The Dungeon Master as Problem Solver

A locked door, you say? No problem.

A locked door, you say? No problem.

Do you smell that smell? It’s the smell of excitement in the air for a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. The first wave of products have been released. Many players have waded through the new Players Handbook (mostly to create Bards), and Dungeon Masters (DMs) are sinking their teeth into The Lost Mine of Phandelver and the first major campaign book, Hoard of the Dragon Queen. Players are creating characters with the new rules and ready to take on whatever the DM can throw at them. Which brings us to the age-old struggle of how a DM should best prepare for entertaining a group of players in a new campaign.

Preparing to run a session of a roleplaying game is a complicated endeavor. The DM (or Game Master, if you prefer) is tasked with – at the very least – establishing the foundation for the players to build upon during a few hours of adventuring. Running a roleplaying game can be labeled any number of things including a challenge or an opportunity. Below I discuss a structured method to solve problems, and how those who run games can best solve the problems presented to them before and during gaming sessions. And to do this, I will borrow from a class I am currently teaching on Problem Solving Therapy – and diagnose my current problem of not being able to run a frequently scheduled Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

More Editions, More Problems

Problem Solving Therapy (PST) is a brief psychological intervention that aims to teach basic skills to accurately define a problem, generate possible solutions the problem, create realistic short-term goals in an effort to solve the problem, and review progress toward the solution. The skills learned can be applied to any number of problem areas in one’s life ranging from job stress, relationship issues, and more significant struggles with mental illness. The skills can readily be applied to day-to-day problems such as buying groceries or completing household chores. So there is no reason why one could not apply these skills to the myriad problems that spring up when preparing to run a gaming session such as finding enough players to run a session, redirecting players who are frequently off-topic during a gaming session, and balancing the lethality of combat encounters.

Define the Problem. The first step in this process is to diagnose or define the problem. I am currently considering running a weekly or bi-weekly campaign based on the material in Hoard of the Dragon Queen. As I ponder this undertaking, many anxiety-provoking questions come to my mind including:

  • Where am I going to find players?
  • Do I know the new rules well enough to adequately run the adventures?
  • Do I stick with theater of the mind combat exclusively or use battle maps and miniatures at times?
  • Will I be able to read through and remember enough from the Hoard of the Dragon Queen campaign book in the next few weeks?

The above questions are just a small sample of the numerous anxious thoughts and problems that go through my mind while planning for a new campaign. It would be easy to get lost in the anxious thoughts and simply rehearse them over and over and over again while not taking any action to actually solve the problem. The first step is to choose one problem and start there. In this case, I will tackle the first question posed above – Where am I going to find players? The problem is that while I have the motivation to run a campaign with the new D&D rules, I do not have enough players locally to hold a regularly scheduled gaming session. My current group that started the Lost Mines of Phandelver adventure may meet once every 4-6 weeks, and I would like to play more regularly. I need players to play D&D; the problem is defined. Now how will I get them?

Generate Solutions. The next step in PST is to generate potential solutions; a crucial piece of this process is to freely brainstorm without immediately judging the solutions. Common reactions to potential solutions might be to quickly dismiss them – Oh, that’s stupid. Nah, that’ll never work. Push right on through that initial doubt and list the possible solutions to the problem. Here were some of the options I generated:

  1. Travel 90 minutes to another part of the state near a close friend to determine if other people in that area want to play more often.
  2. Talk to local gaming stores to see if they need a DM to run games.
  3. Settle for only playing one session every 4-6 weeks.
  4. Ask friends if they could attend an online session during a weeknight to avoid weekend scheduling complications.
  5. Gauge interest in an online campaign with acquaintances from Twitter.

The brainstorming process can be done individually or one could accept feedback from peers, friends, and other sources. One interesting method for group problem-solving is to have each member write possible solutions on a piece of paper and then place all those pieces in a container. The solutions are read aloud and the ideas are not tied to one person, so this system (in theory) allows everyone in the decision-making process to be more free with their potential solutions.

