Tobold's Blog
Monday, April 02, 2012
Watching D&D

Dungeons & Dragons is not by design a spectator sport. A bunch of people sits around a table, they talk, they roll some dice, maybe they move some figurines over a map. Not very exciting if you aren't into the game. I remember at university we had a game running in a public space provided by the university, and once an aspiring journalist came to watch us. She ended up writing a not-so-bad article for the local newspaper about it, but I think she was a bit disappointed about how boring the game was to watch.

Nevertheless there are opportunities to watch some D&D played, as Wizards of the Coast is offering both audio and video podcasts of games run with "celebrities" like the Penny Arcade guys, or the writers of Robot Chicken. The latter is 4 hours of video in 25 sessions, and if that isn't enough for you, you can watch the same 4 hours again with Chris Perkin's Dungeon Master commentary.

The videos were interesting to me, because I am a self-taught DM. My very first pen & paper RPG, over 30 years ago, came as a box with books giving instructions on how to play, but I didn't know anybody else who played. So I persuaded my friends, and by default I was the DM. As pen & paper role-playing has a huge degree of liberty, in a situation like this you can't help but wonder whether you are "doing it right". Well, I met other pen & paper roleplayers years later at university, and their games weren't all that different from mine. And now that I watch the "official" video with the Senior Producer for D&D being the Dungeon Master, I'd say that there is not so much difference between all those D&D games over the decades and in various different locations. Even playing different editions or different games doesn't change the fundamentals of how pen & paper role-playing is played. There are some cultural differences in the details, for example the US videos all have a warning label about "adult language" being used, and the game played in the UK doesn't have or need one.

Chris Perkins is an interesting DM. He does stuff I can't, like doing funny voices. And for somebody who designed the game, he is extremely relaxed about the rules. Many D&D players who watched the video pointed out rule calls with which they disagreed, but I guess in the end the most important thing is to keep the game running instead of getting the rules lawyering exactly right. And there is one thing I learned by listening to Chris' DM commentary on the Robot Chicken game: The story the DM prepared is not very important; the important story is the one that is created by the players interacting with each other and the game. At the end of the day, nobody will remember whatever lore and background story you told, but everybody will remember how the mage's fireball accidentally singed the beard of the dwarven fighter. Players simply care much more about their characters than about the lore of the fantasy world. Thus the less time you as the DM spend telling stories, and the more you encourage interaction between the players, the better the game gets.

Players are more interested in player-generated content than in developer-created content. I agree.
The thing is that the DM stories are necessary, but they're "background". They provide context and a setting for the "foreground" stories. Good stories enhance the interaction between players, gives them context and something to chew on.
I've never really played D&D before or any other pen and paper RPGs. Closest I gotten to it was Warhammer Quest which had more tools and toys to play with. But being a huge Penny Arcade fan I slowly got more and more interested in trying out D&D the more they talked about it. It was when I actually listened to their podcast D&D games that I finally bought the 4th Edition books and eventually tried to run a game. We had fun, but I suck as a DM.

Anyways, good to see so more games going up. I am now looking forward to the Robot Chicken gang playing. Thanks for the link.
Warhammer quest rocks!

Anyway, on the topic, I think I said this before - you want players who create characters who are motivated to do something (it doesn't have to wow anyone - it can just be a lust for gold and that's cool). If as GM you start deciding the plot, you'll stiffle that.
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