Indie Corner: Episode 2
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Welcome back to the Beginner’s Guide for Dungeon Masters series, the step-by-step guide to help new DMs plunge into the world of Dungeon Mastering. Buckle up, this is going to be a longer article, but it’s not a discussion that should be split into multiple parts. Last time, we talked about gathering your players. Today’s article is going to be about safety tools, player expectations, and player care to make sure you and your players are having a positive experience. This is important for every single game of Dungeons and Dragons you play, whether it’s a one-shot or a long running campaign. Because Dungeons and Dragons is a collaborative game where you tell a story together, you have to make sure everyone is on the same page when it comes to what is expected, and you need to make sure that what happens during the game brings everyone closer together. There are a few rules to keep in mind for this.
Rule One – It’s always you. The character didn’t choose to do that. You, the player, made that decision. Yes, it is all fantasy and characters are not representative of player beliefs, fears, or desires. But the player is the one at the wheel of their character just as much as the DM is at the wheel of the game. From a player etiquette standpoint, this means that the player needs to make choices with their character that respects the other players, regardless of whether “it’s what my character would do.” For the DM, it means that any scene you create for the characters needs to respect the players and their boundaries. What happens to a character to some extent will bleed over to the player. If players were entirely disconnected, there would be no frustration when someone goes unconscious, or rolls poorly, or when a plan goes awry. This bleed-over effect is due to the fact that it’s always the player playing the game. They are invested in how their character performs, and they are invested in experiencing the world. You as the DM should never treat characters however you like without regard for the player controlling them.
Rule Two – Players first. This means, quite simply, that the players at the table get put first before any other consideration. Player needs come first, before the story, before your desire for the scene to go a certain direction, before the characters they are playing, and before you as the DM. As the DM, you are in charge of the direction of the game, and that means you shoulder the most responsibility for the wellbeing of your players.
Rule Three – You’re in this together. It’s not player vs player, or player vs DM. You are all playing the game. You are playing it together. Whatever happens in the game, whatever the scene, whatever the artificially created conflict, you are all playing a game together. When the game ends, even if characters fought each other, even if the ancient dragon killed a party member, even if there is a total party wipe, the most important thing is that you all walk away from the table as friends. There is a place for the DM vs player dynamic, but it must come with trust. Because at the end of the day, this game is just a game. You’re all playing it together, and when the game is over, your friendships should be stronger, not weaker, for having played.
So, with these rules in place, I want to give you some strategies and resources that can help you in preparing your game and your players. I want to split these tools into three general categories – before the game, during the game, and after the game.
Before The Game
Before the game means before you even have session 1. These are steps that should be taken and things that should be considered before players ever sit down to play the game. Most of these can be addressed during a session zero, where everyone sits down and discusses their expectations for the game. And in almost all cases, these are ongoing. If a player has a concern about hard or soft limits or about the tone of the game, that can be addressed at any point during the game. Consider the following as a good initial topic list.
Pick your players carefully. Not everyone needs to be in your game. Dungeons and Dragons is a collaborative game that can get very emotional and very raw, especially in games that run a long time. Players need to be able to trust each other. Friendships can be made at the table, but they can be strained or broken too. Players who are at your table need to be emotionally mature enough to handle the game you’re playing. They need to be able to interact with the other players respectfully, and they need to be trustworthy enough to play the game alongside the whole group. One bad player can ruin the experience, whether they fudge their own rolls because they don’t want to fail, or try to become the center of attention, or take actions in-character that make other players uncomfortable. In general, I give people a chance, and most of the time people have lived up to my requirements of my players. I have only ejected a person from the table once. But it was important that I did so, because the game is about the group, not any individual person.
