Ask a DM #1: Themes, Reactions, and Must-Haves

As a way to get to know each other, some of us here at DM Support Group settled on an initial few questions to answer:

  • What are your favorite themes to include in the games you run?
  • What player reaction do you most long for?
  • What’s your favorite resource to have at the “table?”

Here’s a first batch of answers.

What are your favorite themes to include in the games you run?

 @crazee_jae

That not everything is as it appears.

 @demongm

I love themes of horror that involve innocence being lost and corrupted characters, especially where it exposes the harshness of reality and life. I’ve also been known to throw a ghost or two in the mix.

 @dgaston

My favourite theme in my games tend to focus around Death (with a big D as either a realm, personification, or its very nature) and metaphysics. These are the hooks I tend to hang plot and adventures on. Because I find them interesting and I can use it to give more cerebral players things to chew on. The first also gives me lots to throw at players who are more invested in combat. It means most of my monsters and opponents are undead or related to that and the threat of death or better yet, undeath, should be ever present.

 @goblin_stomper

Good vs. Evil is old hat.  I want the players to create a living background for their characters, and then I want my players to free themselves of the yoke of their past.  NO matter how much gold they hoard, or how many monsters they defeat, it is ultimately their past they must overcome.  The OSR is often less concerned with character story as it is play, but I make sure to weave my world in equal parts.

loraedor logo @loraedor

Growth, Community, and Home figure fairly large in many of my campaigns. I tend to run games that enable the PCs to improve their world. Not just in terms of “free the town from invading goblins” or something, but by building infrastructure, improving the lives of the people that live there, making things better in the long term. This tends to lead to some political entanglements sometimes, but I try to keep horizons open while always letting the party return home between their adventures while things run (mostly) smoothly in their absence.
I think that sense of homecoming is huge, and it can be a powerful motivator for PCs.

 @ratkingnow

Darkness, Dread, Horror
I feel like so many D&D campaigns set out to be this whimsical tale of heroes, but a lot of the monsters and lore in Dungeons & Dragons is truly brutal and terrifying. To have heroes have to deal with that aspect of the world is my favorite aspect of the game. It’s not an eternal shadowfell and I still run silly encounters, but the big baddies strewn across the multiverse are truly baddies. They don’t take coin purses and attempt world domination. They kill masses for the fun of it, they control minds, they bring the dead back to life. I do keep the towns joyful and flowing with ale, my players can help people out and some missions aren’t always dark. But my overarching narrative always has a sense of terror looming

What player reaction do you most long for?

 @crazee_jae

Laughter.

 @demongm

I love players being scared to open doors, uncertain to proceed past it, if the NPC is friend or foe, if the statue is actually simply a statue and the passage is clear of traps. I want them to be careful, calculated, and have a sense of accomplishment.
I also want them to pay attention to the story, interact with the characters, and have things not always go their way like in real life.

 @dgaston

Surprise and shock. I like to get a twist that surprises the characters and the players both. This can be good or bad and the following reaction can be worry or elation. But it is that moment of surprise on their faces that I really strive for.  For me there is nothing more rewarding and it means I did my job well. Enough clues and seeds that they are confused, not enough that I totally telegraphed where I was going with something.

 @goblin_stomper

I love a good character death, even if it’s filled with loss for the player(s) and for me.  OSR style play is more dangerous for the PC than newer games, and often players have a backup character ready to play if their primary PC ends up on the wrong end of a sword or snake-pit.  I think that how players handle the death of their characters speaks volumes about them as a player and as a person.  Of course, nothing beats the ‘oh crap’ moment when they run into a room and find themselves staring eye to eye to eyes at a Beholder!

loraedor logo @loraedor

Genuine elation. Preferably prefaced by a stunned silence.
Whether it be a near-impossible crit that finally ends a longtime hated foe or the restoration of a favorite NPC to health after months of questing for a cure, these moments (even if they are tired tropes) can make for stories retold between friends for years. With the right player investiture I can set the stage for these magical occasions as a DM, but in my experience the actual moments themselves only happen organically—sometimes even unintentionally—and that’s what makes them so tremendously precious and amazing.

 @ratkingnow

Desperation.
Seems awful, right? I don’t think so. When my players get rushed and pressured it means they are invested. They care about what’s happening and they know the risks are real. My players truly face the consequences of their actions and know I won’t fudge the numbers to help them. But when they get desperate they talk around the table, come up with plans, learn how to play better, and MOST importantly truly feel the weight when they finally attain victory.

What’s your favorite resource to have at the “table?”

 @crazee_jae

My Random Generators

 @demongm

Outside of the normal stuff (manuals and dice), I’m going with index cards. I track everything on index cards, from NPC notes, encounter management, quest/session notes, and handouts.

 @dgaston

I have two, and both tend to live in Google docs. One is a list of random names broken into categories for the regions of my world along with a lost of random names I can give to places, shops, etc. The quicker I can come up with a name the smoother the action goes and you don’t lose the rhythm of the game. The second, and related, is a rough write up if the area, people, and places where the characters currently are or are going.
I like to have some ideas of shops and NPCs written up ahead of time, although most can easily be relocated to another location if needed. I like to have some notes on what someone looks like, a bit of personality, maybe a voice or attitude, and some motivations. What makes them tick? Do they have any secrets. I also strive to make them versatile. So players seeking information can conceivably go to any number of these NPCs and I can mix and match them appropriately. Nothing worse than boxing yourself into a corner thinking they have to go to a very specific NPC.

 @goblin_stomper

I’m guessing ‘beer’ is the wrong answer, though I’d guess a popular table resource.  For me it’s simply a notebook, blank and ready.  I use a grided-page notebook so I can quickly make lists, keep track of XP, treasure, NPC names, etc.  I’m making alot of the game up ‘on the fly’ and if I don’t Jot things down after I do/say them, they will be lost forever.  I’ve always been more of a ‘pantser’ than ‘planner’ and so having blank pages ready to fill is most important.  Runner up is my DM screen, which houses all of the tables I am constantly using during game-play.  I use a landscape, customizable unit that I adore.

loraedor logo @loraedor

My go-to, use-it-all-the-time tool that I would really struggle without is my name sheet. A printed page just covered in random names. I use it to name places, people, plants, other P nouns…
Being able to point to a name, whether I tweak it or use it as-is, really provides the best shortcut I’ve found to being able to properly improvise. (As long as I remember to take notes and to cross used names off the list.) Shortcutting the creation of on-the-fly NPCs really speeds the game considerably when things are running—as they generally are—completely off-script.

 @ratkingnow

My voice list!
One of my favorite tips to give DMs old and new is to do voices! Assign a voice from television, a movie, or someone you know to each NPC. I have the NPC name written down then a voice beside it (ie. Thurid Anridet – Lisa Simpson) It isn’t getting Lisa Simpson’s voice right that makes Thurid stand out and unique, it is my attempt at that voice. My players never have to know what I’m going for. But they get a truly genuine NPC from it.

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Thoughts?