posted Monday, December 10th 2007 by
Dungeon Mastering Advice
Despite strong competition from online games, traditional RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons remain popular. What’s the reason? A big factor, in my opinion, is imagination, and that’s something that can only be spurred by a DM with a solid ability to make good description. Good DM response, moreso than any factor, is what keeps D&D a solid and engaging experience.
The concept of a dungeon master or game master is special to traditional roleplaying games. While online games have GMs of a sort, we see them largely relegated to online security guards as games move from human arbiters toward computer control. The reasons for this are largely practical: a game master can only control so many players at once, and the cost of adding new material becomes prohibitive as games become more complex. Adding a single NPC or monster to World of Warcraft may require several experienced staff working for hours or days at a cost thousands of dollars, but a talented D&D GM can create entire adventures in the same time frame, sometimes even on-the-fly.
The reason for this is that unlike a modern videogame, the Dungeon Master’s primary medium is description, not visual display. Your words are your paintbrushes, and your players’ minds are your canvas. Conjuring your imagined scenes is much more of an art form than many people realise. A good description can be far superior to even the most elaborate of computer graphics available today. Remember that the art of storytelling is as old at least as nine thousand years, while visual storytelling has only been in development for perhaps 130 years, and computer graphics less than forty.
The number one guideline for any DM, therefore, is to read. There are hundreds of writers who can tell a better story than you, so learn from them. See how they use language to invoke the imagination, conjure up emotion, and weave a narrative. An often-quoted rule of fiction writers is show, don’t tell. “You see a ten foot tall red dragon” might be descriptive, but it practically reads like a police report. It’s mundane, and that’s not what you’re usually going for in an adventure RPG.
Good, evocative description is the Dungeon Master’s number one tool. What he describes is almost less important than how he describes it. Your players should never encounter “a big forest” unless you deliberately want it to sound mundane and unimportant. Don’t just tell your players, when evoking powerful imagery in their imagination would be better. Consider what they should see, hear, feel and even smell. Plan important scenes in advance, or at least do some thinking. Get this right, and you’re good to go.