Lessons of a Dungeonmaster (D&D Month Part 2)

Remember back in the Villain’s Month article where I said there were more ways to show a villain was evil than giving them a huge bodycount?
Well this week, real life offered up a simply amazing example that I simply must share. There is a relevant point to the article, but I also want to share it because I feel people aren’t angry enough about it. By which I mean that I’m pretty sure it’s not physically possible to feel enough anger for it to be the appropriate amount of anger to direct at this guy.
No Bruce, still not angry enough.
In Salt Lake City, a cafeteria manager discovered that the school lunch program ended the previous year with about $3,000 worth of unpaid accounts. Keep in mind here that a) while public schools are criminally underfunded, their budgets are still in the hundreds of thousands at worst and b) schools often buy massively in bulk from famr subsidized stock, so that $3K represents a lot of kids getting a reasonable meal for the day.
Said manager immediately went out to one such school that had current unpaid accounts and ordered the cafeteria workers to deny food to students with unpaid accounts. Because there was no way of knowing who wasn’t paid up until they got to the register and health regulations say that once you serve food to a student, you can’t serve it to anyone else, this resulted in the workers having to take away lunches from 40 kids in front of EVERYONE. And all along, this cafeteria manager watched it being done, even as some of the cafeteria workers broke down crying at the… utterly despicable act they were being forced to perform.
Let me be clear on this: This person is human, not a twirly-mustached parody. Presumably he was birthed from a human woman’s womb and nurtured to adulthood by at least someone who attempted to teach him right from wrong. He likely has friends and family and loved ones who he routinely fails to do any harm to whatsoever.
And yet, he made a special trip to a school to make sure children didn’t get food that day. And I’m sure someone will argue that they should have paid up, or that they at least got offered fruit as a replacement, but they’re missing the point. If at any point your find yourself ordering food to be taken from children and tossed in the trash in front of all their peers for ANY REASON, it is time for reflection. It is time for deep, soul-searching rumination as to how in the hell you came to find yourself one step away from literally taking candy from a baby.
Why you’re at it, you might want to rethink your career choice. Think about this: even if you are in full Ayn Rand mode and starving children for not living by the sweat of their brows… you fail as a manager if your solution to losing money on food is throwing more food away, which legally needs to be replaced with fresh fruit—one of the most expensive goddamn foodstuffs out there, calorie for calorie. That is the complete, perfect and dare I say sublime opposite of what a cafeteria manager for a school system’s job should be.
What does this have to do with D&D and Dungeonmastering?
Well it’s one of the valuable lessons I learned about storytelling that I initially learned being a DM. Namely, getting the players to hate someone or something. Trust me, this guy made getting every sane person to hate him look easy, but it’s really hard to…
Make Villains Hateably Interesting
Making a villain evil is easy. Making a villain someone you hate as general rule easier still. Anyone who wants to destroy the world, enslave people, or whatever is someone you hate on principle, but it’s not personal. Sure, they’re awful, but it’s so stock and cliché, that you can’t really work up a good, old fashioned grudge. Same for pointless killing, rape, kidnapping. Yeah, you can get a rise out of players with it, but again, all bad guys do that and you just generically hate them.
What you want as a DM and as a storyteller in general is for the players/audience to just really dislike that guy for specific reasons, the petty, needling reasons that just get under their skin until they actually start to value their hate and take pride in just how much they want to hurt that dude. Yes, we hate mass murderers, but it’s not the firey, roaring passion we have for that customer who is an ass to you all the time and make it clear that you know they do it because they know you can’t retaliate or the neighbor who keeps letting his dog go on your lawn and denies it. That’s a nice, meaty hate that will feed a family of three.
Let me tell you the tale of Alexander Lightwings.
In the original Ere campaign (the forerunner of the solo game that led to Rune Breaker), Alexander was the main villain. He was, all told, a fairly standard ‘take over the world’ villain who got his start framing the PCs for murder. You would think that would be enough, but in these cases, players tend to really just want to clear their names. They’re upset with him, but they don’t hate him. Or at least they didn’t.
You see, knowing he would be pursued, and possessed of a hefty coin purse, Alexander proceeded to first wreck the party’s survival gear before framing them, then buying out every single gear supplier along his route and destroying said gear.
Between encounters, the players were forced to forage and take penalties for bad night’s rests. Not having proper gear made them slower and led them into more encounters that messed them up worse. And every day, they would com to a town with no survival gear and a pile of burnt gear just outside it.
Irritation started to grow with this wealthy jerk who seemed willing to spend insane amounts just to make them uncomfortable. They started formulating tortures for when they caught him, and elaborate revenge schemes.
