The Alphastream Game Design Blog

Three Qualities of My Best DM at Winter Fantasy 2020

Winter Fantasy is consistently one of the most enjoyable D&D conventions I attend. The hotel is some 200 feet from the convention floor. The restaurants are affordable and you get a meal with almost no wait. The hall is excellent and not loud. And year after year Baldman Games delivers great DMs.

This year almost every DM I had was truly exceptional. There were DMs like Graham Ward, with an expertly run session of the third Eberron adventure, Where the Dead Wait by James Introcaso (I highly recommend these adventures). Scan the room, and you see Graham standing as he DMs, leaning over his screen as he enthusiastically runs his game. (Standing up is often a trait of a good DM!)

Another day my DM was RPG veteran and former lead of D&D organized play, Stephen Radney-MacFarland. SRM humored our table of history buffs by providing tales of behind-the-scenes at WotC and Paizo in between his superb DMing. (SRM is writing Delve, a very fun upcoming RPG.)

And then there was Rob Schwalb. His game of the Mad Wizard RPG (an upcoming RPG using the Shadow of the Demon Lord engine) was so good that those of us at the table kept talking about it every time we saw each other. The game was recorded. Here are three of the reasons Rob is a master-level DM.

Update! You can now listen to the game here:

Art by the late William O’Connor

Comfortable with Improvisation

I can’t imagine a DM being more at ease with improvising than Rob was. Rob ran the 3+ hour session without referring to a written adventure. He simply ran a game based on some high-level concepts, adapting them to the players.

Improvisation is a key skill for DMs to master. Good improvisers can react to what the players do, weaving player actions and decisions into the narrative. Rob was seamless and natural.

Sure, Rob knows the rules perfectly. He created Shadow of the Demon Lord, so he can conjure an appropriate (or inappropriate) challenge in his head. However, what struck us wasn’t his rules mastery or challenges being balanced. The real impression came from his ability to collaborate with us to tell a great tale.

There was a point in the adventure where we could go to a second town, or we could go see the fey in the forest, or we could go to fight the dragon. Rob would be equally comfortable with any choice we made – even one he had not foreseen ahead of time.

I think there are several reasons why Rob is so good at improvising:

Improvise Off of a Framework

When Rob presents an adventure about a dragon attacking a village, he has a framework in mind. For this game, it may have been something like this:

  • A dragon has been attacking a town over a series of days
  • The dragon had been seen long ago, and now is back
  • Some NPCs know that it had been bound to the nearby mountains, but that binding was broken recently
  • There is a nearby town, and they worked with the fey from the forest to break the binding
  • The dragon is very hard to slay, but it could be possible
  • The binding could be redone. The fey could help. Various NPCs could help or hinder.

Rob understands that framework really well. The game can rest upon it as needed, allowing everything else to change. As play progresses, Rob adapts. Rob can even break the framework if that’s better. Players can spend as much time speaking to an NPC as desired. If we talk to just one NPC, they have many clues. If we talk to several NPCs, then the clues get spread out.

Choices Still Matter When Improvising

The narrative is shaped by what players do. Rob understands that while either the fey or the second town could provide the clues, the choice should matter. The choice suggests something about the players, and the DM can feed off of that. Not all clues must be found, and keeping some clues (or delaying them) provides mysteries that show the world is deep. The choice of where we go can determine which clues might be revealed. Rob understands the framework and can play off of it for our benefit.

Rob’s descriptions, as I relate further below, really drive home that choice matters. The second town is vibrant and colorful, and very funny. We can guess that the fey would have also been interesting, but in different ways. We didn’t go there, so we will never know, but it is clear to us that it is a different place. Because we sense the differences and we see the world react to us, we feel that our choices have impact.

When Improvising, Draw From Expectations

When Rob improvises, he does so based on shared expectations. We expect fey to be tricksters offering a dangerous bargain, so when he makes up a fey being, he plays off of the concepts. We expect the Mayor to be rich and corrupt, so he portrays the mayor that way. This gives a realism to the made up world he is spinning. He makes it larger than life, fantastic, so it is still presenting something new. It feels solid, just wondrous.

Improvisation is the first reason Rob was a master DM. Let’s take a look at two more reasons.

