I wanted to share a personal story that happened not that long ago, as it helped me get over my last bout of creative burnout and reinvigorated my love for the hobby. This story centres around me running for a group of players who for the most part were completely new to the concept of role-playing/tabletop gaming, and how it helped me to remember why I picked up Dungeons & Dragons as a hobby in the first place. Firstly I should explain where I am coming from; and I apologize ahead of time as I tend to be very long winded when it comes to storytelling. I promise this massive preamble will loop back around by the end and will still be about D&D at its core.
I am someone who tends to self-reflect a lot, and I recently discovered that I had developed two major problems that were preventing me from enjoying Dungeons & Dragons to its fullest. The first is a phenomenon I call “Gunk Brain”. I think about it visually like the grease that goes into a piece of industrial mechanical equipment; The longer that equipment runs, the more gunked up the grease on the inside becomes. You need to change your grease every once in a while to keep your brain from getting gunked up. I’ve been playing D&D and Tabletops for ~8 years, not as long as some veterans but long enough to form my own opinions and biases. While this has sometimes been a positive thing, having lead me to make more adventurous and out-of-the-box characters as I developed my tastes and experiences; it has also ingrained many expectations about games are meant to be played, what the setting should look like, how monsters are meant to behave, how spells are intended to work, etc. Through experience I have become more comfortable with the systems of the game, and at the same time I’ve lost a lot of the initial discovery and wonderment that made me fall in love with the game to begin with.
The second problem I have is a general fear of DMing. As you might be able to tell by now, I enjoy telling stories, long ones too. That should make me a natural fit for DMing, but almost all of the experiences I have had with it have been negative. I am a perma-player in my regular group. Some of this is due to my gaming group rapidly changing to new unfamiliar systems, another part is that I genuinely enjoy immersing myself in a single character. When I DM, I tend to over prepare and focus on a story that might only appeal to me, and I tend to get stressed out when players throw me unexpected curveballs. I am very bad at this form of improv, and I have a hard time staying in character as the DM if there are a lot of NPCs involved in a scene. That being said, having once run a continuous game of D&D for ~50 sessions or about 1.5 years and making many, many mistakes, I did slowly pick up on what I was doing wrong and how I could improve in the future. To this day though, when my current group asks me to DM, I tend to scratch the bald spot on the top of my head where all my hair used to be (before I DMed), and then say that I already gave it a good shot.
So the actual story starts a few weeks back. I’ll keep the personal details brief, but my family and I were on vacation at a spot on an island with an impressive view of the beach. I was in a bummer mood around that time; but it was also my birthday, so my family asked me if I had any plans. I made an offhand comment about it being a shame that I didn’t prepare a game of Dungeons & Dragons, something which I had been threatening to subject my parents to for a while. Then they simply asked “Well, why don’t you?” My usual excuses seemed a little weaker this time around as a heat wave was keeping us mostly indoors, and it seemed like the entire week might go off with nothing memorable about it. So I ended up agreeing to run my family: my mom, dad, eldest brother with his wife, my other older brother and his boyfriend through character creation. I actually lost some sleep on the night I made this decision, as I wasn’t sure how they would react to the voices, descriptions and so on as it's not really a side of me they ever get to interact with. I also realized how difficult it might be to try and convey what Dungeons & Dragons is to a group of people who’ve never even seen a pen and paper game before. They were surprised to learn that the game used dice, so that is the level of knowledge most of them were floating at. Thankfully the younger of my two older brothers has already played before and had his character in mind, so he was willing to help coach everyone else along the process so that it wasn’t just me trying to explain what the empty boxes on the blank character sheets meant. That being said I decided that the character sheet ultimately would not be the focus of this first night. What I wanted was to sit the players down at the table and describe to them what options they had in terms of making characters: classes, races and backgrounds; getting them to roll their own stats and then going over how the game was actually played using the dice. It was essentially a session 0, but what I hoped to do was to establish a good foundation for a clean one-shot that everyone would enjoy and remember.
