When beginning as a hospice nurse, I read Holding Space by Heather Plett. My experience in hospice care exposed me to her work, and I wrote about it here. I hope you enjoy these Eight tips from Holding Space, a blog initially written by Heather Plett, in regards to what she learned while watching her mother’s hospice nurse. I believe that a good dungeon master uses the same techniques in playing games and telling stories around the table.
1 – Give players permission to trust their own intuition
New players sometimes ask “what do I do now?” and the dungeon master smiles returning the question, “what do you want to do?” Players can freeze haven been given this much power, and often need the DM to continue gently asking great questions that prompt the player to act. It can be tempting to fill the space with words, DM, but if you continue to plow through the game to avoid awkward pauses, you will miss out on the player’s insight. Make room for the players to generate their own intuitive thoughts in the story, and that means, in the beginning, they will be unsure. When they stare at you blankly, give them one detail about the scene to evoke their imagination and then ask them a great question.
2 – Give players only as much information as they can handle
This is great advice specifically for younger players, but applicable for adults as well. Most of the times, we can handle only 3 details about any scene. Since D&D is collaborative storytelling game of imagination, the DM is responsible for describing the truth about the world in which the players act. So, it’s up to the DM to hand the information to the players. In my games, I strongly encourage players to ask great questions. However, at the end of the day, many descriptions are missed because our brain only identifies information that we are used to seeing. Otherwise, it files it away in “Miscellaneous Dark Closet of Unknown Information” and it gets lost. So, it’s important, especially during high pressure times in the game, to hand the players simple details of information that they can latch onto in order to act in the story.
3 – Don’t take their power away
Wow! This is a highlight for Dungeons and Dragons. The entire game is played because player agency is a factor in the process. The dungeon master describes the situation, and the players take in the detail, and then act. After the actions are complete, the dungeon master describes the outcome. Without the players having the autonomy to act on their own accord, the dungeon master would just be playing by themselves, controlling the minion players to do what they desire.
4 – Keep your own ego out of it
Hey you, yes, you my friend! Would you like to mature into an adult that understands you can work hard on a project, have others reconstruct it to something entirely different that what you envisioned, all the while keeping your ego from getting it’s feelings hurt? Would you like to do some serious ego work and ascend the limiting belief that you ARE your work? You should become a dungeon master! Seriously, though, if your ego is constantly a second dungeon master at the table, you will always defer to caring for it, rather than your players. Your ego wants validation and attention all the while, you have actually people at the table playing this game with you. Not your ego. No one cares about your egos need for self inflation, so it’s ok to practice the disciple of ego-removal and give it a time out while you play. Because, seriously, this is the way to maturity. Become a dungeon master and keep your ego out of it. Players success and failures are not the result of your gaming or storytelling. Look at number 3, they have agency, unless you have hoarded all of it on your side of the table to protect your ego. See how this all connects? Please stop staring at your ego in a mirror after every game wondering if YOU did a good job. They wouldn’t come back if you were terrible. Let that be enough and quit feeding your ego attention. Time to grow!
5 – Help them feel safe enough to fail
An ego-drive DM will keep their players from experiencing failure. They are scared of people leaving if they lose the game. Most of the time, failure in D&D is not death or a TPK, but rather benign examples in the game (often tied to the players own ego). Examples include
- caring for animals
- negotiating with a noble
- resisting a saving throw
- being able to bend the rules for the sake of a good backstory
Please, DM, hear me, if you do not allow for failure, you will not allow for success. You will be the own cause of bottlenecking your campaign into a series of safe, comfortable sessions with no risk involved. Your game will stagnant and your players become bored.
6 – Give guidance through humility and thoughtfulness
I think that in response to the “tough love” dungeon master style of the older editions, some 5th edition DMs take their hands off the wheel and with enormous amounts of kindness tell the players they can do anything they want. While generous on the surface, and most likely with good intention, the DM plays to guide the players in the right direction. As a DM, you have already prepared a great adventure! While not taking away HOW the players do it, you are still there to show them why they NEED to save the world. Guide them through friendly NPCs, bonds to the player’s backstories and voices from the gods. If that doesn’t work, have a player meeting after the game and ask a great question.
- Where do you see this adventure going?
Since you began with listening, they will most likely listen to you when you say, “ok, I have this adventure prepared involving giants, not dragons, and I’m wondering how you can direct your actions towards this plot?” Allow your players to accommodate what you have planned, in the same way you accommodate their backstories and preparation.
7 – Create a container for complex emotions
In many games you may run, the only emotion is joy. People gather together to roll dice and have fun. And 90% of the time, good times will be had. But life happens. Oftentimes, we bring our pain, sadness, anger and worry to the table and take it out on NPCS, plotlines, or even other players, and of course, the DM. I tend to expect people to behave like the complex emotional and dynamically thoughtful individuals that they are, and while most of the time, they leave their baggage at the door, it can easily sneak up at the table. When that happens, let it. You don’t have to fix any emotional outburst, change the game, or break up the party. Most of the time, emotion simply needs acknowledged and validated without any decisions made. After the outburst, they will thank you for just letting them vent, and may even feel embarrassed. My point is that if you are doing your table right, people will eventually feel comfortable enough to express complex emotions. After the emotions is expressed, the game can move on with everyone more solidly connected and grateful to play.
8 – Allow them to make different decisions than you would
Call this the bedrock of great game mastering. That’s it. As a worldbuilder, game designing, NPC voice, villain actor, and magic item granter, you most certainly have on the tip of your tongue, the answer. Remember to provide challenges, invitations, but not solutions. The players arrive to the table because they want to solve the puzzle, convince the lady, defeat the villain. While you can provide guidance (see number 4), you must allow the players to make different decisions. Together with your storytelling and their storytelling, you will craft together a fun game and dynamic tale that will keep your spirits alive through life itself.