How A Midsummer Night's Dream Made Me a Better DM

It's no wonder that there's often correlation between those who love D&D and those who love theatre, larp, voice acting, and fantasy writing. D&D is in a way at the crossroads of so many of these things, and attracts those from one walk to the entrances of other hobbies.

When I started to play D&D, I was quiet and thought long and hard about my decisions, missing the point of character choices and playing to my attributes and not to who I was on the outside. I played like this for a few years while learning the rules, then my life got too hectic and I put the books down for a year or two.

In that time, I started to take theatre classes at my high school. Much of the same can be said for my first year on stage. Overthinking, divorce from character, and overall uncertainty of doing anything right because I still felt and thought like myself. I struggled with improv and breaking from my own shell of safety. It took another year for me to feel comfortable trying more new things, and in that time I tried to DM for my first campaign. It was kind of a disaster, as I didn't know how to adjust to my players; I only ever accounted for myself.

four Pucks?!

My first larger role in a production was Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream. To be completely clear, Puck was split into four people, much like the Sanders Sides and how they all represent Thomas Sanders, just in different aspects. I was Puck's intelligence and his cowardice, and with my three buddies, we (did I mention we were pirates?) swashbuckled and swordfought our way through a Shakespearean rollercoaster for four performances.

On the last night of the show, intermission ended without Helena and Demetrius sleeping on the stage. They had missed their window to enter and the plot would be turned on its side if something wasn't done. I didn't waste a second directing another Puck to help me drag them out as if they were sleepwalking, and place them down where they were supposed to go. My rationale was that it would be exactly within the realm of reason for Puck to sleepwalk the lovers out to the perfect spot to set everything right again, and I hold this moment as a turning point in my acting, where I found the confidence to act upon a character without eight weeks of script work and predetermined action first.

From there, my acting got better as I trusted myself and my skills. I took on absurdism, European realism, a musical...and of course, more Shakespeare. I can't get enough of it. In that time, I joined up on a table with some friends to actually play a character for the first time in years. I found a voice for her and started chatting with other characters, something I hadn't done when I first started to play...or for my first three years of playing following that. I left refreshed and exhilarated.

from MSND rehearsal

In my time learning to DM through play, I started to experiment more with character, letting my quick bases of "what do I want" and other Hagen-style character building techniques guide my way. I started to take on a little more "yes-and" and began to form relationships with other characters as I played, whether in Pittsburgh like in July, or here at home.

I didn't think twice about trying to DM again. Instead of having to sit and think through it like I did for my first campaign, I knew what  I was set out to do. My fundamentals of creating worlds for myself in an instant on stage guided me as I crafted mini-campaigns and built onto the world of Hoard of the Dragon Queen, which I'm currently DMing for a group of actors. Characters came with intentions and contingencies and rules, worlds came with sights and smells and things to play off of. Even smaller skills from the stage, like that month I spent choreographing a knife fight, translated to intricacies within fights or interactions.

Theatre gave me the skills and confidence I needed to take my DMing more seriously and extend myself as a learner and player of D&D. In a sense, it gave me the fundamentals from which I could build upon and learn different skills offshooting from D&D itself. In my players, I see their backgrounds influence how they play, and it's that combination of biases, proficiencies, and hobbies in the players themselves that adds to a diverse table that everyone learns from.

For me, being on stage brought me from mumbling a word in character when I was fourteen to luring players into a dungeon, dripping from the ceilings and making footsteps echo...

...A cackling grows louder as the players approach a blisteringly hot chamber where a humanoid in a feathered cloak hunches over a bubbling cauldron, rubbing their hands together and howling- "Lord, what fools these mortals be!"