Interview With a Dungeon Master: RJ

From the beautiful country of America to the wondrous deserts of Egypt, Dungeon Masters help spread the joy of Dungeons & Dragons to folks young and old. D&D doesn’t care about our age or occupation, where we live or where we went to school; it only requires a mind that’s open to imagination, creativity, and collaboration. These types of minds are becoming more common as D&D continues to grow in popularity, mostly thanks to those who create worlds and host epic games: Dungeon Masters.

There are tens of thousands of Dungeon Masters in our world, each with a distinct style of play. Some enjoy pitting their players against impossible trials of combat. Others take on a hundred different roles in one campaign, from a biting jester to a maniacal balor demon. However, none of these styles trump the others. Instead, they give others ideas on how to improve or spice up their unique Dungeon Master mind. By learning how others Dungeon Master, how they began, and how they’ve become better over the years can only help us better our own game.

So, that’s what this new series intends to do: interview Dungeon Masters from all walks and life and pore over their histories to better ourselves.

Today’s interview is of myself, RJ, with more to come in the future of Dungeon Masters who started in the 1970s and those who began just last year.

Let’s roll.

Question: When did you begin playing Dungeons & Dragons?

I started back in 2008 when I was ten years old. Me and my brother found some of my father’s old Dungeons & Dragons books hidden away and really wanted to use them. It was summertime and my father was at work, so I searched for a free module on the internet and ran it for my brother. I remember very little but goblins were definitely the villains and we definitely didn’t play correctly. Regardless, I remember having a great time.

When my dad came home from work that day, he was surprised we’d discovered his stash and happy that we enjoyed playing. However, he thought he’d teach us how to play using the actual rules. So, my brother and me made characters and my father took on the mantle of Dungeon Master. He decided to use third edition rules and print a short adventure he found online: the Burning Plague. My character, a kobold sorcerer named Meeko the Outcast, and my brother’s character, a wood elf ranger named Graver, braved the poisoned mines and killed the orc causing the terrible plague. Ever since, I’ve been hooked.

Question: Did you begin as a player or Dungeon Master?

Technically, my first session I took the role of Dungeon Master. However, days later I became a player for a few years until I matured and was able to tell a cohesive story. Despite beginning as a player, I always pined for the Dungeon Master mantle.

Question: When did you Dungeon Master your first session? How did it go?

Again, I technically was the Dungeon Master when I first played at ten years old. However, I didn’t officially pick up the mantle again for a few years around the age of 12. Unfortunately, my memory is foggy so my recounting of my first session might be inaccurate. I remember it being with my close friends and brother. My father had run the Isle of Dread for us around a year before but we’d never finished; I decided to remedy that. The party started out shipwrecked on one of the islands surrounding the dreadful place, fighting cannibals and beasts of the sea. From what I remember, we had a great time, probably did a lot of stuff wrong, and I don’t think I spoke as an NPC a single time. Back then, I simply described conversations. Looking back, much has changed — for the better.

Question: Do you enjoy being a player or a Dungeon Master more? Why?

There’s no comparison to me, I love being a Dungeon Master. As for the reasons, there are many: the thrill of planning an exciting encounter; the joy of portraying a flamboyant and hilarious NPC; the sight of agony on my players’ faces as I scheme against them as maniacal villain; the feeling of absolute calm when a session ends and I’m the only one left at the table; everything here coalesces and makes me love being a Dungeon Master. It’s the best role, but it’s not for the faint of heart or mind.

Question: What’s your favorite part of being a player?

Honestly, when I’m feeling down, lazy, or creatively dry, I love being a player. All I have to do is show up to the session, contribute to the story the Dungeon Master is telling, and remember how to portray a single character. For the most part, it’s a stress free environment.

Question: What’s your favorite part of being a Dungeon Master?

Probably the toughest question here. There’s much I enjoy about being the Dungeon Master, but my favorite is definitely portraying nonplayer characters. More than exploration or combat, social interactions are where I shine and where my players seem to have the greatest joy. Whether they’re trying to decipher what the intentions of an insane myconid who just ate his brother are or speaking at the feet of a 1,200 pound, grubby, conniving human mage lord, my players best times are when I’m a different person than myself; therefore, those are my best times. A close second is worldbuilding. There’s nothing quite like forging a world of your own. The freedom is limitless.

Question: What is your worst D&D memory?

