The Foundation of the Game
At the intersection of a DM’s hobbies and interests, and his collection of house rules, lies the most important part of the game: his style. Oh sure, a campaign setting can affect the feel of a game in some subtle and not so subtle ways, but at its heart, a DM’s style remains constant. My style lies at the nexus of hardcore and casual—which isn’t very helpful at all, so I’ve put together this list to explain the most important components to my style. They are listed in no certain order.
Roleplay, Not Rollplay
The 4th Edition rulebooks are 90% rules and 10% fluff. This is a good thing. It gives us the flexibility to put fluff into the game in whatever way we see fit. For example, there are no craft or profession skills: this is because they are completely unnecessary. If you want to be a sailor, you are a sailor. If you want to be a blacksmith, you are a blacksmith. Additionally, roleplaying shouldn’t be absent from skills like Diplomacy, Intimidate, and Streetwise. A quick check versus a DC won’t solve all your character’s problems; we’ll still be roleplaying out those scenarios and then rolling. Depending on how detailed the roleplaying was, you might get a bonus to the roll.
Move Past Rules Disputes Quickly
If at any point confusion over a rule comes up between the players and myself, and if after a few minutes of quiet discourse no reasonable answer can been agreed on, I’ll go with the one that supports the players. Only after the game will I look up the rule for a definitive answer. This is a classic reason why I only game with friends; with friends, there’s no way this can be abused because I would just beat them with a rubber hose. I discussed this concept in greater depth here. Read my rules decisions here.
Casual Game Atmosphere
My gregarious nature tends to rub off on others, sometimes devolving game sessions into a series of off-color jokes and double-entendres. As one can imagine, a serious game’s mood can be disrupted by such conversation. While it is possible for me to run a serious game right off the bat, due to the company I tend to keep, campaigns begin closer to The Princess Bride in tone and style. Only once a campaign has reached paragon tier, and the players have become attached to their characters, do my campaigns finally take on the grave, somber feel of an old-school epic.
Let’s Get it On…
I like to set the mood—and I don’t mean in a Barry White sort of way. I create a unique environment by playing music picked out beforehand, building 3D terrain for encounters, putting together maps and handouts, using colored lights and oil lamps, and selecting illustrations for NPCs and monsters. Also, I take lots of pictures so the world will be jealous of our fun; you’ll get used to it. I discussed this concept in greater depth here and here. Look at my gaming pictures here.
It’s easy to whip up a character who likes nothing more that to kill monsters and take their treasure. The problem is, I rarely run such campaigns. Most of what makes D&D fun for me is the detailed stories that come from shared roleplay. Of course, those stories mean nothing if they aren’t populated with living, breathing, vibrant people. I realize that there is always the fear of having a character die in the first few levels; this alone should shy players away from writing lengthly novellas on their character’s past shenanigans. That being said, players enjoy the game more if their character’s have a solid place in the world from the start. To strike a balance between the two, I ask all players to fill out a short questionnaire. Even if it doesn’t help the player to get into character, the benefit to me is immeasurable. I discussed this concept in greater depth here. Download the questionnaire here.
Say Yes to Fellow Players
When you say, “Chris, I want to run up that goblin’s back, grab hold of the tavern’s hanging candelabra, swing across the bar, and then kick the orc guard into the fire pit,” I’m going to say “Hell yes!” Saying yes to your fellow players is fun and creates exciting, dynamic situations. Don’t do anything that would ruin someone’s fun in the name of roleplaying or being “in-character.” If your character is built to be a snobby, irritating loner who excels at nothing more than stopping others from doing inspiring things, then the rest of the group will leave him behind at the next dungeon. Don’t forget: your DM is a fellow player. I discussed this concept in greater depth here.
The books explain what happens when a power is used; we describe how the power looks and feels. For example, the cleave power says “You hit one enemy, then cleave into another.” I absolutely don’t care how that happens, as long as it’s awesome. Point of fact, just because it’s called cleave doesn’t mean anything has to be cleaved at all! A player could describe it as, “When Cody’s character swung on the candelabra, as it swings back my way, I’m going to grab it and knock it into those two orcs.” The same can be said for pretty much anything in the game, including monsters, items, races, themes, feats, and classes. I discussed this concept in greater depth here and here.