Saturday, February 28, 2015

Dungeon Master Appreciation

by Jeff Easley. Raistlin was my first DM's favorite character.

Wizards of the Coast has decided that February is DM Appreciation Month and it's a nice gesture. Dungeon Masters are definitely the unsung heroes of role playing games. They're the ones who spend the time between games writing adventures, statting out NPCs, fleshing out towns, mapping out dungeons, double-checking rules, etc. In my experience, players that have never ran a game before are usually surprised by how much effort actually does go into preparing a game session. So why do all of this work? Because we love it. Because the game must go on. So I think it's nice to spend some time aknowledging this hard work and the people who do it.

In the spirit of WotC's "DM Appreciation Month" I would like to offer up my thanks to my first DM: Jeremy. He and I met by chance when he noticed me with a magazine article featuring the goddess herself, Tori Amos, and struck up a conversation. (In the early 90s in southeastern Ohio meeting a fellow Tori fan was an occasion you didn't leave unremarked.) Well as we get to talking he casually mentions that he plays D&D. Now at the time I knew something about D&D despite having only played it once when I was about 5 or 6 (a story for another time) because I had been fascinated by the game. Having lived through the "Satanic Panic" of the 1980s the name Dungeons & Dragons came up frequently, and as a kid who loved fantasy I was more than intrigued. A game where you play knights and wizards and it pisses off old, superstitious people? Sign me up! Alas none of my friends at the time played D&D nor were they interested, so my infatuation with the game was to remain unsated. But not anymore! I explained to Jeremy that I knew what D&D was and had always wanted to play but never really had the chance. Without missing a beat he invited me to his house that weekend so I could learn.

After clearing it with my mother (yep, we were that young) I spent the night over at Jeremy's that Friday. When I arrived he immediately started showing me his collection of books and hands me a blank character sheet. It's funny to think back how foreign that looked the first time I saw it, when now I can, and have, recreated AD&D character sheets from memory. Anyway, he quickly asked me some questions to get a feel for what type of character I would most-likely want to play. I told him that "I loved elves" and that "the more flamboyant the better." He explained bards and I stopped him right there. The look on his face should have told me something. Looking back I don't think he was thrilled with that choice, but to his utmost credit he never tried to dissuade me. He just explained that bards were "terrible fighters" and suggested if I really wanted to play one that I should probably look into multiclassing as a fighter. After a brief explanation of what that meant I was sold. My first character was going to be a fighter/bard.

Now the question of race was a little easier. Having already proclaimed my love of all things elven (elvish?) Jeremy was thrilled. Elves were his favorite race too! "But man if you like elves" he told me, "you're going to love drow." Having explained that drow were just elves that lived underground and were cooler I readily agreed. Now just to fill out a few details. Jeremy explained that drow typically have eyes in a shade of purple, and that using two swords was a very common fighting style among male drow, especially two scimitars. I was happy for the information and noted on my character sheet that my guy had purple eyes and would wield two scimitars simultaneously. As most experienced D&D players have noted by now, yes, my first character was indeed a "Drizzt Clone". (*Note: It wasn't until much later that I discovered that Jeremy's knowledge of drow, at the time, did not extend beyond R.A. Salvatore's Icewind Dale trilogy.) He actually did not own a copy of the Player's Handbook so my character sheet was filled out by referencing the info from various other PC and NPC sheets he had on hand.

Now my Drizzt ripoff just needed a name. Jeremy ran through the list of characters he and his group had used, and where their inspiration had come from to give me ideas. This was probably the easiest part of creating my character. Being a massive fan of Labyrinth since age 6, I had been using the name 'Jareth' in video game RPGs for years already. Choosing the surname was easy too, I just went with what had brought Jeremy and I together. Thus Jareth Amos was born.

That night we stayed up all night playing. Jeremy introduced me into his campaign world, a weird amalgam of Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance cobbled together from the handful of novels and sourcebooks he and his group owned. It was a blast. Jeremy was a king of what we called the "shake-and-bake" DMing style. Meaning he could take just the slightest bit of input from his players and come up with everything you needed for a good adventure. NPC personalities, backgrounds, adventure hooks, treasure drops, encounters, you name it and he would just pull it out of thin air at a moment's notice. If you hate playing in a campaign that was on rails, or being jerked around by the DM's plot wagon then Jeremy was your guy. It is easy to see that he hugely influenced my style as well, as I am not the biggest planner when it comes to my games. I like to give my players just enough detail to interest them, and then let them run with it, adapting as the campaign moves forward. This was Jeremy's specialty, and he was a master of it.

All of this is not to say that the man could not pull off a long term, well-plotted campaign; far from it. He authored several wonderful campaigns over the years, some of which I either never played in or only sparingly. These were the occasions when I would get to see his notes, as we always liked to bounce ideas off of each other. Getting this behind-the-scenes look at this methods really taught me a lot. Our primary campaign was played regularly for over a decade, when he eventually handed the reigns over to me. Getting the "keys to the kingdom" definitely put the pressure on me to live up to the high standards Jeremy had set. Unfortunately we never got to finish my first campaign, as we drifted apart due to circumstances away from the table. I like to think that I'm not the kind of person who has regrets, but never getting to run him through my vision of the world he created would definitely be one of them. It was like my chance to show him what I had learned, and to reciprocate all of the great fun he had shown me as a player, but it never happend.

WotC has suggested ways for players to show their apprecation for their Dungeon Masters, gift ideas for your DM as well as ways to make your DM love you. They posted some humorous videos of a "DM's support group" and even started a new DM's advice column. While these are cute and make for great website filler, as a DM the only appreciation I ever wanted was some honest feedback. My adventure was awesome? Sweet! Tell me what you liked about it. My adventure sucked a bag of dick? Damn. Now tell me what you didn't like about it. If you're the type of person for which this doesn't come easy (or you've got an overly-sensitive DM) then simply tell them 'thank you'. Thank them for their time, their effort, their work, their concern for everyone else's enjoyment. That thank you will go a long way, I promise.

In case you ever read this, I want to say thank you Jeremy. Thank you for formally introducing me to the greatest hobby in the world. Thank you for all the awesome adventures, for all of the late nights spent traipsing through dungeons that always led to the Underdark, for all of the weekends when we lost complete track of time and got so caught up in playing that we forgot to eat. Thank you for all of the lunch period roleplaying, for all of the hours long phone calls debating game theory and sharing adventure ideas. Thank you for showing me what a great DM is, and for always striving to live up to the high standard you set. Thank you for everything.

"The Dungeon Master" by Victor Maury