So many people have had their interest in D&D destroyed by bad DMs. If you want to be a DM, or are wondering if you’re doing a good job, give this episode a listen! Greg walks through what makes a good DM, his own DM best practices, and some common pitfalls that can make your session less than critical.

Welcome to Roll Mates!

Greg: Welcome to Roll Mates, the podcast where I teach my wife and you about Dungeons and Dragons. I’m Greg.  

Allie: And I’m Allie, welcome to our very first ever episode. 

Greg: Number one! 

Allie: Number one! 

Greg: This is awesome!

Allie: This is so cool. So in this episode, we are just going to kind of talk about:

  • what you can expect from this podcast series
  • some trigger warnings maybe for what we’re going to talk about
  • what we might mention
  • shat we’re interested in, like what we’re excited to talk about together
  • and maybe our history a little bit, with D&D, and why we like it, and why we decided to start this podcast. Right? 

Greg: Oh, so this is like a Session Zero, for real. 

Allie: What is that?

What is a Session Zero?

Greg: Well, you have the DM, right? And the players. 

Allie: Dungeon 

Greg: Master.

Allie: Yeah, 

Greg: DM for Dungeon Master. You could just pick up the books and make your characters and all that stuff and get started. But over time, it’s become a practice to run a Session 0, which may or may not have actual play involved. It’s when the dungeon master and the players get together and it’s where the dungeon master basically sets the tone for the campaign that he or she or they are going to run. 

Allie: Cool. That’s exactly what this is. Sets the tone.

Greg: That’s important because it makes it clear what everyone’s getting into. And a lot of the things that you listed are things that they go over because not everyone gets into D and D for the same reason.

Allie: Yeah. That’s so cool. So it’s kind of like if somebody is new to D and D the session zero is a good chance for them to ask questions and figure out exactly what they need to know in order to play and actually have a good time and be successful at it. 

Greg: Yeah, exactly. A good party and a good DM help the new players as they go, because it is easier to get into the game or learn the game while you’re playing, instead of just getting bombarded with all this information. But everyone, when they approach session zero, whether they’re new players or experienced players, they’re all on the same playing field coming in because they don’t really know what the campaign is about. They don’t know what kind of adventure they’re going to have. They don’t know the DM’s style. Of course, if they’ve played with the DM before then they might be familiar, but you never know if the DM wants to change things up and stuff like that. And so that’s the DM’s chance to let them know all that information.

So typically, everyone gets together. It’s not just about the game itself, but that’s where they decide logistics: how often they’re going to meet, who’s going to bring food, who’s going to host or if they’re going to meet at a game shop or something like that. They discuss trigger warnings because some DMs might have children die in their game and some people are just not into that.

Some DMs- there could be visceral descriptions of violence-

Allie: Nasty stuff-

Greg: -Yeah, yeah. Nasty stuff, as you say. 

Allie: I don’t like nasty stuff-  (laughs) 

Greg: -And all that falls under the sun. I would say most D and D players and DMs don’t. Want to take their games to the extreme in terms of content. But there are some  who do that and it’s best to just make that known first.

What you can expect from this podcast

Allie: First let’s just talk about like what to expect. What are we going to talk about? What can people expect from this series? In the car the other day, we just happened to devolve into this conversation about Dungeons and Dragons. I don’t know-

Greg: -As we do- 

Allie: -Yeah, we do frequently. I don’t know what started it this time, but- 

Greg: -uh, I think it was-

Allie: -we were talking about charisma. 

Greg: Yeah. Intelligence, charisma and wisdom. 

Allie: We were like listening to a whole different podcast. We started talking about that and it was like this 30 minute long conversation where you were explaining to me. The mechanics of the game, which I find really fun. I like learning from you about the game. I don’t really like playing Dungeons and Dragons. It’s just not for me. It’s not my bag, but I think on an intellectual level of like talking about the way the game works and the way that you can think about the different components, I find really interesting.

And so we were like- which I feel like a lot of people that’s how a podcast gets started, right? People are having a conversation. They’re think, “I bet other people would find this interesting.” So I thought it would be really cool and we thought it would be really cool and we should record this and put it out there because I’m sure there are other people who are interested in this facet of the game.

Right. But also maybe beginners. I still think of myself as a beginner because I haven’t I’ve played what, twice with you? 

Greg: Yes. 

Allie: And on two different occasions. And they were basically one shots. 

Greg: Well, the first  time you made it to the character creation. 

Allie: I got frustrated or bored or I don’t know- 

Greg: I think frustrated.

