Confessions of a Burnt Out Dungeon Master

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Be advised! This post is part rant, part ramble, and part instructive notes, hopefully, on how NOT to DM. This is drawn from my experiences alone and does not necessarily mean the things that did not work for me won't work for you. I intend this as a warning to young DMs; however, some shared stories or possible solutions from older DMs would be greatly appreciated. You have been forewarned.

My name is, well it's irrelevant, but for the sake of any possible repliers, call me Canis (it's the forum name I wanted but Wotc says it's taken.) I've played in two editions as well as Pathfinder and DM'd for PF for two years.

In only two years, I've started and cut short too many games to recall, most of which were generic, cookie cutter adventures that any novice could have ran, but not I. Why, you may ask? Simply put, I couldn't see the forest for the trees. I was so caught up in unimportant details  "The devil's in the details," goes the old adage, and for me, there were always endless details. The best way to explain this is to give one of my better, terrible DM moments as an example:

In one of my first games, I was using a premade adventure to supplement my homebrew campaign. I was making a few NPCs to really flesh out some encounters, I was trying to look like a well put together DM for my group. Vanity, thy name is Canis (mistake 1.) As a sidenote, I choose to make a level 2 NPC from scratch because, according to my reasoning, all "real" DMs made their own NPCs so I had to do it to be like them (mistake 2.) Before I had even rolled a stat, I ran into a roadblock: what is this NPC's name? Yes, I know those who read this will probably laugh at something this trivial but at the time, this was a serious problem. So what do I do? The only thing I can do, dangit, I fire up the ole' web browser and look for names (mistake 3.) Completely abandoning stat creation, I launch into a two hour search for the "perfect name." Not just a name that sounds cool, oh no, too easy. This name must be racially correct, as well as correct for class, place of origin, and alignment. Why? Because that is how you do it, according to my naive reasoning (mistake 4.) After researching countless campaign settings, mythologies, and regional name guides, I finally gave up and went to bed, assuring myself I'd "get around to it soon." (Mistake 5)

I never got around to doing any preperation, showed up to the session with no idea of what I was going to do, and ended up cutting the night short. The adventure lasted two more sessions before I scrapped it altogether. Not one of my finer moments.

To wrap up, let me return to my example and explain the mistakes I made (for those young DMs who may not fully grasp these mistakes and maybe even for some of you older DMs who have some idea of what is about to come):

Mistake 1: Don't try and impress upon your players your skill at DMing just for vanity's sake. Be open and honest with your players with how much you know and how much you don't know. 

Mistake 2: Use the resources at hand rather than tailor making NPCs just to ensure every last skill point is where you want it. Most NPCs won't matter in 3 sessions.

Mistake 3: Avoid needless distractions during prep time. Set attainable goals, work at your own pace, and don't overload yourself with too much at once.

Mistake 4: Don't try to make every NPC, village, or region completely perfect. Your players will rarely, or more likely never, notice that the orc they just killed doesn't have an orc name.

Mistake 5: Before stopping prep, evaluate what you have completed and consider if more prep is needed to ensure a good session. If you don't think you have enough to run with, set time aside within the next few days.

I think that about does it for this post. Thanks for anyone who struggles through the ramble and I hope it helps someone out there.

-Canis
 
What man is a man who does not make the world better?

Mistake 1: Don't try and impress upon your players your skill at DMing just for vanity's sake. Be open and honest with your players with how much you know and how much you don't know.



I think this might contrast with some DMs. You don't want to always feel like you must dazzle the players with details and originality, but don't be too bland either. 


Mistake 2: Use the resources at hand rather than tailor making NPCs just to ensure every last skill point is where you want it. Most NPCs won't matter in 3 sessions.



You know you can use both, right? Take a basic NPC out of a guide and just add on to them or tweak them. Who has time to create a new NPC from scratch these days?


Mistake 3: Avoid needless distractions during prep time. Set attainable goals, work at your own pace, and don't overload yourself with too much at once.


Excellent point.


Mistake 4: Don't try to make every NPC, village, or region completely perfect. Your players will rarely, or more likely never, notice that the orc they just killed doesn't have an orc name.



Give significant detail only to that which needs significant detail. If you aren't planning on spending that much time in a village, keep it very minimal or borrow details from other villages. You might need a few scarce details though, in case your party decides to stay longer on one aspect of the game. 


