Sunday, July 13, 2014

Sharing the Screen

My face to face D&D group rotates between multiple DMs in the same campaign. We've been doing it for almost three years now. It all started when I moved in next door to Winston. He's the man behind the screen. Winston heard that I played D&D from my wife, and told me that he was reconvening a group of neighborhood folks who used to play. He had been homebrewing a campaign world for the group. He offered us three things: a map of the campaign world "Elmontare" (el-mon-TAR-ee), a minimal description of the setting, and a first adventure to set the tone. He explicitly conceived of this as a framework. From the start the plan was to switch off DMs. Everyone would play, and everyone would have the opportunity to DM. Through our collaboration, and shared adventures, Elmontare would become a living breathing thing. We would build it together.

When he gave the minimal description my heart sank. Owing to some sort of apocalypse past the distant edge of human memory, an advanced, decadent, and evil civilization was destroyed and the region reverted to pristine wilderness. In this wilderness, our people grew from infancy to maturity. We have no name, for we are the only humans of whom we know. We are hunter gatherers who live in relations of social harmony. There is no a currency, and our economy combines stoic independence and sane communal arrangements, with barter around the edges. It is largely matriarchal, being ruled by a queen, advised by a female priesthood (druids) devoted to our sole deity, the All Mother. In short, the setting was about as far from Vancian shenanigans and murder hoboism as you could conceivably get. There's no such thing as money, and the only (human) spell casters are druids. Oy vey.

But our first adventure convinced me that this could work. At the age of 17, those who chose to enter the ranks of the warriors (i.e. adventurers) underwent a secret ritual initiation. After a long day at the sweat lodge, the elders fed us brew laced with potent hallucinogens, and, while we were each suffering our own private spirit visions, we were taken on a wild ride through the air to some wilderness region beyond the edges of our tribal civilization. We awoke on a raft floating down a river, wearing only loin clothes. A set of instructions informed us that we could only return bearing the pelt of a great grizzly bear. So after psychedelic visions we were plopped down with absolutely nothing in the middle of a wilderness hex crawl. It took us a full SEVEN sessions to find and kill the bear. The adventure was very challenging and had the eerie flavor of a primeval wilderness filled with inhuman dangers. It was a blast. I learned a lot about how to do a wilderness adventure from it, but that's a topic for another time.

Noah is the dude with the hat

Noah, the next DM up followed suit. His adventure had us working on loan to another clan during fishing season, providing security for the fishing operation. Once again, a definite wilderness terrain was introduced that we got to know over several sessions. After the group blew it through some poor tactical choices, the fishermen were slaughtered, and we ended up waging a guerrilla war behind enemy lines. The world was developed through the introduction of a clan structure to our tribe, and some delineation of the economic basis of our existence, as well as by the introduction of a well defined wilderness area, and some new humanoid threats.

I was up next, and found myself facing quite a challenge. I doubted that I could pull off the kind of wilderness adventure that they had done so well. And the setting was just not the sort of thing that got my creative juices flowing. I never in a million years would have come up with it. My first apparently bright idea was to take the whole thing in the direction of Imaro. I asked myself why our society had no wizards. Maybe there was a taboo against magic, and a lot superstition about witches. Cults of freaky, demon worshipping witches as villains in a tribal setting seemed like a lot of fun. But from the beginning, I could see that the players didn't like it. Although I thought of myself as acting in good faith, in reality I had done something very different than the second DM. What I had done was introduce elements of paranoia and bigotry into the society, and internal sources of evil. This wasn't building on the frame as Winston had presented it; it was changing the basic premises to make the setting something (different) that I wanted it to be.

