READ THE SECOND PART OF THE INTERVIEW -> HERE
Today we’re trying to step into a Game Master’s shoes. I’ll ask Diona, an experienced GM, The Mistress of the Props, with millions of creative ideas per minute, how this profession works, and what’s the fun in making a bunch of (oftentimes) strangers squee-ing and bouncing. How does being a GM relate to being a leader? Why Diona purrs? And how playing DnD can slow the aging process? Dive into the lecture and find it all out!
Kharie: Before we get to the serious stuff – let’s have some DnD small talk! Could you strip away what is your favourite DnD race, what’s your character alignment of choice, and what was the name of the favourite character you’ve ever played? If, of course, DnD is your cup of tea – I just assumed so but maybe you have other fav systems?
Diona: DnD is definitely my cup of tea (and I do like my tea!). I do have a favourite race: tabaxi! But I am a cat person, and as a GM I can rule that my tabaxi purr. I do not really like alignments, because I think it is a bit constricting for characters. I like to put them in situations that challenge their beliefs and alignments. I do not have a favorite character that I ever played, but I do have a favorite NPC, his name is Spiff and he is the leader of the Goblin Liberation Front. He and his mates fight for goblin freedom. Hm. Is this a small talk?
Kharie: [laughs] It doesn’t need to be! Let’s make “no rules” the only rule here! Please, tell me something about how it all started. Had you already known everything as a toddler creating her own dioramas in a nursery or maybe you kicked in late?
Diona: Oof….The thing is: I never really played.
Kharie: Right, so you never really… Wait, WHAT?!
Diona: Yeah, my first experience was not very positive. I played two sessions, but I did not enjoy them at all and I decided that DnD was not for me. Let’s say that my first lesson was that there are different types of GM’s and different types of players and some combinations do not match.
Kharie: Yep, there’s a match needed to keep on playing. It wasn’t a smooth start then. Why did you decide to give it another try?
Diona: I met my boyfriend at LARP (which I love to do) and he played DnD a lot and wanted to play again. He convinced me, we got some friends to have a party but we needed a GM. I was a plot writer and game leader at LARP then, and I was appointed GM because ‘it is basically the same as with LARP, but not actually in a forest’. Then I got some books and stuff, learned more, and fell in love with the game.
Kharie: That’s interesting! To be honest, I assumed you’ve always been immersed in this fantasy world and just naturally started from being a player. Whereas it seems quite the opposite. You’ve mentioned that some combinations do not match on this player-gm’s line. So, I’d like to ask about something related: Do remember your favourite session? What made it the best one? Was it more about the story, your engagement, or maybe it was the player’s approach that mattered most?
Diona: My favourite session is a recent one, and I think what I liked most was the build-up to this point (from my perspective as a GM), and the reaction and surprise of the player. One of my campaigns started as Ghosts of Saltmarsh, but went homebrew halfway along the way. The player is a kenku cleric who was rescued as a small chick by some divine intervention. When he sent me his backstory I knew that the god he chose could not have rescued him because it is more a god of vengeance. So I decided: sure, follow that god but at some point, you are going to discover you served the wrong god all this time.
Kharie: Oh, a juicy plot twist…
Diona: This started in September 2019, he discovered the truth in September this year.
Kharie: …the one that was built for ONE YEAR! Nice!
Diona: He did get some very, very small hints along the way which were really easy to miss, and he was completely flabbergasted. Both his ingame and outgame reaction were gold! His character now has a religious crisis, but his spells always worked and still do, so this true god or goddess must not be upset?
Kharie: I see you, the question mark! There’s something lurking behind you!
Diona: It is great to watch that doubt unfold.
Kharie: So, in this case, as I can see it, the uniqueness of this particular story was about the player and his original idea that you took and sprinkled it with some of your concepts? Or maybe it was something else?
Diona: I think it was the fact that I took his idea, turned it around, and incorporated it into the plot in such a way that the player clearly felt like he had the lead role in his own movie. I try to give each player moments like that, although this one was huge of course. I think the memorable moments for me are all about how the players enjoy the plot that I made up, when they are clearly invested in the story. I love that and it makes me proud of my ‘work’. And if I am completely honest, I also like the feeling of “I know something you don’t”, same as when I did plot writing for LARP. I enjoy the element of surprise I can plan and put on the table. If it results in happy players and the whole group having a good time, that feels really awesome.