Mistake 5: Before stopping prep, evaluate what you have completed and consider if more prep is needed to ensure a good session. If you don't think you have enough to run with, set time aside within the next few days.

I think that about does it for this post. Thanks for anyone who struggles through the ramble and I hope it helps someone out there.

-Canis
 



Prep is certainly hard for many busy DMs. I have my games spaced out every other Friday, but a lot of the time I am left wishing that I had a little more game plan. I end up dragging out encounters on a whim, which is something I really need to stop doing. 

Even having a long rough plan ahead of time is better than having a short, thoroughly detailed plan.  
Thank you Zamyatin, those are all great points.

In the case of Mistake 1, I was leaning more towards this: Rather than trying to impress your players with how acccurately you can quote rules or how prepared you are, let your adventure "do the talking." A lackluster adventure with a rules lawyer in the DM's seat will lose everytime in a contest with an awesome adventure run by a DM with a working knowledge of the game. In other words, don't try to memorize every rule, learn naturally as you DM.

Of course, flipping through the PHB is always a good practice for any DM.
What man is a man who does not make the world better?
Names are always hard. Random name generators are lifesavers, but you could also take a name from an existing character and switch some letters around.

Personally, I cut on the workload by stealing whatever I can think of, from whatever comes to mind. I needed a detective type NPC, and Hercule Poirot was the first that came to mind. I named him Myrkul Aroh, kept the Frênche accènt, and mapped out his role in the story. Looked up a random level-appropriate caster in the monster manual (some lizard-like humanoid, but I wasn't going to show the picture anyway), noted the page, and a notorious NPC was born.

Improvisation can help if you don't want to spend ages prepping. Don't be afraid to "lie", if you say the previously unnamed character is called Beñito del Ferro, that's his name, even if he should really be called Richard Porkheart. You might not have the details prepared, but you can always fill them out when they come up. The room might be mostly featureless on paper, but it probably has some tapestries. Dark red ones, with intricate patterns in yellow. On the rare occasion that a player asks for more detail, they might notice decorative swords on the wall, or perhaps hunting trophies.

You can also flesh out bigger stuff by improvisation. I started one session without any prep (random evening, friends over: Hey, shall we do some D&D? You can be the DM!). The last time I'd seen Midsomer Murders, it featured a place called Upper Warden and Lower Warden, so the village they started in was called Middle Warden. Heck, in one of my sessions I asked the players what the nearby town was called (they came up with Custonia). Just make sure you immediately write down the stuff you improvise, so names and features don't randomly change the next time the players encounter them.

Well, that seems to work for me anyway.
Mistake 1: Don't try and impress upon your players your skill at DMing just for vanity's sake. Be open and honest with your players with how much you know and how much you don't know. 



Like any other skill, running a successful game is a matter of practice and patience. As well, it helps to have a recognition that you can always improve. Ask for honesty from your players with regard to feedback and don't take personally any negative responses. Players that understand that DMs don't pop out of the womb ready to run a game are also a blessing.

Mistake 2: Use the resources at hand rather than tailor making NPCs just to ensure every last skill point is where you want it. Most NPCs won't matter in 3 sessions.



This was a problem for me in 3.5. I would spend days on NPC stat blocks only to see them die from a failed save. Still, I thought it was fun to do at the time. But you are dead on - it is completely unnecessary. A name and a quirk is just fine nowadays. If the PCs really take a shine to the NPC, flesh him out later. You never know what the players are going to latch onto.

Remember Chekhov's Gun as well (paraphrased): If you put a gun on the stage in Act 1, you better shoot it by Act 3. You can also reverse that - If you aren't planning on shooting the gun, then don't put it in. In terms of D&D, this means don't put anything in there that isn't important. (Note that red herrings are still valid with this philosophy.)

Mistake 3: Avoid needless distractions during prep time. Set attainable goals, work at your own pace, and don't overload yourself with too much at once.



Prep only what you're going to do next session and maybe have some scant notes on what comes next so you can address that with the players at the end of the game. Always try to write a high-note at the end of the session, either conclusion of a plot or a cliffhanger.

Mistake 4: Don't try to make every NPC, village, or region completely perfect. Your players will rarely, or more likely never, notice that the orc they just killed doesn't have an orc name.



