We’d spent hours the fortnight prior discussing, rolling, and pouring over our character sheets. That was how I was introduced to D&D: a night spent creating groups called the Nigerian Scam Fam, discussions about the lack of a dedicated healer, the initial crafting of backstories, and the pondering of abilities.
What I didn’t do was spend some time with the DM, finding out the way they like to run campaigns, their particular idiosyncrasies. And Christ how I wished I did — because what nobody told me was just how much you need to rely on the DM’s good graces.
We’re standing in a room. It’s a kitchen on the first floor of a three-storey mansion, the centrepiece of a campaign that I’d later discover was called the Mad Manor of Astabar. Everything seemed fairly straightforward: the party was hired to break into the mansion, retrieve a magical artifact, and bugger off.
We’d get 100 gold pieces for our efforts; seemed simple enough.
Until we came across a simple kitchen.
There was nothing particularly fancy about the kitchen. It had a stove, some bench tops, implements in draws, the usual stuff you’d expect. And there was also a pantry, the innards of which were so dark that even Darkvision (a racial ability that does what it says) couldn’t penetrate it.
In hindsight, a pantry that you can’t see into is a bit of a red flag. But we’re first-time adventurers! You don’t turn down an opportunity to hunt for loot. So the fearless, frontline warrior half-orc wandered in.
And then the DM told us all to piss off to the balcony outside. Not our in-game characters, but ourselves. He was going to have a chat with the half-orc.
Who proceeded to have a massive swing at the nearby rogue when everyone returned to the D&D table.
I didn’t discover until the end of the night that the doppleganger, who had assumed the form of our unassuming half-orc — and left him unconscious in the pantry in the process — was an optional part of the campaign. It was there if our DM decided things were progressing too smoothly, which seemed reasonable.
Everything had gone more or less perfectly up until that point. A bright blue ghost appeared and was summarily dismissed thanks to some exceptional rolls. A few people turned red, yellow and blue thanks to some magical apples, and we got rewarded for what might have been the simplest chess puzzle I’ve ever seen.
Everything was fine. Until the doppleganger took a swing at our wizard, missed completely, and socked the cleric — our only healer — six feet under.
“Uh … can I heal myself,” our cleric asked cautiously.
And that’s where you need to rely on the benevolence of a good DM.
Much like a good storyteller, their plan is to guide characters through the adventure in a fashion that’s enjoyable for everyone. The experience isn’t meant to be a walkover — there should always be a very real, very present fear of death, even if the characters are attuned to ignore that fact.
As part of our backstories, our DM introduced a dwarven wizard NPC who served as a companion — if a brutish, unwelcome one — on our adventures. He’s also the group’s employer. And, thanks to the DM, he’s also the closest we have to a battlemage.
After all, some of the group are playing D&D for the first time. Others are playing 5th Edition for the first time; others only have the briefest of experience with D&D at all.
The DM is as much our ally as he is the instigator of traps and tricks. He’s the bartender at the innkeep, the one who greases the wheels of adventure with an appropriate backhand when necessary.
I can almost see it as the equivalent of being a teacher. You think about the campaign days beforehand, reading up on the surroundings, areas you might want to tweak, possible hypotheticals, considering what kind of questions and actions each of the characters want to take.
What if all the characters struggle in this room — what can you tailor from here on in? And what does the environment around them look like? What details are missing from the campaign? What details would be useful as a red herring? What things would you like to add?
This was only my second experience with D&D proper, outside of the confines of Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights and so on. And while those games use D&D as a foundation, the developers are the DM. They’re a force you can’t see, an entity you can’t physically or visually engage with as the campaign unfolds. You interact more with individual objects, characters and monsters in the world, but you don’t have a living, breathing entity in front of you that gets amused, perplexed, frustrated or visibly unlucky.
And maybe that’s why the DM should always be present from the first night. Their unspoken, unwritten character has just as much influence and force on the in-game world as anything else. It’s an element video games even today struggle to emulate; the narrator from The Stanley Parable and the AI director in Left 4 Dead are the only things that have come close.
Thank God for the DM. And I mean God — because without their benevolence, our cleric would have bled out on that kitchen floor.
This is the second story in an ongoing series about Alex’s experience playing Dungeons & Dragons for the first time. You can read the rest of the series here.