Rainer Maria Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet, says “If, when you wake up in the morning, you can think of nothing but writing…then you’re a writer.” I consider myself a writer and it’s one of the greatest passions of my life, but under that statement, I’m not one.
When I wake up, the thing I want to do the most is to tell stories and create them, to lose myself in my mind’s eye as I explore strange new lands and create the tales of normal people and heroes alike.
So, more than a writer, I’m a storyteller, and Tabletop RPGs have always been a way for me to thoroughly enjoy the art of storytelling. And as much as I love donning the armour of the warrior, defiantly raise the staff of the wizard and fiercely grip the holy symbol of the cleric, and joining my fellow adventurers as we defeat bandits, or demigods in the streets of New York, there is something I love even more than playing and it’s, of course, being the game master, the person running the story and telling the plot, adjudicating results and placing the challenges.
I prefer to be the kid releasing the Demogorgon on the table than the one who has to deal with it. I love seeing the reaction my sudden twists get. I love seeing my players shift uncomfortably when my villain does a deep maniacal laugh or when yet another fellow voyager in the caravan falls to a hidden blade. Engendering fear and elation in equal measures is something you can only get as the storyteller, and it’s one of the reasons I absolutely adore it. I can witness the effect my writing has on people.
I announced to some friends that I would be taking part in Extra Life this year, but that unlike my participation a couple of years ago, I wouldn’t play videogames but instead would rope in friends and family into playing table top RPGs with me for several hours at a time, using different systems and of course, telling various stories.
I love exploring worlds in table top RPGs, and I absolutely adore creating them, from the continents and the dangers of its seas to the people you might meet along the way to defeating the big bad enemy. I love creating the races that inhabit the world, figuring out the mechanical and narrative differences from those found in the standard books.
Being the Dungeon Master gives you so many chances to learn new things, especially creating a new world, as you will surely read through Earth’s regional and cultural history, so you may craft societies and peoples that feel real to the player, cemented in real world logic, even if it’s one that hasn’t existed for centuries.
As I write this, I’m taking a break from using Photoshop to create the world map, a task that forces me to learn to use Photoshop in the same way creating Let’s Play videos forced me to dive off the deep end with Premiere Pro and After Effects—what can I say, I’m an Adobe guy. I love learning new things, and storytelling in RPGs has always been a source of learning for me. Not always pleasant, of course, as I had to learn much about ancient cultures and some of their gruesome religious rituals for a Scion game, so I could give the players the experience they deserved. Some things you can’t unlearn.
But perhaps due to the responsibilities of the Game Master in conveying the story and world, and making sure to know as much as possible, one of the hardest thing for RPG novices to do is jump into the GM seat, the take charge of the storytelling.
Taking the throne of the Dungeon Master—which is one of the most recognisable terms for an RPG storyteller and one I’ll use for the rest of this article—scares people, there’s a level of apprehension that fills them, even those who have in the past written stories they’d like to play on their own or with friends, imagining how much fun it would be to play them.
The Dungeon Master is, after all, the one who needs to be aware of all rules, know everything he needs to not only tell his story and adjudicate results of player actions but also improvise upon them and know when to ask for a roll and when to let things just happen.
While it’s true that a certain dominion of the system you’re playing under is good for a game master to have, it’s really not necessary. For a dungeon master there is only one thing that matters: loving to tell stories and having stories to tell, and of course, players to enjoy them. The rules? You can learn them. Balance and how to set the right difficulty, you can learn that too and it’ll come in time. Improvisation? More experience.
But if you have that passion for storytelling, then that’s all you’ll ever need for a good RPG adventure, not only as the dungeon master but as the player too.
And that’s the other side of the coin. I love telling the stories and setting the challenges, but sometimes I want to dive into my story, or at least that of my character. I want to explore his past, meet his demons and vanquish them.
When I first played an RPG, my approach was distant. I couldn’t immerse myself into the game. A part of me though it silly to act out the part of the character, give him life with his own personality, quirks and even tone of voice. I could only speak of him as an external force, an avatar I remotely controlled. “My character does this” or “He shouts this,” are examples of my playstyle then, incapable of injecting emotion into it. It felt embarrassing.
But as my confidence grew and my desire for good storytelling took over, I dove headfirst into new characters, becoming them for the two, three or even eight hours of the session. Their needs were mine, as were their loves and hatreds and I argued and laughed with my fellow adventurers as we sat around the bonfire, taking our long rest after a hard work of dungeon crawling.
And guess what? That all fed into my storytelling as the dungeon master. I now embody every character to the best of my ability, I laugh the way they would, I speak with their accents and use their mannerism. If a character is creepy, I can make sure the characters feel and see it without me having to tell them.
And when it comes to learning, to get tips and help, that knowledge we all desperately feel we need to be a proper Dungeon Master, there are so many resources online, from the DMing 101 articles over on GeekOut South-West to guides on every forum and geek-oriented site. The Running the Game series by Matthew Colville and Dungeon Mastering Tips by Matthew Mercer are particularly good. You can also check out my favourite Dungeon Master in the world, Chris Perkins, on any of his adventures for ways to balance storytelling, mechanics, rules and when to forget how things technically work for the rule of cool.
And that’s without including the myriad of modules you can find online for free or purchased. These are pre-packaged adventures or even campaigns, ready for you to use as they are or event adapt to give them your touch, your twist. Maybe you’ll use the book Curse of Strahd for your first story, beginning in Barovia and pitting the players against the dread vampire Strahd Von Zarovich. But this is your game, your touch to it, and so instead of his castle, the story is about going after him across another landscape, recreating that fateful pursuit at the end of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Or maybe your players are the latest generation of Jedi, freshly graduated into Knighthood and thrust into the political landscape of the Republic and beyond.
Or who knows, horror takes your fancy and their pulp detectives investigate horrific scenes that culminate in meeting an Elder God.
The choices are endless and every story you pursue is worth it, even if you feel it’s silly. So, if you have a story to tell, a world you’d like to explore and friends desperate to play a nice RPG, or that you wish to recruit into gaming, then let go of the doubts, don’t worry about it and just be the Dungeon Master. Enjoy the storytelling and the fun time playing the game.
So, long as you and they have fun, skill means nothing.
Just enjoy the stories!