Keep a box near your prep area. Anything you create but don't use, throw it in the box. Revisit it when you're starting a new chapter of the game and see if you can repurpose any of it.

Mistake 5: Before stopping prep, evaluate what you have completed and consider if more prep is needed to ensure a good session. If you don't think you have enough to run with, set time aside within the next few days.



If you don't have enough material for a whole session, work toward a really good endpoint and then spend the rest of the evening getting feedback, playing some cards with your players, or generally bonding.

No amount of tips, tricks, or gimmicks will ever be better than simply talking directly to your fellow players to resolve your issues.
DMs: Don't Prep the Plot | Structure First, Story Last | Prep Tips | Spoilers Don't Spoil Anything | No Myth Roleplaying
Players: 11 Ways to Be a Better Roleplayer | You Are Not Your Character     Hilarious D&D Actual Play Podcast: Crit Juice!

FREE CONTENT: Encounters With Alternate Goals  |  Full-Contact Futbol   |   Pre-Gen D&D 5e PCs  |  Re-Imagining Phandelver  |  Three Pillars of Immersion

Follow me on Twitter: @is3rith

I was expecting something much more vitriolic. I appreciated what I was surprised with. I think this kind of self-examination is a good thing for anybody getting frustrated with D&D. And the willingness to share it and receive feedback can help with our perspectives in ways that can only improve us!
Here are the PHB essentia, in my opinion:
  • Three Basic Rules (p 11)
  • Power Types and Usage (p 54)
  • Skills (p178-179)
  • Feats (p 192)
  • Rest and Recovery (p 263)
  • All of Chapter 9 [Combat] (p 264-295)
A player needs to read the sections for building his or her character -- race, class, powers, feats, equipment, etc. But those are PC-specific. The above list is for everyone, regardless of the race or class or build or concept they are playing.
I think the best advice I've ever heard is, whenever legitimate sales aren't involved: "good DMs borrow, great DMs steal". Just steal stuff whole cloth from published adventures and novels. Maybe just change their name, or one other prominent detail if you're worried about them being recognizable (Han Solo the Rogue quick-draw suddenly showing up in the tavern is probably going to be a bit obviously, after all).

This thread speaks greatly to the usefulness of that advice, I think, and I certainly can't say I haven't ignored it more than is healthy myself.
Names are as hard or as easy as you make them.

Three characters:

The first, I wanted to know his original name for backstory purposes but it didn't really matter. I let the Character Builder randomly pick a couple race-appropriate names and made one his given name, the other his family name. Then the name he actually uses - I decided how he chose it, had the Character Builder pick given names at random until I found one that I could work into the story (it dictated a backstory character's nickname), and looked at a map of the appropriate real-world geographic area for a town or city to use as his surname (which set part of the backstory character's own backstory). Took a bit of time, but wasn't at all difficult.

The second, I decided where he was from (south coast of the Baltic Sea) and his family's history (recent Finnish ancestry). I had to research names in the area for an appropriate given name and the corresponding adjective to make him "the Finn" in the local language. This was considerably more brain-straining.

The third had a three-syllable given name built into the origin of the character concept. Sure I could change it, but I had forward-story reasons to want to keep it. Unfortunately, actually using that name would have consequences that would completely derail the adventuring career - that happens sometimes when you're swiping and rerouting a well-known character. For a use-name I picked one of the three syllables and modified the spelling to make it feel like a complete name. Easy.
"The world does not work the way you have been taught it does. We are not real as such; we exist within The Story. Unfortunately for you, you have inherited a condition from your mother known as Primary Protagonist Syndrome, which means The Story is interested in you. It will find you, and if you are not ready for the narrative strands it will throw at you..." - from Footloose
Before I post another big post, I want talk about something Iserith pointed out

This was a problem for me in 3.5. I would spend days on NPC stat blocks only to see them die from a failed save. Still, I thought it was fun to do at the time. But you are dead on - it is completely unnecessary. A name and a quirk is just fine nowadays. If the PCs really take a shine to the NPC, flesh him out later. You never know what the players are going to latch onto.



When in doubt about whether it is necessary to flesh out an NPC, wait until after the NPC is introduced. Rather than fleshing out NPCs in anticipation of player interest, flesh out NPCs in response to player interest.

