Notes from the Tabletop: Becoming a Better DM Through Play

None of the following is revolutionary: To become a better creator, one must be an active participant. Writers read, actors watch, musicians listen to others play.

I spent the first few years of my D&D experience playing in a party DMed by my good friend, TJ, with mostly the same folks in the same continuous story. After taking a year's break, I started giving DMing a try - after all, it had been something I wanted to try since I learned what D&D was - and had a pretty disappointing campaign that ended after a few sessions since our thief moved to England and the rest of us got busy. Another downtime started, and I began living a life without D&D (though I should note that I got more involved in theatre, which I'll bring  up again later.)

My friends had started to fill that gap in their hearts with consuming D&D media. I found myself intimidated to listen to D&D podcasts like The Adventure Zone and Critical Role because it was a constant reminder of my mistakes and inexperience. Though I attend the live session of Acquisitions Incorporated at PAX West every year, it's more of a tradition than anything for me, a show slightly removed from the reality of me hyper-comparing  myself to the DM and players. I still haven't had the courage to listen to podcasts or streams, but I've started to work around it with the logic that I learn storytelling from everything I consume, whether that be my work in theatre, to my obsession with the hypnotic, immersive narration style put forth by Nic Silver in TANIS or Cecil Baldwin in Welcome to Night Vale. Yet, these aren't D&D. They're a way I can mimic storytelling and work on my world development, but in the end, these media sources didn't solve my insecurity over DMing.

my table, these goofballs

It took me nearly all year to swallow my pride and watch/play D&D for the purpose of learning to DM. By pride, I think I mean my insecurities with DMing, from my lack of rule comprehension in certain areas, to improvisation nerves that get stronger when I DM my table, which is comprised of mostly actors. I prepped for hours to freeze up the second players veered off of my plans, and despite fully knowing that this is how D&D works, I internally blamed them rather than myself.

After every session, I felt like I failed my players. My nerves locked up my creativity, and I didn't have any role models to base my behaviors on, since I didn't watch or play any other games at the time. The thought of changing that set a stone into my stomach - I would have to come to grips with just how awful of a player I still was, and end up comparing myself endlessly to the DM and not come out with anything.

Something that helped me a little was the only content I could take in without falling into the pits of groveling - r/DMAcademy, a subreddit dedicated to answering questions from DMs. I never posted any of my own, but I noticed that many answers were based on what players had seen or what other DMs did in similar situations. That slowly turned me over to being interested in playing from other DMs to observe and learn, and try to soak up the answers to my problem of being probably the worst DM I've ever known. I just had almost nothing to base myself off of, as my only other DM had been TJ years and years ago.

from Ben's campaign - we often take games outside when the store fills up.

I started playing a session with some friends my age from robotics a few months ago, and I'm still playing with them today. I turned down the initial offer, but when the idea of a table came around again, I hesitantly dragged myself in, coming in with heavy disclaimers that I could get busy and end up having to drop, which really was me giving myself a pass for if I was way in over my head.

The DM, Ben, relied on narrative leveling. His style is very much based on TAZ and offered a relaxed atmosphere geared towards party building. The table was composed of all robotics engineers, myself included, representing three sister teams, though I was the only representative from my own team. Between us, everyone took German except for me, and I was the only actor. Sometimes I felt somewhat set apart, but it was the love for the game that brought us together.

It was then, having played a character for the first time in nearly a year and a half, that I discovered that my skills had in fact changed a lot since I started acting, and that my difference was my strength. In the slightly less-complex environment of being a player versus a DM, I found myself for the first time using a character voice and really digging into the details of who Sparky, my monk, was. Ben also utilized voices, sometimes scratching them a moment in and changing them, or playing around a second before starting. I laughed to myself a little - Ben didn't do theatre at all, and here he was still giving his all at improv and voices. I remarked to myself about my own anxiety over trying at my table, and I realized that it was stupid. I wasn't judging Ben, not for a second. Why would my players judge me?

This was further expressed when I DMed a very small session for just two people - my friend and her nine-year-old sister, who had never played before. Neither of them had a theatre background, and my DMing was a lot more adventurous, full of character voices, improvisation, and rich worldbuilding. I realized that, for one, I had definitely improved since my very first campaign and since I started acting, and for another, I had it in me to be the descriptive, characterizing DM that I wanted to be.

