Sure, start with the nightmare question. I think recent tabletop games (including non-RPG games) have really pushed the boundaries in great ways. You’ll always have your classics. Dungeons and Dragons found a great rhythm with fifth edition. Fantasy Flight has an amazingly innovative dice system with narrative consequences. Then you have your real passion projects like Shadow of the Demon Lord, which is a fantastic system that found a home (and funding) on Kickstarter. I think I’d have to say that my favorite is Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars system, Edge of the Empire. They’re currently working on a new edition of Warhammer Fantasy, and I’m really excited to see what they do with it. If they implement a lot of the mechanics from Edge of the Empire, Warhammer will most likely become my favorite system by far. I think the narrative dice system is way more interesting than the flat number restrictions we mostly accept as the standard.
What made you want to become a DM/GM?
I have a steady group of friends who play together. While I wasn’t our first DM, I did become our most consistent DM early on. I originally offered to run games because it just seemed fair to trade off the responsibility. Plus, my friends were mostly running high fantasy settings like Forgotten Realms. Running my own campaign was my opportunity to bring in elements of horror, which is something I love about dark fantasy. I became a more consistent DM in our group because people really enjoyed those darker elements. In recent history, I only DM when I think I have some great ideas for a campaign. I have a lot of old Ravenloft setting books that provide plenty of inspiration.
How much prep time do you conduct before a gaming session?
That’s a perfect follow-up question. Ultimately, when I’ve taken a break from being the DM, it always had to do with time constraints. I enjoy spending a lot of time preparing different characters and scenarios for the players. However, I’ve also learned to keep things flexible. Nobody has fun when a campaign feels rigid. Lately, I’ve favored systems like Shadow of the Demon Lord that have a shorter prep time. For Shadow of the Demon Lord, I spent a lot of time upfront learning about the setting. After that initial time investment, I ran pre-made story arcs where you could prep a session maybe twenty minutes ahead of time. The sessions were really great. If you’re like dark fantasy and want to DM without investing a ton of time, look into Shadow of the Demon Lord. From setting to mechanics, the system really shines.
What is one of your most memorable moments running a game?
Journey of Legends! This was less of a moment and more of an entire weekend. So, my friends and I were playing the fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons at the time. We were separated most of the year because of college, and that presented challenges with running anything on a regular basis. Looking to reconnect, we all decided to meet up at a friend’s house for a long weekend of Dungeons and Dragons. I offered to run sort of mini series of sessions called Journey of Legends. The premise was that everyone would use one of their favorite characters from the past. Our group rarely made it past level ten before a campaign fizzled out, so this was a chance to make your hero a legend. We started around level twelve or thirteen, and everyone received a flat stat boost of six to everything. This was the player’s chance to be that kind of Drizzt or Aragorn figure. Even the skills you’re not very good at are exceptional by normal standards. To balance the experience a little, they faced brutal enemies and incredible challenges. They were like superheroes of fantasy, so they faced that level of challenge. We had an incredible weekend with that. I ran a few more sessions like that afterward, but I think the first time will always be my favorite. The idea and execution were both new, so it was very exciting because the players had no idea what was coming.
Do you do anything to set the mood or atmosphere?
It depends on the environment we’re playing in. Sometimes we have a friend’s house to ourselves, while other times we’re around family and friends. Occasionally, particularly more recently, we use Skype to play from afar. I like using music when it’s possible. My friend Jeff would always throw on The Witcher’s soundtrack during fights. That always made things feel grandiose in a cool way. Our group would also throw in a dvd called Radiant Fireplace to get the sound of a crackling fire in the room. On Skype, and even in person, I favor descriptions when trying to set the mood. When you don’t have access to outside music or fake fireplaces, it’s up to the DM to establish a mood and a tone. I always find that a character can do this very well. Having the players interact with someone unhinged, or sending them into a room where something horrific happened, are both ways to quickly pull players into a darker tone. If you’re looking to do this in your own game, it’s all about trial and error. Eventually, you’ll find something that works for your and your players. No two groups are the same, so you need to approach each campaign with fresh strategies.
What's one tip you would give to other DM/GM's out there?
Be adaptable. Don’t spend too much time planning every little detail of your session. Even the most predictable player can have a wild, fantastic idea that’s worth pursuing immediately. The more you’ve planned, the more rigid your session will be. If you can work from an outline, you’ll be receptive to new and better directions. This is true in writing as well. The more planning you do, the more things feel like they’re set in stone. You don’t want to waste all the time you put into preparing, right? So you shoehorn in the prepared idea whether or not it’s the most interesting idea. Instead, plan a little less and call for a break when something new and interesting pops up. Use the break to plan your next step. I’ve found that familiarizing yourself with the setting and unique elements of the world to be worth a lot more than memorizing any stats or enemies or anything like that. You and your players have ultimately gathered for a shared storytelling experience, and you never want to lose sight of that.
Any last thoughts for our readers?
Sure. Well, first, thank you for having me on the site. This has been a cool experience. I love talking about tabletop games. I guess games in general, actually. If you’re reading this and you’re thinking about becoming a DM/GM for your gaming group, then I strongly encourage you to go for it. Look at different systems, settings and characters within those systems, and really find something you’re excited about. If you’re excited, you’re more likely to prepare for sessions without it feeling like work. Plus, excitement from a DM is potent. The players get excited and they make richer characters because they feel like the campaign will go somewhere. Enthusiasm is contagious, so go ahead and pass it around the table.