Primarily being a Dungeon Master, I’ve committed many crimes against my players. I’ve messed up, misspoken, and refused to let my players’ characters shine. Of course, I’ve greatly improved over time, but there are still blemishes throughout my past. My worst memory, though, occurred when I was a player. Our group was playing through the Shackled City adventure path and we were the depths below the City of Cauldron. Unfortunately, one of our players was constantly knocked down by no fault of his own. His character was instantly shot full of arrows, not allowed to speak, stuffed into a barrel filled with excrement, and turned into a thrall of the enemy...without little or no say in the matter. Some of us were young, others weren’t — I’m glad the incident didn’t turn the player off D&D forever.

Question: What is your best D&D memory?

Perhaps it’s because the memory is so recent but one clearly stands out in my mind. The party was working alongside a crafty lord they planned on betraying, and one of the party members requested that the lord seek out one of his friends inside the City of Merlint. The lord obliged but was suspicious of the group. He found the party member’s friend, a dwarf alchemist named Wargen Mudbeard, and brought on one of his changeling spies to impersonate him. A fantastic mini-arc unfolded, with me dropping plenty of hints that Wargen wasn’t actually Wargen. When the party did discover the changeling a few sessions later, an aura of awe and shock washed over the table. I was proud of myself for being able to pull that move off. A few sessions later, they saved the real Wargen from the lord’s dungeon, too — a great end to the story.

Question: What’s the hardest thing to prep for as a Dungeon Master?

Battles. They are many different variables at play in D&D battles and I’m not too tactically minded. Give me a random NPC, a goal they have in mind, and an interesting location, and I’ll be able to work with it well. The same doesn’t go with battles. From the abilities of the monsters to the easy, necessary math, I just seem to struggle preparing for combat encounters.

Question: What’s your current D&D schedule like?

I’m running three campaigns at the moment: the Karlith Straits, the Enoach Desert, and the Frozen Expanses of Iskryn. I run the Karlith Straits campaign weekly; we’re currently on session 35 and looking to end around June of this year. The group is heading into the Feywild after a stint against an empire of dragons in the mortal world that involved saving two gold dragons integral to a legendary
prophecy. Every month or so I play the Enoach Desert campaign, wherein the party is moving toward the lair of a massive, sedentary red dragon called Lazarus the Glutton. As for the Frozen Expanses of
Iskryn, that’s played every three months and consists of me and two other players (who are both in the Enoach Desert campaign). That group just killed Yeenoghu on the mortal world after a sacrificial summoning ritual that involved thousands of dead mortals. As far as playing as a player, I’m in a single campaign: Descent Into Madness. My kobold monk, Meeko Azura, is battling against a powerful cult and discovering the secrets of a dragon trapped in a mysterious artifact. They’re all great fun!

Question: What’s one piece of advice you’d give to a veteran Dungeon Master?

Prepare to improvise. It’s a trap I see many Dungeon Masters fall into, unfortunately. Especially if you’re building your own world, you need to generally know what’s in it so you can improvise other elements. What’s the naming convention of humans in this region of the world? Goblins? Halflings? Devils? Where’s the nearest town? How are wizards received in society? Sorcerers? My general rule is that if it appears during a session, it becomes canon; I don’t want goblins running around called Bloobloo — that’s reserved for spirits from the Feywild. This style isn’t for everyone, of course, but it’s the number one piece of advice I think veterans need to hear. I struggled with it for a long time before I finally gave in and greatly improved my sessions.

Question: What’s one piece of advice you’d give to a new Dungeon Master?

No matter what, aim to have fun. The story can be dark and dreary, the party can be near death every other session, or they might be collecting unimaginable wealth; as long as everyone is having fun, you’re succeeding. After that, it’s just a matter of honing your craft, your unique style of play. If people aren’t having a great time at the table, something is awry. Take action. Fix it.

Question: Last question and it’s not related to D&D! What do you enjoy outside of D&D?

Spending time with my wife, playing video games like Path of Exile, working out at the gym, writing, and reading — in that order. I have an amazing life and am incredibly lucky. I've found that I'm never bored when I'm at home, there's always something I can do. Whether it's going for a run, watching a show with my wife, or beating the latest boss in Path of Exile, I'm having a good time.

That's it for this week, I'll be back with another Interview With a Dungeon Master shortly.

Next week, we're returning to the Best Bits series with a look at one of D&D 5E's first adventures: Rise of Tiamat.

Until next time, farewell!

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