It’s easy to forget, as a DM, how things feel on the other side of the table. You might introduce a character intended to be helpful and provide information and exposition, only to have your players—who don’t know the motivation of the character in question—be suspicious and refuse to trust the character. You might jot notes on answers to questions you expect your players to ask, only to find their line of questioning proceeds in a completely different direction, leaving them with a gap in their information that you now have to fill in some other way. A puzzle that seems simple to you might stump and frustrate the players for hours simply because the perspective they have on it is different from what you pictured in your head.
When this kind of disconnect occurs, the most important tool is communication with your players to determine how best to fix any problems that arise. Getting their perspective on the game ensures that you understand what they know as players, what they know as characters, and can let you correct for minor gaps in information or add anything that seems to have been missed. There are several points at which this kind of error-checking can be done:
Starting the game: Before the game begins, ask your players to provide a recap of what happened the previous session. Listen closely to what your players remember, and when they have finished, briefly summarize it yourself, adding any important details that may have been missed. By putting the responsibility for the refresher in the players’ hands, you will establish a pattern that over time will lead to them paying closer attention, and you will also be able to determine what elements are sticking out to them, and which are being forgotten. If you perform the recap yourself, you may miss information that you assume they remember. By summarizing, you get the opportunity to correct for errors or holes, and additionally you will fix the details in their minds.
During the game: This is the most delicate time for correcting mistakes in perception or understanding. Ensure that you are as clear and complete as possible, without spending too long on extraneous details. Remember that while you act as your players’ senses in the game world, not everything is important. Effort spent describing the details of the inlaid carvings on the walls of the ancient dwarven fortress down to the minutiae may feel like you are adding life to the campaign, but your players will tend to assume that if you are focusing on it, it must be important in some way. This may lead to frustration or delay as they pause to further investigate what is essentially a dead-end. Clarity can be added with visual aids or props, as well, but try not to let them distract from the game. If need be, put the game on hold and check occasionally to ensure that everyone understands what just happened, if you have some reason to believe that they may be confused.
After the game: I try to end my sessions by asking my players if they have any questions, and follow up with a few probing questions of my own to determine what they are expecting and what they may have missed. This gives a leg up in planning the next week’s session and lets me find ways to make sure that the information the players need can be included. If my players expect to fight a spirit they encountered at the end of one week’s session, for example, it’s not necessarily the best plan to make that spirit the primary source of information and exposition by questioning—the players have already told me what they plan to do to it, after all. In that case I might move the information to some alternate source, if I had planned for the spirit to be questioned, or perhaps even determine whether the information is absolutely needed to proceed—after all, the player characters are making a decision not to try and gather information, as well.
Between games: The two greatest tools in the DM’s arsenal are preparation and communication. Preparation lets you marshall your visual aids, plan changes to reflect what the players know, and test your material. If you are going to run traps, puzzles, or riddles, check them with a friend who’s not playing in your game to make sure that you’re not leaving out something critical to the understanding of the solution, or that you haven’t missed some alternate solution. Double-check your material to avoid ambiguous phrasings or confusing solutions—difficulty can arise from something as innocuous as two NPCs with similar-sounding names. Communication is important here, as well as during the game—you can set up a wiki, a blog, or some other means of communicating with your players—my own group makes use of Google Wave to keep track of treasure, experience, and plot details.
You might also find value in keeping notes on your DMing experience each session—what worked, what didn’t work, what the players seemed to understand and what they missed. Go over the notes after the session, a day or two later, and think about what you might have done to make the session work better, and how you can avoid your mistakes next time. Of course, another great way to remind yourself of the importance of being clear for your players is to join another game as a player for a few sessions, and keep the same kind of notes as you would if you were the DM—you may find it easier to spot the pitfalls when you’re somewhat more removed, and you’ll almost definitely pick up some interesting tricks that you’ll want to use in your own game. Unfortunately, getting another game might be the hardest part!
Not sure if this quite fits your topic, but here’s one I feel deeply about: Never have the game clock run faster than the real-life clock when characters are gathering information or discussing strategy.
Let’s say the characters have broken into a prison and are questioning a prisoner. You estimate that it will take 5 minutes for a guard to show up and interfere. Make sure you actually give the players a full 5 minutes to think of questions, ask them, and convince the prisoner to answer.
I like the idea of giving them an actual real-time time limit. For being particularly brutal, set a timer and don’t stop it for anything.
That’s a good guide. As players, me and my friends tend to mess up my husband, the DM, but he does a good job of cutting us the slack we need and we try to play his game.
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