When it comes to running a good RPG, you as a Dungeon Master need to wear several hats. It doesn’t matter what version of RPG you’re playing, whether it’s D&D, Numenera, Pathfinder, or whatnot. You will wear several different hats throughout the game that you are running. Each of these hats have specific uses, and are very useful when used properly. I’ll be doing one article a month on these hats, explaining each one.
So what are these hats? These hats represent the different personalities you will assume as you run your game. It’s important to understand that there’s a difference in these hats, and that these hats are useful. There’s a distinct difference in theory-crafting and theory execution. I’ll explain this by going into what I believe is the second hat that every DM wears. That is the hat of construction, or what I call, the hardhat.
Think about a hardhat. What type of people do you see usually wearing a hardhat? Odds are you’re thinking of a blue-collar job. Hardhats are designed to keep you safe in case something goes wrong on your job. I don’t want you to think of this hat though as what it’s meant to do (that being keep you safe), and to think of the work that is done by the people who wear this hat. What is that work? Construction. Construction is a vital aspect of every DMs preparation. It is also one of my favorites aspect of the game. Construction is going to be seen in the props you add to the game (I’ll share some of mine), and the extra tools you use in the game (I include maps and minis in this category).
What does it look like? When I think of the hardhat, I think these points sum up best what the hardhat is all about.
1. How much time do you have? This is a very important question to ask yourself before you dive into any construction related project. As we discussed in last month’s post, you need to use your time to craft a quality story. If you don’t have time for your story, or if your story is suffering because of your desire to construct a cool prop for your game, then the effect of the prop will be lost because of the lack of impact in your story. The prop is only as good as your story. There’s no point in having a high quality prop in your game if it makes no sense for your game, if it doesn’t match your world, and if doesn’t add to the purpose of the story.
But if you have plenty of time, and are confident in the quality of your story, then pull out all the stops, and construct a home-run prop that will knock your players’ socks off.
2. If you’re not gonna do it right the first time, don’t do it at all. This is a very important thing to consider. I lost count of how many times my dad told this to me when I was growing up. It really helped define my work ethic as a student, as an all-american soccer player in college, as a husband, father, and as a DM. When you go to the effort of using a prop in your games, you are making the effort to add an element to your game that will most likely be used only once in the actual game. I say so many times that DMing is a labor of love. If you do not care about your players, then you should not be a DM. Yes, it is your world, with your NPCs, and your players help you run a game. Caring about your players doesn’t mean that you don’t test them. My players will be the first to tell you that I put them through the wringer most of the time (our PC death count was at 12 by the end of the last campaign).
But consider this, my players show up every week and they expect me to deliver a great gaming experience for them, and for their characters. Take note of that again, I’m not just building a world for them as people, I’m building this world for their characters too. With that in mind, I need to use my skills in construction to make sure that the world is special. I want them to see that this world is worth their time, because of the amount of time I put into the game.
Props and tools
Props can be a wonderful aid in any game that you run. I’m going to share some of my props I’ve used to give the players a deeper dive into the world, as well as sprinkle in some useful story points. Here’s the main one I used in my last game. The world revolved around the popular D&D setting of Eberron. I spent a long time on this, and I was able to create a fake newspaper published by a company in the world that gave the players 7 pages worth of story development, as well as plot hooks all just waiting to happen. As you can see, it came complete with color pictures, interesting paper, fake ads that were part of the businesses in the world, and even mentioned some exploits of the PCs adding a sense of accomplishment to the PCs lives.
Another prop I recently used in one of my games involved the PCs researching through a tower where a professor used to live. Throughout their journeys in this tower, the PCs continued to find burned up pages of his journal. So I spent a few hours writing up a a few lengthy entries in a journal in two different languages and cross referencing them so it was impossible for the PCs to translate them straight out. My beautiful wife then gave me the idea of taking a lighter and burning the edges of the pages, as well as some holes in the pages to give the journal an old, and mysterious feel to it.
These things were/are pivotal to my games because they provided huge plot hooks for my players which will come to define their characters’s quests for many levels to come.
Some DMs construct 3D battle platforms (which I hope to use someday). Others use minis and maps to help tell the story of their games. Personally, I like to use minis and maps in my games. I’ve tried to play without maps and minis before, it’s just not my thing. As a DM, it’s easier for me to do narrative when I don’t have to focus on describing every detail of every location. Other people don’t play with minis and maps, and I think that’s great. All power to ‘em. It’s a style thing really. Using maps and minis are very useful for me because they give the players a boundary of sorts. It helps me by effectively telling the players, “This is what you can see,” and cuts out the inevitable question of, “What else do I see?” That is my least favorites question to hear as a DM. Not because I hate to hear the PCs asking for help. I hate it because it means that I didn’t do my job right, and they are needing more information before they make a decision. I should explain the situation well enough so that that question never needs to happen. That being said, players are deaf, and have selective hearing and will not listen if they don’t want to. You can give them the “rattled” debuff as an ongoing effect in exchange for you not boxing them in the ears.
Constructing with a purpose
In my previous article we talked about how preparation is like a chef preparing a fine dish to be served to the customer. You need to know what story you’re gonna make, what key elements you need to make it, and how to present it. This month I want you to learn that part of that presentation can show your customers (the players) that you’re wanting to go the extra mile by putting more effort into the game. I got so much mileage of game time and player enjoyment by making that fake newspaper. I believe I put 10-15 hours worth of work into it, and got back almost 40+ hours of gameplay solely because of that. That is huge! I’m not telling you this to brag, but to tell you that with the right preparation, and a little love for your players in the realm of construction, your game can take off to the next level.
Now go terrorize some PCs. You ain’t tryin’ if they ain’t dyin’.