How It Actually Went
The entire event ended up being split into three different nights, one for character creation and the last two nights for the game, including a surprisingly long conclusion. Saying that my players surprised me a few times during the entire process would be putting it lightly, and the first couple of surprises came right at character creation. After I described how each of the classes differed from each other, I began to ask them about what sorts of characters they wanted to create. I was shocked when I saw that all of the new players, my mom, dad, oldest brother & his wife had already written down classes and were ready to move onto the rest of the character. I asked the players to describe the characters they wanted to play, starting with the two veteran players; one of my brothers and his boyfriend. I’ll take a moment now to describe each of the characters, but I have to remark on how impressed I was by what my family was able to come up with. Maybe it’s something to do with age, each of them having been through enough in life to not feel intimidated about sharing their creations or care about judgement by their peers. The two veteran players played Snonu & Cassidy, a warlock gnome and human barbarian pirate duo respectively who have a “Gnome in the Backpack, Throw Gnome at Problem” dynamic, and were the least morally dubious of the characters. Next up was my dad’s character, a tiefling rogue with the faceless background who simply went by the name “Faceless” to start, but had a violent split personality who went by “Nameless” who made an appearance by the end of the campaign, who as a whole was something of a roaming mercenary with very questionable intentions. My mom created Rhyvus, a Raven Queen styled warlock with a bonded raven familiar, an old elf of androgynous description from an ancient order of record keepers and sages whom treasured knowledge. My oldest brother along with his wife created Dolos, a portly half-orc rogue with a charlatan background whom the two played simultaneously, creating a very interesting dual-personality dynamic as well as a theme of “dual identities” among the player characters. They described Dolos as having come across a western style monk on the side of the road and whom they’d had a disagreement with, resulting in his untimely end; they now wore his robe and tonsure to hide their true vocation, taking up the monk’s identity.
From the moment they heard of each other’s characters, the players, and specifically my dad described how they were planning to kill the other player’s characters. This might sound like a red flag, and it certainly would be in most groups, but my family has a very playful/competitive dynamic at times; and so this wasn’t an immediate concern of mine, nor did I immediately correct my dad by telling him the game was meant to be cooperative. I had mentioned a few times that the game was meant to be entertainment first, and that it was also “cooperative storytelling”. My usual DMing style is to let my players at least attempt whatever it is they are describing while at the least letting them know what the consequences might be. I did slightly worry that the session might start with an all out bloodbath and end the entire affair as a failed experiment, but we were sitting around drinking, eating snacks and having casual conversation, so I wouldn’t mind that outcome as long as there was fun to be had. I ended the night of session 0 by asking a question which I will probably go on to ask all my players in the future, which was “How did you meet each other?”. I’d had a pretty cataclysmic problem occur in the past where I let players introduce how they arrived at the starting town in session 1: some arriving together, some living in the region and so on, and it made those players tend to interact only with the characters whom they arrived with, and I had a heck of a time trying to get them to interact with each other. They answered my question by creating a unique scenario on their own, having met on a ship that became wrecked on its way to port. Each of them took turns describing how they metaphorically pulled each other out of the fire and trudged soaking wet onto shore to find a bar to drink away their misfortune. Faceless/Nameless may have let Rhyvus’ original dog familiar drown, but I think the canonicity of that is still up in the air. I described to them how they arrived at the singular tavern in a backwater/trade outpost where a representative of a wizard faction was currently putting up a posting about a lost magical artifact. My last surprise of that first night came when as I was still describing things out of character to the players, my mom began immediately speaking in character, with a voice. She asked not only for details about the quest hook, but was attempting to haggle for a better reward than what was posted, forcing me to enter DM mode in session 0 and to come up with a voice for this NPC on the fly. Rhyvus ended up rolling a 16 on Persuasion to convince the wizard that they were the team for the job and to increase the reward by 300 gold pieces, making the reward 100 pieces even per person. It was a great experience and made me excited for the first session. Keep in mind that no one even had character sheets by this point. It was a good demonstration of how dice rolling and adding bonuses worked for them, as well as a demonstration of how the game itself is played and what the role of the DM was, and it also helped garner some excitement for the actual game.
On the first night of the actual game I decided to start things off with the same tone that the previous night had ended. The party finishes trudging their way through thick forest for about a week toward the last location of their McGuffin artifact. I made sure to remind my morally dubious party of all the things they could use their gold reward on post-success. This worked amazingly well, as it seemed to get all of the players into a roleplaying mood. I counted my mom’s performance from the night before as something of a fluke, and expected that she might only get the chance to role play with me; something she seemed keen on doing even if it was out-of-character questions about game rules. She always maintained the character’s voice + inflection, and I think that encouraged the other players to try an inflection when speaking as their characters. There was some minor confusion about the role of the DM, as many of them spoke to me as if I were an omniscient character floating just overhead, but after a while that passed. My players came across the first set of obstacles, the first was to figure out a safe path to navigate towards their now visible destination, the second being how to get past a door and enter into a now ruined tower. I had to do very little by this point, the players were already conversing with each other about what it was their characters could do, and eventually Rhyvus used their raven familiar to scout out the path ahead. The door stumped them for a bit, as it tends to do for even veteran players for some reason, but when faced with a wall Snonu and Cassidy opted to “throw the gnome” at the problem. I feel a little bad for Snonu, as I tended to use him for comedic moments when I thought appropriate to keep the tone of the game light hearted. This meant that while he successfully made it over to the other side of the wall, he landed in a large spider web that suspended him in the air. Small bit of improv on my part to create a bit of urgency as well to hint at the enemies lurking within the building. This is the part where I started to notice myself becoming more comfortable with improv in general. I ended up making small changes to the adventure to allow for a combination of actions to lead to a single solution. This way, even when players rolled low, I could describe things in such a way that it seemed like their contribution wasn’t wasted. Rhyvus ended up casting their first spell, Spider Climb, to make it over the wall and to cut down Snonu. Now with characters working on both sides of the door, either by lock picking or simply trying to force it open, the big door was eventually defeated. By this point all the pressure was already off of me. I was 100% in the DMing groove and knew that I had nothing else to worry about in terms of being rusty. What minor mistakes I made were completely overshadowed by the fact that this was the players first foray into D&D, and fortunately for me, they were all naturals at it. There were still some small hurdles here and there, as well as a legendary conclusion to this campaign that I’ll never forget.
