This past weekend, I ran my Dungeons & Dragons* (D&D) game like I do once a month. Unlike most months, however, I came out of the 2 1/2 hour session feeling like I had run a pretty good adventure.
It helped that I was better prepared than usual. Over past sessions, I have wavered from totally improvised scenarios to meticulously detailed maps and character personalities, and I certainly prepared more rather than less this time. I also planned out the adventure more intentionally in how I wanted the story to flow rather than just filling in blanks.
I think the biggest change came when I realized there is no perfect way to play D&D: it’s a game entirely subject to the players’ preferences, and a DM does best by preparing and running the game their players like.
As a DM, I had been moving to a style that I thought would be more fun. I was interested in RPG systems with more improvisational play like Dungeon World. In those systems, the players and DM act and react quickly and fluidly to make up the story and world as they go. Although the DM needs to have a general direction for the adventure, there aren’t a lot of details. Rather than laying out a sandbox, the DM is always supposed to present a pressing situation to keep the scene moving forward.
In recent sessions, I had prepared according to that style, which is to say that I didn’t prepare much. As the party moved through a dungeon, they asked specific questions about the exact appearance of the area and tried to compose a complete understanding of the scene in order to reason through a safe course of action. This ended up being very difficult for me since the details didn’t exist until the questions were asked, and I ended up not creating a rich, satisfying experience.
Put differently, I think my players expected that the game was set in a fully fleshed out world that they could observe, deliberate, and plan to deal with in response to the situation. In my improvisational style, however, I was presenting them with a very narrow perspective into a situation that would lead into another totally made up situation. Although I knew that I was running the game for the players, it didn’t really occur to me how much of my own agenda I was bringing into the game by pressing for this style.
The fascinating part about D&D compared to most games is that D&D doesn’t have an “right” way to play. In most games, there’s a optimal way to play that leads to winning. That may be having the perfect basketball shot, or developing perfect aim in Halo, or executing the perfect strategy in Settlers of Catan. Of course, most games have imperfect information or randomness to leave something to chance. Despite that, many games have fixed win conditions and requires skills that you can practice and improve. If you look back after the game, you can see how “I could have done that a little better” or “if I hadn’t made that mistake, I could have won.”
In D&D, it’s about the experience of playing and the story that you have created that matters, not the act of winning or losing per se. Different styles of play aren’t just different strategies to try to win: different styles of play are how different people choose to enjoy the game. You get better over time at figuring out how to use your class abilities or spells, but so much of the enjoyment and purpose of the game is about the roleplaying that players who are overly focused on the numbers are derisively called “munchkins.”
The flexibility of D&D as a game is quite liberating compared to sports, video games, and even much of life, where the competition and relentless optimizing take over. Although I think I consciously was aware of that freedom, I am still seeing different impacts of that structure years later, and hopefully, it makes me a better DM, too.
*If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, D&D is a storytelling game where each player is a hero in a Lord of the Rings-esque adventure. the Dungeon Master (DM) comes up with the setting and premise for the adventure, and the players describe (in normal prose) how their character attacks a pack of orcs or parleys with a royal diplomat. The DM responds (sometimes in turn or sometimes requesting a dice roll to let chance determine the player’s success), and the story moves forward. D&D is one of many roleplaying game (RPG) rule systems that add some structure to basically imaginary play.