Art by Tyler Jacobson

Rich and Evocative Descriptions

Rob’s second talent (of many) is how evocatively he describes the world. Some writers can place words on the page that are so good we want to go back and read the passage over again. Rob is like that while speaking, as he paints the vivid picture of a ridiculously mustachioed and inept head of the guard, who has turned suddenly in such a way that the end of his mustache enters the Mayor’s enormous nose. I can’t do it justice, but it is like roleplaying in a Monty Python skit, a Fellini film, and a Dali painting, all at the same time.

Rob uses rich heady words, but he employs them because they have a specific meaning for that instance. He’s just as quick to use crass language or simplistic terms when that’s the right tool for the job. His descriptions are tools he employs for us, not for himself, so that we can visualize the amazing world of Mad Wizard.

The result is immersion and adoption. We understand that the two towns are in competition over cheeses (it’s a really gouda adventure hook… yeah, sorry). The cheeses are described to us in wondrous and sometimes foul ways. These cheeses are barely PG-13, and we are laughing as the images are indelibly seared into our brains. The sage keeps his cheeses under his bed, and it gets worse from there. The second town flails about, making any cheese possible in hopes that they can once again have a superior cheese. The way Rob describes the flavor, it could be the lines to a poem or song. It isn’t just cheeses. The fey creature, what people wear, the statue hovering over the altar, the altar itself, the fearsome dragon. Rob describes them all with mastery.

Mastery of language is slowly gained. It speaks to Rob’s preparation across decades, studying novels of all sorts and taking in art of all kinds. Or maybe he’s just the right kind of insane. I’m not discarding that possibility either.

Art by Milivoj Ceran

Player-Driven Engagement

A third reason that Rob is a master DM is that he values player engagement. Everything he does, including the improvisation and the rich descriptions, aims to engage the players and encourage them to drive the action.

Many DMs present a scene like one would a flat painting. The player and their character observe it from a distance. They can feel that they are outside the painting, and it isn’t clear how they should interact with it. As an example, when players in most games go to talk to guards, the guards are described… but they are stationary and it’s up to the characters to describe what to say. It can be a slow and awkward start. Rob brings the action to you. On top of the rich description, the guard is also likely to pose a question, issue a challenge, or be in the middle of doing something interesting. You are pulled right into the world. The painting isn’t static. It’s an enveloping world, it’s there for you, and you can’t help but interact with it.

The world is reactionary. What the characters/players do is paramount. Rob is keenly responsive. NPCs have emotions and personalities, and they reveal them quickly and vividly. The sage is egotistical. It’s revealed in the many self-portraits on display, but also with how the sage responds to your questions. The sage’s personality is evident and interesting, and it’s fun and productive talking to him. Every action has a reaction.

Rob is more than happy to reward players for good ideas and good roleplaying. The world responds, making life unexpectedly easier to a good idea or harder to one that missed the mark. Rob listens to what players are saying, and understands what the player is looking for. That’s a key skill. Some DMs are set on what they think the adventure will do, to the point they ignore what the player is doing or what the player wants to accomplish. 

Authors can be a part of this problem too. I’ve shared how our first Ashes of Athas adventure originally listed ways the characters could NOT get into a prison vehicle. It led to DMs looking to turn down player ideas. We rewrote the section to instead encourage DMs to look for cool ideas and we listed some that could work. The enjoyment at the table was vastly improved with that change.  

Rob presents situations not for himself, and not for some truth of the campaign world or even the adventure’s narrative. He presents situations so the players can have a great time. When the players have ideas, he lets those ideas become the next part of the story. And maybe that’s the summary: great DMs understand that this is entertainment, meant to be fun, and they deliver on that.

Next Time: Winter Fantasy Continues

Great DMs were only one of the aspects I enjoyed during the convention. Each day filled me with ideas. Next time we look at a frequent topic: boxed text and adventure format, and what I learned from the varied adventures I prepared!

2 comments on “Three Qualities of My Best DM at Winter Fantasy 2020

  1. Josh dV
    February 16, 2020

    This is excellent and inspiring! Thank you for sharing. No matter how long we have been at this we can always learn a little something or hone our craft through shared experiences.

  2. Eric Kamander
    February 17, 2020

    Thank you for sharing. Good stuff to remember.

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This entry was posted on February 14, 2020 by and tagged .


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