Determine the tone for the game. If players show up for a game thinking it’s going to be sunshine and rainbows and then they are given the full Warhammer experience, they will feel lied to. When discussing what type of game everyone wants to play, discuss tone and what everyone wants to get out of the experience. Do players want heavy roleplay, or more high fantasy heroics? Do they want a game focused on heavy combat, or social encounters? Is the game going to be lighthearted and fun, or dark and brooding? For Bard Rock Café, we had a discussion before the game ever began about what the game’s tone would be. Everyone agreed to heavy randomness and wild magic, and a generally lighthearted and fun tone. The game reflects that in the sessions, from runaway cabbage carts, to sand-spewing magisters, to cat merchants jumping out windows. There is still a serious plotline – the gods are silent, healing has stopped, riots are happening in the streets and Waterdeep is facing a social crisis exacerbated by the appearance of wild magic and the deaths that are happening from the combination of all of this. This plotline sounds grim and dark and serious. But it can be told whimsically, and the heavy messages can be delivered with hilarity and randomness and levity. This allows my players to interact with the story and become invested in the world while staying true to the tone they asked for when we started the game. Determine what type of game your players want, and stick to that type of game.
This step does involve some overlap with choosing your players carefully. If a player just isn’t interested in a type of game, they probably should not be included. Likewise, if a group of experienced players expect a game that challenges their skill and pushes the limits of their characters, this might not be the right game for a completely new player. Not every game is for every player, and that is ok. Building a group and setting expectations is the cornerstone to having more fun later and avoiding frustration.
Session Zero is the time to meet up for an hour or so before having the first actual game. It’s useful for wrapping up character creation, answering player questions related to their story, and clearing up any confusion. This is also the time to discuss hard and soft limits. A hard limit is things that will never be in the campaign due to player request. Typical hard limits are rape, torture, child abuse or child death, or any overly dark, grim or traumatic event. If a hard limit is set, it is important that you as the Dungeon Master make sure to never have that in your game in any form. If torture is a hard limit in your game, then you build a world where torture never happens. Players will never run into it, it will never be referenced or alluded to, and it definitely will never have happened to anyone the players interact with.
Soft limits are things that are uncomfortable, and should be handled with care. Using the torture example, if that is a soft limit, torture can be alluded to. Torture can have happened to someone, and it can affect their character, but it should never be central, and it should absolutely never be acted out or described in detail. It’s important to have these conversations even in published Wizards of the Coast modules. In Curse of Strahd, there are scenes written into the book for sexual abuse, child abuse, and torture. Curse of Strahd is a horror themed module, and the scenes fit the unsettling tone of the module as written. However, I have run that campaign several times, and I have removed or altered several scenes in it based on player discussion before the game even started.
It’s worth noting that the discussion on limits is important for games where things are going to get dark and heavy. In short games or one-shots, or in lighter games where everything is sunshine and unicorns, having an explicit conversation can be skipped, but know that in those cases the burden is still on you as the dungeon master to make sure you don’t stray into territory that might make players uncomfortable. In these cases, other player care tools become important in giving players a chance to express that discomfort if it arises. Check in regularly with your players, and in general, if players haven’t signed off on certain dark topics, its better to be safe than sorry. And remember – these conversations can be ongoing. If a game’s tone begins to shift six months into playing, its ok to have a second “session zero” type discussion.
Session zero is also the time to discuss general rules and etiquette for the game. This includes things like letting someone have the spotlight for a moment before taking your turn. Don’t metagame or powergame. It may be okay to drink during the game, but don’t get drunk to the point of being unable to play or to the point of being unpleasant to play with. Have some plan for your character before your turn in combat so that combat doesn’t take all night. Have fun and be respectful of each other. Set up any guidelines for behavior that will help the game run smoothly and be a more enjoyable experience for everyone.
During The Game
These are some useful tools that help ensure your players are having a good time while the game is actually being played at the table. Most of these are designed so that the player can come to you discreetly without disrupting the game for other players. Consider using these suggestions to help your players get the most out of their sessions.
Breaks are a great tool for dealing with in-game stress and checking in. Long games can really drain a player, especially if they are very invested in the story and have been on edge for hours. Breaks give people time to decompress before jumping back into things, whether its rough combat or emotionally taxing social encounters. I try to break up my game every two hours just to give my players time to take care of themselves, go to the bathroom, refill drinks, and generally unwind for a minute before starting up. A break can last as long as needed, and breaks can be as often as necessary. If a player is having a rough time and needs a break? Take a break. The good thing about playing a collaborative game is that everything can be paused and unpaused as needed. Timing breaks can be great for cliffhangers too, but make sure to use breaks appropriately.