Note: If you know the NPC in question will be a recurring character, it doesn't hurt to have a couple lines of information behind it. 
What man is a man who does not make the world better?

     First off, let me say: Woo, 200+ views! Hopefully someone is learning from my ramblings. Oh and thank you to Seeker95, the smiley tipping his hat made my day. Now, on to the post!

     In my first post, I touched on preparation for a game, NPCs, and not losing yourself in the details. While I will talk about these subjects in the future, today I want to talk about the most important, and often most difficult, responsibiluty of a Dungeon Master: creating an adventure.


     For me, this has always been my Achilles heel. I’ll have an idea for an adventure, then I reach a wall and am unable to progress the storyline any further. That’s usually when I tell my players to roll new characters. This is one of those times when player input is crucial. Ask your players what they want to play and really listen. Then, use their ideas to spark an adventure. Don’t be ashamed if you reach a wall. Talk to your players, post in the forums for ideas, or take a break to recharge. If you still can’t think of anything, look to published adventures for ideas or use the entirety of the published adventure to “fill the gap” in your campaign. Speaking of different types of adventure (segue alert).


     In my experience, there are three main ways to approach this aspect of DMing: 1) Run a Homebrew adventure, 2) Run a published adventure, 3) or run a mix of the first two. I have always opted for way 3. This way of DMing has its pros and cons. For inexperienced DMs, the cons can outweigh the pros. If you are new to DMing, start of with a pre-made adventure; it’s the best way to “get your feet wet.” As a young DM, choosing options 1 or 3 can lead to disastrous consequences. Example:    
 


      I decided to run a level one adventure; we started off with a simple plot: rescue the princess. (Mario’s been doing it since 1985, so it can’t be that hard to make something from that premise, right? Oh no, not me, too easy.) I began the adventure with this plan: I’ll make it up, night by night (Mistake 1). I decided to use this homebrew adventure as a lead in to another adventure. My players got to the dungeon, annihilated my carefully laid dungeon and soon reached the Big Bad Evil Guy, BBEG. That’s when I hit the wall. So what do I do? I doubled the BBEG’s CR and made him pull punches to capture the PCs (Mistake 2). Flash forward three levels and we find my PCs working for a villian named Risir who has them search a dungeon for a mythical sword said to contain the essence of a dragon who slew a God in combat (Mistake 3.0). Oh it gets better. Within this dungeon, not only is there one obscenely powerful weapon, there are three (Mistake 3.5). The PCs recover all three and what do you think they do with them? Use them of course. Next session, the PCs were visited by a god who told them they must take the weapons to a certain location and hand them over to a certain NPC. They had no choice in the matter (Mistake 4). The adventure lasted two more sessions before I scrapped it.
 


Mistake breakdown: (for the sake of ease of typing, I will abbreviate mistake as M.)



  • M-1: For any adventure, have at least a rough draft of where you want it to go. Do not make a habit of “making it up as you go along,” as this will come back to bite you.

  • M-2: Don't build up a quest only to intentionally make your players fail. This takes the fun out of the game. Let the players decide the outcome. No adventure should end with the mentality, "I'm the DM, do as I want or I'll kill your character."

  • M-3.0/3.5: Never give your PCs ungodly powerful weapons and expect them not to use them. This type of unbalance within a game will upset combat. Especially don't give PCs multiple ungodly powerful weapons. Now instead of one game breaker, you have several.

  • M-4: This is akin to M-1 but is a deeper problem than taking options away from your players. This type of action is a Deus ex machina (wikipedia it). Use of this type of plot device makes your players think that they have no power over what their character does, as the DM resorts to piss poor plot devices to make something he wants happen. Conversely, over use of this can foster thoughts of, "It doesn't matter what we do, the DM will get us out of it," from your players.



     In the end, it doesn’t matter if you don’t think you did as well as you could have on an adventure; as long as you and your players are having fun then you, my Dungeon Master friend, have succeeded.


     Thoughts? 



Note: I'm shooting for 400+ views before my next big post. Sealed thanks to those who read this junk, and a special thanks to all the repliers.

-Canis 

What man is a man who does not make the world better?
Mistake breakdown: (for the sake of ease of typing, I will abbreviate mistake as M.)