Allie: Yeah.

We thought there would be other people who would be interested in learning from somebody like you, who you are an experienced dungeon master. How many times do you think you’ve DM’d games? How many sessions under your belt? A lot. 

Greg’s experience with DnD

Greg: Oh yeah, a lot. 

Allie: You played with friends since you were in like high school, right? You would play with friends. Um, so like, I would say 15 years you’ve been playing on and off. 

Greg: Um, 50? 

Allie: Games? 50 sessions. And then, you teach Dungeons and Dragons to a degree. So explain what, what, how that works and how you got into that. 

Greg: My experience with D&D didn’t even start with D&D, it was a star Wars version of a 20 sided dice game. Basically my friends pitched it as D&D but Star Wars. And that’s basically what it was. You had the classes and the races, butof course, Star Wars has trillions more races.

But that’s what got me in. We played two separate campaigns. One of them, we were all paranoid about each other, which is the worst thing a party you can be- 

Allie: -Paranoid, like mistrusted each other?

Greg: Exactly. Our characters all had secret pasts. And we just didn’t trust each other, unless two of the party members already knew each other. We came together throughout the course of the campaign, but it did end with some frustrations. Then the second time, it was a Sith campaign. So of course, we’re backstabbing each other and writing secret messages to the DM.

Allie: Yeah, full disclosure: that’s typically not the way that you’re supposed to play D&D. You’re supposed to play in a collaborative way with other people. 

Greg: Yes, typically. That’s where a session zero is very important. 

Allie: Yeah. No one is trying to win here. You’re not trying to win over the other people. You’re just trying to get through the story and solve problems.

Greg: From there, I discovered a Game of Thrones RPG, role-playing game. I ran that for a time and it was just a problem because this is pre-COVID. As a group we’re spread out across the United States. So the- 

Allie: -Like your college friends? 

Greg: Yeah. The technological infrastructure wasn’t really there, so it kind of fell apart.

But when I really started DMing was at the school. My friend over there… he wanted to start a D&D club at the school. And now it’s become- 

Allie: -So you’re a teacher-

Greg: -Yes. 

Allie: I don’t think we said that you teach. You used to co-teach at the time. Was it fifth graders? Was it fourth grade at the time? 

At the 

Greg: time, it was fourth grade.

Allie: Okay. 

Greg: Yes. 

Allie: So one of your other teacher friends- 

Greg: -Yeah, he was in the upper grades. He, I, and another started the D&D club and then another teacher joined in and some upper school kids joined in. And that  (laughs)  

Allie: It was wildly successful. 

Greg: Yeah, it was. It was successful in some ways and crazy and others.

It was successful in that it generated a lot of interests amongst the kids. It changed the kids because of course with Dungeons and Dragons, you know, it’s a nerdy game for nerdy people. And not just nerdy people. It’s a game for everyone. If they know what they’re getting into; because like I said, people approach the game for different reasons.

And at the end of the day, it’s a game. People like games. 

Allie: But it’s a very immersive game. If you look at someone and say, “Oh, they’re a nerd,” typically that’s a person who has become very passionate about a specific thing, right? And usually it’s like pop culture, media sort of stuff.

That’s what we think of: like a Star Wars or Harry Potter nerd or whatever. But I feel like D&D is good for that nerdy type of person because they understand what it means to completely immerse yourself in all of the details.

Greg: Right and nerds come in all shapes and sizes. But even with pop culture nerds, they can fall under a whole umbrella, of course, and D&D is the fantasy genre. I’d argue that the most popular genres tend to be, in no particular order: fantasy, romance, horror, and crime or mystery. I think because they have tropes that everyone is familiar with. Everyone is familiar with the boogeyman, or vampires, for better or for worse. Everyone’s familiar with Dungeons and Dragons. 

Allie: What’s cool  about D&D too is that you could take all those things that you just said and put them in a D&D campaign. You can have horror D&D campaigns. You have, um, what was the other stuff you said?  (Laughs) 

Greg: You have in the game. You could run a game of intrigued or-

Allie: -Crime, that was the other one. 

Greg: Right, you could have something like an urban fantasy, you could have high fantasy or epic fantasy where it’s like-

Allie: -Lord of The Rings style.

Greg: Yeah. But to the nth degree for super nerds. The great thing with D&D is that it attracts all these people whose approach to fantasy and role play come from many different angles. It allows for many different ways of expressing oneself. So for the kids, this was a great outlet for them to pursue that expression.