Since the summer has started, many players at the table have gotten summer jobs and had trips planned, which put a month between sessions at one point. I had a D&D itch to scratch when I was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania recently, and I impulsively messaged a local game store there on Facebook. In a few hours, I had cobbled together a level 11 rogue with a bunch of mistakes on the sheet and some semblance of a character backstory with minutes to spare to get to the store.

The atmosphere was much different than my normal play hub. The store was a comics and games store, versus my home base being a game store and functioning restaurant. It was quiet, with only two long tables. The party was huge, and filled with a variety of people, from high schoolers to people who seemed to practically live at the store. I felt my nerves creep back in, but I was there, wasn't I? I couldn't back out now.

The DM, Paul, ran a very different game than Ben did. I was 'warned' ahead of time that his DMing strategy was much more riddles/puzzles based. I was excited to try something new, and I knew I could fall back on my newfound strength in characterization if I needed safety. I was certainly welcomed with time-sensitive puzzles that resulted in consequences ranging from attacks to resets, but the play was a lot less character-focused, and most of the puzzle solving was done in meta, meaning that the players solved the riddles independent of their characters' capabilities. This made me slightly more nervous instead of immersed. I took notes in my bullet journal, and ended up making a feature in it out of the notes. At the end of the session, I had a repository of homemade puzzle types and variants to take with me as I DMed, though I hadn't found any detail to my character.

In addition, I also got schooled in some things I'd done wrong on my character sheet and found myself floored with certain decisions that I'd never faced before, like trap navigation and non-roleplay interactions, which stung on the inside, but I attempted to cool-dude my way through. The player atmosphere was so much different than what I was used to, and I felt my characterization-crutch waver like a slackline, despite the constant roleplay of the guy who kept turning into a dinosaur. I left exhilarated but slightly intimidated, having gotten a huge reminder that there's still so much for me to learn.

I didn't know what to expect when the itch came again earlier this week. I could have just waited, considering that I played in Ben's campaign yesterday, but I couldn't resist the temptation of some Wednesday Night D&D at a game store more local to me. I messaged the Facebook (a strategy I found less stressful than calling) and rolled up a character. I was bounced from person to person once I was inside, and as I was warned that the table I was being dropped in on was pretty full and I'd probably only be a one-time guest since people were missing, my ears slightly rung from nervousness. The person warning me was so stern, and talked down to me as if I wasn't prepared for what was in the room before me, where through the window players peered out to see why a nervous, fluffy-headed person with a handful of dice was shifting back and forth.

I don't remember my introduction, I just remember stepping into the space and finding a seat. I mumbled an introduction and put my character sheet down. I was hesitant to show it because I was scared I had gotten stuff wrong on it like back in Pittsburgh, but the DM smiled and asked my name a second time.

Deep breaths. I tried again, and smiled this time. Something about the DM reminded me of TJ, whether it was the welcoming look to him, the sticky notes on the DM screen, or maybe it was just the stubble. It was then that I realized that there's this thread that connects DMs together - a passion for storytelling and collaboration, a genuine interest in creating and expressing these worlds.

"M-my character's name is Lucian Littletoe," I started, "I'm a halfling bard." Score, the DM loved bards. I felt a nervous energy subside a little. No testing, no questions, just an eagerness to play and include. The table was helpful in clarifying house rules and giving me opportunities to quickly level my character to catch up with them. My characterization began to develop and show through as I got my bearings, and by the end, I was having in-depth conversations with the other characters. I asked if I could come back, to which I was told that I was 'a pro' and was totally welcome back. I know that it was probably a commonly used phrase within the DM's vocabulary, but despite having played since the seventh grade, I don't think I've ever felt experienced with D&D. Needless to say, it felt entirely gratifying.

In total, playing with the intention of honing my DMing skills has more taught me about myself as a lover of D&D and how I've grown as a participant over the years. Campaigns like Ben's have given me a space to realize that I'm not actually bad at improvising; Campaigns like Paul's not only supplied me with very new ideas, but also reminded me that I have a lot to learn still; and lastly, the campaign in which I play Luce has given me the grace to learn while still expressing my best sides.

I DM next week - my normal table, the one with the actors - and I'm excited to approach it with my best foot forward. I've learned more in these past few weeks than I may have learned in the first years of playing, because I allowed myself to learn and got to experience a variety of DMs and players. I'm proud of myself for overcoming my fear of confronting my shortcomings as a DM, and I hope that this next session with my party of actors will show some of what I've learned. I know I can do it.