  • M-1: For any adventure, have at least a rough draft of where you want it to go. Do not make a habit of “making it up as you go along,” as this will come back to bite you.

  • M-2: Don't build up a quest only to intentionally make your players fail. This takes the fun out of the game. Let the players decide the outcome. No adventure should end with the mentality, "I'm the DM, do as I want or I'll kill your character."

  • M-3.0/3.5: Never give your PCs ungodly powerful weapons and expect them not to use them. This type of unbalance within a game will upset combat. Especially don't give PCs multiple ungodly powerful weapons. Now instead of one game breaker, you have several.

  • M-4: This is akin to M-1 but is a deeper problem than taking options away from your players. This type of action is a Deus ex machina (wikipedia it). Use of this type of plot device makes your players think that they have no power over what their character does, as the DM resorts to piss poor plot devices to make something he wants happen. Conversely, over use of this can foster thoughts of, "It doesn't matter what we do, the DM will get us out of it," from your players.



Some of these issues arise from lack of simple planning at the campaign outset. I know because I've made all the "mistakes" you site and then some during my tenure.

Have a plan at the beginning of the campaign and work with your players openly on it.
I'm the type of DM that will gladly write whatever campaign the players want to play, provided I'm familiar with the material and not forced to have to memorize a lot of canon. (I'm looking at you Forgotten Realms...) I take it as a creative design challenge and because the players chose the type of campaign before I ever put pen to paper, I'm sure to deliver them content they will enjoy.

Your plan should include strong definitions of the following things: (1) Style, (2) Theme, (3) PC Role, (4) Pacing. Style, theme, and pacing should complement each other. You don't want to tell an action-adventure story in a slow and brooding tone with glacially-paced reveals over many levels. Players should make character appropriate to the style and theme and clearly define the role of their adventuring group in the scope of the campaign. Some examples:

     - Pulp action/adventure, world-spanning search for lost antiquities, fast-paced leveling and episodic stories, in media res cold opens that start with action; PCs are gentlemen adventurers seeking fortune and glory.

     - Gothic horror, traveling campaign moving from one horror venue to another by way of travel made interesting with gypsy politics, sandbox design within the scope of each varied domain, strong focus on villains and villain backstories; PCs are lost, seeking a way home if they can retain their sanity.

That's all you need to do a successful story. Just those notes clearly define what you're setting out to accomplish and if you feel you're straying from it, you can easily remind yourself how to get back on track. They also suggest a plethora of adventures you can write that will both be appropriate to the campaign and of interest to the players (remember, they helped you come up with those notes). If you want them to save a princess, that adventure would look and play completely different in those two examples. The first one would look like Indiana Jones; the second, Bram Stoker's Dracula. More or less same simple plot; two radically different executions.

Once you've got your plan in place, relentlessly focus on it. Don't make anything mundane. In the pulp action campaign, it's always the biggest mountains to climb, the widest rivers to ford, the most complex of ruins to explore. In the gothic horror game, it's the most evil of villains and the darkest elements of horror from the disturbed depths of your psyche. There's no room for subtlety in D&D. You need to get your players' attention and get them excited and able to see and relate to the scenes you're writing. Everything you see is important. Anything that's not is done off-camera.

That should help you stay on track and have all the impetus you need to come up with exciting adventures that make sense, stay true to the theme, and keep your players' interest level high.

No amount of tips, tricks, or gimmicks will ever be better than simply talking directly to your fellow players to resolve your issues.
DMs: Don't Prep the Plot | Structure First, Story Last | Prep Tips | Spoilers Don't Spoil Anything | No Myth Roleplaying
Players: 11 Ways to Be a Better Roleplayer | You Are Not Your Character     Hilarious D&D Actual Play Podcast: Crit Juice!

FREE CONTENT: Encounters With Alternate Goals  |  Full-Contact Futbol   |   Pre-Gen D&D 5e PCs  |  Re-Imagining Phandelver  |  Three Pillars of Immersion

Follow me on Twitter: @is3rith

masterofplataea.blogspot.com

This is my blog for this subject. Thanks.

-Canis 
What man is a man who does not make the world better?
I think you've overlooked by far the most important mistake that you made - you gave up.  Just like anything else you do in life, you're going to make mistakes as a DM, but you haven't failed until you give up and walk away.