The first combat slowed things down a little bit as players became introduced to D&D’s initiative system. The transition from the free flowing roleplaying to turn based action threw them for a loop. A few of them had problems with how their plans didn’t line up with their character’s action economy, and they weren’t clear with how the passage of time was meant to be interpreted in combat. For example, Faceless went first and entered into the dark room with a clear description of what they wanted to have happen. He described his character as launching an arrow at one spider on the wall, then turning to dispatch two more spiders in melee. My dad tended to use long descriptions for their character in general, emphasizing how slick and methodical Faceless was in their execution. While the veteran players attempted to coach him into what actions were actually possible for his character, I, for some reason, decided to let him continue describing what he wanted to do. I was simply blown away with how involved he was getting with his character, so I wanted to listen to the end and try to understand exactly what they wanted to get out of their action before attempting to reel him back in and get to the other players' turns. The first combat served as a good tutorial for them, and by the end they were really beginning to understand what options their characters had, and I added a few spiders to the encounter so that each of them had a chance to kill at least one, with Dolos, who had been by far the unluckiest roller(s) of the night scoring the final blow against the largest spider. This ended the first session as it was getting quite late, and any time we had to play was limited to ~2 hours. Unfortunately, Dolos could not return for the wrap up session as they had other priorities that demanded they couldn’t stay up super late; although they did allow for Faceless… or Nameless to ‘kill’ their character out-of-game and put an end to their meta-feud.
The final night started with the party needing to solve one more puzzle to open up the last chamber where the final encounter and McGuffin laid. I was once again impressed with their ability to come up with solutions, despite some of them not being 100% necessary to completing the puzzle. Previously they had uncovered a spellbook that belonged to not-so-BBEG waiting for them, and the puzzle solution also included a mirror that reflected the room they were in. They’d failed a roll to understand the contents of the book last session, but instead of saying “You can’t understand it”, I decided to say that the book was written in a cipher they couldn’t figure out. The players independently came up with the idea that to decode the cipher in the book they’d first need to reflect the pages in the mirror, and I liked the idea so much that I rolled with it and used it to set up the story of the villain. They eventually solved the puzzle which involved lighting specific torches to create a portal, which I described as being a one-way window that appeared as a flat wall from the room they stood in, but was clearly magic to the Detect Magic enhanced eyes of Snonu. My dad surprised me again as he theorized that someone ‘should’ stay on their side of the portal so no one can snuff the torches and lock them inside, and so Faceless volunteered to stay behind… Foreshadowing. Somehow he’d managed to pick up on something that the DM material seemingly hadn’t considered, and he was willing to use it to his advantage. This sets up the final encounter: as the remaining party entered the portal into a cold and dark room, those with dark vision were able to make out the McGuffin, but at the same time, began to hear the shifting and scuttling of the creature waiting for them inside. After a few creepy taunts and jabs coming from both the players and the villain, eventually communication broke down as Rhyvus attempted to retrieve the McGuffin which started the initiative order. This combat went amazingly better than the first, with the players setting up actions to aid each other with their plans for delivering a finishing blow. Faceless, who could see nothing on his side of the portal, had given a rope to Rhyvus to tie around the McGuffin so that it could be pulled through at a moment's notice. On Faceless’ turn, Rhyvus verbally communicated to Faceless the approximate location of the creature, who nearly hit it with a poisoned arrow despite shooting at disadvantage. Snonu on their turn then described using Mage Hand to grab the arrow and thrust it into the creature’s singular eye, which was cool enough that I decided to allow it as an attack roll using their spellcasting modifier, which scored a critical hit. Cassidy moved in to beat the creature with whatever they found laying in the room, breaking a small table over their head, while simultaneously Faceless pulled on the rope to retrieve the McGuffin. What followed was my favourite moment of the night and probably my favourite finish to a combat encounter. The villain turned their now impaired gaze on the person who was attempting to steal their McGuffin, and began carelessly moving towards the portal, allowing Cassidy to score another crucial hit. Faceless then backed away from the entrance to the portal, preparing a bow shot the moment the creature would leap through. Snonu on their turn used an illusion to create the image of Faceless preparing their shot in clear view of the portal. The creature, thinking that Faceless still couldn’t see them through the wall, made an opportunistic leap directly at the illusion. Out of character, I asked Faceless to roll damage for their prepared attack, and with the sneak attack damage it was exactly enough damage to reduce it to 0 HP. I asked my dad the classic “How do you want to do this?” question, expecting him to simply describe the kill, but what he ended up describing pushed the conclusion of this story and the campaign to around 2:00 AM in the morning. Many drinks were had that night.
