DMing 101 – The Personal Touch
It’s an easy thing to get tied up in rules and lore, there’s so much printed material for these games it may feel wasteful at times not to use it all. Breaking free of all of the strictures and guidelines is no small task, but once you begin to stretch your creative legs then you begin to create a game that is truly and uniquely yours, and it’s something that you’ll find more memorable, and more enjoyable for everyone.
Though you may play a dozen different game systems with dozens of DMs and hundreds of players, inevitably you’ll find one that suits you best. Even then, after enough time with that system you may find yourself with a dislike of certain elements thereof.
Strict adherence to the rules may be the fairest option, but with as many rules, options and variables as there are, eventually the rules are likely to fail you, and there are very few RP systems that can prevent that. You have the power to ignore rules, eliminate options, or introduce new options as you see fit. Of course you must never let them get in the way of a good game, quite the reverse, a houserule should only be created if it will enhance the experience of everyone at the table.
Some of the best uses of houserules include:
- New character options: The world you create may include some unique creatures, or offer some new culture or organization that offers a new play-style that your choice of game might not otherwise have suitable options for. Try creating your own races, classes, or items.
- Time savers: Is combat slowing you down? Is dealing with a lot of characters starting to get on top of you? Now is the time to start pulling rules out of the book, or finding ways to cluster things together to make them easier and faster to manage so that you can get on with the game.
- Personal practices: We all fall into certain habits, and good or bad they can impact upon a game. If a player is too disruptive, talkative or indecisive you may have to introduce a rule that applies to everyone at the table to keep things going uninterrupted. Or if you have a particular quirk that works in game, like rolling dice just to make a decision, encourage others to adopt the habit.
Houserules generally take care of themselves, they’re not something that should need constant invigilation. If a rule works it will stick because everyone enjoys it and benefits from it.
This is an odd element of gameplay that can only be discovered by playing more games, not just as the DM, but under others. You’ll discover what you love and loathe about other people’s style of play, what really appeals to you, and what everyone else enjoys.
When you write a game for example, do you drive your players to pursue the storyline through dynamic narrative and a sense of urgency, or do they have time to wander the world and find their own place in it? Do you use other forms of media, like music, video, or physical models to bring life to your table? Are you a fan of the clear-cut good and evil, or do you prefer the moral ambiguity of tough decision making and sympathetic villains? Map? Or no map?
Most of this series has been about helping you establish what works best for you, but ultimately you can only find out by playing as often as you can, with as many different people as you can. I also recommend watching other games, such as the PAX games, Wil Wheton’s tabletop, or the many podcast games on offer around the internet.
Remember that this is about finding your own voice. Confidence is a major part of being a good DM, and you’ll never be confident comparing yourself to others. When you’ve found your style, you’ll know.
The Final Step
If you’re feeling really brave, if you think you have what it takes, you may want to take the final and biggest step in creating an RP system that suits your style of play perfectly, and that is creating your own RP system.
Don’t think that you can simply chuck a few ideas onto a page and be done with it, things are rarely so simple. Consider all of the elements of gameplay that you’ll need to consider.
What do characters need to know about themselves? If your characters are just every-day people caught in an epic situation then they probably only need a rough grasp of what skills they might have, computer usage, carpentry, what knowledge they possess. If combat is likely, what do they utilize to fight? Guns, magic, or just quick wits and whatever’s handy? Remember that the more options you give your players the more work you’ll have to put in, and the more likely you are to open the field to minmaxers and power gamers who will find a way of building “the perfect character.”
How much can be managed without rules? It may be far more, or far less than you think. Will interaction with other characters be dependent entirely on the words spoken by the player, or do they have the option to be more, or even less coherent and charismatic? Does a character need intimate knowledge of a tool or weapon before picking it up and using it?
What are you using to determine outcomes of the character’s actions? Dice, cards, a Jenga tower, or is there success or failure pre-determined by the content of their character sheet?
This is the action of a brave and determined DM, one that I can honestly admit to having tried in a few various iterations with moderate success. Ultimately you’ll find that the system you create is for you, but there is a vast market for such experiments and people who will play anything once for the sheer curiosity.