You know, before I started DMing Curse of Strahd, I was really nervous. That doesn’t quite cover it. I was terrified. I was going in blind to a group I’d never met, never played with, with a campaign I had only skimmed, off of the legacy of people like Matt Mercer and Chris Perkins, who are masters of storytelling, and who are popular enough in the D&D world now that most people assume their groups will look something, even if only a little, like the ones they see online.
Fast forward to the present, where we’re ten sessions in and I feel like it’s old hat. I mean, I’m by no means comfortable, and I still get fluttery nerves before we start, meaning I need at least one beer to calm me down and get me going, but I feel like I could even pull a fairly decent one-shot out of a hat and not do too badly. It’s a nice feeling.
Other than that, there’s not a whole lot to say on my end of the session. My players are getting better and more creative, the story is picking up and getting really creepy, and I’ve figured out some good resources to use.
Let’s look at Trello. I thought I would use it all the time for planning, and would even have it open at the table to reference NPCs and locations. I don’t do that. I hardly use it at all, to be honest, except to check on the players’ board.
See, I gave my players a board to use as well, to track group funds and give them a place to read the table rules. That’s all I thought they’d use it for, but it’s been astonishing how useful it’s become.
Not only do they track the campaign day and group items, they also track quests – completed, in-progress, and dropped – and keep track of NPCs they’ve met and locations they’ve visited or need to visit. One player also posts his notes post-session every week, which is handy for the others and me. It’s fascinating to see what they’ve focused in on and what they’ve missed or gotten wrong.
(I correct very few things, such as names or spelling, but most other mistakes I let stay, because that’s what the players think, and it makes the game far more interesting to let those play out.)
As for myself, my notes tend to be typed up and then written on in my binder. I’m using the Guide to Curse of Strahd from DMs Guild, and it’s been a life-saver. I feel like I could get away with not using it now, but in the beginning, it was absolutely vital for me to make sense of the intended flow of the story.
Usually, I read through both the section in the campaign book and the notes from the Guide and then plot a simple course of action, laying out key dialogues and all the clues the players will receive. Each session, I mark off what they’ve done and keep what they still have to do, adding notes as needed. I can’t do speeches and such off the cuff, so I type those up as well. I’m much better at writing different voices than speaking them, so I write up a few lines of dialogue for each major NPC and practice them in the accent I want.
Since I’m no voice-actor, I use voices I’ve heard before that are memorable and easy caricatures. Nuances aren’t really my strong suit.
For instance, recently my players encountered an older noblewoman with a prickly personality, and I used Jim Dale’s Professor McGonagall from the Harry Potter audiobooks as a reference. She’s got a very unique voice, and even if I didn’t mimic it accurately, it was certainly different enough from my other voices.
I try to do that for most NPCs – have a unique voice – but I’m finding that I’m trying a bit too hard in that direction. It’s more important to remember the goal and desire of the NPC than how they sounded or even their manner of speaking. For the players, the role of the NPC is more important.
Now the big question – do I still enjoy DMing? I can say with complete honesty that yes, I do still love it. And I still prefer it to playing. I like the planning beforehand, the control, and being able to take a back seat to the action in most cases when the players are interacting amongst themselves.
In fact, I’m planning a special Halloween one-shot for my group as well, as a kind of break and also to let them stretch their wings as players and experience other styles of games.
The life of a DM never ends, and it’s wonderful.