Welcome to the first ever Master of the Dungeon, Kriss. For starters, how did you get into Dungeon Mastering?
One could say that I've been Dungeon Mastering since I was about eight, running solo campaigns with one of my close in-person friends or just random people online using quick-and-simple systems (if you could call them comprehensive systems) I'd devised in half an hour or so. I grew up surrounded by the oldschool D&D books and watched my dad DM some sessions with friends of his, so I became attracted to the whole thing long before ever actually meeting a clique of friends to play with.
I would occasionally run through oldschool AD&D modules with my in-person friend, but with no preparation or real knowledge of the rules they turned out to be more exercises in spontaneous DMing rather than AD&D itself. Years would pass before I'd ever seriously run a D&D campaign.
For the sake of earning the serious ire of a fraction of our readerbase right off the bat, what would you say is your favorite system to GM for, and why?
D&D 3.5 and d20 modern / future and the like. Say what one wishes about the numerous shortcomings of these systems (I sure have); they work, or at least can be made to work with a respectful, responsible playerbase and a creative GM who isn't entirely a doormat. Given house rules, I find that I'm familiar enough with these systems to adapt them to any sort of campaign setting, style or genre I wish to run. There are plenty of good systems out there that I love to run (I feel that Dark Heresy deserves mentioning), but I find creative empowerment in the non-specificity or rather flexibility of the above two.
That’s our favorite too.
I hear that GURPs excels exactly at the quality I've just highlighted, but I've never played it so I can't speak for or against it.
What sort of aspects of gaming do you find most enjoyable when GMing? Are you a social interaction improvisor, or a tactics fiend? In other words, what part of the game really drives it home for you?
I have my days of being a tactics fiend, or wanting to create the perfect "epic" battle for the scene, or seeing just how over the top I can make a certain aspect of the session be. But the most rewarding thing to see as a GM and, heck, even as a player, would have to be the building of relations between characters. This includes defining moments, like realizing what one's true purpose is or defeating / being bested by one's mortal enemy, that affect a noticeable transformation on a character. Even if the forces driving the story are questionable and the action is lackluster and the GM is inexperienced, I know I can have a whole lot of fun playing a campaign as long as there's good chemistry between the characters: you know... like this character constantly fighting and quipping with another, or these two happening to be buddies, or these two constantly plotting against each other... but in a positive, engaging, storyworthy way (rather than it feeling like two players at each others' throats)... something, social activity, that good stuff. Watching these sorts of things unfold as a GM is likely the closest experience to watching a child grow up that I expect to have in the near future.
Incidentally, I took a "What kind of player are you?" survey, with 'Tactician' and 'Powergamer' and a small handful of other possible results, and scored overwhelmingly on 'Method Actor.'
One of the reasons I'm starting this series is so that new and inexperienced GMs can have some examples to draw from when it comes to improving themselves. What would you say is something newbie DMs tend to fall short on the most?
They either try to control too much, or worry too much about control.
Care to elaborate?
Okay, actually, this is sort of a personality thing as much as a new DM thing and not all new DMs go through this (some go through the other extreme), but it's something I've seen a handful of times. One thinks, "Oh, but I have to be super prepared and have all my maps and my stuff drawn out and every possible contingency addressed in the adventure and if a player goes off of it then it's all a disaster and I've failed." Or one runs a pre-written adventure and insists on following the script with next to no deviation from it, as though their sole purpose is to arbitrate the machine which is already there.
I wouldn't wish my words to be heeded as some sacred text in this regard because we're touching upon a stylistic thing as well; I am a 50% preparation / 50% improv DM. I know DMs who run heavily off of long hours of preparation and run good campaigns for it, and that works for them, but I find that much of the magic is what unfolds in the immediate, and unexpectedly. This is also the reason I rarely, if ever, mandate complex backgrounds and explanations of motivations. I don't even know what my own characters want / will do in situations X Y Z until I've played them for a while and gotten a feel for them.
I expect people to make discoveries about their characters in-game and I expect to make discoveries about them and myself when I run. In a nutshell: the most common mistake of any GM is to forget that the ultimate purpose of this is to have fun, and while we may agree upon specific ways we wish to have fun (being epic, being scared), all else must be ancillary.
My plan was to ask you what sort of advice you would give to new DMs to avoid this, but it seems like you were pretty thorough there.
I would also like to add: if you're new to the system, don't get too caught up in the fine mechanics; you won't know them all and you probably won't be expected to know them all. Focus instead on improvising creatively to make the flow of the battle / encounter go the way it must. Don't bog up the fight rolling initiative for all 17 kobolds you're going to send at us, or going through your cluster of papers to find precisely what that one monster's stats are. Just make it work and get comfortable with it.
If it comes down to that, a rules-loose game is perfectly acceptable as long as the players understand that it will be a rules-loose game, at least until you get the hang of things.
Is there any one moment in particular that stands out as the pinnacle of your DMing career? Anything off the epic charts, or a particular triumph of yours you’d like to share?
I've never ran a session or had an encounter reach what I would call perfection. I suppose that's the way it ought to be, because it means I always have something better to strive toward.
That's not really an answer to your question... but it comes to mind. The most recent DMing moment that I was very proud of came at the after-math of a climactic battle resulting in the death of a major antagonist who had done the party significant emotional grief. It rained upon the bloodsoaked field and the party members held up the spoils of their victory to a roaring crowd while also not really hearing their chants, instead being caught within their own contemplations for what had just come to pass. And one of the player-characters saw in the rain the image of his former mentor, long-since-dead, turn around and regard him briefly and then fade... such that nobody else saw him, and indeed he may've been less than a ghost and nothing but a mirage. It was potent because I could tell that the players were having a reaction to it, and because I myself could see the image very clearly and feel that it was right. Not perfect, but memorable.
Also I was listening (and having the players also listen to) a really fitting track from OCRemix that completed the mood. For me, at least.
That sounds pretty epic to me. One last question before we let you go, though; You are moving through a dungeon and you see a blurry rune inscribed upon a wall at the end of the hall. Do you inspect it closer?
Depending on what character I happen to be playing, I very well may. If I, Kriss, became an adventurer and explored such a dungeon, I would not be caught dead near any strange runes.
Good answer. Good answer.
If you know anyone that deserves to be on Master of the Dungeon, feel free to let us know!