or after the players return? Obviously, the answer to this question will have an enormous impact upon how you decide to deal with the situation. This example is rather simplistic to help illustrate the point, but during the typical game session you're bound to encounter this dilemma in numerous and subtler guises.
Accurate timing is also crucial to resolving many situations arising directly from the rules. Suppose a wizard casts a sleep spell on an ogre. How much farther into the dungeon can the party go before the ogre wakes up and comes looking for them? Similarly, imagine an army of enemy soldiers advancing on the adventurers' stronghold. How many spells can the players' wizards manage to prepare before the army arrives and the battle begins? These are crucial questions, and you'll need to arrive at clear, consistent answers.
The good news is that keeping track of time is one of the DM's easier responsibilities. Try to get in the habit of maintaining a special scratch pad used just for time keeping, and make sure this pad is always handy. I like to mark a "D" on the pad for each day that elapses, an "H" for each hour, a "T" for each ten minutes, an "M" for each minute, and a check mark for each melee round (10 rounds make 1 minute). In other words, if the adventurers make a two-day trek to the nearest town for supplies, I mark "DD" on my timing sheet. If they pause for a meal as soon as they enter the town, I might decide that the meal takes about an hour and a half and I'll mark HTTT (1 hour and 30 minutes) on the sheet. Once I've marked down enough 10 minutes to equal an hour or enough hours to equal a day, I'll cross out those markings and replace them as appropriate. In other words, when I reach six Ts (for 60 minutes), I cross them out and replace them with an H (for a single hour). This system allows me to quickly compute the current day and time in the game world, which in turn allows me to time my plots and events accurately.
Closely related to the importance of accurate timekeeping is the concept of pacing. Another of the DM's many important responsibilities is keeping the events of the game moving at a brisk pace in order to keep the players interested. Getting bogged down in details or describing each individual tree the players pass during a long cross-country journey is a quick route to boredom. We touched upon the DM's ability to arbitrarily speed up play in last month's discussion of effective descriptions. It's important to recognize, though, that there are also situations in which it makes sense to slow down the passage of time to emphasize important actions. Fortunately, this concept is built directly into the D&D game rules. Under normal circumstances, game play proceeds in a free-form fashion, with the players announcing their actions somewhat haphazardly and the DM resolving those actions and passing whatever time he feels appropriate. Once combat starts, though, the game becomes more formalized, the players begin announcing their intentions in strict turn order, and all actions are restricted to durations of 6-second rounds to make sure that nobody accomplishes too much before others have an opportunity to react. In essence, combats take a disproportionately greater amount of real time to resolve than most other game situations, drawing additional attention to them and heightening the suspense that arises from them.
Although the D&D game calls for the use of formalized melee rounds and
initiative scores only to resolve combat, you should feel free to employ these
rules whenever you'd like to slow down play for effect, whether or not the players
are embroiled in a fight. It might make sense to use combat rounds while the
players cross a rickety bridge suspended high over a valley. Asking each player
to take formal turns describing his actions as he crosses the bridge not only
increases the drama of the encounter but also helps you decide who has an opportunity
to react should someone stumble.That wraps up another installment. Next month,
try the "Dungeoncraft" Pop Quiz to see what you've learned so far.
Time to pull out your back issues and start brushing up!