Playing it by Ear: How to NOT Freak Out as a DM.

Being a DM was a challenge enough, but juggling DM duties with an 8 hours a day, 5 days a week job is akin to balancing plates while jumping on a ball and singing opera.  and I don’t know opera.

As Matthew mentioned earlier, most of the group has been fairly busy.  What he didn’t talk about was how in the last two games we played, I had minimal to almost no time to prepare.

When we gathered at the VIP lounge of one player’s bar (yeah, he has immense cool cred to  balance out the geek cred), I was under the impression that Matthew was going to run some sort of dungeon delve.  Something quick and dirty to relieve the stresses of adulthood and take it out on things that lurk in the dark and are very fun to hit.

Instead, the other guys excitedly babbled about how much they missed the Eberron game, and how they reallyreallyreallyOHMYGODREALLY wanted to play it that night.

I found myself agreeing to it, even though I was utterly unprepared.  Which is a huge thing for me, as a newbie DM.  Previously, I needed a full week to prepare for a 4 hour game.  Now I had roughly 30 minutes before a game (yes, my players were THAT excited.)

So how did I survive?  And more importantly, did my players enjoy the game?

First off, the 4th Ed Dungeon Master’s Guide is fairly useful in providing tips when you have limited time to prepare.  However, when you’ve only got an hour to prepare the DMG really only recommends going through a published adventure and picking out what’s useful.

Now while this may work for a lot of DM’s, published adventures usually aren’t such a time saver for me.  As a player and as a DM, I’ve never really liked dungeons and the mind-numbing dungeon crawls that go with them.  And what I love about Eberron is the noir-like quality of it, the idea that nothing is ever at it seems, and the intrigue and caution that comes with interacting with characters.

So for the 30 minutes I had to prepare, this is what I did:

  • Think of ways to have the party reform as quickly as possible. Take into account what happened last: When we last left the game, one of the characters was left in the shadow of a Warforged Titan that had previously killed and destroyed the party.  And yes, the rest of the party wasn’t around.  How was I going to make sure they’d join up again?
  • Put together different possible encounters for the party to mess with. Using the wonderful XP budget concept that 4th ed has, I quickly pulled up old and new monsters (The Adventure Tools, specifically the Monster Builder, is SUCH a life saver in my case), and put together different combinations accounting for if Malak the Deva Avenger would have to take on enemies by himself, or if his party would be able to come in save his sorry ass.  I knew with the limited time we had there would only be enough for one real encounter, but I still put together about six, depending on what the party decided to do.
  • Pull up old NPCs that haven’t made an appearance in a while.  I’ve noticed that when players come across a face they haven’t seen in a while, it really helps establish a solid plot, even if you as a DM are only flying by the seat of your pants.  In this case, I brought back an old girlfriend that had naturally left the main story many games before.  Aelia was once a war bard during the 100 year war, but was now a world-famous opera singer that had somehow gotten involved with prophecies and gods.  What had happened to her since Malak and the party had seen her last?  Something awful, I should think…
  • Clearly pin down the motives of your NPCs and Enemies. Admittedly, I sometimes have a character show up, and I’m not completely utterly sure why they’re there.  I may have an inkling,  but nothing fully fleshed out.  I usually only need enough to know why Gunther the Rakshasa who is developing dangerous technology to throw the world back into war is now in Mror Hold and where he’ll go next.  In the case of Aelia, I knew her motives involved genuine love and her being mercilessly used as a pawn in Gunther’s plans.  If she were able to overcome this darkness however, would be completely up to my players.
  • Be ready to steal a good idea when you hear one. When Malak saw Aelia he was relieved if suspicious to see Aelia in Mror Hold.  He had last seen her in Stratican, and thought her part in the prophecy to be over.  She was somehow different, her eyes and colors changed.  What did this mean?  I wasn’t completely sure myself.  (Sometimes as a DM, I open my mouth and start describing things in book-like prose, but I have no idea what the heck I’m thinking until I say it out loud.)  However, one of my players thought Aelia was trouble for SURE.  They started to think out loud, and loved to formulate their own theories.  If I hear a great idea, I usually latch on to it and let the story take the course of what the players unwittingly suggested.
  • Have faith in your players. It’s a DM’s job to build a good game, but it’s also a player’s job to play a good game as well.  I can trust my players to play smart, to think as their characters rather than as themselves, to know when to fight and when to talk their way out of something.  Which means, I knew that when Aelia would show up, that Malak the Deva Avenger would have his rationality clouded by his love for her and his need to protect her.  And I knew that Carn the Human Artificer wouldn’t trust her as far as he could throw her, and would think defeating her in combat and then asking questions later would be the best course of action.  Which meant, yes, awesome combat that also promised character and story development as Malak and Carn fought to protect their interests.
  • Don’t be afraid to hit them hard, but level the playing field. Aelia lifted her hand to reveal the symbol that controlled the Warforged Titan.  A Deva Fallen Star and a Warforged Titan against three players?  It’s a good thing the monster builder lets me quickly level down and tweak monsters as I needed it.  The Titan was in the middle of repairs and upgrading, which meant he wasn’t fighting at full capacity.  And Aelia was in love with Malak, and couldn’t hurt him physically.
  • Emotionally involve your players. One thing that needs no preparation is to always be aware of what your players and their characters need and want.  By keeping Aelia’s motives mysterious, and her recent past of torture at the hands of the Rakshasa to reveal itself slowly and in small hints, I knew that the party would find themselves emotionally invested.