Kharie: Oh, yes! I remember that feeling! This pleasant anticipation when I was observing my LARP players knowing that they have no idea about the thing that is about to happen and then BOOM! They were standing there, starting to realise what’s going on and reacting in ways I didn’t expect. I loved it!
Diona: Yeah, that feeling! And seeing them bounce all over each other and squee-ing, and you just standing at the sideline being ever so happy because you created this moment.
Kharie: Agreed! Sometimes, seeing what the players do with my ideas, how my concepts evolve in their heads, I used to be like: Oh sh*t, WHERE’S MY POPCORN. However, going back to the main theme – what do you like about a GM role per se? Is it because it allows you to build a persona and step into somebody’s shoes (and change those quite often)?
Diona: I do not really build a persona for an NPC, I usually have a general idea of what the NPC-person wants but the real character shows up at the table. What I like is the freedom to do just that, to prepare an encounter, a part of the world, a dungeon, some NPC’s, and when the game happens I can decide to do something differently. Perhaps because of players’ reactions to something that happens, or comments they make, or how they interpret a clue. I like that freedom (and the powerrrr).
Kharie: I can see it requires loads of mental agility and flexibility but I can imagine how much this approach can add to the game! I think that not everyone would share this inclination for freedom. I used to know GMs who liked to stick with a strict plan. But, honestly, for me, it was always about the flexible option. With all its risk of little inadequacies and trips somewhere in the middle.
Diona: True, I always warn my players: I am not the most consistent person in the world and my setting facts may vary. They don’t mind because they do not remember everything anyway.
Kharie: How do you think, what are the GM’s superpowers? And by this I mean – do you think that there is a skill set that makes someone an interesting, inspiring GM? What should newbies work on to become one?
Diona: I think the best quality of a GM is having an eye for your players, noticing how they are present at the table, trying to be aware of their needs in the game, and being flexible to adjust to that. You can come up with the greatest of settings and stories, throw in NPC’s with rich backgrounds, and so on, if you have a group of players where people have had a lousy week and they just want/need to whack goblins, they are not going to enjoy having to parley with a bunch of noble eloquent folks.
Kharie: So it seems you can’t be a lone wolf as a GM – it’s always about taking others into consideration. A true leadership, I’d say!
Diona: I have 3 campaign groups, and each has a set of players that form unique groups in such a way that they would not enjoy each other’s’ game that I provide. I like having those different groups and trying to be attuned to each of them in its own way as a GM. When they are having that good time, bouncing around the table, shouting out of enthusiasm, I have a great time too, no matter the game I made. That being said, you must be aware of what you as a GM like, what fits you and make certain your players match that. As I said earlier: not all GM’s match all players, and some combinations just don’t work. I would be very unhappy if I had to run a game with players that enjoy tactical warfare stuff and who hold on to the rules as written, as I am too chaotic for that. So when I set up a new campaign I select my players and I let them know in advance what kind of GM I am. To prevent very unhappy players and a miserable me.
Kharie: Three campaign groups – that seems a lot of games and many hours you spend on preparations and playing! Did you manage to combine gaming with your professional life?
Diona: Learning what you as a GM like is something you have to experience, and I have been insanely lucky to have been allowed to become the house-GM for a dice/game store in my area and give demos at festivals. So I have had a lot of 1 to 2 hour sessions with all sorts of players, learning the different types and characters and what suits me. GMing is a hobby for me, and yes all my non-working/sleeping hours go into DnD. Prepping, printing and painting, reading books, looking for inspirational stuff. With each group, we discussed how often we would play, and it was always unanimous: play once a month at a slower pace, in a way everyone can be present and can follow the story and keep enjoying it. I know there are groups that play more often and faster, but I also heard from players that this was the reason they had to stop because life was getting too demanding and they could not keep up with the game. My main idea with DnD is that we all do it for the fun of it, so it should be enjoyable for all.