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Rolling the Dice for a Decade: A Game Master's Journey

An avid scholar of old school Tabletop RPGs. 20 years of experience goes a long way sometimes.

An eerie forest path lies before you.

An eerie forest path lies before you.

12 years ago I wrote this... And it still rings true.

"How to be a Dungeon Master.
People often ask me how difficult it is to be a Dungeon Master. It's not difficult at all.
Then again, it's one of the most stressful, intense situations I've ever willingly committed to on a weekly basis.
It all depends on the kind of person you are. Not everyone will be the same kind of Dungeon Master. Some people, whether they're brilliant and smart or not, may never have what it takes to be a DM, while other people, perhaps less intelligent or just a bit scatterbrained may turn out to be some of the most memorable Dungeon Masters you will ever meet. It's all determined by your skills, talents, and abilities.
To truly do well as a Dungeon Master, you need to be an artist. Some people have what it takes; they sketch, draw, paint, write, practice photography, or do a plethora of other things. On the other hand, most people don't do these things. These people may be talented at analyzing literature, but haven't the slightest clue about writing, or they may be mathematic wizards, but have never put together a model airplane. I bring this up because, like drawing, painting, or photography, being a Dungeon Master is an art.
The duties of a Dungeon Master aren't any different than those of an old Storyteller. That's what we are, that's what we do, that's what we eat, think, and breathe when we're playing. Players rely on us to create this expansive world for them to interact with. Like any other art, it's a painstaking procedure we must hone and refine. We'll never perfect it, but we must try the best we can each time we play."

Not much different today

I recently received an email notifying me of my 11 year anniversary on Hubpages. Oh, how I believed I'd be a writer back then... Curiously enough, as I revisited HubPages, my old Intro to D&D article, and discovered that previously unpublished tidbit above- I saw how much the website- and myself- have changed. So I thought it only appropriate to readdress my stance on Dungeons and Dragons, that old ember that I've kept burning for almost two decades now and which now seems to have taken to the tinder I've built and is growing into a small flame. Not enough to rely on for warmth, as one knows these things go- slow and methodical with the tinder and the wind, wary to not burn it out in a flash. Perhaps it will give me a chance, too, to stretch my muscles and see if I'm actually any better at writing...

The door before you is tall and menacing

It took years of failure and emptiness before the realization set in: I just didn't fit in to the new meta. 5e is not for me. Neither was 4th Edition, but who's counting that one, anyway? I'm an Old School Gamer now- an old man playing an old game... A Grognard.

It wasn't so much a realization, more of a discovery. Being dirt broke, but desperately searching for that next RPG system that would fix it all... When I stumbled upon Chris Gonnerman's Basic Fantasy RPG. It blew me away; here was a man who spent all his life adoring a game that was king among kings and then forgotten, pushed aside for a newer, flashier title, more complex rules, and more expensive art- time and time again. What did he do? He wrote a love letter, in the form of a set of rules that strive so hard to recreate the peril, the horror, the terror of old school games. And he released it- for free- on his website. And then looked to print copies and knew that if he wanted to get it into the hands of as many people, he would need to sell it as cheap as he could.

And so he did.

Chris sells his books at cost. And I have purchased ALL of them, multiple times. Years and years of adventures... 10 or so books... For less than $50? The man loves this game.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

That was when it hit me. Why was I spending so much time trying to add new and interesting things into a game I didn't enjoy? Minis, maps, music, handouts, fascinating paragraphs of details and quirky voices...

Many LOVE that style, and I wish them years of fun with it.

Me? I want to know HOW you got past my dungeon. I want to look you in the eyes and challenge you as a human. And you know the five magic words that can freeze your blood and make you second guess your perfect plan?

"Do you open the door?"

The answer isn't on your character sheet, it's not a skill you can roll [unless it's jammed, then you can make a strength check to... Oh, I'm getting ahead of myself!] I'm not asking JOLRIC THE BRAVE, CHAMPION OF THE FOUR REALMS, HIGH PRINCE OF GERALDIA, SLAYER OF PARTHANIS THE WICKED, TERROR OF ORKS... I'm asking you.

What would you do, deep underground, where the air is stale, you're covered in the guts of slain foes, there's something lurking in the distance, you only have 2 torches left, but the item you seek, an intelligent sword called BEACON: TWILIGHT'S EMBRACE may be JUST beyond this old, wooden door... But your cleric is poisoned, tapped on healing spells, his antivenom vials destroyed in the careless fireball ejected by the panicky wizard- that room then almost collapsed in on you...

