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Learning from the DM to the Stars!

Written by Nicholas - Published on January 3, 2010

Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.

I’m sure that many of you know of Chris Perkins. He is the Story Manager of Dungeons & Dragons and DMs the ongoing podcast series featuring Scott Kurtz, Wil Wheaton and the Penny Arcade crew. Beyond that, he has a reputation as a great DM even among his peers at WotC. Back in September I wrote an article analyzing his DMing style through the podcast. Well, now I can do much better. A couple of months back I was invited to be a player of one Chris’ regular games and of course I jumped at the chance! In addition to having a ton of fun, I’ve been learning a lot of neat techniques that Chris uses. For those of you who don’t get to play with Chris Perkins, I will share tips that I gleaned from Chris and am trying to emulate in my own game.

Quests in Every Direction

Normally in D&D a group will have a quest that leads them to one place, perhaps some other quests or secondary objectives in the same area. In Chris’ game we have a quest list a mile long pulling us to every corner of the globe. Obviously we can’t accomplish all of them, especially since some are time sensitive and we might spend multiple sessions chasing a single objective.

This techniques accomplishes a few things. First, we get a sense of the larger world at play. We hear about exciting things happening all over. Second, we always have something cool to do. We never waste time looking for an adventure, we have several in mind already. Beyond that we always think what we are doing is cool because the group collectively chose that one to pursue among all the others. Finally, the players feel like they can go anywhere and do anything but the DM will still have a plan for it!

This may sound like would be hard on the DM. It does take a time investment, but it’s not as bad as you might expect. Adventure hooks build up over time, introduce one in the middle of an ongoing quest and another when they complete it. Keep up that 2 hooks to 1 completion rate for a little while and you will already have a sizeable stockpile.

Ensemble Cast

The best complement to a vibrant world are loads of interesting people to populate it. Fans of the podcasts know that Chris excels at NPCs, but those podcasts don’t give you a sense of volume. Whenever we talk to an NPC or someone refers to one, Chris writes their name on the whiteboard. By the end of each session it is typical to have 15-20 names on that board. Usually a mix of old friends or enemies, new acquaintances and those just being hinted at. Essentially everyone we interact with has a name, a personality and a story attached to them. There is almost no such thing as a faceless NPC.

Remarkably, this policy extends to battle. I don’t think we have ever had a fight that didn’t feature at least one enemy with a name and a proper backstory. It makes all the difference in the world. A generic mercenary you kill just because he’s trying to kill you. If the DM imbues that mercenary with a name, a face and goals then things change. It might make you hate him more to make slaughtering him sweeter, you might feel pity for him and spare his life or perhaps turn him to your cause. Opposing a real character is always more interesting than fighting a bundle of hit points and powers.

Shake Things Up!

Even the best games can do with something different from time to time. For many groups this takes the form of playing a different game for a bit, but Chris has dreamed up probably my favorite refreshing arc ever. The group had just suffered a terrible loss, two members managed to escape but the rest were incapacitated in combat and only survived by being spirited away by some allies. Now the two surviving members must assemble a crew of friends to track down the rest of the party. Which means most of the players are now playing established NPCs befriended in the group’s past, chasing the footsteps of the missing adventurers and wondering if they even still live. So cool, right?

What have you learned from your favorite dungeon master? Do you use any of Chris’ tricks? Let us know in the comments!

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Written by Nicholas

Nick DiPetrillo is the original author behind the games Arete and Zombie Murder Mystery available at http://games.dungeonmastering.com

Nick is no longer active with DungeonMastering.com, however he is an accomplished writer and published his first game in 2009.

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Learning from the DM to the Stars!, 5.0 out of 5 based on 2 ratings

Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.

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