DMing with Constitution

I don’t know how many of you remember November, when I tried to line up guest posts while I focused on National Novel Writing Month. It didn’t work out, but I did get one late in the month and now feels like a good time to use it. Today’s guest DM is somebody I’ve known since before I started gaming. He’s the other half of Story Time with Blake and Highcove and the designer of almost every session in our version of D&D Delve Night. While we agree on a lot of the structure of DMing, we differ on the methods by which we go about it, and he’s the only DM I know who runs games using a physical stat:

This is a guest post, your usual DM is tired from A-Z April so I’ll be filling in. I’m the person often referred to on this blog as “my FLGS Owner.” Fun -N- Games Hobby Shoppe; there’s a link up on the navigation bar. Today I’ll be sharing with you a little encouragement on the subject of DMing. But first: a parable.

In his article on the Definition of Charisma your regular DM leverages the meaning of having a zero in each ability score. I remember reading these in the 3rd Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide and really understanding the essence of each ability score for the first time through the meaning of its absence. Let’s take Con. If you have 1 or more Con, you are alive. You can find a real living person with a zero in every other stat; they’re usually on life-support in a hospital. But all the con-zero folks are downstairs in the morgue. End parable.

I recently discovered that I suck an DMing. I’ve been doing it for about 16 years. Longer if you count proctoring play-pretend games as a child before I really knew what role-playing was. I just ran a game in the World Wide Wrestling system, an Apocalypse World Hack. There were ups and downs, but in the end I had to finally accept the fact that I just didn’t have The Stuff™ when it comes to DMing. Some people are suited for it and some people just simply are not.

If you found yourself thinking “Me too” to that last part, this article is for you, personally.

I’m a serial outsider. If I walk into a room and there is a person, place, or thing that everybody clearly likes, I immediately look at it critically. But if there’s a noun everybody clearly dislikes, I look at it sympathetically. Con is that odd man out of the classic ability score array, the unsung hero, the roadie to a 5-man-band. HP and Fort Saves, sometimes one Skill depending on your edition. I promise this is going somewhere. When have you ever seen a PC put their highest roll in Con? Once (that was me.) Con is never the star. But dump it and see how far you get. My point? You have constitution. If you don’t feel confident in your ability to DM with charisma, or intelligence, or wisdom, I’m going to try and convince you that you can always fall back on your old friend constitution. Your con has been there all along, patiently waiting for the moment to shine.

I actually used to think I was a pretty top-tier DM: delusion of the ego. Then after my most recent campaign finished I realized that some sessions had been great and others terrible. What was the difference? There wasn’t one. Certainly nothing I did right or wrong seemed to affect the result. One day a player had a migraine, next week he was struck by profound inspiration and took the session to olympian heights of awesome. Pure Butterfly Effect. I had no control. That was my Creek Moment.

Going back over all tabletop games I had played in and run I realized that the DM never had true control:

  • One time two players who were married IRL got divorced in the middle of a campaign. That will put a damper on things.
  • Another time I was a player in a game run by this blog’s author. I spent several rounds holding back my best attack because I saw the possibility for it to be super cool and cinematically awesome if I just got the right narrative timing with the enemies and allies in the right position. Finally got my shot and rolled a 4. I was inconsolable. Session ruined. This happened 2 months prior to this writing.
  • The worst campaign I ever ran started with very high hopes. Session 4 a conflict broke out between two players. This was a home-brewed game system that lacked mechanics for intra-party violence. Cordiality broke down. There were threats of IRL violence. Some of the players in that game still refuse to speak to each-other.

How are you supposed to run a game through any of that? You can’t. Players might be in a mood before the session starts. Dice might break poorly. The game system might suddenly unexpectedly fail you. You can’t win. No amount of skill or experience can guarantee a successful session -much less a campaign. At first this realization was depressing but then I realized it’s incredibly liberating. If you can’t force success then why should you feel bad about failing to do so?

So you’re primed now. Of course the technical definition of “constitution” is related to bone density, vascular elasticity, white blood-cell count, etc. Obviously DMing with Con does not mean liquefying your players and injecting them into your bloodstream. It’s a metaphor. The way to DM with Con is to sit there in the DM chair. There’s no trick to it, just show up. Find a table full of players that seem like they expect an RPG session to happen and sit at the head of it. Just sit there breathing with your Con score of at least 1.

If that sounds lazy, you’re right. Lazy is good. Lazy is easy. Anybody can pull off lazy. You can pull off lazy.