And then they happened upon some gear that was only slightly charred. Alexander had screwed up! Hallelujah! They were saved! Good rest, full HP recovery, and no more penalties were on the menu tonight! Along with not forcing the cleric to waste slot everyday on creating food and water! Whoo–
Fire trap.
They nearly died over a bed roll. Mighty adventurers reduced to walking right into a humiliating trap over basic supplies. From that moment on, whatever plot he had was secondary. The players were in this to make Alexander Lightwings die—die so hard his ancestors felt it. When they eventually caught up to him and he escaped, they looted the hell out of his home, stole or sold every stick of furniture—and used his underwear as their personal battle flag for the next real life year.
They still talk about how much they hated that guy to this day.
It’s not just about making a character people love to hate, it’s about making them hate that guy with style.
Think about some of the best villains in pop culture and you’ll find that most of them are great because you hate them for more petty reasons than their evil. Emperor Palpatine oppressed an entire galaxy, but we don’t really hate him until he’s trying to corrupt Luke. Sauron is trying to cover all of Middle Earth in darkness, but it’s what his damn ring is doing to Frodo that gets our backs up. The Joker has killed more people than actually live in Gotham City, but his crowning glory is paralyzing Batgirl.
Making evil personal on a petty level is a valuable technique and one I only really appreciated after running that game.
The Importance of Breathing Space
I started writing hardcore in 8th grade, in the mid-90’s and continued to do so until I graduated. When I first entered college, all that stopped. I had new friends to make, places to hang out, classes I wasn’t just breezing through, and, for the first time, high speed internet and cable. So started a six month writing drought that lasted until I ran my first DnD game and rekindled my love of telling stories to people.
One of the biggest differences between my pre-D&D stuff (besides not being scrawled in composition cooks) and my later stuff is that the former is utterly breathless in it’s quest to get to the next plot point. Downtime lasts only as long is it takes to account for all the characters still existing and then it’s on to more plot. Any world/character building is jammed in there in the middle of scenes and there’s very little interaction between characters besides what gets them to their next stop.
Now, people who want to malign D&D often talk about how D&D is all hack and no yack. The accusation being that, because most of the rules are about combat, games are all combat and very little actual roleplaying. I don’t believe that—mostly because I don’t feel you need, not do I particularly want rules that control actual RP and feel that what you do in combat can still be RP in and of itself.
As luck would have it, my gaming group was down with that and sometimes entire sessions were made up of us just playing out stops in town where the players got things done, played out scenes with one another, and generally both helped me build the world (Ere) and let me help them develop their characters. One of our best sessions was one where a stop in a town turned into a drunken series of pub crawls, avoiding arrest and attempted theft (out of spite).
It’s one of those things you tend to know but don’t naturally apply when you start writing: you have to serve the world and characters in addition to the plot. In fact, you need breaks from the plot every once in a while for a larger tale because otherwise, just like in D&D, it can feel like the whole thing’s on rails and not unfolding naturally.
Of course it’s not actually natural because it’s being written, but again, it’s not about what is, it’s about how the audience and players feel about it.
On the flip side, there’s also one lesson running games for players taught me that pretty much every writing group will tell you is ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’. In my opinion, the stigma placed against it is to all of our detriments. That being…
Exposition is a Good Thing
Never infodump. Avoid prologues. Show, don’t tell.
Authors punch these into each other’s brains constantly and without mercy… or any reflection on why those rules exist. Let me tell you a story about the time I applied this to my players.
Maybe it would have worked if I was playing with my usual group, but this was a oneshot for a con game. I set up a ‘mysterious abandoned town’ scenario that was meant to lead the players to a mine full of trog slavers and the captured townsfolk.
Being all artistic n’ shit, I didn’t just point them to the mine directly. Instead, I built up that this was a mining town with a waterfall-powered gondola that goes up to the mine (the gondola being at the top because that’s how the trogs too them. The players saw lots of mining town accoutrements, kept running into areas with still-lingering trog-stench, found crude weapons, and there were all sorts of signs of violence, but little bloodshed.
Buuut, there was a church in the town with a graveyard.
For reasons beyond me, gamers are obsessed with fighting the undead. They love it to the point that zombie-bits are like catnip to them. So the trog stench was obviously the smell of rotting flesh—not need to roll any knowledge stills, and all the fresh dirt and mining equipment meant that the town have been overrun and turned by the undead, only just managing to seal them away.
Notice how that is in no way what was happening or what I intended. However, notice that there’s no reason why they couldn’t have interpreted it that way either.
So they defiled the hell out of the cemetery looking for undead that weren’t there based on context clues I totally gave them but didn’t mean to.