But even through that pursuit, they became more assertive and more confident and not afraid to just be themselves kind of thing. When we all sit down at a table, like you said, it’s not a competitive thing. That is one thing about D&D, is if you’re coming at it from a competitive angle-

Allie:  -You’re going to ruin it for everybody and yourself. 

Greg: Yeah, exactly. And that’s the most important thing. Well, not the most important… Ruining it for everyone is the most important, but you will ruin it for yourself because you are creating unrealistic expectations. 

Allie: And school is so competitive these days as it is.

I’m sure it was nice for them at the end of the day to sit down and do something completely creative where, while there are rules, it’s not as rigid a game like sports are. If you go afterschool and play sports, you’re kind of going to a drill sergeant basically and getting tortured. So you’re sitting down and playing a game where there are rules, but you can kind of do whatever you want. That must be super freeing for those kids. 

Greg: Yeah and interesting because there are rules but the books continue to state that they’re not set in stone.

The DM can take the rules and insert their own creative freedom. If they decide a rule isn’t working for either their style or for the game, or if they’re running a pre-made campaign module and they decide that a section or a story point of the campaign isn’t really working, they don’t have to run it as is.

That is very freeing but it also sets up an interesting social dynamic because you come into the game and you have many different kinds of players. You have some players who are really shy and don’t. They don’t want to step on people’s toes. They don’t want to look like they don’t know what they’re doing. They don’t want-

Allie: -like afraid of role-playing or looking silly.

Greg: Yeah. They might be afraid of roleplaying, looking silly. Then you’ll have other players who want to be the star of the show or be the leader of the party or they want to show off that their character is so powerful in combat because on paper they- 

Allie: -I mean, we have adult friends who do that.

Greg: Oh yeah, it’s everywhere. There are merits, but it’s like in acting where… By the way, I want to just say this podcast isn’t just for people who want to play D&D, but it’s for people who want to get better at improv or who want to design their own games.

People who want to see social dynamics of groups of strangers or groups of friends and how the roleplaying changes that. Because what you are in real life might be different in the game, especially if you’re playing different from yourself.

The format of the show

Allie: Yeah, we’re going to talk about all of those things. We haven’t really talked fully about like the format of the show, but basically, I have a whole list of questions about specific facets of the game or general facets of the game. And every episode, I’m just going to start by asking Greg a question like, “What are things people should know about role-playing?” or like dispelling that fear, that like discomfort with role-playing and like “What makes a good DM versus a bad DM?” 

I know in at least one of the games that I played with you, we had a moment where you set up an environment and we just were kind of like, “Okay, I guess we’ll just sit down.”

How do you get past those moments where your players are just- 

Greg: don’t know-  (laughs) 

Allie: -Just don’t know at all what to do. There’s so many concepts and things to talk about that we talk about on our own. We end up talking about going into all of these kind of psychological and philosophical topics about how people play, how people play games, how people think about problem solving, and all of these deeper kind of concepts.

I’m really interested in learning about all of those sub level things. I’m really interested in sociology and psychology and why people are the way that they are and why different people approach different things the way that they do. I think it would be so cool to have a study about what you can learn from someone based on the way that they played Dungeons and Dragons.

What can you learn about somebodies inner-self based on the class they pick, the race they pick, the attributes they choose, how they move through the game, how they collaborate with other people. You have to think that it’s informative in some way.

So it’s almost like a giant inkblot test. What do they see when they look into this world of possibility and they can reinvent themselves however they want. I’m interested in all of that sort of stuff. I feel that even though you know a lot about the game, in our conversations that we’ve had in the past I feel like you kind of dig up concepts or ideas that you’d never really thought of before, prior to talking it through. So what kind of things are you interested in digging deeper into and learning more about? 

Greg: There’s so many.  (laughs) 

What Greg wants to explore

I like exploring the connections between world-building and how players process and interact with the dungeon master’s world and, in some ways, the player’s own world building. Because they’re creating not only the story, but they’re creating their own character.

And even if they just create  a bare bones character that has no backstory, over time, that backstory could develop through the course of the game. Some players might come in with a heavy backstory, which both have their merits and have their drawbacks. But where they thought their character was going to go might not be where they end up. I’m really interested in the aspects of, of world building. As a creative person, that’s what I liked. That’s why I DM more than I play. I love playing because then I can be creative in my problem solving.

Allie: This is creativity in a different way. 