So 30 minutes of preparation turned into one very full encounter that stretched for 3-4 hours.  At the end of it, Aelia had revealed herself to be a Deva Fallen Star.  Attempting to escape, Malak was unwilling to let her go until he could find a way to save her.  Holding her down as her unnatural black wings fought to free her, Slam the Warforged Warden took on his Form of the Winter’s Herald and attacked her.

Knowing full well that she was down to a handful of hit points, I fluffed up his attack to be a thick coat of ice that completely engulfed her, wherein she shattered in Malak’s arms.  The last look in her eyes was one that showed a sense of betrayal.  Those that had previously sought to protect her in the very first game had now been those behind her death.  She died in the arms of one she loved, who had loved her in a previous life.  Had she perhaps given in to the darkness?  Would this mean that she would be reborn as a Rakshasa?  Was she beyond redemption?

My players were all left reeling from the experience, and the player behind Malak was especially heart-broken.  At the end of the game they were all nodding contentedly to themselves and freaking out over Aelia’s fate.  Was there a way to reverse it?  To make sure she wasn’t born as a Rakshasa?  As they all speculated on this, I realized I already had the seed for my next adventure.

Mission accomplished.

But here’s a  question to other DMs out there, what do you do with limited time to prepare for a game?  What great stories do you have from the experience?

If you enjoyed this post, consider supporting us by purchasing any number of roleplaying products from such as various DM resources for D&D 4th Edition: the Dungeon Master’s Guide, the Monster Manual, or Dungeon Master’s Guide 2.

8 Responses to “Playing it by Ear: How to NOT Freak Out as a DM.”
  1. Dungeonmum says:

    I like this post. Even as a player rather than a DM. I like to know that DM’s can do their stuff flying by the seat of their pants rather than always following the plot faithfully. There’s been times we’ve had incredible adventures and asked the DM about how he got the idea only to find it was all improv. I’ll bear all these tips in mind if I ever take up the duty again (done it 3 times – hard work and terrifying!). I think what helps is knowing that the players have no idea what’s ‘supposed’ to happen, everything will work out fine in the end!

  2. deadorcs says:

    Excellent blog. Stumbled upon it from a a link in Twitter (thanks, ve4grm)! Sounds like you have great group going. Keep up the good work!

  3. DiceGolem says:

    My party is just about to enter a long-abandoned dwarven ruin, rich with promises of tempting treasure, treacherous traps, and totally tantalizing tastefulness. I’ve got the session in three days with lots of homework to boot, so I’ll be running it by the seat of my pants again!

    The only one downside is names. I cannot come up with names for random people or things to save my life! If I have one thing to add, it’s this: “Always keep a name generator at the ready!”

  4. torchwood5 says:

    I have a half-dozen lists that I like to keep handy in a notebook.

    Lists of
    NPC names
    Place names
    Cool places for battling – ie, rooftops, a bell tower, a giant crater, a ten story library.
    Things I’d like to see in my games like a wyvern flying overhead, musicians in a street, a mugging, street merchants with hanging geese, etc.
    simple game ideas. usually one sentence descriptions of an interesting situation. like the murder of a local barkeep for spreading information. Someone looking to hire thieves to test their current security. Just simple games that last one or two sessions, allowing me to prepare for the bigger story.

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