In DMing 101 I’ll be giving generalized advice on how to run a tabletop role-playing game. The articles will not presume any knowledge, except being able to read. And maybe knowing what dice are. And paper. And a computer. Maybe some other stuff. I’ll also presume that you can remember that DM means Dungeon Master. Some people call it a Game Master or GM, but I don’t. Suck it up.
There are a few quick start guides on how to DM out there, but DMing 101 will offer a fairly easy set of tips that a novice can follow to make his/her games something truly memorable.
Adventure is not an easy life, and after a long hard day of killing and being killed your heroes should surely have something to steal at the end of it all. Adequate reward makes your players feel that all of their efforts are ultimately worthwhile, and gives them a sense of progression and growth. Better yet, if tied to the characters actions in-game then your rewards can help shape the story as well.
When And How to Level
Experience is a common factor that runs through most role-play systems I know, and it’s something that remains strong in the many hundreds/thousands/hundreds-of-thousands of video games that they have inspired. We’re all quite familiar with the paradigm: killing monsters and finishing quests gets points which reach certain thresholds that result in discernible rewards. Bigger monsters and bigger quests get more experience points.
Computer gamers are used to going through all of this automatically. You have to keep track of it all yourself, not an easy task, but not impossible. Just keep a running total of how much you have to give out each session and tell everyone to add up at the end, they can usually be trusted to know when they’re due another level.
The hardest question is how to divide the spoils. Does everyone get a fair share, or does the person who does the most get the most? The latter method can reward meta-gaming and min-maxing a little too much, the other can make more sensible or committed gamers feel like they are carrying the more disinterested.
There is a method that I prefer. Rather than giving out experience points, I prefer to monitor players who come up with good ideas, role-play well, or pull off insane stunts with a lucky roll and give out full levels based on a rough idea of how awesome they have been. I find this method encourages good game-play from everyone, as those left behind are not held back from opportunities to progress by their lower level.
The DM Giveth, The DM Taketh Away
Magic items, cool gear, awesome new abilities, and let’s not forget the money to buy it all tend to be the favourite ways of rewarding players. A cleverly thought out new item can also make for some very interesting stories in their own right, especially if your players get creative with their use.
Many of the people I have gamed with play like magpies. Their characters will pick up anything that looks interesting and keep it until you’ve forgotten about it before springing it like a ridiculous trap; more often than not, one that is doomed from the start.
Every so often however, you may find that the group have something that they can use to fix almost any situation, or perhaps makes any obstacle or enemy you throw at them pointless. Even the best intentioned reward can end up working against you, and you may be forced to take it away from them like a crayon from a toddler who keeps drawing on the walls.
You can’t just take a player to one side and tell them you’ve got to take their stuff, you will need to deal with it in-game. Malfunctions, thefts, or a more tempting offer (careful with that one too) can make it seem a little more plausible that the offending object had to go. The fact that the players wield that much power could be reason in itself! Perhaps a rival or other enemy conspire to seize control of the object for themselves. An ability is much harder to remove logically. Memory loss, arcane/technological extraction, or even death are hard pills to swallow. Good luck trying to pry that from their hands.
It’s useful to have someone owe you a favour, especially if that someone can do incredible things with that favour. Royalty, skilled agents and people of high ability or access, even the gods themselves could at some point have need of a diverse group of rebels without morals, and have no better way to repay them than an I.O.U.
It can be easy to forget a favour, you may be “lucky” enough to have an obsessive note-taker in the group but it may be worth writing a note yourself and either handing it to a player or building a quest around it. Don’t forget that such things can go either way, and if the players screw-up or do something particularly reckless or damaging then you can always have them owe an NPC something.
Money is also a surprisingly versatile reward. Vast hordes of treasure tend to get unused without a place to spend it all. If they’re in the grip of an interesting story they may push onwards without regard to the cash stuffing their pockets, and after a while no shop will be able to sell what the players have already thrown away in favour of something better. What ridiculous things can your players buy? A boat? A mansion? How about a city? More importantly, why would they need it, and what might happen to them if they have it?
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