Let this be a lesson: Clarity is the Golden Rule. While it would be boring and annoying to just spell everything in a story out, it’s equally annoying when you dance around it so hard that you get your players’ hearts up for something you have no intention of giving. You should do your best to make it clear what the hell is going on, even if you have to sometimes straight up tell it.
You might be wondering why I said this was to all our detriments.
Well the thing is, when you’re dealing with a high concept story, especially fantasy or sci-fi, there is a lot of information about how the world works and it’s not going to go away just because you refuse to use exposition. So, to replace a quick bout of exposition like…
Instead we’ll either have a pilot episode that doubles as a crash course in how the world works, which can admittedly be pretty good, like Sliders, which disguised its exposition by having the main character actually be the scientist responsible for the sliding technology, or something much, much worse.
I speak of course of the so-called naïeve newcomer. This pestilence of a character is designed to be as ignorant about the world in which they exist as humanly possible for the express purpose of giving other characters an excuse to explain everything to them.
You can expect this character to constantly question everything, up to and including things that are already clear to all the non-idiots in the audience as well as things that are everyday occurrences in their life. Imagine if tomorrow your job stuck you with a coworker who, despite living in modern Western society every day of their life asked you to explain what a gun was, or how to operate a cereal bowl and spoon. And yet somehow, writers still create these vacuous lumps to avoid a little clean and simple exposition.
By the way, in case you were wondering, I eventually have the trogs come down off the mountain to attack my confused con group just so things weren’t an obvious bust.
And that brings me to one last lesson:
Opportunistic Plotting
Anyone who has ever run a roleplaying session knows that know well-planned adventure survives first contact with the players. And oh me, oh my was my group a wily one. Even when I was a player and not a DM, the general plotline was more of a polite suggestion. We would ignore plot hooks, go chasing after pointless details that were just flavor text, and go about actual plot-relevant events with needlessly complicated plots.
We once burned down an entire goddamn temple as a distraction from the fact that we stole a bunch of their horses. I once abused the 3.5 version of the dominate spell to create a network of living, breathing security cameras. My best friend, once killed a dude by drinking a potion of firebreath, then seducing him into a french kiss that ended with a charred esophagus and turned a prank supply of oil of slipperiness into one of the most deadly goddamn things I’ve ever seen.
If you’re a fan of Knights of the Dinner Table, you’ll recognize this as the kind of thing that gets BA to give up. Not I. In our group, we called this stuff Player Generated Plot, and it wasn’t just a virtue for our DM’s to run with it, it was basically a requirement. If the players did something wacky, we dealt with it and incorporated it. And there was no stopping the game, we had to deal with it on the fly.
Party decided they wanted to go talk to a priest at a random temple for no reason? Make up the character and the setting on the spot. Now. Party suddenly decide to shmooze and finesse their way into the enemy stronghold instead of kicking everyone’s ass? Deal with it. Did someone figure out how to bypass the dungeon and a three hour crawl ended in forty-five minutes? You best come up with something to them to do, son.
And I have to admit, the crazy crap my friends got up to and that I had to come up with in response to their actions was often way, way better than the stuff I planned out.
I credit keeping up with my players a lot with my personal writing style. I get a few scenes I want to see happen in my head, then turn the characters loose on it.
This sounds insane to no-writers, but in a way, characters really do have minds of their own if you’ve got a good picture of their mindset and personality. For example, there’s a running subplot with Cyn being combative with new heroes she meets up with. This wasn’t something I exactly plotted out to happen. Instead, it grew from the fact that Cyn has always had this running thread in her that drives her to try and take control of her environment (stemming from her bad childhood) that [apparently] manifests in her trying to establish dominance with everyone she meets. By the time I was writing City by the Lake, I was well aware of it, but now that I’m working on the Complete Volume 1, I realized that she does it to Warrick in the very first issue of the series.
Similarly, I had no plans for what is one of my favorite scene in Rune Breaker, where Ru and Raiteria have a conversation in the House in the middle of the night. I had a vague idea of having another scene with Ru doing stuff to the House construct, but from there, it was just following character actions, right down to Rai being the one who couldn’t sleep and the whole speech Rai gives about what names mean to halflings vs. humans.
It’s not the kind of thing every writer can do, and I think I never would be able to pull this kind of stuff off if it wasn’t for my previous experience fending off other characters that I had even less control over.
And that’s about it for this week.
New week: Monster Mash: what lame monsters can teach us about awesome ones. Showcasing the Owlbear, Grell, and the entire concept of the Far Realms. See Ya Then!
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About Vaal

Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter. You can also purchase his books from all major platforms from the bookstore
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