My dad took his time with his description, narrating to the group how the creature jumped to attack the illusion, and realizing it was duped then turned to leap again at the real Faceless just as his arrow passed directly through its eye, directly where it had been injured previously. He went on to describe the creature continuing forward with its momentum, where at this point his character had taken out two arrows and braced them against his chest, allowing the creature to impale itself as it tackled the two to the ground. There was a moment in which the players were confused as to why my dad was being allowed to narrate the actions of another creature, but I was eating this up so I allowed him to continue as I could tell he wasn’t finished yet. He described how his character's disposition suddenly changed, and that he had assumed his unsympathetic alter ego ‘Nameless’. Without missing a beat, he described how he would snuff out the torches and seal the party inside the room, stealing the McGuffin and disappearing with it forever, and he even went as far as to say “And that's how the story ends”. Obviously, this did not fly with the other players, and after he finished his description I made sure he understood that his actions would essentially constitute a continuation to the combat so that the other players had an opportunity to stop him. After a quick moment he agreed, and it was now clear that he had been planning this from the start. However the situation had changed since his initial setup. At this point in the combat, Cassidy had actually already made it back outside of the portal, and my mom remembered that Rhyvus’ familiar was still on Nameless’s shoulder. There was only one initiative pass for the entire conflict, but most of the real ‘fighting’ was being done at the table, as the players did their best to describe what their character was going to do to succeed over the others. In order, Faceless had managed to grab for the McGuffin, but the familiar went to grab it at the same time, and the raven actually managed to nab it first. Unable to comprehend the sudden betrayals from their allies, Cassidy managed to stop the raven and cause it to drop the McGuffin, and Snonu managed to Misty Step and retrieve it. After some heated words were exchanged in character, and probably realizing that the situation had fallen out of his control (or perhaps wanting to get in bed sometime before 2:00 AM), my dad described Faceless as regaining control over their actions. As no one had been gravely injured in the incident, it was somewhat glossed over, with the exception of Snonu and Cassidy who decided it best to head their own way, taking with them what rewards they found in the tower and leaving without the rest of the party or the McGuffin. This left Rhyvus and Faceless to decide what to do with it, who together decided that an artifact of its caliber couldn’t be trusted to the group of wizards who had originally hired them. The two essentially agreed to become “the Keepers of the McGuffin”, and went on their own way, potentially leading into a continuation of the story down the line should they ever want to play those characters again.
And that is how it ended. I want to wrap this up by restating how much this experience helped to improve my DMing, as well as my overall attitude in general. This took place just after my 30th birthday, and all I can say on that note is that I wasn’t super happy to be entering my third decade of life. One good game managed to completely turn around my mood for the whole vacation, and ended up being the most memorable event of the trip. I don’t see my brothers that often, so it was great to be able to do this at least once; and my parents still talk about the game today, and discuss it on occasion to the two Dolos players, even when I am not around. Since this game, I have managed to remove a lot of the gunk in my brain surrounding DMing, as well as with some of my reservations about Fifth Edition as well. I think it is the perfect system to introduce new players to, and if you are having second thoughts about DMing or are experiencing your own gunk brain, I’d recommend showing the game to a group of people whom you may not have at first thought to be the game’s intended audience.
Quick wrap up, I’ll be here to answer any questions you have for a bit. There are tons of more stories and specifics about that night, but I couldn’t possibly talk about them all. Sorry again for the long read. I didn’t include any overt references to the material I used as I wasn’t sure if it counted as promotion or not. I’m fairly new to actually making posts on reddit, so if this format breaks any subreddit rules feel free to take it down and I will try and find a better home for it.
- One-shot/campaign start for a group of 4 new players?
- I messed up and I don’t know if I want to continue the game.
- A series of unfortunate frustrating events
More about Dungeons & Dragons OnlinePost: "I Ran Dungeons & Dragons 5e For My Parents/Family. It Went Better Than I Imagined." specifically for the game Dungeons & Dragons Online. Other useful information about this game:
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