Levity is another thing you can utilize as the DM. Levity just refers to letting humor seep into otherwise serious situations. This is especially important if a session has been dark or heavy the whole time. It can be something simple, such as having the party fail to open a door… because it’s a pull door, not a push door, and nobody opened the door successfully until the brawny fighter rolled high enough on athletics to MAKE it a push door. Little things that break the tension with a little hilarity are great ways to give players a break from dense material and keep things in the game fun. Players will often do this too – if they decide to be ridiculous with a situation, or have absurd conversations with an NPC, let them. Don’t punish them for introducing a little levity. Let them make puns, or deliberately mispronounce the important NPCs name, or whatever gets them to fall apart into fits of giggling – these are often some of the best moments, and its ok to break from a super serious scene to let it happen.
Check-insare also good. Little nonverbal private cues between players and the dungeon master are ways that players can use to check in with the DM about their current state. Sometimes it can be hard to differentiate what a player is feeling from how their character is acting. Is that just Gruff the Unbreaking being upset, or is Dave actually angry right now? It’s ok to check in when someone else is taking their turn in combat, or to send a private message to a player on their phone or discord or whatever other medium suits you. I’ve checked in with a player just by making eye contact and giving them a thumbs up coupled with a questioning head-tilt, and they responded with a so-so hand wave, which was plenty to tell me they were having a hard time. I checked in with them during the break afterwards, and everything was ok, the scene was just hitting close to home for them.
Flags are a final tool that is helpful. If a session is going to be treading on thin ice when it comes to soft limits, its important your players have a signal that can tell you as the DM when you’re going too far. This can be a private sign between you and the player, private messages, or even something as explicit as a card that can be flipped heads up to indicate discomfort. Make sure flags are comfortable for players to use, discreet if they need to be, and clear about where the line needs to be drawn. And if a player lets you know the scene is making them uncomfortable, dial it down a couple notches or steer the scene in a different direction.
After The Game
Finally, here are a couple of important steps to take once the game is over to check in with players, give them a chance to decompress, and make sure everyone is good to go next session.
Debriefingis simply the process of discussing the session. Spend some time talking with the players about how the game went. Was it super intense? Boring? Did they have fun? Do they have suspicions about the plot, or hopes for the next session? Debriefing after each session will let players rant about things that made them feel strongly during the session, and discuss some of their hopes and fears for future sessions. Debriefing lets you address players’ issues that might have come up and also gives you a sense for what will work well for players in the future. And few things are as fun or engaging as giving players a scene or character moment they are hoping for.
Aftercare is a specific variant of debriefing that is important. If a player had a really bad session, it might be worth checking in individually with them. This can be done as a group, such as if a player lost a character they’ve been playing for a long time and the whole table rallies to comfort them. But its important that players be reminded that – even if a game session went poorly for them, or touched on some sensitive topic areas, or if they were just having a bad night – the game is just a game, and the player is what is important. Check in with players who had a bad night. Let them know you care. Talk through whatever issues came up. Give them time to process so they’re back and ready for next time.
Not every single tool has to be used in every single game. But its important to have these in your arsenal as a DM so that you can take care of your players and make sure they’re having a good time. For most of these, while it seems like a lot on paper, it comes very naturally. Most players will want to debrief after an intense session. Levity has a way of introducing itself to the game. And if you play long enough, your players will let you know its time for a break. But in the case of choosing your players, having session zero discussions, and giving players ways to express when they’re uncomfortable, it needs to be a deliberate effort so that problems don’t come up later.
I hope you found this article helpful. Remember that the ultimate goal is to have fun, and to make sure that everyone else at the table is having fun too. These tools are useful safeguards to help you keep your players engaged and invested in the game when things get dark or intense.