My notes from the Art of the DM panel at PAX 2008

10 Nov

Mike someone (didn’t catch his last name or company)
Chris Perkins: Wizards Of The Coast
Chris Pramas: Green Ronin
James Wyatt: WOTC
Mark Jessup: WOTC

What do you look for when picking a DM?

Someone who listens to players, knows the rules, keeps the focus on the player. Also: has a good cloak.

Perkins: Someone who watches a lot of episodic TV.

Pramas: Need to be creative and improvisational, but also a good manager.

Wyatt: Is this someone I want to hang out with? I don’t care if the DM knows the rules. (Rejoinder from another panel member: “I do.”) We can adjudicate the rules communally.

How do you know when your players are disconnecting from the game?

Pramas: When people are bored, they become more selfish in their play. (“I go off to the tavern and start a fight.”)

Wyatt: People start stacking dice on top of each other when they’re bored.

Pramas: The backstories people create for their characters will tell you what kind of campaign they want.

How do you encourage engagement?

Jessup: Use the “say yes” rule of improvisational acting.

Mike: Talk it over beforehand. What kind of campaign do we want? Dramatic? Funny? Combat-heavy? Make it totally collaborative.

Perkins: The rules be damned — when a player wants to do something, give them a shot.

Pramas: Devise the main plot, then ideas for side stories that players can run with or not. Weave it in with characters’ individual narratives.

Wyatt: Playing D&D with my son taught me a lot about listening.

Steal ideas from your players during the game. Listen to their speculations about what is going to happen, and make that thing happen. It makes them happy because they were right.

How do you adjudicate?

Wyatt: Saying “yes” is not the same as saying “you succeed”. If you want to try something, go ahead. I used to fudge die rolls, but with 4th Edition I’m now convinced that the system’s math is robust enough that you can let the dice fall where they may.

Pramas: When the rules get in the way of the story/momentum, throw ’em out or make up a quick and dirty rule. I’ll fudge non-key die rolls. But I always roll in front of my players.

Perkins: I DM as a friend to the players, not as an opponent. I’m rooting for them to win.

Mike: I’m harsh but fair. I ask the players whether THEY want a looser or stricter game.

Do you warn players when they’re about to do something stupid?

I’ll ask, “You do realize that showing a severed head around town WILL get you arrested, right?”

(Unrelated) I do a TV-style episode recap at the beginning of each session, to get the players’ excitement up and get them back into the world. “Previously…”

Top 3 things any GM could do?

Perkins: Do funny voices. Write down which voice goes with which NPC. Cast the NPC parts with actors you like. In my campaign, all Drow speak with French accents. Keep a drawer full of maps at the ready, for when players go off on tangents. Don’t spend days developing weird details. Hand players a 3-10page description of the campaign setting beforehand.

Wyatt: Don’t over-prepare in general.

Pramas: Be prepared to change your plans.

Mike: Ask yourself why you’re a DM. Recognize that you’re there to provide a good time. Give players a good villain they can hate. Use props — I once used a plastic T-Rex from Archie McPhee.

Pramas: Actually, a lot of the original D&D monsters — like the Rust Monster — were based on Chinese toys that Gary Gygax and his friends had lying around.

Wyatt: Loot hugely. Play up the fantasy aspect of the game — blow their minds.

Pramas: Let the players DM the game once in a while. Make it a shared world. This keeps it fresh.

Perkins: Regarding villains, look for ways to demonize them and ways to humanize them. I had a villain once who was a blind female orc. Her blindness made her sympathetic, but it also conferred certain advantages — she was immune to illusions, and she could hear through players’ lies. This made her intimidating.

What do you do with a party that can’t cooperate, or argues?

Ask them, “Why are you here?” Invite that conversation. “What do we need to do?” If necessary, boot a player.

Remind them that they’re all on the same team. Everyone will get cool stuff.

Pramas: Actually, Green Ronin is doing a game based on Game Of Thrones where the players plot against each other.

Perkins: Assign minor quests to individual characters that benefit the whole party.

How do you balance fantasy and reality in the game?

Pramas: We once wrote a campaign set in the Old Testament. It was really cool, but people were put off. It didn’t sell.

Perkins proposes a campaign like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell — a familiar historical setting, but you never know what’s around the corner.

How do you handle a group consisting of different types of players: actor, storyteller, instigator, power gamer?

Be patient with each other. Pretend to have fun while the others are having their turn.

2 Responses to “My notes from the Art of the DM panel at PAX 2008”

  1. Cassie November 12, 2008 at 2:45 am #

    Great notes, Wade! Makes me feed like I’m back at PAX again. :-)

  2. Wade Rockett November 12, 2008 at 10:13 am #

    It’s a good feeling, isn’t it? We must keep PAX in our hearts all year round, like Christmas or Arbor Day.

    A DM friend of mine had asked me to take copious notes on this panel, so here I am finally getting around to sharing them.

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