Every once in a while, an article comes to my attention about the nature of being a Dungeonmaster (“DM”), and why there aren’t as many as there could be or need to be. Recently, this has come to light with the development and success of 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons and the advent of their Organized Play organization: Adventurers League. There’s a very evident dearth of DMs to run the tables at most locations, compounded by deeper systemic problems that put DMs between a rock and a hard spot.
Articulating the Problem
Figuring out how to solve the problem requires a careful examination of the question. And figuring out the question requires a person to examine just what the problem is. How you come up with the answer depends on how you approach the issue. In a nutshell, this is my specific problem, and thus my specific question:
Problem: There are too few DMs in Adventurers League.
Question: How can we encourage people to want to DM?
Answer: There is no specific answer, but a lot of the possibilities depend on the development of a sense of community.
Look, everyone can articulate what’s wrong. The role of Adventurers League, the ruleset, the nature of players, the time investment… All of these things add up to a whole lotta “NO” from potential DMs. It takes a special person to want to DM anyway. And according to this particular blog post, that seems to be part of the problem: Why do DMs get pushed into it instead of aspiring to it?
I know it’s a symptom of a larger issue. They get pushed into it for any number of reasons, and sometimes they start to feel good about further development of their DMing skills, and sometimes they run screaming from the experience never to return. So what is it that we can provide to help them make that leap from being scared of it to enjoying it and wanting to do it even more?
My first instinctual answer is to develop a class for DMs, complete with a syllabus and assignments and collaborative projects. I come from a theatre background. I also teach. I teach Theatre, frankly, at the university level. But that’s foisting a square peg into a round hole–often times DMs simply don’t have the luxury of time to “learn” like that.
I think that’s part of the problem. One has to take a step back first.
Nature and Nurture
Aside from my theatre background, I also dabbled in the leather/BDSM community. (Yeah, yeah, I think kink is cool–let’s move on. If you’re gonna get hung up on that, there’s no point in you finishing this blog post.) Anyway, in the leather community there is a strong “apprenticeship” aspect to participation. Frankly, one doesn’t do things like that with another person without first knowing what you’re doing, how to be safe, how to be consensual, etc etc etc. There are stakes. And that tends to create a community where skills are passed down from one person to another, sometimes in a formalized manner and sometimes in simple workshops and seminars.
Theatre works that way, too. Sure, one can learn how to sew or run a light board or build a set on one’s own but usually there are mentors and teachers who have a structured way of teaching those things to beginners.
And one of the common elements in the way both of these things are taught is the development of community. Theatre skills are taught for the good of the show, and there are other practitioners working right there with you. You are never alone. Theatre is a collaborative art. BDSM is almost impossible to learn safely and correctly on one’s own. YouTube and porn don’t cut it. Eventually, one seeks out a community with like-minded interests for validation and support. The key is community.
So. How might one invest in the development of DMs? Create community. Make the learning of those skills and desire to run a table something that is fueled by both personal interest and external validation.
Thus, it seems the approach for Adventurers League could be twofold–appeal to an individual’s motivation to explore DMing (whatever that may be), and then follow it up with social rewards that develop a sense of pride and validation for indulging one’s interests.
How does one do this? Right off the top, it seems evident that structurally the Adventurers League OP has no mechanism for validation. The system isn’t set up to even address that. Unlike other games that WotC manages (like Magic the Gathering tournament play), there is nothing offered by the company itself that speaks to any form of an organized support structure for DMs. DMs instead overwhelmingly learn by either getting thrown into the fire (stepping up because no one else would) or they are mentored by a friend who undertakes their development selflessly out of the kindness of their heart (to varying degrees of altruism and effectiveness). The simple in-game rewards offered for a DMs personal PC (experience and gold) are sometimes interpreted as token gestures to simply enable a DM to play outside of the context of the table they’re managing. In other words, they’re ineffective if there isn’t another table where they don’t have to DM. Nor do they work if a DM simply doesn’t have the copious spare time to play and judge, too. And that’s the case for most DMs I know–they most rarely get the opportunity to play at all.
Secondly, Adventurers League relies entirely upon a person’s own capabilities to educate themselves–there is no formalized mentoring process. Any DMing skills that are developed are usually self-taught or imparted outside of the context of the League itself by kindly individuals who enjoy doing that sort of thing for their own personal reasons. Whether their reward fr those individuals is that they might be able to play sometimes when the new person is DMing or whether they’re truly simply altruistic, the fact remains that the person helping the newly developing DM is doing it of their own accord. Adventurers League isn’t providing assistance. I wonder if that might not be something to think about…
In Lieu of It Coming From the Top Downward
I don’t think Adventurers League is going to do anything about these issues any time soon. So that leaves the locals to fend for themselves. So what does one do?