So I gave it up and switched gears entirely. What I needed to do was to make the game mine, without introducing something that would stretch or alter the minimal premises of the framework. Winston had shown me on the map where the coast line had extended before the apocalypse submerged half of the continent under water. Ancient evils slumbering under the sea--I could work with that. My solution was to plop down the Shattered Isles from my Wilderlands setting off the coast of Elmontare. They were a set of islands that were once the geographical high points of the evil civilization that was destroyed in the apocalypse. The PCs went wavecrawling and explored the demon haunted ruins of an evil Aztec type ancient civilization. The group has been to the Shattered Isles twice now, the last time diving beneath the waves to explore the Submerged Spire of Sarpedon the Shaper. It's been a big hit. The lesson is that you can always find ways to introduce something that suits your fancy, perhaps by locating it in a unexplored region (across the sea), or in the distant past, or, in my case, both.

Over time, some very nice effects have emerged from alternating DMs. The first thing is that we learn from and inspire one another. I can't tell you how much I've learned by watching Winston DM. The rotation also introduces a nice competitive culture. When I took the PCs under the sea to explore a freaky vivimancer's castle, I laid down a gauntlet. Winston responded by taking us into the heart of the apocalypse, traveling through the strangely altered wilderness, and into the endless dwarven mines that had been ground zero of the radioactive comet strike that ended the previous civilization. Since we're only DMing three months a year, we have loads of time to prepare. And it's fun to sweat it a little bit, like, "Man, what crazy shit am I going to bring to top this?"

There are also certain accidental effects of the arrangement that are worth mentioning. Perhaps the most significant is that adventures don't tend to take a completely open-ended, player driven form. This is because we each have some ownership over the themes we've introduced. When it's my turn, it's just not cool for the players to go after the minotaur priest Malveraux that Winston introduced as part of a brewing threat, even though one of our PCs died on his gore-drenched horns the previous session and we're itching for revenge. As a result, there also tends to be a bit of hard-framing to get things started. That's not to say that there isn't tons of meaningful player choice. If Winston introduces a bear hunt wilderness crawl, or if I induce the PCs to go on a wave crawl by dangling some juicy hooks, after we're off and running it's all maximal open-ended player agency. But there's a certain amount of, "It's my turn; here's what we're doing." This isn't inevitable, but I suspect that there is a natural inertia to the arrangement that will tend in this direction. It's likely that the DMs are going to stake claims to different parts of the world, including different areas and different trajectories of events, and this will necessitate a certain amount of steering at the outset of a session.

Other accidental effects include a sort of episodic feel to the game, which necessarily involves rotating party members, and adventures with different styles and themes. We also play fast and loose (Gygax would hate this!) with the campaign timeline. It's not entirely clear that the adventures are happening in the sequential order that we're playing them, although to make strict sense of player advancement, equipment, and so on, they would have to. No one is keeping track of how many years its been since such and such happened, or what season it ought to be. We often pick up old themes from a (real life) year ago as though only a month of game time had passed. Again, I think you could avoid this if you wanted to, but there is a certain natural tendency for things to go this way. I, for one, don't find it to be a bad thing.The combat round is famously abstract in early D&D. Why not do the same with the campaign timeline?

The last three years have convinced me that sharing the screen is one pretty great way to do things. My advice would be to give it a try if the opportunity presents itself. Don't shy away, even if differing tastes and interests involves figuring out how to fit your style into a setting very far from your default. If you're going to share the screen, you have to be willing to give up a lot of fussy control. But if an obsessively over-preparing, Vance loving, swords and sorcery guy like me can do Elmontare, then anything is possible.



  1. That sounds incredible. Quite a neighborhood you moved into!

    And I love your point about the melee round and the campaign timeline.

  2. It is amazing having a group that is, except for 1 player, within walking distance of one another. I mean what is this, junior high?

  3. Sounds great. Our approach to rotating DM-ship is to play a bit fast and loose with continuity(like comic books do). The advantage is that each DM basically can do whatever he wants without stepping on the other's toes. The disadvantage is that we don't get the joy of building a world together. That said, if each DM has his own setting/area of the map, then he can run it as a true sandbox without stepping on the other DM's toes.