Explore Benefits and Consequences. The next step in the problem-solving process is to list the possible benefits and consequences of each solution generated.  Staying with the solutions listed above, my review of the possible benefits and consequences would look like this:

  1. Would allow me to play face-to-face with a good friend; might meet new players and create some friendships. Driving 90 minutes in an effort to play more frequently is not realistic; it would be expensive with gas and likely eating bad fast food along the way.
  2. Would not have to worry about hosting games, which would relieve some preparation stress; would open the door to meeting new players and possible friendships. The nearest comic book store in town does not cater to gamers, and does not have space to run games. The nearest gaming superstore is about 30 minutes away and is always mobbed; it would be tough to organize that.
  3. Could strive to accept the fact that playing D&D more frequently is not realistic; I could spend the time trying to play more often on something more productive. With the new edition released, I’m really motivated to play more D&D, so I would feel like I’m missing out on a good deal of enjoyment.
  4. Could potentially increase the frequency of sessions with the gaming group already constructed; would avoid the hassle of getting a new group of players comfortable with each other. It’s unlikely the players who struggle to find time to play on weekends because of family and work commitments will have free time during weeknights; the sessions would likely be perhaps only 2-3 hours long; it’s probably unlikely that people to commit to gaming on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.
  5. Opens up the pool of potential players substantially; would force me to get comfortable with running a game online, which is a skill I should develop. It may be complicated to organize players from different time zones; technology issues could get in the way; perhaps players who do not know each other will get into interpersonal conflicts.

It is one thing to have all of these thoughts and ideas floating around between the ears, but it is more effective to externalize the process by writing down the pros and cons in an organized manner. From this point, one has all the information they need to settle on a course of action.

Implement the Solution. After weighing the potential benefits and consequences of each solution, the next step is to decide on one of the solutions and move forward to implement the plan. By choosing one solution to focus on, it eliminates the noise created by the multitude of options that may be possible. It also allows the problem solver to effectively evaluate how effective the one solution is at managing the problem. If one were to attempt multiple solutions at once, then it may be difficult to parse what was helpful and how – and create more anxiety about the process.

In my case, I have decided to abandon the hopes of playing more often in person. With my schedule – and the schedules of the folks I normally play with – continuing to attempt to structure a semi-regular game more often than once per month is a license to beat my head against a wall again and again. As a result, I am willing to give the online option a try to see if I can make it work. My plan is to inquire if any of my local gaming group is interested in playing online during the week, and to reach out to people I have interacted with on Twitter over the years to determine if there is interest there to join a campaign.

Evaluate the Solution. The final step to problem solving is to evaluation the solution; in other words – did it work? Once again, one could list the outcome of the solution in terms of benefits and consequences, and those can be compared to the expected benefits and consequences that were generated prior to the solution being implemented. Sometimes the first solution will work, but often it may take numerous rounds of problem solving as the first solution does not reach the desired outcome. At this point, repeat the process described above and start implement one of the other potential solutions.

I will give myself the next couple of months to implement the online gaming solution and then evaluate how effective it has been. Wish me luck!

Problem-Solving Summary

Life presents everyone with numerous problems that require solving. An efficient system to solve problems is to follow the steps discussed above in the following order:

  1. Define the problem
  2. Generate solutions
  3. Explore benefits and consequence of each possible solution
  4. Implement a solution
  5. Evaluate the solution

A Dungeon Master can use this system to solve any number of problems while preparing or running her game. Perhaps there is a problematic player that is dominating the gaming sessions, or maybe roleplaying scenes during sessions are feeling too bland. The DM could use the problem-solving system above to diagnosis the problem, generate solutions, and implement a plan to change the course of her gaming sessions going forward. The PST approach can be applied to any area in life – so why not running roleplaying games!

Later in the week, I will post some additional PST strategies that can be applied to running gaming sessions. Stay tuned.










About The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.
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2 Responses to The Dungeon Master as Problem Solver

  1. Pingback: Externalize, Simplify, Visualize | The Id DM

  2. Pingback: Simple Online Gaming for Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons | The Id DM

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