If that sounds factually inaccurate, you’re also right. There is more to it than just sitting there. You have to prepare, make up stories and/or settings, probably roll some dice or something. There is definitely work involved. It takes strength and dex to roll dice. But we’re not talking about DMing with Strength or Dexterity, we’re talking about DMing with Constitution.

Constitution gives you HP and Fort saves. Sometimes the Endurance skill. Since this is a metaphor, let’s think of these things as social rather than physical. DMing with Con means you have the social HP to withstand expected social damage from embarrassing yourself. Fortitude saves happen when something bad is happening to you, but you don’t have to let it affect you. Endurance means you can perform strenuous activity repeatedly and continuously for long periods. Basically just let whatever happens at the table wash over you like a wave and when the session is over, leave it all on the table. Bad sessions are not your fault. Try to remind yourself that you don’t create the fun, you create the game. Fun can’t happen without the game. Creating fun is hard, creating the game is actually easy.

The core value of DMing with Constitution is to just get out there and do it. Stop wringing your hands or being afraid to embarrass yourself. Embarrassment really just means people seeing who you are when you’d prefer they see a superior illusory version: a delusion of the ego.

Lots of motivational speakers like to tell you stuff like “just get out there and do it.” And I find this logic neither compelling nor logical. If you want to try running an RPG but haven’t yet, you certainly have one or more reasons holding you back. I’m not saying those reasons are bad or wrong. If you intend to DM with Charisma, embarrassing yourself is a terrific thing to be afraid of. DM with Constitution, no problem. Let’s say you’re not confident you can design monsters well or plan a challenge that is both difficult and beatable. If you hope to DM with Intelligence, you’re boned. DM with Con, you’re golden. You can do this. Not because you are special, but because you don’t have to be.

So let’s break it down simply:

DMing with Con is about a realistic grasp of responsibility.

  • Run the game, take responsibility only for making the game itself happen.
  • If the game sucks, it’s at most like 10% your fault. The metaphorical and literal dice just didn’t break your way, no reason to feel bad. Try again next week.
  • You don’t create fun, you create a game wherein fun can happen.

DMing with Con means being tough.

  • Success or Failure is not a choice. It’s just something that happens to you when you try.
  • Failure and embarrassment only hurts as much as you let it.
  • Don’t be a coward.

DMing with Con is easy.

Despite earlier self-deprecation on the subject of my DMing skill, I intend to continue doing so, I actually have a bunch of successes already under my belt.

  • First D&D Campaign I ran was precipitated on breaking the magic item economy by giving the player’s access to every item in the game via random table. Total trash at every turn, not one good DMing decision made throughout. However, the players had a great time and to this day (16 years later) more than one of them occasionally asks if I’ll restart it.
  • First game I ran in 4th edition was a disaster, I tried to run in like it was 3rd edition because I just didn’t understand yet how 4th worked. I should have read the books better but I was just too lazy. But for all its flaws, that campaign ran for several months and ended successfully. It had a narratively satisfying conclusion and gave us some of our favorite D&D stories of all time.
  • The game I just finished had some real stinker sessions where everybody was miserable and I went home and cried myself to sleep in my wife’s arms. That is not an exaggeration. And yet still, plenty of fun had as well. Two of the players were close friends I’d always wanted to DM for and they got to play out their long imagined fantasy wrestling tag team: Bucket & Krump. That could not have happened if I did not run that game.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide, game mastery forums, and advice blogs like this can easily induce the illusion of a huge range of DM quality, as though the leagues of difference between a total noob and a master DM translates directly to player enjoyment. But think about it, does it make sense that a level 20 DM’s game is 10 times as a fun as one run by a level 2? In my experience tabletop fun comes mostly from interpersonal chemistry. Do the players get along well? Want the same things out of the game? Complement each other creatively? If so, all they need is somebody in that chair. If not -and yet they still want to game together- then sit in that chair anyway. You may not give them the game they wanted, but you’ll give them the game they deserve.

After the World Wide Wrestling campaign finished I shared my revelation (about sucking) with the author of this blog, who was one of the players. He told me (angrily) that if he didn’t think the game was worth troubling to play in every week, he would not have done it. Remember that lesson: If you say, “Hey I’m running a D&D game, wanna play in it?” then everybody who says yes is giving you permission (which remember is harder to get than forgiveness) to run the game your way, even if that way is fraught with incompetence. Just let nature take it’s course. If the game sucks, they’ll quit, and all will be right with the world. But if it’s awesome, you’ll be the hero who everyone says how great they were.

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