How Teaching Helps Me Be A Better DM

When I’m not writing blog posts or running games, I work as an English instructor at my local community college. The longer I teach, the more I see my teacher-side creeping into my game table, and I think this is actually a good thing. Several of the strategies I use in the classroom have actually provided more enjoyment and an all-around better game (at least in my opinion).

Give your players homework

I find giving my players some small task to do during downtime creates a richer role-playing experience and helps to foster better-developed characters. I always offer some reward as an incentive, usually in the way of XP, but you could offer gold, items, or possibly agree to indulge the play in a side quest or goal.

Examples:

  • Write a summary of the night’s adventure
  • Write a back story for their character
  • Detail the contents of their backpack (a braid of his wife’s hair, the flint his father carried, etc). This one really helps create back story and depth.
  • Map the dungeon or countryside
  • Create a code by which the character lives (I’ve found the easiest way is to make a list of things the player will never do, harm a child, steal from the poor, etc. It helps to define their alignment for them.)
  • Detail a fear or phobia the character has and why
  • Write a brief summary of what your character’s goals are
  • Create a family tree
  • Ask bards to write a poem or a story

Give handouts

As a teacher I like my students to have something tangible they can look at after class and think about we’ve worked on. The same holds true for the game table; as a PC and a DM I enjoy these handouts immensely, especially maps. This may seem weird (but I’m sure I’m not alone on this), but I enjoy looking at maps of the game world and trying to imagine what secrets reside on those hexes, what adventures are waiting for me.

Note: I think handouts differ from props slightly. We’ll cover props in a different article. Where did I put my foam sword…?

Examples:

  • Maps (hand-drawn is fine by me)
  • Fiction from the game world (Pepper these in with the treasure, they will add depth, explain back-story or world history without bogging down the session. The Elder Scrolls series of video games does this seamlessly.)
  • Letters (use a font that resembles hand writing, and don’t be afraid to spill something on it or burn the edges, it’s a bit junior high, but so what it adds flavor. Download a rune font or elvish script.)
  • NPC Portraits (use the archive here, print them out on card stock or photo paper— 4.25×5.5 so you can fit four to a page.)
  • Menus (What’s for dinner at the local tavern?)
  • Treasure Maps (Use these a unique treasure that sets you up for a side quest, don’t level scale either, a treasure hunt should be rough, and have a huge payout)
  • Wanted Posters (makes for great side quests, again don’t level scale, let the gold piece value of the reward and the list of crimes give the players an indication of the difficulty)
  • Scrolls (print of the spell’s effect, maybe print it on parchment-style paper. Seal it with wax if you want to go from handout to prop. This idea also serves to save time during combat. Your player doesn’t have to stop and look up the spell in question. Find obscure spells or spells your player won’t normally take)
  • Newspaper (ok this may seem silly, but in the right setting, Sigil, Sharn, etc it might make perfect sense.)

Make time to plan your class

Students (and players) can tell when you’ve thrown a game together at the last second. It really hurts the game experience because it puts your players closer to reality, while the purpose of role-playing is to immerse yourself in a secondary world and lose yourself for a few hours. One thing that I find that helps with campaign planning is to keep a log of all the happening in the night’s adventure. Keep a list of people and places that players interact with. You will be amazed at how many adventure hooks the players will create for you. (The guy they picked a fight with at the tavern, the person whose pocket they picked, the loved ones of the monster or npc they killed. Etc) While occasionally it is fun to play a session on the fly, more often than not you’ll want a series of possibilities open, and unless you run a pre-planned world, you’ll need to sit down and prep. (Note: We ran an article a while back that provided prep-time reducing handouts for the DM, a list of NPC names by race, and a list of treasures by encounter level. Both can be found here.)

Give course evaluations

Evaluations, when given in a thoughtful, honest manner, can make you a better teacher. If my students didn’t care for a certain text or film, I generally choose something different the next time I teach the course. The great thing about teaching at the college level is that every sixteen weeks I get to try things differently.

The same approach holds true at the table. Ask your players for honest feedback. Ask your players what they like and write to that. I have some players for example, that could really do without combat, while I can’t remove all they action from the game, and I always try to put some level of mental challenge or puzzle in for that player when they’re present. Sometimes DMs write for themselves rather than for their players. Don’t be afraid to ask your players what they like and dislike about your game. It may be awkward at first, but it will lead to a more enjoyable experience.

-Andy

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10 Responses to “How Teaching Helps Me Be A Better DM”

  1. dude my parole comes soon.. need to game.. it was so bad I had dreams that I was gaming last night.. sad.

  2. Great article.

    I would also add that putting some of the note keeping duties on to players during a game can be helpful. For example, offering a player an extra 5-10% to his/her earned XP for that session to take copious notes for the DM might prove useful to the campaign. I would rotate this duty among interested players, though, so no one person advances too far ahead of the others. It would also be volunteer based.

    Regards,
    Goon

  3. legacyking Says:

    Nice Article, I try these things out every now and again. Unfortunately for me, my players don’t like giving too much feedback. They praise the various games, and generally whine when a certain character gets too much spotlight, but other than that, it’s usually a guessing game. I might try to hand them a pre-print handout for critique feed back.

    On the other hand, I don’t have too much issue getting a back story and a concept for the character, which is really nice. Eclipse the codex persona, practically requires a decent concept, that has really added some role-playing depth that wasn’t present in some of the older D&D games I’ve run.

    The reward in my games isn’t more XP, it’s usually a better story to tell – their plot hooks and ideas become part of the story whenever the campaign moves in that direction. Hence, the better back story, and details on the characters I can use, the more spotlight on that character.

    • Agreed. Along with a better story, it makes a GM’s life SO much easier.
      Thank you for reading! In an upcoming article we will be talking about tips for better back story.

  4. I have found that a few of these work; however, you have to know your players. I have one player who does not want to do nearly anything outside of the game session. He will not read an email if it is more than a paragraph. Then there is my other player who will email his own handouts. Generally, the players who want to play outside of the game will follow your lead and don’t push those who don’t.

  5. Robert M Says:

    Just wanted to drop in and say hi. I have been disabled vet for twenty years. I am just now returning to D&D to stimulate my mind. If i watch any more tv i think i am going to explode. I found that the “pbp” format on some boards are trying to achieve the same thing. I know that have only returned to DnD for two weeks my word usage and creativeness has been inspired.
    I am really happy to have read your blog and I am going to discuss this with my group, ty.

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