Now, I'll ask again... Do you open the door?

It's different. The tension in old school games is palpable because there's a very good chance you DON'T survive. That challenge- that asymmetric balance between players and rules- Note, not player and Dungeon Master, because the job of the Dungeon Master is to play the impartial Referee- is what makes the game fun.

The game stopped being fun when the balance simply became about comparing the parties high numbers to a monsters high numbers. The 90's reeked of American power nostalgia throughout all of our entertainment industries- mainly stemming from iconic action movies- and TTRPGs were not immune] When killing monsters and feeling powerful became the norm- we lost the game. Suddenly... The old game wasn't good enough. Suddenly, we needed cinematic experiences in our Tabletop Roleplaying game. Cinematic doesn't even make sense, it's the complete antithesis to what a role playing game is.

  • We lost torch timers- meaning characters never needed to worry about how long they were in a dungeon
  • We lost Gold as XP- meaning players were no longer motivated to outsmart monsters or enemies, but simply slay all who stand in their way because their own power was so immense [sound familiar?]
  • We lost mapping- siding instead with the flashy miniatures and map tiles WOTC shoved onto shelves and down players' throats
  • We lost random encounters- meaning players no longer needed to worry about slowly dwindling their resources or becoming quickly overwhelmed by something they didn't expect, but even if they did encounter an unexpected enemy, it would be fairly simple to overcome it without some strong DM finesse due to- again- high power capabilites that were designed to emulate video games of the time and attempt to "recapture" an audience that was slowly peeling away to sit at the computer screen rather than the Game Master's Screen
  • We lost our sense of wonder as our problems were solved by numbers on a character sheet instead of brains in our head, primarily, this writer assumes, because many people complained of a game not feeling like an RPG because they're not "rolling the dice" enough. or there's not enough to "customize" or "optimize" [harking back to a heavy influence from video games]
  • And so, so much more...

Not with a bang, but a whimper

Over the next 20 years EVERYONE would try to cobble together house rules and exotic races and classes and wild combat mechanics to try to inject some life into a game that struggled so hard to capture the old school spirit while systematically distancing itself from all of the mechanics that gave the game a soul to begin with [as well as it's creators... But that's another story.]

And so... After 15 years in the hobby... I went back to where it all began. I bought the originals, I bought dozens of Basic Fantasy books and consumed all the media I could. It felt monumental to me, to be so revitalized through a game that so many eschewed as archaic and dull.

Rulings, not Rules.

I was freed. No skills on a character sheet meant players had to figure it out for themselves. When I asked how someone solves a problem, players wouldn't immediately sink their head into the character sheet, scanning for just the right skill to use or ask, "Well... What CAN I do?"

Fewer rules meant we had to enter a real discussion to figure out how we as a group wanted to play the game. It meant my players had their fingerprints on everything- and didn't even know it. I didn't need to hand them a sheet of inspirations or backgrounds or secrets or rumours about themselves- all tools used in modern games to artifically inject some sense of permanence on a character and player who have none- they were invested because they were shaping a game that was unique to them. My players were invested in their characters not because they were the son of the czar of the coldfrost mountain region who was slain by ogres who were sent by the evil mage... No, they were weak peasants now post-war mercenaries or young wizard students or brigands or pirates who barely survived that pit trap- a simple false floor trap triggered when 200lbs or more steps onto it, into a 20 foot drop that has killed many a newbie- and that's why they were excited. They lived. That's it. Not some grandiose, sprawling story or evil arch villain with a twist in the plot..

They had overcome a challenge themselves, as people working through their characters, not simply AS their characters, and that is simply so much more rewarding for them and myself, as the DM.

This all meant I could focus on being at the table with friends, and not juggling a cumbersome ruleset. It evolved my Mastering style immensely. Freeing me to focus on fun puzzles and challenges rather than systematically setting up Skill Roll hurdles for marathon players to leap over- often with ease.

And that... That is basically the story of where I am today.

I run a professional game of Basic Fantasy at Outworld Brewing, in Longmont, as well as several other satisfying games throughout the week.

So yes, Dungeon Mastering is an art. But it's also a journey of self discovery, finding out what you love and hate about this world and the games and rules within.