A burgeoning DM might spend hours and hours on the inter-webs reading up on “How to DM”. There’s lots of advice out there. But not so much specifically for DMing in an organized play structure, and even less specifically for Adventurers League. So a new DM is left to figure out what’s relevant advice and what isn’t all on their own. This is compounded by the fact that DMing is like painting or dancing or writing–everyone has their own style, their own mannerisms, their own strengths and weaknesses. Truly, DMing is sorta like learning how to write or draw or play music… It’s not a cut-n-dry simple thing. We might like to think that there is a “workmanship of certainty” in DMing–all the rules are right there, you’re simply an arbiter. There is a sense of automation to it. But there is also a “workmanship of risk” to DMing that relies upon judgment, dexterity and care with which one works, and takes time to develop. (David Pye’s idea, not mine…)
All that makes learning how to DM on one’s own only so effective. You can’t learn people skills and table dynamics by yourself.
The alternative? Learn with others. Practice with support.
And Adventurers League has a built-in way they can help with just that.
The Expeditions Program
Expeditions is set up to offer 4-hour adventures that can be distinct componenet parts of a larger storeyline. Unlike Encounters, which is a repackaged and condensed version of printed materials published by Wizards of the Coast, these adventurers can be more easily offered as distinct units, without the serialization necessitated by Encounters.
It would seem logical to advise a new DM by having them either run a non-official practice game, a session with a mentor DM as an Assistant-DM, or to load the table with DMs (or just one) that can help the new DM learn about what they’re doing as they progress forward. It seems that the Expeditions experience is laden with opportunities to help the new DM, especially if the adventure is one that a mentor DM has already DM’d themselves.
What this means is that more established DMs need to be able to meta-game their PCs in the interest of the new DM’s development. It also means that older DMs should be able to know the content in a way that enables them to watch for signs of a struggling DM. This kind of mentoring may require more than one opportunity to really enable the new DM to have practice.
Mentoring Outside the Game
Knowing that a DM needs to prep is very different than knowing how to actually do the prep. And what “prep” means is different to every DM. Teaching how to do it is less important than helping a new DM discover what the best methods are for their own developing style. Exposing them to new possibilities and letting them adopt what they want on their own is probably more valuable than saying, “Do it this way.” Sharing with them one’s own preferred methods, and debating the pros and cons of others is a useful form of mentoring. I have invited DMs to a private Google Drive where I share with them the maps and initiative cards I develop, and they can post their own tools to share with me. It ends up being a mutually beneficial arrangement.
It’s also important to allow time to actually have discussions in person, outside of the context of gaming events. Discussions take time, and it is difficult to address specific situations and questions if there is no opportunity to do so. Arrange to meet for coffee or spend time post-gaming discussing the experience. There is no better way to develop a sense of community and validatioin than with simple one-on-one discussions. Sponsors in AA, teachers at universities, preachers in churches, masters and their apprentices of yesteryear–all of them had and have discussion time that is essential to growth and development. If a mentor DM makes the time to meet, it can encourage the mentee to invest their own time, which makes for a better playing experience for players.
That means it takes time to mold a new DM. Time from the community. On many levels–both individually and organizationally on the Adventurers Leagues’ part.
What About Adventurers League?
How can they help make this work? By developing tools for DMs to mentor other DMs. The sad fact is that you can’t have an effective Organized Play program that essentially runs on the backs of volunteer DMs for it to work. Some re-examination of that paradigm needs to happen. WotC is getting a lot of branding cred from Adventurers League. But there’s also an incredible turnover and burnout rate. The program is almost a year old, and it has had an inordinate amount of adjusting. This should fit right in. It has to be a priority for WotC (not just the Adventurers League admins and organizers), or their DMs will start to simply. not. care.
There are things we can do to address the shortage of DMs. Since there doesn’t seem to be a system for doing it institutionally through the Adventurers League itself, it falls to us as fellow DMs to ease our own burden at gamedays and other events by helping to develop DMs on our own. it might be possible to “kill two birds with one stone” in AL by using the adventures themselves to facilitate that.
Next time, I’ll address some specific aspects of mentoring DMs and what we, as established DMs, can do when we think someone is worth mentoring.