Greg: Yeah, exactly. On the DM side, you think, “how can you be creative at creating problems?” On the player side, you think, “how can you be creative at solving problems?” I do like the creative side of D&D. Yeah. I also like the psychological side in the sense of how I can challenge players or how I can challenge other people’s  perceptions of the game or of what they know. At the end of the day, you are playing a story and it can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. But to get players to keep coming back, you want to hit the hallmarks of great stories. You want it to be surprising. You want it to have some kind of message or moral argument or something.

You want to put those players into the shoes of those who have to make the decisions. That’s always a fascinating thing. When you get to know your players over time, then you know what buttons to push and how to challenge them. I’m, I’m also very curious about the mechanical interactions with the flavor of the game and how the mechanics weaves with the story. So, you have a charisma score, but what does that mean for your character? What does that signify or not signify? You have hit points. I know to some of you this might be gobbledegook.. What do those hip points actually represent because people have their own conceptions from video games as to what hit points are. There’s a difference between D&D and a video game, there’s the theater of the mind and wrapping your head around a conceptual thing versus watching it unfold on screen.

Allie: All the things you’re talking about…. It’s like all of these specific rules can be interpreted differently. This means that, it doesn’t mean that, or if you decide to be this class or this race, these are your limitations on your character, you have certain limitations, you have certain skills or bonuses or whatever.

There’s a shape that you’re in and you can play within that shape. And it’s really interesting to me how that shape, how you can be flexible, I guess, with that shape. They say you need to know the rules before you can break them, right? You need to master them before you can break them.

With D&D it’s really interesting how all of these designed pieces come together. Like how you use dice and what that means for what you can and cannot do in a game. If you roll a “1” you’re very limited with what you can and can’t do next. But you can be super creative about what happens next, you know what I mean? Or the DM can at least like, be creative. I’ve seen you take pity on people that roll really low and you think “I’m not going to have this thing kill the entire party because reasonably that’s what would happen. So I’m going to be creative and try and figure out a way for them to get out of this.”

Even though by the rules of the game, they should all be dead. That’s really fascinating to me.  (Laughs) 

Greg: Wizards of the Coast, which publish Dungeon and Dragons and Magic, the Gathering. They really make an effort to say that these are not rules that are set in stone. They are more “guidelines.” If the player rolls a 1, you don’t have to make up a catastrophic failure. You can make a failure that could potentially lead to another success, you know? Or if they roll a 20… By the definition of the rules, they should be successful, but that doesn’t mean-

Allie: -They win the entire encounter. 

Greg: Right they don’t have to completely succeed, whatever it is they’re trying to achieve. There is a spectrum of success to failure because life isn’t just, “Oh yeah, I completely succeeded in starting up my business and it’s doing really well.”

Milestones.

Exactly. So it is very interpretive on both sides. 

Some trigger warnings for the show

Allie: Yeah. So before we wrap up, we’ll briefly touch on trigger warnings. We will probably curse, but what we’ll do is put advisory warnings at the beginning of each episode, that there’s strong language in that episode.

Just in case we have young folk who would like to listen, we’ll have that advisory up there. I don’t think we’re going to get into any sensitive subject matter or, you know, intense anything really intense. If we do for some reason, we will put an advisory warning at the beginning of the episode and in the episode description.

But I think at the most, you can expect to some cuss words. 

Greg: think, I don’t think we’ll get too deep into the sensitive. Only if there’s some education involved.

Allie: Cause we might have an episode about, “should you or should you not have really sensitive material in your campaign?”

Greg: Right, because this is educational and this is a conversation. These do crop up at tables and some tables struggle with these things. A player or a dungeon master might try to be edgy or something like that and they might not know how to… It’s very easy to write this stuff down and plan it out.

But as I’ve discovered over the years, things do not go as planned and it could make or break a table. Sensitive subjects will be addressed, but I don’t think we’re going to get in the nitty gritty.  

Allie: We’re not going to beat it over the head and I’ll make sure to let you guys know what’s coming and when. 

I think that wraps up our session zero. I feel prepared. Do you feel prepared?

 (pause) 

Greg: Yeah!

Allie: Good. Cool. Alrighty. We’ll copy things off there and we’ll see you in the next session. 

Greg: Yes. Session one. Where we actually play? 

Allie: No, no, no. We’re not going to play. 

Greg: Oh, we’re not playing in this podcast. 

Allie: No, we’re not playing in this podcast. 

Greg: That’s what you can expect. 

Allie: Yeah. Nope. No actual playing just lots and lots of talking.

Greg: Yeah. 

Allie: Okay. Bye! 

Greg: Bye!