When I started playing role-playing games, I had a distinct and immediate calling to be a dungeon master. I don’t know why, I just felt compelled to do it. Maybe it was my storytelling nature, maybe it was coming from a strong tradition of oral history steeped deeply in my Appalachian roots. I’m certainly no control freak; I love letting my players explore and develop their environment in my universe. I had the spark nonetheless.
When my best buddy Gary encouraged me to learn the game way back when, I had played the game maybe three times before I had the undeniable itch to begin my first campaign. I didn’t want to play prefab modules, I wanted to create my own adventure, write my own story, and design my own universe. I had heard from Gary that the biggest, deepest scariest dungeon he had ever traversed was eight levels down. This was a good starting yardstick for me. The size of the fun and depth of the story was measured in dungeon levels in my mind, so I set out to make something bigger. It was to be known as “Bolgin’s Dungeon” and would be ten levels down, five levels up, an island, and a war.
How did I do it? I started with the outlying countryside maps, to cast the hook first. I delineated the people and places both necessary and not for the story line. Some of the inclusions were just there in case they decided to deviate from the story I had planned, which was a fortunate move on my part. I seemed to have gotten a vibe but wasn’t fully aware of how players have a tendency to deviate from the path, intentional or not, so that was unintentionally intuitive on my part.
Another unintentionally intuitive aspect of my burgeoning DM style was my feeling for balance. Gary, and my soon to be new best friend Jeff, were bringing in not new, but characters of fifth level average. This was a task that many would find intimidating, but fortunately I was too ignorant of the game to be intimidated, so I plodded on in my design and populating of the dungeon. I designed at least two levels ahead but not the whole thing in case I needed to make changes to the story line.
So, I added things I thought would be a challenge, allowed for skewing of the path by the players, and mentally allowed leeway of the population of the adventure so it could be adjusted to keep the challenge high without being certain death. The players always had a fighting chance. The first session was a hit with Gary, he went and brought in Jeff and we played through that dungeon campaign for the next three years to its end. They started out at around fifth level but was well into the “epic” levels when all was said and done, though it was first edition and epic level hadn’t yet been coined.
Advice I would give to a new DM is this: Consider the story first. Make the story something grand at the end, but intriguing in the beginning. Be flexible. The story is not a novel, nor is it a game that the DM has to win. The players are not your toys and will quit if they get frustrated. The DM truly wins when the players wipe the sweat of their brows at the end and say, “Wow. that was a hell of a ride!” Logically populate your world. There are things in the real world that would not be fair to meet in an alley and the prudent person would be wise to avoid them, the same goes for your world. If the players are indoctrinated into a world in which everything is perfectly balanced, there will be no fun and no challenge. The risk of death is everywhere and so should it be. Allow yourself wiggle room to adjust the game as needed to maintain fun and storyline. Above all, as a wise literary agent once told me, if you have ten months to write a book, spend nine months researching the subject. Is short, do your homework and be prepared. An underprepared dungeon is the death of the dungeon and maybe the players. At least the death of the fun.