How to DM III – What are we playing?

I’m going to cheat a little bit with this post, but we’ll circle back later on and hopefully make it right!
I’ve called this series How to DM, so we’re going to start by looking at Dungeon Masters – which means we’re playing Dungeons and Dragons, since it’s super popular and a known gateway to playing most of everything else (generally speaking).

So, is saying we’re playing D&D enough? Well, there’s a lot of different flavours and styles and options thrown into there, and it’s not always easy to know what would engage a group of players the most.
So first, let’s talk Session Zero.
Grab everyone together, even in a social media chat. Have everyone talk about what they do want from a game, and what they definitely don’t want.

  • Start with “Are we jumping into a published adventure?” and go from there. That gives a new DM an easier point of reference and avoids choice overload. But maybe you want to tweak it a bit.
  • Will a vanilla fantasy setting work, or are we adding Steampunk elements, or something else? Can we take an adventure like Lost Mines of Phandelvar and plug it into the Eberron game setting easily? (The answer is supposed to be yes, but can involve some legwork.)
    You can also take a look in the Dungeon Master’s Guide for the flavours of fantasy, which I’ve written about previously.
  • Will we ditch the pre-written adventure and do our own thing? Very doable, but maybe find some more guidance online for what to do next. (Most likely I’ll throw something into another post about this soon.)
  • Can everyone agree on what they want from the game? This is important. Super, super important, or you can end up with people bored of the game, or upset when they don’t get their way, and so on.
  • What thing(s) are we completely avoiding? Again, important. Running a spider-themed adventure when a player has a phobia is mean, and they’ll leave. Extrapolate this to adult topics like genocide or abuse and you’re hurting survivors. Don’t do it!

You can find out a lot more about how to run a Session Zero all over the place, including important safety tools you might want to use in your games. Google is your friend here.

Now, let’s assume your group has gone off the deep end, and they want to play something involving heroics like those found in mythic Greece, but in a world of airships and swashbuckling sky pirates, and Cthulhu is involved somehow.
Well, it’s time to get reading!
Decide what rules you’ll need to think about. Take a look at the Theros and Eberron books from Wizards of the Coast, maybe check out some third-party stuff too – Arkadia and this steampunk supplement come to mind, and there’s great Cthulhu stuff available too.
It’s possible that firearms turn up in this setting. There’s stuff about them in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. You’ll also see some rules for madness that fit Cthulhu in there too.
Again, shop around. You can find all kinds of free ideas on blogs that might work for you better than the paid options.

OK, now what if it turns out we can play the game the group wants easier outside of D&D?
Well, that’s up to your group. Sometimes learning new rules is difficult or a chore, and relying on a new idea laid over the old framework is just as good.
But looking at that idea above, you’ve could use Fate and any number of its supplements (which include a Cthulhu version) and build something that worked pretty well.

If I could throw out one piece of advice in this area, it’s to try out different things and different approaches, and different games.
Find what you like about playing games and play that, and be open to trying what other people want to play.

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